The Lady, or the Tiger?
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"The Lady, or the Tiger?" is a much-anthologized short story written by Frank R. Stockton for publication in the magazine The Century in 1882. "The lady, or the tiger?" has come into the English language as an allegorical expression, a shorthand indication or signifier for a problem that is unsolvable.
The "semi-barbaric" king of an ancient land with an equally "semi-barbaric" daughter use a unique form of trial by ordeal for those in his realm accused of crimes significant enough to interest him. The accused is placed alone in an arena before two curtain-draped doors, as hordes of the king's subjects look on from the stands. Behind one door is a woman appropriate to the accused's status and approved for him by the king; behind the other is a fierce (and nearly starved) tiger. The accused then must choose a door. If by luck (or, if one prefers, the will of heaven) he picks the door with the woman behind it, he is declared innocent and set free, but he is required to marry the woman on the spot, regardless of his wishes or his marital status. If he picks the door with the tiger behind it, the hungry beast immediately pounces upon him—his guilt thus manifest, supposedly.
When the king discovers that his daughter, the princess, has taken a lover far beneath her status, the fellow is an obvious candidate for trial in the arena. On the day of his ordeal, the lover looks from the arena to the princess, who is watching in the stands, for some indication of which door to pick. Even the king doesn't know which door hides the maiden, but the princess has made it her business to find out, as her lover knew she would. However, the maiden was a woman that the princess hates, so she must either allow her lover to live but married to another woman, or end his life to prevent him from being with a woman she hates. She makes a slight but definite gesture to the right, which the young man follows immediately and without hesitation. As the door opens, the author interjects, "Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?"
The author playfully sets up a dilemma for the reader. Explaining the circumstances of the princess's dilemma and the trial, Stockton invites the reader to answer his titular question. The reader is told the princess knew and "hated" one of her attendants, the waiting maiden, whom she suspected of being infatuated with her lover. When the princess comes to witness the trial between her lover and the tiger, the reader is asked to remember that the princess is also "semi-barbaric" or she wouldn't have come to witness the ordeal. Although the princess is tormented by the thought of her lover torn to bits before her eyes, the thought of her lover leaving the arena with his blushing bride is the source of greater torment. In both the event of her lover’s death and her lover taking a different bride, the princess knows her lover is lost to her forever. She has agonized over her decision but by the time she arrives at the arena, the princess is resolute and makes her gesture to the right unhesitatingly. The author denies being in a position to answer his question with authority, and the story ends with the famous line, "And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?"
Stockton later wrote "The Discourager of Hesitancy," a short story in which a man must choose correctly among (forty) apparently identical maidens or face instant death. Despite its posture as a sequel of sorts to "The Lady, or the Tiger?"—that story's conundrum is recapitulated as the later story opens—the tale does not answer the question posed at the end of the previous story.
By other artists
A play adaptation by Sydney Rosenfeld debuted at Wallack's Theatre in 1888, running for seven weeks. In addition to stretching out the story as long as possible to make it a play, at the end the choice was revealed to the audience – neither a lady or tiger, but an old hag.
The story was the inspiration for Raymond Smullyan's puzzle book by the same title, The Lady, or the Tiger?. The first set of logic puzzles in the book had a similar scenario to the short story in which a king gives each prisoner a choice between a number of doors; behind each one was either a lady or a tiger. However, the king bases the prisoner's fate on intelligence and not luck by posting a statement on each door that can be true or false.
"The Lady, or the Tiger?" is referenced in "Ennui", a sonnet written by Sylvia Plath and published 43 years after her death. Plath's sonnet, however, speaks of an age when the choice has become no longer relevant.
Alternative rock band They Might Be Giants released the song "The Lady and the Tiger" on their 2011 album Join Us. Like the story, the song ends without a conclusion. The last line reads, "The hall remains, it still contains a pair of doors, a choice. Behind one door, a muffled roar, behind the other, a voice."
"The Lady or the Tiger" is a one-act play adapted from Stockton's short story and published by Lazy Bee Scripts in 2010.
- Smith, Cecil & Glenn Litton. Musical Comedy in America, p. 44 (1991 ed.)
- ISBN 0812921178
- Stockton, F. R. (November 1882). "The Lady, or the Tiger?". The Century 25 (1): 83–86.
- Pforzheimer, Walter L. (Autumn 1935). "The Lady, the Tiger and the Author". The Colophon 1 (2): 261–270.
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