Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630

This is a tale rather than a story. There is no dialogue; no one speaks to the reader but the narrator, who spins the yarn and asks the questions of interpretation at the end. He knows the story, but one senses that he does not have omniscience, that he is...

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This is a tale rather than a story. There is no dialogue; no one speaks to the reader but the narrator, who spins the yarn and asks the questions of interpretation at the end. He knows the story, but one senses that he does not have omniscience, that he is not there himself. He knows more than the populace and king, yet he does not know and will not reveal the outcome. That seems unfair—he leaves his readers dangling—but that is his purpose from the beginning. The story is a tour de force, hinging on a gimmick. What is annoying is that the narrator seems to know the ending but will not tell it.

However, the tale may be saved for the reader by the distance the author keeps from his material and the atmosphere of mystery that he maintains. He has heard the story, and it has amazed him with its mixture of the humane and the barbaric. If the plot is a teaser, are its psychological concerns also? In not letting the characters speak, in not even naming them, and in having their motivations generalized, the author approaches allegory—the allegory of logical human emotions. He turns the tale into a matter of “what would you do?” He turns outward from the story to the reader directly, thus placing emphasis on theme rather than on plot.

In not deeply developing his characters, holding them at arm’s length, he has made it impossible for one to know what they will do. One is told their motivations in general terms, but one does not experience the characters having them: One does not hear their words or glimpse their process of thought. Hence, the reader is not involved in the story. The characters in the tale are but once-upon-a-time people, representative but not real. When readers are asked at last to decide, on the basis of their personalities, what they will do, they are unable to respond but can say only what they would do or what people they have known would do. If the tale fails, it is in this aspect.

One can see that the king turned his fancies into facts, simplified them with his court of chance. He avoided the complexities of responsibility in the decisions by chance. His daughter turns facts into fancies (gold into information, and that information into what she fancies or wants—the right door). In other words, while the father simplifies, the daughter complicates, or takes on responsibility. With what ultimate intent does she do this? How cold or warm is she in her heart? One cannot know. The story lacks the nearness that readers require to answer the question Stockton asks them.

This story works the way a mystery story does, yet the necessary clues are not there. Hints are but hints, for they are canceled out: They do not add up or point in any direction. If “semi-barbarism” is to be looked to for a clue, it fails, because one does not know what “semi-barbarism” means. Not only are explanations of motivations lacking but also a corpse or an action that would shed light on the characters’ motivations.

Without its brevity and fast pace this story would have failed miserably. One moves directly from what the king is like to his testing procedure to the young couple’s affair to preparations for the trial and finally to the critical—and incomplete—choosing of the door, all in eighteen medium-sized paragraphs. One remains on the surface of the story, which is really a summary of events and the reasons for them. In place of dramatization there are posturings, as if the story were a slide show with lecturer—except that the lecturer wants the listener to finish for him.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on August 26, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

Point of View

The story is told in third-person omniscient point of view. This means that the narrator knows the thoughts and actions of all the characters. The narrator sets the story in fairy-tale mode—"In the very olden time"—and then addresses the reader directly, in the first-person mode, after the young man makes his choice. The narrator comments on the story, elaborating on the princess's role, and challenging the reader to consider wisely, because "it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer [the question of her decision]. And so I leave it with all of you." The purpose of this address is to place the responsibility for analyzing the story and answering the question posed in the story's title squarely upon the reader's shoulders.

Setting

The story is set in an imaginary time and place, in a kingdom whose king is "semi-barbaric." His autocratic style is described in detail, and the narrator comments at length on his splendid arena. It has tiers upon tiers, galleries, and doors at and below ground level, with curtains round them so that no hint of what is behind them is revealed. If the tiger eats the prisoner, mourners await, and if the lady marries the prisoner, priests are ready to perform the marriage ceremony. The setting bears many similarities to the Coliseum in Rome, which was the scene of elaborate and bloody gladiatorial games for centuries.

