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Literature / The Lady, or the Tiger?

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Think of it, fair reader, not as if the decision of the question depended upon yourself, but upon that hot-blooded, semi-barbaric princess, her soul at a white heat beneath the combined fires of despair and jealousy. She had lost him, but who should have him?

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

In an ancient, semi-barbaric kingdom, the king has established a unique method to try particularly significant criminals. The accused is brought into the king's arena, facing two identical, soundproofed doors. He then must choose his own verdict by opening one of them: behind one door lurks a hungry tiger which will kill him as punishment for his guilt, but behind the other is a desirable woman who will immediately become his wife as a reward for his innocence. No one watching knows which door leads to which, so the defendant's fate is entirely up to chance, and the trials make for thrilling public entertainment as well.

During one such trial, the defendant is a man who had the audacity to court the king's favorite daughter. She has bribed the guards and learned which door leads to the lady and which to the tiger. As the man enters the arena, the princess has an opportunity to guide him to life or death, but which does she choose? The story leaves the answer up to the reader.

Stockton wrote a sequel, "The Discourager of Hesitancy," in which a troupe of officials from another kingdom come to learn the defendant's fate. They receive in return another story about a young man who came to court seeking a wife — he was blindfolded and married nearly on the spot and then asked to pick out his new wife from among a line of women. After some pressure from the titular Discourager (a servant of the king with a Sinister Scimitar), he chose correctly. The storyteller promises to reveal the ending if the officials can tell him how he identified his bride; as far as we know, they're still thinking about it.

"The Lady, or the Tiger?" contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: The king is described as "bland and genial" when things are going smoothly, and "whenever there was a little hitch, and some of his orbs got out of their orbits, he was blander and more genial still, for nothing pleased him so much as to make the crooked straight and crush down uneven places."
  • All Crimes Are Equal: Zigzagged. The story is clear that only a crime which is significant enough to interest the king gets tried in the arena, so lesser matters presumably get settled elsewhere. However, anyone who does wind up in the arena has a 50% chance of meeting a horrible death, no matter what he allegedly did.
  • Ancient Grome: Subverted. The central kingdom and the Roman Empire are contemporaries, and the king has raised himself to semi-barbarian by adopting some Roman ideas, but he's twisted them to fit his own fancy.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Pretty much everything the king does, but particularly his trial system, which requires finding a suitable woman for every defendant, having an entire wedding procession on standby for a Not Guilty verdict, plus having a team to wrangle a fierce and hungry tiger in the event of a Guilty verdict.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: As the story points out from very early on, the cruel and selfish king gets his way no matter what happens: either he gets to see the guy whose only crime was dating his daughter without his permission torn apart, or married off to someone else, and thus no longer something he has to care about.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: The crowd seem saddened when they see what a bright, handsome man is up for execution for the crime of being the princess's lover.
  • The Caligula: In addition to the king setting up a barbaric system for punishing criminals, he's also said to talk to himself.
    He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts. He was greatly given to self-communing, and, when he and himself agreed upon anything, the thing was done.
  • 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 torn to pieces by a tiger.
  • Daddy's Girl: The king loves his daughter more than anything else, at least in part because she's most like him in temperament. (Not enough to stop him from throwing her boyfriend to a tiger, mind you...)
  • 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."
  • The Determinator: We're not told the specifics of how the princess learned the secret of the doors, but we do know no one else had ever managed it before.
  • Door Roulette: One of the most famous examples. Opening one door will kill the prisoner, while opening the other will lead to freedom and a reward.
  • Everything but the Girl: If the lover opens the correct door, he will be acquitted, freed, and married off in great joy to a woman just as lovely as the princess (and one that he might already take an interest in) but he won't get the princess. The twist is that this can only happen if the princess decides to let it happen — and she could send him to his death instead and spare herself that humiliation.
  • 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.
  • Forced to Watch: Subverted. The princess is not under any external pressure to attend the trial: the narrative even tells us that a less-barbarian woman wouldn't even have been there. However, if she wants to control the outcome, she has no choice but to attend — and that will mean witnessing the agonizing result of her decision.
  • Held Gaze: When the lover enters the arena, he and princess lock eyes. Such is their bond that he knows immediately that she can save him, and she knows he's asking which door to open. She even knew ahead of time that he would ask, which makes the decision to send him to the tiger — if that is her decision — particularly cruel.
  • Hot-Blooded: The king is passionate, decisive, and cruel... and his daughter, whom he loves best, is just like him. The narrator makes sure that we know this, if only to remind us that she could and would choose to send her lover to the tiger.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: If the princess guides the man to the lady, she sends him into the arms of another woman — a woman who desires him, and it might be mutual — to save his life.
  • If I Can't Have You…: If the princess guides the man to the tiger, she sends him to a horrible death rather than see him with another.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Subverted. The king's authority is complete; he could condemn anyone to death at any time, for any reason. Nevertheless, he leaves the final verdict and sentencing up to chance, and no one has grounds to complain.
    The institution was a very popular one. When the people gathered together on one of the great trial days, they never knew whether they were to witness a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding. This element of uncertainty lent an interest to the occasion which it could not otherwise have attained. Thus, the masses were entertained and pleased, and the thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan, for did not the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?
  • Lamarck Was Right: The king is "semi-barbarian" by exposure to Ancient Grome, and his daughter consequently has an unstable blend of 'civilized' and 'barbaric' in her nature.
  • Lemony Narrator: The tone of the story is fairly detached and sardonic, especially at the beginning
    The arena of the king was built, not to give the people an opportunity of hearing the rhapsodies of dying gladiators, nor to enable them to view the inevitable conclusion of a conflict between religious opinions and hungry jaws...
  • Love Triangle: The chosen lady for this trial also has her eye on the defendant — or at least, the princess thinks she does — and she also thinks her lover might return her interest. As much as she wants to save him from the tiger, sending him to the lady would be just as painful.
    How in her grievous reveries had she gnashed her teeth, and torn her hair, when she saw his start of rapturous delight as he opened the door of the lady! How her soul had burned in agony when she had seen him rush to meet that woman, with her flushing cheek and sparkling eye of triumph; when she had seen him lead her forth, his whole frame kindled with the joy of recovered life; when she had heard the glad shouts from the multitude, and the wild ringing of the happy bells; when she had seen the priest, with his joyous followers, advance to the couple, and make them man and wife before her very eyes; and when she had seen them walk away together upon their path of flowers, followed by the tremendous shouts of the hilarious multitude, in which her one despairing shriek was lost and drowned!
  • Luck-Based Mission: The trials. They're fair and impartial in the sense that the outcome isn't predetermined and everyone has a 50% chance at acquittal, but they're utterly unfair in terms of punishing wrongdoing or rewarding virtue.
  • Morton's Fork: No matter what the princess chooses, she'll lose her man. The only question is whether she'd rather lose him to the claws of a tiger or the arms of another woman.
  • Nameless Narrative: All the characters are described by their role and are never named.
  • No Ending: The story ends just as the man opens the door. The readers are left to decide for themselves what was behind it.
  • Panthera Awesome: Not that it's particularly awesome for any poor schmuck who meets the tiger, but the story plays up the strength and savagery of the beast and makes it clear that the lover is doomed if the princess sends him to the wrong door.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Whether or not the lover thought he could actually marry the princess, her father promptly ensures that he never will, either because he's been married off to someone else or because he's been eaten by a tiger.
  • The Power of Hate: The princess hates the lady who will get her lover if he opens her door. She despises the woman so deeply and intensely that it might give her the strength to send him to the other door.
  • The Power of Love: The princess genuinely loves the man. She can't bear to send him to the tiger. But that same strength of love makes her equally unable to bear the idea of seeing him marry someone else.
  • The Power of Trust: The lover immediately opens the door the princess indicates. Whether his faith is justified or horrifically betrayed is up to the reader to decide.
  • Public Execution: The outcome of the trial, if the accused is found 'guilty'.
  • Riddle for the Ages: What was on the other side of the door?
  • Sadistic Choice: The princess must choose between watching her lover die or seeing him marry 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 conclusion as to what the princess decided.
  • Take a Third Option: Defied — the princess's only choices are to watch her lover die or watch him marry someone else. Given that Stockton's point was to make the reader confront the choice, this is deliberate.
  • 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 story.
    Which came out of the opened door - the lady, or the tiger?
  • Undesirable Prize: In cases where the man on trial is already married or betrothed, being found innocent isn't necessarily a good thing. After all, he will then be married on the spot, and neither he nor the lady can refuse. In the case of the central 'defendant' of this story, we don't know whether he had any interest in the woman in question, though there's enough evidence to make the princess suspicious... and jealous.
  • Uptown Girl: The man has dared to love far above his station. The rather Lemony Narrator tells us that this sort of cross-status relationship is common now, but at the time it was basically the Ur-Example and no one quite knew what to make of it.
  • Xanatos Gambit: The king knows that the young man is guilty of loving his daughter, as does everyone else, but either outcome of the trial will work in his favor. If the man picks the tiger, he'll be killed, but if he picks the lady, he'll be married. Either way, he'll no longer be able to pursue the princess.

