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Literature / The Lady, or the Tiger?

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The Lady or the Tiger is an 1882 short story by Frank Stockton.

In a semi-barbaric kingdom, there is a unique method for trying criminals: they are placed into an arena and forced to choose one of two doors. Behind one door is a tiger that will kill the prisoner, while behind the other door lies a woman that the prisoner must marry.

One such criminal is a man who stole the heart of the kingdom's princess, and he is submitted to the same treatment. The princess bribes the guard in charge and learns which door contains the lady and which contains the tiger. As the man's trial begins, the lady has an opportunity to guide him to death or to marrying another, but which will she pick? The story leaves the question up to the reader.

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This story contains examples of:

  • The Caligula: In addition to the king setting up a barbaric system for punishing criminals, he's also said to talk to himself.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: The princess has shades of this, given how fervently she hates the other woman for seemingly attracting her lover's attention. To make matters worse, she may or may not be right about that.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Anyone who picks the wrong door is Eaten Alive by a tiger.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The society portrayed in the story has a justice system that is utterly alien to any modern society. This is driven home by the narrator calling the kingdom "semi-barbaric."
  • Door Roulette: One of the most famous examples. One door will kill the prisoner, while the other will lead to freedom and a reward.
  • Failed a Spot Check: The audience at the trial is so focused on the defendant that they don't notice the princess giving a subtle but unambiguous signal to him.
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  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: If the princess guides the man to the lady, she chooses to accept him marrying someone else in order to save his life.
  • If I Can't Have You...: If the princess guides the man to the tiger, she proves willing to let him die in order to have him for herself.
  • Imaginary Love Triangle: Zig-zagged. The story raises the possibility that the princess merely imagined that the man and the lady love each other. However, if the man chooses the lady's door, they will be married, meaning that the woman will ultimately lose the man to the lady if he survives.
  • Love Triangle: The princess, the man and the lady. Which way the arrows point is up to interpretation, although the princess loves the man, is sure that the lady feels the same way about the man, and fears that the man reciprocates the lady's feelings, although it's said that everyone knows the man and the princess love each other.
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  • Morton's Fork: No matter what the princess chooses, she won't have the man she loves. The only question is whether she'd rather let him die or live with someone else.
  • Nameless Narrative: All the characters are described by their role and are never named.
  • No Ending: The princess is shown pointing to the right, but the reader never learns whether the lady or the tiger lies beyond the door, or whether the man chooses to follow her advice.
  • Riddle for the Ages: What was on the other side of the door that the man chose?
  • Sadistic Choice: The princess must choose between letting her lover die or giving him to someone else.
  • Show, Don't Tell: The story relies very heavily on telling, since it's entirely told by the third person narrator, and adds to the ambiguity regarding certain characters' actions and motives, while ultimately letting readers come to their own conclusions as to what the princess decided.
  • Together in Death: One possible reason for having the princess choose the tiger is the belief that she and the man will be reunited in the afterlife.
    Would it not be better for him to die at once, and go to wait for her in the blessed regions of semi-barbaric futurity?
  • Title Drop: The last line of the door references the question.
    Which came out of the opened door - the lady, or the tiger?
  • Undesirable Prize: The lady can be seen as this for the man, since he loves the princess, and the king is using the trial to get him out of the way one way or another. Of course, the princess suspects that the man and the lady have feelings for each other, and is very unhappy about it, so the man may not find the prize "undesirable."
  • Xanatos Gambit: The king knows that the young man is guilty of loving his daughter, as does everyone else, but this trial will resolve the issue one way or another. If the man picks the tiger, he'll die, but if he picks the lady, he'll be forcibly married to someone else, and thus no longer able to pursue the princess.
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