The Lady, or the Tiger?

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"The Lady, or the Tiger?" was the title story in an 1884 collection of twelve stories by Frank R. Stockton published by Scribner

"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.

Plot summary[edit]

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 women 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 women 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 then playfully sets out for the reader the dimensions of the princess's dilemma, and that of the reader in answering the question he has posed. The reader is told that the princess knew and "hated" the waiting maiden, one of her attendants, whom she suspected of being infatuated with the princess's lover. The princess, the reader must keep in mind, is "semi-barbaric," too, or she wouldn't have come to witness the ordeal at all; and though she has shrieked when struck by the thought of her lover torn to bits before her eyes, the thought of his dancing out of the arena with his blushing bride has afflicted her more sharply, and more often. In either case, 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, she is resolute, and she 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?"

Other works[edit]

By Stockton[edit]

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[edit]

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.[1]

Toyah Willcox and Robert Fripp released a recording of "The Lady, or the Tiger?" and "The Discourager of Hesitancy" with Willcox reading the stories to electric guitar accompaniment by Fripp.

"The Lady, or the Tiger?" is one of three short stories that were adapted into the musical comedy The Apple Tree.

The story was the inspiration for Raymond Smullyan's puzzle book by the same title, The Lady, or the Tiger?.[2] 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.[3]


Further reading[edit]

  • 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. 

External links[edit]