Francis Richard Stockton

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Essays and Criticism

(Short Stories for Students)

The essence of the popularity of "The Lady, or the Tiger?" lay solely in the unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, human problem which Stockton propounded. In a semi-barbaric kingdom, in an unspecified olden time, a monarch of quixotic humor tries offenders against the royal dignity, or against the law, by chance. In a great arena, behind different doors through which no sound can travel, are placed a beautiful woman and a ferocious tiger. The offender is thrust alone into the arena, and permitted to choose which door he shall open. If, happily, the accused man chooses the door behind which the beautiful girl is concealed, then, amid pomp and flowery circumstance, he is promptly married to her, to the accompaniment of the cheers of the multitude. If, however, he opens the door behind which the tiger chafes, his execution is immediate, and the king's dignity is avenged.

In such an unhappy court a personable young member of the king's retinue was tried because he had had the impudence to fall in love with the king's beautiful but impulsive daughter. Since he was not of noble blood, there could be no question of marriage. But the princess loved the helpless young courtier, and by methods which are open only to princesses, she obtained the secret of the doors. The young lover, who was not as ignorant of the ways of maids as he appeared, knew that she would discover behind which door was the lady, and behind which door was the tiger. As he made the traditional salute to the king, who was seated in the royal box, the youth looked quickly to the princess for the signal he knew she would give. The princess motioned toward the right. Without hesitation, he turned, walked briskly across the arena, and opened the door on the right.

At this anxious moment the story ends. Stockton appends an epilogue which explains the dilemma which the princess had had to solve before she gave her signal. It is this epilogue which raises the story above the level of the "trick," and invests it with the dignity of an exposition of human strength and human frailty. It is in this epilogue that the conflicting fundamental motives of love and hate and self-preservation are given full play. The exposition is fair; the solution is left to the reader: The young lover opens the door on the right.

Now [Stockton says], the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?

The more we reflect upon this question, the harder it is to answer. It involves a study of the human heart which leads us through devious mazes of passion, out of which it is difficult to find our way. Think of it, fair reader, not as if the decision of the question depended upon yourself, but upon that hot-blooded, semi-barbaric princess, her soul at a white heat beneath the combined fires of despair and jealousy. She had lost him, but who should have him!...

The problem of "The Lady, or the Tiger?" as Stockton presented it, was so fundamentally human, so fine a representation of universal emotions and conflicting human desires that it was everywhere discussed. So many thousands of letters poured in to him demanding, begging the answer, that Stockton, who at first had stubbornly refused to give any answer, was forced to make a statement. His reply was no...

(The entire section is 866 words.)