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

Discussion Topic

The ambiguous ending of “The Lady, or the Tiger?”

Summary:

The ambiguous ending of "The Lady, or the Tiger?" leaves the reader uncertain about the protagonist's fate. The story concludes without revealing whether the young man opened the door to the lady or the tiger, thus prompting readers to ponder the princess's decision and the nature of human emotions like jealousy and love.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does "The Lady, Or the Tiger?" end?

Stockton's short story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" has an open ending, and the reader is left to decide whether or not the "semi-barbaric" princess directs her lover toward the door with the lady or the door with the tiger. The story ends with the young courtier in the arena and meeting the princess's eyes as she directs him toward a certain door. The reader is aware that the princess knows what lies behind each door but is forced to analyze her character and decide for themselves what door she directs her lover toward.

Just after the princess directs her lover toward the door on the right, Stockton writes, "Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?" Stockton then encourages the reader to examine the princess's character and motivation before making their decision. The reader is forced to view the situation from the princess's perspective and analyze her jealous, imperious nature. Stockton proceeds to elaborate on the princess's personality, and the reader recognizes that she will be devastated whether the courtier lives or dies.

If the courtier lives, the princess will be forced to watch her lover marry the beautiful maiden, which, for her, might be a worse experience than witnessing him die a brutal death. Either way, the princess will be losing her lover, and the reader must determine for themselves what decision she makes. The story involves the study of the human heart, and Stockton leaves the ending open to interpretation.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the climax in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

The climax of the story comes when the young lover in the arena goes to the door indicated by the princess and opens it. Naturally the reader would expect to see whether the lady or the tiger emerged. But the author leaves that question unanswered forever. The following paragraph is the climax. 

He turned, and with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovably upon that man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.

Something undoubtedly happens, but we will never know what it was. It happened, as the author says, "In the very olden time." We don't wonder so much about what happened to the princess's young lover as we wonder about the princess herself. She gave her lover a swift and subtle signal to choose the door on the right.

No one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his was fixed on the man in the arena.

The lover's fate was dependent, not on his choice between the two doors, but on hers. That is really what we want to know because it would tell us about the princess and perhaps about women in general. Would she prefer to see her lover torn to pieces by a tiger or married on the spot to the beautiful rival whom she hates. If she lets her lover get torn to pieces, that spectacle would be over with quickly. But if she lets him marry the woman she hates, she would have to endure her jealousy for many years. The two would be happy together. They might have many children. And meanwhile the princess would have to settle for another man whom she might not even love and whose inferior qualities would be a continual reminder of the man she had lost.

The princess did not make up her mind on the spur of the moment. She had plenty of time to think about what she was going to do, although it only took her an instant to give her lover the signal to choose the door on his right. Like the princess, the reader is visualizing two possible outcomes for the trusting lover. The author himself speculates about the outcome after the climax is reached.

The more we reflect upon this question, the harder it is to answer. It involves a study of the human heart which leads us through devious mazes of passion, out of which it is difficult to find our way.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the climax in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

What is fascinating about this story is that the princess has already given her lover the signal and he is already opening the door she indicated. This story is told as if it is an actual episode that occurred in history. So what we are left wondering is not what will happen but what did happen. Whatever it was, it happened a long time ago. Maybe it no longer matters because all the people involved would be dead. What we wonder is whether the princess let her lover be killed or whether she let him be married to her beautiful rival. Her choice seems to reflect on females in general. What would a contemporary woman do in the same circumstances? How do women think? Can they be trusted?

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the climax in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

The story actually ends in the climax, unlike most short stories.  Usually there is a complete plot diagram that is followed.  However, this story has a hanging ending.  That is why the climax is at the very end.  We do not know what is behind the door the princess has him open.  Because the story does not officially end for the reader, the falling action/resolution of the story is not presented to us.  The reader must choose his or her own ending.  Most students feel strongly one way or the other because of this ending.  They either love having the choice of the ending, or they hate that the story doesn't officially end for them. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the effect of the ambiguous ending in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

All true.  Stockton had a chance to set the record straight and give us all the "right" answer when the public raised such an outcry when it was first published.  Instead, he chose to keep everyone wondering and talking--even hundreds of years later.  We're still talking about it.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the effect of the ambiguous ending in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

When the story is read for the first time, the ending is a shock--and usually a frustrating one! We want to turn the page to see how it comes out. This reaction shows how attuned we are to the basic narrative structure: introduction, conflict, rising action, dramatic climax, and conclusion. In this story, we are denied the dramatic climax with its resolution of the conflict, and there certainly is no conclusion to wrap it all up and let us leave the story behind. We feel cheated. We paid our money, but didn't get the whole show! Which reminds me . . . have you ever been in a movie theater when the film ends very suddenly in an unexpected way and the lights come on and the credits roll? Same reaction. The audience is surprised, then usually annoyed or even angry. 

