The Lady or the Tiger?

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The Lady or the Tiger? Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Frank Stockton's The Lady or the Tiger?. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Frank Stockton
Frank Stockton was born into a large family; his mother, Emily Hepsibeth Drean Stockton, was a school administrator, and his father, William Stockton, was a Methodist minister. Although his father discouraged Frank’s literary ambitions, he nonetheless proved himself a talent at a young age. While a student at Central High School in Philadelphia, he wrote a story that was selected as the top entry in a contest, culminating in publication in the Boys’ and Girls’ Journal. In 1852, Frank began working as a wood engraver despite his father’s suggestion that he go into medicine; he was also publishing short stories throughout the 1850s, in literary magazines such as the American Courier and the Southern Literary Magazine. In 1860, he married Mary Ann Edwards Tuttle, and the couple moved to Nutley, New Jersey, together. As demand for wood engraving decreased, Frank also began writing professionally for newspapers in Philadelphia. It was in 1867, however, that his literary life really took off: in this year he published “Ting-a-Ling,” his first story to make a splash, and was consequently offered a prominent position as assistant editor and chief contributor with the children’s section of the magazine Hearth and Home. Frank’s artistic vision would only continue to develop, resulting in 1879 in the publication of Rudder Grange—a collection of short stories and Stockton’s first hit with the public—and in 1882 the publication of “The Lady or the Tiger?,” Stockton’s most famous story. In 1902, at the height of his powers and fame as one of the greatest humorists and children’s authors of his age, Stockton died of cerebral hemorrhage. He is buried in his native Philadelphia
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Historical Context of The Lady or the Tiger?
Although the children’s literature Stockton composed is for the most part devoid of any explicit historical references, the novels he composed for adults like The Great War Syndicate (1889) and The Great Stone of Sardis (1898) are explicitly preoccupied with the burgeoning role of technology in human affairs. One reason that Stockton was so drawn to technology, and especially to the question of how more sophisticated technology would affect modern warfare, is that he lived during the American Civil War, where the relative crudeness of the weaponry led to agonizing deaths and crippling wounds. Stockton hoped that the technologies of the twentieth century, in contrast, would be so powerful as to discourage warfare altogether.
Other Books Related to The Lady or the Tiger?
“The Lady or the Tiger?” is a fairy tale set in an exotic, vaguely Oriental kingdom, and as such gestures back to what is perhaps the most influential collection of such tales ever to be published in English, the One Thousand and One Nights, originally compiled in Arabic and later translated into English by Edward Lane (1840, 1859), John Payne (1882), and Richard Burton (1885), among others. However, while many English translations of the One Thousand and One Nights emphasize the stories’ morals so as to make them more instructive for children readers (with the glaring exception of Burton’s, which instead plays up sexual content), Stockton breaks with this moralizing tradition in “The Lady or the Tiger?” He instead creates an ambiguous ending that does not tell his reader what to think, but that invites the reader to think for him- or herself. Compare this strategy with those deployed by Lewis Carroll, who likewise leaves his children’s books, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), morally open-ended. However, while Carroll is an elaborate inventor of bizarre characters like the hookah-smoking Caterpillar and Cheshire Cat, along with mind-bending logical puzzles, Stockton’s stories tend to be less interested in the fantastic and more interested in human motivation and foibles, told in a correspondingly simple, conversational prose.
Key Facts about The Lady or the Tiger?
  • Full Title: “The Lady or the Tiger?”
  • When Published: 1882
  • Literary Period: Victorian
  • Genre: Short story; fairy tale; children’s literature
  • Setting: An unnamed semi-barbaric kingdom, especially the king’s public arena located within the kingdom
  • Climax: The princess instructs the young man to open the door on the right in the arena, and he does so—but does the lady or the tiger greet him?
  • Antagonist: The king’s semi-barbaric and unjust administration of justice by chance as manifested in the public arena; the deviousness of human passion and jealousy
  • Point of View: Mostly third person limited, with an essay on the princess’s decision toward the story’s end that includes the first person
Extra Credit for The Lady or the Tiger?

A Famous Admirer. The Englishman Robert Browning, perhaps the greatest of all the Victorian poets, admired Stockton’s fairy tale. He claimed to have “had no hesitation in supposing that such a princess under such circumstances would direct her lover to the tiger’s door.” Such a claim, of course, probably tells us more about Browning than Stockton’s princess.

Sequel. Stockton composed a sequel to “The Lady or the Tiger?” entitled “The Discourager of Hesitancy,” in which a monarch and his companions travel to the semi-barbaric kingdom of the earlier story to ask whether the young man opened the door to find the lady or the tiger. In turn, “a high officer” presents them with yet another tale that ends with yet another dilemma, promising to answer the question of the lady or the tiger only if the monarch and his companions can decide the solution to this second dilemma. “At the latest accounts,” the narrator reports at the end of the sequel, “the five strangers had not yet decided.”