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? Overview

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When critics today think of American humorists of the nineteenth century, Mark Twain readily comes to mind. But one of his prolific contemporaries was Frank R. Stockton, a writer of fairy tales, children's books, science fiction, and whimsical stories, such as the one which is his most famous, "The Lady, or the Tiger?". In an age in which realism, romanticism, naturalism, and other literary styles were emerging in Western literature, he refused to be categorized in any particular literary group, leading to his reputation as a maverick writer. He considered himself primarily a humor writer, but believed, as he confided to a friend, that "the readers of today do not care for them [humorous stories]; the public taste has altered; humor is no longer fashionable." Although Stockton's style may be dated (having received much more praise from late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century critics than from later critics), "The Lady, or the Tiger?" remains a work with bite and wit, and the conundrum of the ending remains as fresh as ever.

In 1895 Henry C. Vedder wrote that Stockton's stories "violate certain conventions of literary art. They seldom have a plot; they frequently have no dialogue, consisting wholly or mainly of narrative or monologue, there is not much description, and no apparent attempt at effect." "The Lady, or the Tiger?" indeed has a slight plot, relatively little description, and is told through an omniscient third-person narrator, who, in the manner of early nineteenth-century fiction, addresses the audience directly at the end. Vedder fails to note that the human interest of Stockton's stories is strong, particularly in "The Lady, or the Tiger?" because of the epilogue, which directly engages the reader. Biographer Martin I. J. Griffin has argued, "It is this ... 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 ... [in which] the conflicting fundamental motives of love and hate and self-preservation are given full play." The central question—what did the princess choose?—was debated fiercely in Stockton's lifetime among thousands of readers, making the author extremely popular, so much so that editors refused to accept any other short fiction from him unless it came up to the same standards as "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

When we turn to the story itself, we may find the tone difficult and the language unfamiliar. It is written in a mannered style, and it seems from the very beginning to expect from the reader a certain knowledge of the Romantic genre, of the human condition, and of political satire. The kingdom setting could be anywhere and nowhere, and it is up to readers to make of this what they will. The king is depicted as whimsically godlike, not only through the biblical language he uses; for, as Henry Golemba has noted, the king is "a Christian god whose nature is 'bland and genial.'" This is an interesting interpretation in light of the fact that the king constructs an arena in which free choice determines the young man's fate under certain preset conditions, a life-or-death choice which brings to mind the ongoing debate concerning divine predestination versus so-called free will. The young man cannot evade being put into the arena, and he knows the consequences of either choice, but he has to make the choice itself and then abide by the consequences.

If this interpretation is valid, then Stockton is indeed banking on a certain amount of religious sophistication on the part of the reader, and the implications of the story become more jokingly cosmic. What is Stockton...

(This entire section contains 1539 words.)

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saying about human nature? Is he calling it "semi-barbaric" in its responses to a transcendent order? Does he believe that we humans have moved very far at all from the animal kingdom, "red in tooth and claw?" After all, the king expects that "by exhibitions of manly and beastly valor, the minds of his subjects were refined and cultured." Here Stockton seems to be suggesting—and these suggestive connotations are part of the power of the story—that we as humans have, in fact, not advanced far beyond barbarism.

Stockton presents his characters in shorthand descriptions. The young man falls within the general parameters of the handsome romantic hero who loves above his station in life, "a young man of that fineness of blood and lowness of station common to the conventional heroes of romance who love royal maidens." On the other hand, the princess is a jealous, judgmental, mini-god figure who is described in emotional rather than physical terms, a position reinforced by the attitude of supplication the young man assumes as he looks to her for guidance as to which door to open: "He understood her nature, and his soul was assured that she would never rest until she had made plain to herself this thing, hidden to all other lookers-on, even to the king. The only hope for the youth in which there was any element of certainty was based upon the success of the princess in discovering this mystery." For it is through her power and her money that she has found out even more than the king himself knows which door hides the lady, and which the tiger.

The beautiful young girl is not described in detail. Only the descriptions of the potential consequences have much detail—and the princess's imagination of the consequences:

"How often, in her waking hours and in her dreams, had she started in wild horror, and covered her face with her hands as she thought of her lover opening the door on the other side of which waited the cruel fangs of the tiger!

