The Lady or the Tiger?


Frank Stockton

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The Lady or the Tiger? Summary

There was once a “semi-barbaric” king, a man of exuberant imagination who had a tyrannical grip on his kingdom. From distant Latin neighbors, this king had borrowed the idea of building a grand public arena, but the purpose of this arena was all the king’s own: he would hold trials there in accordance with a barbaric notion of poetic justice, where the accused would be forced to open one of two doors inside of the arena itself guided by nothing more than “impartial and incorruptible chance.” One door led to a reward—a suitable lady whom the accused would be required to marry whether he liked it or not. The other led to punishment—a ferocious and tiger which would invariably kill the accused. No one could accuse this justice system of unfairness, because the accused himself chose which door to open; and the trials never failed to please and entertain the audience gathered for the occasion.

Now, the king had a daughter, the princess, as passionate and imperious as her father himself. She and a courtier, the young man, had fallen in love, despite the fact that the courtier was of a lower social station than the princess. Their affair was a happy one—at least until the king found out about it. He ordered that the young man be imprisoned, and condemned him to trial by arena for aspiring to one so far above him. It didn’t matter to the king whether the young man opened the door to the lady or the tiger, for in either case he would be disposed of (through marriage or death), and the king would enjoy the trial regardless.

The day of the young man’s trial came. He was released into the arena and confronted with the two fateful doors. However, his eyes met the princess’s, who sat watching him, and because they were in love he discerned at once that his lover had found out which door held which fate, as he expected she would. Indeed, the princess had used gold and willpower to gain access to this secret as none before her had done, not even the king. And, in this knowledge, the princess directed the young man to the door on the right—but did it hold the lady, or the tiger? After all, the princess had agonized for days over this moment: she despaired to think of her lover being mauled and killed by the tiger, bleeding and shrieking on the arena floor—but she was also enflamed with jealousy to think that the young man should marry another woman, especially given that the princess knew which lady had been selected for the young man and hated her for having flirted with the young man in the past.

The narrator does not presume to tell us what decision the princess came to; and for a final time puts the question to us: “Which came out of the opened door—the lady, or the tiger?”