two doorways with an elegant woman standing in one and a large tiger head in the other

The Lady, or the Tiger?

by Francis Richard Stockton

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The Lady, or the Tiger? Summary

"The Lady, or the Tiger?" is a short story by Francis Richard Stockton that offers a philosophical rumination on love and jealousy.

  • Criminals are placed in an arena and forced to choose between two doors. Behind one of the doors is an eligible woman. Behind the other door is a hungry tiger.
  • When the princess’s lover is sentenced to the arena, she sets out to learn what is behind each door.
  • 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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“The Lady, or the Tiger?” is a short story by Frank R. Stockton that was first published in The Century Magazine in 1882. It is Stockton’s most famous work, and it has been a popular choice for inclusion in short story anthologies since its publication. The story first introduces a “semi-barbaric” king who has implemented a unique form of justice within his kingdom: if the king believes that someone has committed a crime, they are placed in an arena and forced to choose blindly between two identical doors. Behind one door is a beautiful lady who will promptly become the accused’s wife; behind the other door is a tiger. “The Lady, or the Tiger?” is notable for its departure from the traditional structure of narrative fiction. Though the events of the story are presented in an almost fairy-tale-like manner, the ending proposes a thought experiment, asking readers to decide the outcome of the story based on the information provided. 

Plot Summary

In a distant land there lives a “semi-barbaric” king who is ruled equally by his hereditary barbarism and his civilized ideals. He also possesses a fanciful nature, and his authority allows him to transform any given whim into reality. The king delights in nothing more than putting an end to anything that he deems disruptive or unpleasant. As a result, he has combined his fanciful nature and his ideals into a public arena, a concept that he borrowed from more “refined” countries. 

The king’s arena is unique, however, in that it is not designed purely for exhibitions of valor or brutality. Instead, it is an instrument of “poetic justice” by which accused criminals are tried without the biased input of a judge or jury. When someone has committed a crime worthy of the king’s attention, the king issues a public notice regarding the date and time of the accused’s trial. The people are invited to assemble at the arena as spectators to the judgement.

The trial begins when the accused enters the arena. However, rather than presenting evidence or appealing to the public for mercy and understanding, the alleged criminal must instead make a choice. He is presented with two identical doors to choose between; behind one door is a vicious tiger, ready to maul the accused as punishment for his apparent guilt; behind the other door is a woman, to whom the prisoner is instantaneously married as a reward for his apparent innocence. In the eyes of the king, this method of administering justice is completely fair, because it removes human bias from the equation. Rather than having their fate decided by a judge, criminals are instead given the ability to decide their own fate, as blind as that choice may be. 

The arena is a popular fixture among the king’s subjects, who are never sure whether they will be witnessing a gruesome death or a dubiously desirable wedding. Furthermore, the method’s apparent fairness satisfies the public’s sense of justice, as the accused is ultimately responsible for their own fate. 

The king has a daughter, whom he loves dearly. His daughter falls in love with a handsome young courtier, and she loves the courtier with all the passion that her barbaric ancestry demands. When the king discovers the affair, he takes decisive action and puts the courtier on trial in the arena. It is common knowledge that the courtier is guilty of the crime that he is accused of, but the king refuses to allow this fact to derail the tribunal. In the king’s view, the trial in the arena will solve the problem regardless of which door is chosen; either the courtier is mauled by a tiger and killed, or he is married to another woman and therefore unable to continue courting the princess. 

The princess, upon hearing that her lover will be tried in the arena, sets out to discover which door will hold which outcome. Using her power and influence within the court, she successfully obtains the information. However, she also discovers the identity of the lady, should the courtier choose the correct door. The lady is a beautiful young woman who the princess believes admires the young courtier. Furthermore, the princess suspects that the courtier has, on occasion, admired the lady as well. The princess, who possesses all of the “savage blood” of her father, hates the lady for daring to admire the princess’s own lover. 

When the day of the trial arrives, the young courtier looks to the princess and instantly perceives that she has succeeded in learning what lies behind each door. She quickly motions to the door to the right, and the courtier unflinchingly follows her direction. However, rather than providing a conclusion to the story, Stockton instead asks readers to decide what came out of the chosen door. 

The princess’s motivations are outlined: her initial quest to uncover the secret of the doors was motivated by her desire to spare her lover from the jaws of the tiger. The horrific vision of him being mauled by a beast haunts her nightmares. However, after learning the identity of the lady, her dreams were equally haunted by visions of her lover and the lady being happily wed. She questions whether it may be better for her lover to die instantly at the hands of the tiger, so that he might wait for her in the afterlife. Ultimately, the princess knows that she has lost her lover, and now she must decide to whom she will lose him: the lady, or the tiger?

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