But how much oftener had she seen him at the other door! How in her grievous reveries had she gnashed her teeth, and torn her hair, when she saw his start of rapturous delight as he opened the door of the lady! How her soul had burned in agony when she had seen him rush to meet that woman, with her flushing cheek and sparkling eye of triumph, when she had seen him lead her forth, his whole frame kindled with the joy of recovered life, when she had heard the glad shouts from the multitude, and the wild ringing of the happy bells; when she had seen the priest, with his joyous followers, advance to the couple, and make them man and wife before her very eyes; and when she had seen them walk away together upon their path of flowers, followed by the tremendous shouts of the hilarious multitude, in which her one despairing shriek was lost and drowned!"

Our narrator is reliable, and we trust his voice, but he puts us on our guard through his portrayal of the princess as a compromised heroine, a jealous object of adoration. The narrator makes much of her similarities to her father in her strong feelings and vivid imagination. Much is also made of her directing her lover to the right-hand door. The phrase "without the slightest hesitation" is repeated to describe the actions of both lovers at the moment of choice. But while it is not surprising that the earnest young man trusts the princess, it is surprising that the princess does not trust him equally, whatever her jealous feelings are for the lady behind the door. Her perceptions of the other young lady, and of his possible interest in her, color her entire decision-making process, and, as Griffin points out, Stockton seems to be giving us an underlying pointer as to the tiger-ward direction her thoughts are taking.

An interesting sidelight on this point is that the story was originally titled "In the King's Arena." Stockton allowed an editor to change the title to "The Lady, or the Tiger?" This shifted the focus from the king, controller of the man's fate, to the princess, the story's romantic interest. In this editorial decision, as Golembahas commented, Stockton "was treated as whimsically as he trapped his blameless, foolish, anonymous hero."

As readers, then, we are placed in the position of the audience, unsure whether to grieve or rejoice until the door opens and the consequences of the choice are clear. The fact that Stockton does not tell us outright what the princess chooses for her lover has for years "stung its reader and then injected an irritating drop that lingered," as Fred Lewis Pattee put it. That Stockton put the burden of interpretation on us, inviting us into the princess's thought processes, "the study of the human heart which leads us through devious mazes of passion," makes us examine our relationship to reading and interpretation and our analysis of what it means to be human. But this seems too heavy an interpretation for the story to bear. Yet, the interpretation is suggested, showing Stockton's power as an American humorist who can pack his slight story with meaning far beyond its seeming bounds.

Source: Tanya Gardiner-Scott, "Overview of 'The Lady, or the Tiger?'" in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998. Gardiner-Scott is an associate professor of English at Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts. Her areas of special academic interest include fantasy and science fiction, the British novel, gothic and medieval literature, and women's fiction.

Tradition or Rebellion: The Lady, or the Tiger?

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One of the most useful questions that a student reader can ask is: "What kind of expectations do I have for this work?" When one starts to read, one cannot help but bring certain assumptions and expectations to the experience. Authors count on readers for this and often help them along, leading them to believe that their stories will follow a certain course and obey certain rules about how a story works. Upon picking up Frank R. Stockton's "The Lady, or the Tiger?," readers will probably have general expectations something along these lines: This will be a short story. It will introduce its characters, place them in a situation of conflict, describe how the conflict changes the characters, and come to a resolution. Immediately upon reading the first line of the story—"In the very olden times, there lived a semi-barbaric king"—readers will spontaneously refine that initial expectation to one that is much more specific. Merely knowing that the story takes place in "the very olden times" and concerns a king will lead readers to expect that "The Lady, or the Tiger?" will be similar to a fairy tale, a kind of story that is familiar to most of us since childhood. That is, this single line generates expectations that the story will have traditional fairy-tale characters like just kings and demure princesses. The conflicted situations in which they are placed may involve magic or violence, and the outcome will bring complete resolution and impart a universal lesson or moral.

