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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Stockton shapes the story as a complex mix of fairy-tale and thought experiment. While the setting and characters are fantastical and in many ways archetypal, the dilemma posed by the ending helps to complicate the story and asks readers to question their own assumptions about human behavior. Stockton begins by summarizing the nature of the “semi-barbaric” king and his methods of administering justice. The arena is designed in such a way that it absolves the king and the audience from any guilt over the outcome; the accused chose to commit the crime, and they are solely responsible for choosing which door to open. 

On a superficial level, the king’s tribunal can be characterized as a form of “poetic justice.” Indeed, the only person with direct control over the outcome is the accused. They alone are responsible for choosing a door, and no one else, not even the king, knows the result of that choice until the door is opened. Though the choice is blind, it is equally blind for everyone involved. However, the ending is not the only philosophical conundrum present in the story. The question of the lady or the tiger is preceded in importance and chronology by the question of whether such a trial can truly be considered fair.

Stockton introduces doubt as to the fairness of the king’s methods when he poses the rhetorical question as to whether the test could really be considered unfair if the outcome is entirely up to the accused. However, the logic behind the king’s claims of impartiality become apparent with a bit of scrutiny: while the choice in the moment belongs to the accused, the choice in the long run belongs solely to the king. The king possesses what seems to be a near absolute authority within the kingdom. He sets the laws, he establishes the rituals of justice, and he decides who faces the arena and when. 

Choice, then, is an illusion. The accused is given no chance to plead their case or justify their actions, and the king decides the outcome either way. Whether the criminal is to be married or to be killed is up to chance, but the circumstances that put prisoners in such a situation are entirely based on the king's whims. Essentially, while the story is primarily presented as an interrogation of human emotions and jealousy, it is also an interrogation of justice and power. No members of “the thinking part of the community” can effectively argue against the fairness of the arena, but that does not extend to the system within which the arena exists. 

The narrative point of view compounds these musings by filtering the events of this mythical “semi-barbaric” kingdom through the somewhat aloof and definitively modern narrator. The story is not an unbiased recounting of events, but instead a whimsical thought experiment couched in the language of fairy-tales. The characters are archetypal and undeveloped, with minimal backstory given and little emotional investment built. They are hollow caricatures meant to illustrate Stockton’s proposed dilemmas: can justice ever truly be blind, and can love overcome the pettier, but no less passionate, influences of jealousy and despair?

The tension within the kingdom between barbarity and civility has created a system that uses the “refined” innovations of other nations to execute the barbaric vision of justice held by the king. It is the intersections between these influences that create the central dilemmas of “The Lady, or the Tiger?” The princess’s choice speaks to the conflict between the emotional, “hot-blooded,” nature of barbarity and the more logical, detached veneer of civility. Stockton’s refusal to reveal the choice the princess makes perpetuates this conflict and suggests that human nature is ruled equally by both impulses. 

The unique tone of the story can be traced back to Stockton’s primary influences: literary humorism and the Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement. Furthermore, Stockton was an American author, and the rapid onset of mechanization and the emergence of the modernist literary movement left writers like Stockton worrying about the longevity of their style. “The Lady, or the Tiger?” combines all three of these influences into a story that is equal parts fantastical, ironic, and macabre. 

The fairy-tale elements evoke the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which preferred an idealized vision of an unspecified era of the past over the realism preferred by post-Enlightenment artists. The archetypes of the mythical kingdom of “olden” times, the handsome hero, the tyrannical king, and the exotic princess all have roots in the fantasy tradition. However, Stockton infuses his fantasy setting with elements of the absurd, like the hired mourners should a criminal be mauled by a tiger, or the impromptu wedding should they pick the door containing the lady. This fusion of fantasy and absurdity was a common literary device amongst nineteenth-century writers, who used irony and humor to convey their disillusionment with the increasingly mechanized and logic-oriented modern world. 

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