Structure

Written with many conventions of a fairy tale, "The Lady, or the Tiger?" is divided into three parts. The first part presents the background of the princess and the courtier's particular dilemma, describing the king's justice system and acclimating the reader to this odd kingdom. The second part of the story concerns the love affair, the king's discovery of it, and the young man's sentencing to trial in the arena. In the third part, the narrator focuses on the princess's decision-making process and describes the moment of crisis in the arena, when the reader must decide what is behind the fateful right-hand door.

The obvious climax of the story should come after the lover opens the door indicated by the princess. But Stockton plays with the reader's expectations by refusing to tell what is behind that door. He directly challenges readers to make up their own minds based on their knowledge of the princess. In doing so, the story never reaches its climax and contains no resolution. By subverting the traditional story structure with this open ending, Stockton places responsibility for the story's interpretation completely with the reader.

Fairy Tale

In order to highlight their timeless messages, fairy tales usually take place in an indeterminate time and place. Such is the case with "The Lady, or the Tiger?," which takes place in a kingdom, though no country or year is specified. Fairy tales also rely on stock characters, many of whom are represented in Stockton's story, including the vengeful king, the beautiful princess, and the handsome suitor. A handsome but unworthy man falling in love with a vengeful king's daughter is a typical fairy-tale situation, and how their love will transcend the king's wrath is a typical fairy-tale conflict. Unlike a traditional fairy tale, though, the story does not end "happily ever after," and it is the shock of its abrupt ending that jars readers who were expecting a more traditional outcome.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 559

The story is told from a third-person, omniscient point of view. This means that the narrator knows the thoughts and actions of all the characters. The narrator sets the story in fairy-tale mode—"in the very olden time"—and then addresses the reader directly, in the first-person mode, after the young man makes his choice. The narrator comments on the story, elaborating on the princess's role and challenging the reader to consider wisely, because "it is not for me to presume to set up myself as the person able to answer [the question of her decision]. So I leave it with all of you." The purpose of this address is to place the responsibility for analyzing the story and answering the question posed in the story's title squarely with the reader.

The story is set in an imaginary time and place, in a kingdom whose king is "semibarbaric." His autocratic style is described in detail, and the narrator comments at length on his splendid arena. It has tiers upon tiers, galleries, and doors at and below ground level, with curtains around them so that no hint of what is behind them is revealed. If the tiger eats the prisoner, mourners await, and if the lady marries the prisoner, priests are ready to perform the marriage ceremony. The setting bears many similarities to Rome's Coliseum, which was the scene of elaborate and bloody gladiatorial games for centuries.

Written with many conventions of a fairy tale, "The Lady or the Tiger?" is divided into three parts. The first part presents the background of the princess and the courtier's dilemma, describing the king's justice system and acclimating the reader to this odd kingdom. The second part of the story concerns the love affair, the king's discovery of it, and the young man's sentencing to trial in the arena. In the third part the narrator focuses on the princess's decision making process and describes the moment of crisis in the arena, when the reader must decide what is behind the fateful righthand door.

The obvious climax of the story should come after the lover opens the door indicated by the princess, but Stockton toys with the reader's expectations by refusing to tell what is behind that door. He directly challenges readers to make up their own minds based on their knowledge of the princess. In doing so, the story never reaches its climax and contains no resolution. By subverting the traditional story structure with this open ending, Stockton places responsibility for the story's interpretation completely with the reader.

In order to highlight their timeless messages, fairy tales usually take place in an indeterminate time and place. Such is the case with "The Lady or the Tiger?," which is set in an unspecified kingdom with no indication of the year. Fairy tales also rely on stock characters, many of whom are represented in Stockton's story, including the vengeful king, the beautiful princess, and the handsome suitor. A handsome but unworthy man falling in love with a vengeful king's daughter is a common fairy-tale situation, and how their love transcends the king's wrath is a typical fairy-tale conflict. Unlike a traditional fairy tale, though, "The Lady or the Tiger?" does not end "happily ever after," and it is the shock of its abrupt ending that jars readers who have been expecting a more traditional outcome.

Setting

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 56

"The Lady or the Tiger?" is set in an imaginary, semi-barbaric kingdom where a king dispenses a unique form of justice— allowing the accused to blindly choose his own fate. No particular time or actual place is strongly evoked by Stockton, and the setting serves merely as a backdrop for the dilemma presented in the story.

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