But wait a minute, right away something seems wrong. The king is "semi-barbaric" and his ideas, "though somewhat polished and sharpened by the progressiveness of distant Latin neighbors, were still large, florid, and untrammeled, as became the half of him which was barbaric." This language sounds different from that of a fairy tale. In traditional fairy tales, characters are not described in such a strange and complicated way. Fairy-tale kings are never "semi-barbaric," let alone "florid and untrammeled." They tend to be simple types and to directly represent abstract qualities, such as civilization, justice, and authority.

Thus, it is very important to follow up that first question with another one that is just as useful: How did the story fulfill or change my expectations as I read along? Sometimes, as in the case of a traditional fairy tale, a reader's expectations are completely fulfilled (the same thing goes for conventional romantic comedies, horror films, and action movies). But sometimes, as in the case of "The Lady or the Tiger?" a reader's expectations are challenged when the author breaks the rules he or she seemed to have set up. While there is a certain kind of gratification that comes with having one's expectations fulfilled, rule-breaking narratives have their own pleasures. While traditional stories tend to offer conventional morals or views of society, stories that challenge literary conventions often also challenge conventional views. There is something daring and original about Stockton's story. One gets only a hint of this when reading the first lines, but by the "trick" ending, it is clear that Stockton is a literary rebel.

Authors may break with storytelling conventions to create a humorous effect and/or a satirical one. While Stockton was best known as a humorist, reading "The Lady, or the Tiger?" as a satire—an indirect attack on folly, vice, or corruption through irony and wit—offers the best avenue for exploring the cultural context of Stockton's "rebellion" against fairy-tale conventions. While it takes place "in the very olden time," the story reflects issues that were current and pressing in 1882. The United States had gained its political independence from Britain more than a century earlier, but Americans were still insecure about their cultural independence—their ability to create their own art in their own style. British writers of the period objected to Americans' use of the English language, claiming that Americans took a civilized language and made it barbaric. Many American artists agreed, believing that Europe represented all that was finest in culture and arts, and trying in their own work to imitate European traditions. While at first Stockton appears to be imitating a traditional form, by the end it is clear that he is really interested in inventing something brand new.

In 1871, eleven years before "The Lady or the Tiger?" was published, Walt Whitman (an American poet who rebelled against traditional forms of poetry wrote a book of prose called Democratic Vistas. In it, Whitman calls American writers to action, asking them to leave European art behind and to invent new forms that reflect the best and most unique aspects of American democratic society:

America has as yet morally and artistically originated nothing. She [America] seems singularly unaware that the models of persons, books, manners, etc, appropriate for former conditions and for European lands, are but exiles and exotics here.

Whitman is saying that imitating European artistic conventions—say, by writing stories about kings—does not allow Americans to express their own unique ways of living and thinking. While in a European fairy tale a king fits in perfectly, in the context of the United States—which never had kings, being formed as a republic as opposed to a monarchy—a character like a king would be an "exile," and "exotic," or perhaps "semi-barbaric." In "The Lady, or the Tiger?" Stockton makes fun of the idea of trying to use European conventions to express American values and experiences. Answering Whitman's call to action, Stockton shows the absurdity of American writers slavishly depending on European literary traditions.

Instead of just stating that a king has no place in American literature, or simply writing about some other kind of character, Stockton playfully shows what happens to a fairy-tale king when he is "exiled" to an American story:

When every member of his domestic and political systems moved smoothly in its appointed course, his nature was bland and genial, but whenever there was a little hitch, and some of his orbs got out of their orbits, he was blander and more genial still, for nothing pleased him so much as to make the crooked straight, and crush down uneven places.

In European history and thus, fittingly, in European fairy tales, kings represent for their subjects the absolute power that establishes social order and holds them together as a people. Conventional fairy-tale kings act decisively in the face of trouble; they determine ways to resolve conflict and bring about justice, even if that justice is sometimes harsh and violent. Stockton's king is instead "bland and genial," and, in the face of conflict, he becomes more bland and genial still. He completely lacks the authority and wisdom characteristic of fairy-tale kings and leaves judgment to the "decrees of an impartial and incorruptible chance," which bring about a "justice" that is sometimes harsh and violent nevertheless—if one is so unlucky to choose the door behind which is a bloodthirsty tiger, instead of the one where a blushing bride awaits. This figure of supreme authority is shown as a man with little sense or strength. He is not a bad guy; he simply has too much power. Through this portrayal of a hapless king, Stockton expresses great doubt about the justice rendered through monarchy and, furthermore, shows that it is utterly out of keeping with the values of American culture.

