Analysis of Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady, or the Tiger?

Frank R. Stockton (1834–1902) originally entitled this story “The King’s Arena,” and after its appearance in 1882, it became the most famous story ever published in Century Magazine. Related by a caustic first-person narrator  who clearly disagrees with the feudal nature of kings and courtiers who set themselves above commoners, the story takes place in an unnamed barbaric country. The king discovers that a handsome young man, a commoner, whose low social rank prohibits his marrying royalty, has fallen in love with the king’s daughter—a crime that, the author remarks wryly, became common enough in later years. The trial of the young man takes place in the king’s arena. He must choose to open one of two doors. Behind one waits a ferocious beast who will tear him to pieces; behind the other, is a beautiful maiden who will marry him immediately. If he chooses the beast, he is automatically guilty; if he chooses the maiden, he proves his innocence.

Frank R. Stockton/Wikimedia

Of all those in the arena—including the king— only the clever princess has discovered the secret of what lies behind each door. She has made her decision to send a signal to the young man, and she does so, indicating the door on the right. In reaching her decision, the princess has agonized between the dreadful images of the savage and bloody death, and of the young man married to the beautiful maiden of whom the princess is intensely jealous. The young man moves immediately to the door the princess has indicated, and the story ends with the narrator’s question to the reader: “Which came out of the door,—the lady, or the tiger?” (10). Although similar to a surprise ending, the final sentence differs in that it leaves the reader without a denouement. Five years later, Stockton followed with “The Discourager of Hesitancy” (1887), which promises to solve the puzzle, but in fact this story, too, leaves the question unanswered.

Stockton, Frank R. “The Lady, or the Tiger?” In The Lady, or the Tiger? And Other Stories. New York: Scribner, 1914.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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