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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What is the exposition of "The Lady, or the Tiger?" by Frank Stockton?

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The beginning, or exposition, of Frank Stockton's short story "The Lady or the Tiger" establishes the mentality of the king of a mythical realm. He is immediately described as "semi-barbaric," meaning that he shares thoughts of civilization, such as a well ordered government, with thoughts of savagery, such as having criminals killed by very violent means. The narrator explains that the king held firm control and made most of the important decisions himself:

He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts.

Moreover, he delighted in solving difficult problems. The narrator indicates that "nothing pleased him so much as to make the crooked straight and crush down uneven places." One problem was that of justice. The king built an arena for that purpose, but his idea of justice didn't involve courtrooms and stuffy lawyers. Rather, it hinged on what the narrator called "poetic justice." A semi-barbaric king could not simply try a suspected criminal with judge and jury. His justice involved a much more interesting trial which, to his credit, was quite popular among his subjects. His form of justice, based solely on luck, included two doors in the arena, one with a lady, and the other with a tiger. If the accused chose the lady, he was instantly married, but, if he chose the tiger, instantly killed. The main conflict of the story is introduced a little later as the reader learns that the king's daughter has chosen a commoner for a lover. As this is frowned upon in mythical kingdoms, the lover is accused and tried in the arena.

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The exposition is the description of the king and the trial system.

Exposition is the beginning of a story.  It is where a story’s setting, characters, and inciting incident are described.  In this story, the author describes the kingdom and the king.  The king’s personality is very important.  He is described as “semibarbaric.”  We do not know exactly when the story takes place, but we are told it was a long time ago.

In the very olden time there lived a semi-barbaric king, whose 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.

From this, we can gather that the story took place a while ago, and that the kingdom is not near Latin America.  We also learn that the king has some very original ideas.  The word “semibarbaric” basically means that he is at war with himself.  He wants to be civilized, but he also has a savage side.

The king’s personality results in a very unique system of justice that he thinks is quite clever.  It is important to the exposition of the story that this system of trial be described, because the plot will turn on the trial’s unique format.  In this system of justice, an accused person is sent into an arena to make a choice.  The outcome of the choice determines if he is considered innocent or guilty.

Directly opposite him, on the other side of the enclosed space, were two doors, exactly alike and side by side. It was the duty and the privilege of the person on trial to walk directly to these doors and open one of them. He could open either door he pleased; he was subject to no guidance or influence but that of the aforementioned impartial and incorruptible chance. 

Behind one door is a tiger, which will instantly maul the contestant.  Behind the other door is a lady, who has been chosen specifically for the accused.  Apparently all accused are men.  The lady then marries the man, whether or not he was already married.  The king cares not for such trivialities.

The inciting incident is the last part of the exposition.  It occurs right before the rising action, and it serves to introduce the story’s problem.  In this case, the problem is the king’s daughter.

This semi-barbaric king had a daughter as blooming as his most florid fancies, and with a soul as fervent and imperious as his own. ... Among his courtiers was a young man of that fineness of blood and lowness of station common to the conventional heroes of romance who love royal maidens. 

Naturally the king did not approve of the match, and so the princess’s lover is about to be thrown into the arena.  This is a problem, because as the story progresses we learn that she is going to find out what is behind what door, and will tell him.  But will she tell him the right door to save his life?

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What is the big idea of the short story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" by Frank Stockton?

"The Lady or the Tiger? focuses primarily on the theme of choices, and more specifically how emotion can influence one's decisions.  The title itself, "The Lady or the Tiger?" reveals the dramatic nature of one of the choices which must be made in the short story.  The handsome young hero who had rashly loved the princess now faces doom if he chooses the wrong door in the arena; however, the princess faces a dire choice of her own as well.  She discovered the secret of the doors, and holds her lover's fate in her own hand.  She could choose to save his life, only to see him wed another, or be forced to watch as a vicious tiger attacks him in the arena. 

Ultimately, Stockton places the choice in the readers' hands by leaving the ending of the story open and the outcome, unknown.  The reader must consider all that they know of the "hot-blooded, semi-barbaric" princess to determine her final decision in the arena.

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Summarize the short story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" by Frank Stockton.

Sure. A summary is found in the enotes study guide via the link below, but we can compress it still further. A king has set up a situation where those accused of crimes get to choose between two doors. Behind one is a tiger. Behind one is a beautiful lady. (Think of this as an early reality show.) His daughter has a love affair he doesn't approve of and is put in the situation. The daughter cheats and figures out which door has which "prize" behind it. She signals him, and the story ends, leaving you hanging. Which did she send him to? The lady (and he marries someone else)? Or the tiger?


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