As the story progresses, there is indeed a "little hitch" in the domestic and social system of our semi-barbaric king: his daughter falls in love with a "man of that fineness of blood and lowness of station common to the conventional heroes of romance who love royal maidens." When her father punishes her suitor for his illicit love by presenting him with the choice between the two doors, the lovely young princess—who shared the king's tinge of barbarism—takes control of the judicial system, upsetting any remaining expectations a reader might have that "The Lady or the Tiger?" will follow the conventions of a fairy tale. She intervenes in her father's "decree of an impartial and incorruptible chance" and finds out the secret of the doors, which gives her the power to use a supposedly impartial system for her own personal ends. In a traditional tale, the king/father's authority is never interfered with and its ultimate justice renders a moral for the story that reinforces his authority. In Stockton's satirical revision, the king's authority is unseated by his own daughter, and—more unconventional still—the question of what she chooses to do with her power is left unanswered. The princess gestures to her suitor to tell him what door to go through, and he strides to the door and opens it. Here the reader is left quite unexpectedly hanging, and the story ends without disclosing the hero's wonderful or terrible fate.

"The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered," Stockton writes, suggesting that a moral is, in fact, crucial to the tale. But in providing no resolution, does he not leave his readers helpless to draw a lesson from the dramatic events? The authorial narrator then steps in to decline his control over the climactic resolution of his own story. "It is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it." Here Stockton (who—as author to story is like king to kingdom—would be expected to be a figure of absolute power) simply declines to assume authority. Why should one single person, the kingly author, decide how a story ends? The relinquishment of the author's power provides, perhaps, the moral that readers crave, if not the resolution. Why should readers not make up their own minds, based on their own experiences, beliefs, and knowledge? "And so I leave it all with you," Stockton writes, "Which came out of the door,—the lady, or the tiger?" In an individualist and democratic style, Stockton places the responsibility for this question squarely upon the shoulders of his readers, whose heated public discussions and debates about the answer made the story a brand new and distinctively American kind of literary phenomenon.

Source: Sarah Madsen Hardy, "Tradition or Rebellion: 'The Lady, or the Tiger?' and American Culture," for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998. Madsen Hardy has a doctorate in English literature.

Francis Richard Stockton

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American humor has now a world-wide repute, and is enjoyed if not appreciated by an international audience. The goddess of fame has been more lavish than discriminating in the distribution of her favors to American humorists. It is a single type of humor that has become known to foreign readers as distinctively American,—the type of which Artemus Ward and Mark Twain (in a part of his writings) are the best representatives. This humor is broad; it deals largely in exaggeration; it produces gales of merriment by a fortunate jest; it lacks delicacy, constructive power, and literary form. Foreign critics, who are more distinguished for refined taste than for profound knowledge of things American, seldom speak with much respect of American humor. It may be well adapted, they concede, to tickle the ears of the groundlings, but it makes the judicious grieve. We who are to the manner born know the weak spot in this criticism. We know that America has produced another type of humor, and appreciate at its true value the courtly polish of Irving, the catholic and urbane manner of Lowell, the playful, half-bantering earnestness of Warner. To this school belongs the subject of this paper, and he alone would redeem our humorists from the charge of coarseness and want of literary charm....

[In "The Lady or the Tiger?," the] artful way in which [Stockton] led his readers up to the crucial problem and then betrayed their confidence by refusing to solve it, cloaking this refusal under a pretext of inability to decide the question he had raised, was a stroke of humor that showed genius. It also showed commercial shrewdness, and had its reward. Curiosity was piqued, discussion was provoked, and debate on the merits of the question became quite a social "fad." When one thinks on what a slender basis literary fame is sometimes built, how fortuitous the gaining of it generally is, how frequently the public admires an author for that which is not best and most characteristic in his work, the stir that followed the publication of this story becomes more humorous than anything in the story itself. Since that time there has been not only a ready market, but an eager public, for whatever Mr. Stockton might write. He has not been tempted, however, to over-production. He has never shaken from the tree the unripe fruits of his imagination merely because they would sell, but has left them to grow and ripen and mellow.

