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

Start Free Trial

Critical Overview

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Shortly after Stockton published "The Lady, or the Tiger?,'' he and his wife left on an extended European vacation. Thus, he missed much of the initial debate that swirled around his story. Martin Griffin in his 1939 biography of Stockton said that "notices of the strange dilemma proposed by the story began to appear in newspapers and critical reviews." The poet Robert Browning believed the man chose the door with the tiger, and Griffin suggested that Stockton weighted the story towards that conclusion. Many other readers, famous and not-so-famous, debated the ending in various public and literary forums. The controversy was so vibrant that when Stockton returned to the United States he was deluged with letters. In response to the story's popularity, he wrote a similar story with a trick ending called "The Discourager of Hesitancy." In another story, "His Wife's Deceased Sister," Stockton tells the story of a writer who writes a wildly popular story and is never able to achieve that level of success again.

Critic Henry Vedder wrote in his 1895 book, American Fiction To-Day, about how the story became a social fad and commended Stockton on his commercial shrewdness and his skill as a writer of short fiction. As tastes changed in the twentieth century and modernism exerted its hold over literature, stories like Stockton's became antiquated and were considered relics of an earlier, less relevant time. Stockton had worried about this all along, yet the story itself has remained popular as an example of literature from an earlier era.

Fred Lewis Pattee in his 1923 book, The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey, discussed Stockton's mastery of the marvellous, the way he posed his humor in brief, well-written stories that are not overburdened with explanations, and compared him to Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain. In 1925 Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch mentioned that although people had read "The Lady, or the Tiger?," few considered the story appropriate for serious criticism. As one of the first British critics to deal with Stockton, Pattee compared him to Daniel Defoe and wrote about his prominence as a writer of short fiction that is wholly American.

Proving the story's durability, Henry Golemba wrote about Stockton for the Dictionary of Literary Biography in 1981, and suggested that "The Lady, or the Tiger?" was still worthy of extensive critical analysis. He analyzed Stockton's use of cosmic metaphors in the story: the hero represented an everyman figure and the arena was a symbol of life itself. This interpretation lends itself to more serious themes, an observation that led to Golemba's comment that Stockton's "reputation as a widely popular author in the late nineteenth century has eclipsed the fact that he was also a serious writer, just as his fame as a humorist has made people blind to his serious statements."

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Essays and Criticism