The Lady, or the Tiger?

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The Lady, or the Tiger?
Author Frank R. Stockton
Published 1882-??-??
Type Fiction, Short story
Genre Science Fiction
Themes Romance
Age Group Adult

The Lady, or the Tiger? is a short story written by Frank R. Stockton, first published by in the magazine The Century in 1882. The story became quite popular, and was adapted into films, plays, musicals and inspired various other works. Stockton also wrote a follow up with a similar concept. The popularity of the story gave rise to the expression, "the lady, or the tiger?" when faced with a dilemma with an unknowable outcome. This story is in the public domain.

The story describes a barbaric king who, instead of using jurisprudence, likes to subject possible criminals to a public trial by ordeal where they must randomly choose between two doors. One has a deadly tiger which will kill the man, the other has a beautiful lady who the man will immediately marry. The king discovers that his own daughter has a commoner as a secret lover and subjects him to the ordeal. The princess finds both the outcomes awful, but is able to ascertain which room hold the tiger.


Own?Compilation book.
Read?Compilation book.

I'm pretty sure I've heard this title mentioned a couple times in my life, but, without having read the book, I didn't have an accurate understanding of its meaning. Prior to reading this story, the first thing that always came to mind was episode 4-13 of Daria. When I saw the story was included a short story anthology I owned, I skipped several other stories and to read it first.




— This section contains spoilers! —


  • By leaving the story open-ended, Stockton encourages discussion and debate among the readers.


  • I think the author missed a good opportunity here to make the ending more interesting. What if the princess was able to send a message to the man before the event and told him she would raise the arm of the door with the tiger. Then, she raises her right, but, not trusting her to tell him accurately, the man opens the right door and finds the tiger really is there, she was trying to keep him alive after all! For one brief moment before he's torn asunder, he would realize that the princess truly loved him and wanted him to stay alive, even if it wasn't with her, and she would realize that she had wasted her love on a selfish cad. On the flip side, the princess could lift her right arm, but, the man, full of passion, would rather die than be married to someone other than the princess, so he opens the right door expecting to be quickly killed, but it's actually the lady! He then realizes the princess was lying and trying to kill him! Now, perhaps, he can be happy with his new love, while the princess would sulk in her jealousy. I prefer either one of these endings over the one used by Stockton.
  • Deciding whether a person is guilty or innocent based on a 50/50 chance isn't just "semi-barbaric," it's an affront to justice. I get that this has to exist for the story to work, but claiming that the spectacle is "fair" because the condemned gets to randomly choose their fate is both wrong an unnecessary. The subjects of the king may be forced to claim it's "fair," since they may be executed if they don't, but anyone with even a child's morality would recognize it as not fair in the least.


  • The author makes it pretty clear that the princess hates the maiden her lover would marry, and would extremely jealous if he ended up with her. He also describes the princess as being passionate and "semi-barbaric" multiple times. Add that to the fact that she's royalty and favored by her father the king, which means she's used to always getting her own way regardless of how that may harm others, and it's pretty obvious she would prefer the man be killed. Thus, Stockton hasn't really left the ending as open as it may seem. The only argument he makes against this is that she really does love that man and had a few nights to think about him being mauled to death by a tiger. Of course, all this is for nought since the princess can't accurately describe what is behind each door, she can only say "right." Does this mean, the tiger is to the right or the lady? The author implies that the man will magically be able to interpret what she means because of their love for each other, but I find that to be even more ridiculous.
  • No thought is given to the woman who is forced to marry a probably unjustly-exonerated criminal.


Strong female character?FailPossibly the princess, but she isn't fleshed out enough.
Bechdel test?FailNone of the characters ever speak.
Strong person of color character?FailNo specific ethnicity is ever described.
Queer character?FailThere are no queer characters.


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