As no reader will have failed to infer, Mr. Stockton is first of all a clever writer of short stories. Collections of his magazine stories have been made at various times since 1884: "The Lady or the Tiger?", "The Christmas Wreck," "The Bee Man of Orn," "Amos Kilbright,""The Clocks of Rondaine," and "The Watchmaker's Wife,"—each volume containing, besides the title story, several other tales. These volumes show Mr. Stockton's peculiar powers at their best, and they give him an unquestioned place in the front rank of American story-writers. It is true that these tales of his violate certain conventions of literary art. They seldom have a plot; they frequently have no dialogue, consisting wholly or mainly of narrative or monologue; there is not much description, and no apparent attempt at effect. One would say that stories constructed on such a plan could hardly fail to be tedious, however brief, since they lack so many of the things that other story-tellers rely upon for effects. Mr. Stockton's method is vindicated by its success, not by its a priori reasonableness. There is such a thing, no doubt, as "good form" in every performance that demands skill; but, after all, the main point is to do the thing. David's smooth stones from the brook seemed a very ineffective weapon with which to encounter a giant, and every military authority of the age would have pronounced his attempt hopeless; but Goliath found, to his cost, that the shepherd's sling was mightier than the warrior's sword and spear. The Western oarsmen who rowed by the light of nature, and nevertheless beat crews trained to row scientifically, explained that theirs was called the "git thar" stroke. Mr. Stockton's method of story-telling may be similarly defined; it succeeds with him, but in another's hands it would very likely be a failure.

It must not be inferred that these stories lack literary merit. The contrary is the fact, as a critical study of them discloses.... From one point of view Mr. Stockton may almost be said to have no style. There is nothing, one means, in the mere turn of his sentences, in his method of expression, that can be seized upon as characteristic, and laid away in memory as a sort of trademark by which the author's other work may be tested, judged, and identified. It is very plain, simple, flowing English, this style of Stockton's, the sort of writing that appears to the inexperienced the easiest thing in the world to do—until they have tried. The art that conceals art, until it can pass for nature itself,—that, we are continually told, is the highest type, and the secret of that Mr. Stockton has somehow caught.

These tales stamp their author as one of the most original of American writers. Though his style lacks mannerism or distinctive flavor, it is not so with the substance of his work. That has plenty of flavor, flavor of a kind so peculiar that his work could never by any accident be mistaken for that of any other writer. It might be not the easiest of tasks to tell whether an anonymous essay or story should be fathered upon Mr. Howells or Mr. Aldrich, but it requires no such nicety of literary taste to recognize a story of Mr. Stockton's. One who has sufficient accuracy of taste to distinguish between a slice of roast beef and a raw potato, so to speak, will know the savor of his work wherever it is met. Other writers may be as original, in the strict sense of that term, but few, if any, are so individual, so unmistakably themselves and nobody else.

Source: Henry C. Vedder, "Francis Richard Stockton," in American Writers of Today, Silver, Burdett, and Company, 1895, pp. 288-300.

Stockton's Stories

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Mr. Stockton's readers have a right to look a little askance at the title and general air of the two volumes, recently published, bearing his name. Is it intimated that this story-teller, having developed into a novelist, finds it a convenient time to bring together in a complete form all his short stories, and thus to take leave of the company? It is quite true that the short story is for most writers a desirable trial flight before they essay the bolder excursion of the novel, and that many short stories are only imperfectly developed novels. It is also true that a prudent intellectual workman may well consider if he be studying a proper economy of his resources, when he uses a dozen different motifs in as many stories, instead of making one serve for a single story in a dozen chapters. But, after all, the short story par excellence has its own virtue, and is not itself an expanded anecdote any more than it is an arrested novel; and where a writer like Mr. Stockton has shown that his genius has its capital exhibition in the short story, his readers justly take alarm when he makes sign of abandoning it for a form of literature which, though possessed of more circumstance and traditional dignity, is not intrinsically more honorable. Or, rather, if we are comparing two cognate forms, it is correcter to say that while larger powers may go into one than into the other, a unique excellence in the minor form justifies a claim to be a genuine artist, and comparisons in that respect are futile; the sphericity of a bubble does not quarrel with the sphericity of a dewdrop.

