The Lady or the Tiger? Summary
by Francis Richard Stockton

The Lady or the Tiger? book cover
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The Lady or the Tiger? Summary

"The Lady or the Tiger?" offers a philosophical rumination on love and jealousy.

  • People who have offended the king are forced to choose between two doors. Behind one of the doors is a beautiful, eligible woman. Behind the other door is a hungry tiger.

  • A courtier of low station woos the princess. This offends the king, and the courtier is given the test. 

  • The princess advises her lover on which door to pick, having discovered what is behind each one.
  • The man's fate remains unresolved and instead readers are asked to consider whether the princess would rather see her beloved marry another woman or get eaten by a tiger.

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “the very olden time,” a half-barbaric king, who was also half-civilized, because of the influence of his distant Latin neighbors, conceived a way of exercising justice on offenders against his rule. He placed his suspect in a Roman-like arena and had him choose to open one of either of two doors that would open into the arena. Behind one of the identical doors lurked a ferocious tiger that would leap out and devour the accused; behind the other door awaited a lovely maid who would, if her door was the one opened, come forth and be married at once to the opener. (It mattered not that the man may be married or otherwise committed, for the whimsical king would have his justice.) The fate was to be decided by chance alone, and no one who knew of the placement behind the doors was allowed to inform him which to elect.

All of this was popular among the audience, and even their thinking members could not deny that it was a fair test. The public experienced pleasing suspense and an immediate resolution. Best of all, everyone knew that the accused person chose his own ending.

Now it happened that a handsome young courtier dared to love the king’s daughter, who was lovely and very dear to her father. The man, however, though of the court, was of low station; his temerity was therefore an offense against decorum and the king. Such a thing had never happened in the kingdom before. The young lover had to be put into the arena to choose a door, a lady or a tiger. However, the princess loved the young man; clearly and openly that was the case. She did not want to lose him to a ravenous tiger, but at the same time, could she bear to lose him to another woman in marriage?

The king searched the kingdom for the most savage of tigers. He also searched for the most beautiful maiden in all his land. No matter which door the young man selected, he would have the best that could be offered. The public could hardly wait, and as for the king, he reasoned that chance would have its way, and in any event the young man would be disposed of.

The princess achieved something no one had before: She knew which fate was behind each door. She worked hard to learn the secret, using the power of her will and gold to secure it. Moreover, the princess knew who the woman was, a lady who had directed amorous glances toward the young man at court, glances that—or so the princess fancied—he had sometimes returned. For her interest in the princess’s lover, the princess hated the woman behind the door.

In the arena on the fatal day, the young man looked at the princess, expecting her to know which door hid what fate. The princess made an immediate and definite motion toward the right-hand door, and this door her lover opened directly.

Did the tiger or the lady come out of the doorway? The princess loved the young man, but she was also a barbarian and she was hot-blooded. She imagined the tiger in horror, but how much more often did she suffer at the thought of his joy at discovering the lady? In one fulfillment, she would be forced to see him torn to pieces before her very eyes; in the other, she would be forced to watch him marry and go off forever with a woman she hated. The story stops exactly at the point at which the young man opens the door. It does not tell his fate.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

(The entire section is 2,056 words.)