"The Discourager of Hesitancy" contains examples of:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: The Discourager's scimitar can split a hair, as he helpfully demonstrates when the prince seems to be getting cold feet at his wedding.
  • Affably Evil: The Discourager of Hesitancy — the servant whose job is to "ensure" prompt compliance with the king's orders — is soft-spoken, gracious, and polite at all times.
  • Altar the Speed: The young prince who comes to the kingdom to seek a wife is married off before he even sees his new bride, let alone speaks with her.
  • Aroused by Their Voice: The prince doesn't hesitate to say his vows to his unseen bride after feeling the softness of her hand and hearing the sweetness of her voice.
  • Nameless Narrative: Everyone is described by role. Even the Discourager is merely called by his title.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: Once married, the prince is shown a line of forty beautiful maidens and is told to take his bride home.
  • No Ending: As with the former story, we never learn what we most want to know.
  • Off with His Head!: The threat the Discourager poses to those who seem reluctant to do whatever the King tells them to do.
  • Paralysis by Analysis: The prince nearly succumbs to this repeatedly until urged on by the Discourager. At the end of the story, the officials are similarly unable to decide. Since the prince correctly chooses his bride when the Discourager is inches from taking his head off, Stockton seems to be saying that the "answer" to both stories is whichever seems most obvious to the reader, so don't overthink it.
  • Plot Hole: The officials come to the kingdom because another man from their country had suffered a failure of nerve and fled just before the defendant opened the door. But in the original story, there is an obvious reaction from the crowd at every trial — happy bells and cheering for the lady, sad bells and wails for the tiger — that would have told him without seeing it what the man's fate had been.
  • Sinister Scimitar: The Discourager's weapon.
  • The Tell: Of the forty maidens, one is smiling and one is frowning. The prince correctly picks one of them as his wife... but we don't know which.