Mr. Stockton, more, perhaps, than any recent writer, has helped to define the peculiar virtues of the short story. He has shown how possible it is to use surprise as an effective element, and to make the turn of a story rather than the crisis of a plot account for everything. In a well-constructed novel characters move forward to determination, and, whatever intricacy of movement there may be, it is the conclusion which justifies the elaboration. We are constantly criticising, either openly or unconsciously, a theory of novel-writing which makes any section of human life to constitute a proper field for a finished work; however many sequels may be linked on, we instinctively demand that a novel shall contain within itself a definite conclusion of the matter presented to view. But we do not exact this in a short story; we concede that space for development of character is wanting; we accept characters made to hand, and ask only that the occasion of the story shall be adequate.... It may be said in general that Mr. Stockton does not often rely upon a sudden reversal at the end of a story, to capture the reader ..., but gives him a whimsy or caprice to enjoy, while he works out the details in a succession of amusing turns....

There is ... in his stories a delicious mockery of current realistic fiction. He has an immense advantage over his brother realists. They are obliged to conform themselves to the reality which other people think they see, and they are constantly in danger of making some fatal blunder; making the sun, we will say, strike a looking-glass hung upon a wall in a house so topographically indicated as to be easily identified by the neighbors, who concur in testifying that the sun by no possibility could touch the glass, day or night. Mr. Stockton, we repeat, has an immense advantage over other realists. His people are just as much alive as theirs, and they are all just as common-place; they talk just as slouchy English, and they are equally free from any romantic nonsense; but they are living in a world of Mr. Stockton's invention, which is provided with a few slight improvements, and they avail themselves of these with an unconcern which must fill with anguish those realistic novelists who permit their characters to break all the ten commandments in turn, but use their most strenuous endeavors to keep them from breaking the one imperious commandment, Thou shalt not transgress the law of average experience. Mr. Stockton's characters, on their part, never trouble themselves about the ten commandments,—morality is a sort of matter of course with them,—but they break the realist's great commandment in the most innocent and unconscious manner....

We may observe here that Mr. Stockton falls easily into the autobiographic form, and that his peculiar gift gains by this device. In actual life we listen to a man who can tell a wonderful story of his own experience, and our incredulity vanishes before the spectacle of his honest, transparent face and the sound of his tranquil, unaffected voice. Thus Mr. Stockton, in his ingenious assumptions, brings to bear upon the reader the weight of a peculiarly innocent, ingenuous nature, for the figures that relate the several stories carry conviction by the very frankness of their narratives. They come forward with so guileless a bearing that the reader would be ashamed of himself if he began by doubting, and the entire absence of extravagance in the manner of the story continues to keep his doubts out of the way.

This low key in which Mr. Stockton pitches his stories, this eminently reasonable and simple tone which he adopts, is the secret of much of his success. One discovers this especially by reading "A Piece of Red Calico," and then fancying how Mark Twain would have treated the same subject. Both writers take on an air of sincerity, but one retains it throughout, and never seems to be assuming it; the other allows his drollery to sharpen, and before he is done his voice is at a very high pitch indeed....

We began with the expression of a fear lest these two volumes were an informal announcement that their author had abandoned short stories for novels. A re-reading of the books and an inquiry into the secret of Mr. Stockton's well-won and honorable success reassure us. Whatever ventures he may make in the field of novel-writing, and however liberal may be his interpretation of the function of the novel, we cannot believe that he can escape the demands of his genius. The short story, either by itself or as an episode in a novel, so completely expresses his peculiar power, it makes such satisfactory use of his intellectual caprice, and it avoids so easily the perils which beset one who builds a novel upon a whim that, for his own pleasure, we are sure that Mr. Stockton will go on entertaining the public in a style where he is his only rival.

Source: William Dean Howells, "Stockton's Stories," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. LEX, No. CCCLI, January, 1887, pp. 130-32.


Critical Overview