The narrative structure seems to be more than a literary convention. It represents the pattern of life experiences in general. We have a problem or conflict, we work through it, it comes to a head and is ended--one way or another--and then we move on. Doctors know that unresolved conflicts create real stress on our bodies, and psychologists know that unresolved, continuing conflict is often manifested in depression and other emotional illnesses. We seem to need the resolution of conflict--in literature and in life.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the effect of the ambiguous ending in "The Lady, or the Tiger?"

When the story was first published, it created an intense reaction by readers who wanted a resolution, one way or the other. Any time I have taught this short story in my classroom, my students invariably groan and complain. the ending of The Sopranos television show reminded me of "The Lady or the Tiger?" because of the outcry of disappointed viewers who wanted a satisfying ending, not ambiguity.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is the ending of "The Lady, or the Tiger?" ambiguous?

The ambiguity of the ending of "The Lady or the Tiger?" is based entirely on the feelings and motivation of the "hot-blooded, semi-barbaric princess." When her lover is in the arena and looks to her for guidance:

She raised her hand, and made a slight, quick movement toward the right.

Her lover has complete trust in her. But how well does he know her? How well does any man know any woman?

Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.

The fact that the lover shows such complete faith in the love of the princess may be intended to suggest that men do not really understand women very well at all. No doubt, different readers would have different takes on this story, depending on their gender.

Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?

The princess knows which door conceals the tiger and which conceals the lady whom she passionately hates.

The girl was lovely, but she had dared to raise her eyes to the loved one of the princess; and, with all the intensity of the savage blood transmitted to her through long lines of wholly barbaric ancestors, she hated the woman who blushed and trembled behind that silent door.

The author keeps using the word "barbaric." It is up to the reader to guess whether the beautiful lady comes out and marries the princess's lover or whether the tiger comes out and tears the poor, trusting man to shreds. In either case, the princess is going to have to observe an event that will be very painful to her. Would she rather see her lover married to the lady? Or would she prefer to see him torn to pieces by a tiger? How much does she really love this man? And would the strength of her love make her choose to save him or sacrifice him to another woman?

The author takes pains to characterize this princess as a woman with a strong and passionate nature. A less "savage" and "barbaric" woman would undoubtedly choose to do the compassionate and enthical thing, which would be to save her lover's life and allow him to enjoy happiness with her rival.

The reader is not really required to guess what happened but to guess what the princess decided to do. The setting is of extreme importance to this story. It takes place in "the very olden time" and in a barbaric land. There seems to be a strong possibility that this princess might easily decide to have her lover killed before her eyes. She has probably witnessed many such spectacles already in her young lifetime. She may have made her decision long before she entered her seat above the arena.

But, on the other hand, if she didn't care enough about her lover to be able to contemplate watching him killed by a tiger, why should she care about letting him marry the other woman?

The story ends inconclusively:

...it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you. Which came out of the opened door--the lady, or the tiger?

The story is famous because of that ambiguous ending.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is the ending of "The Lady, or the Tiger?" so effective and how does this ambiguity affect the reader?

Interestingly, the lack of denouement in Stockton's "The Lady, or the Tiger?" forbids any passivity upon the part of the readers, who must involve themselves in the composition of the ending themselves.  And, with the various turnings and twisting of the characterization and the employment of much verbal irony on Stockton's part, composing an ending to a satiric fairy-tale is no easy task.

So, depending upon the readers' interpretation of the irony and understanding of the characterization of the princess, who is the center of the tension of the story, endings will vary as they must consider Stockton's princess who, herself, has ambivalent feelings about her lover, as well as a conflict within her "semi-barbaric" nature.

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
Last Updated on