The Lady or the Tiger? Essays and Criticism
by Francis Richard Stockton

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The Lady, or the Tiger? Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 5,432 words.)