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 entered the English language as an allegorical expression, a shorthand indication or signifier, for a problem that is unsolvable. This story makes people think beyond the normal perceptions.

Plot summary[edit]

The short story takes place in a land ruled by a semi-barbaric king. Some of the king's ideas were progressive, but others caused people to suffer. One of the king’s ideas was a public arena using a trial by ordeal as an agent of poetic justice. Either crime was punished or innocence was decided by the result of chance. When a person was accused of a crime, his future would be judged in the public arena before two doors.[1] Behind one door is a lady whom the king has deemed an appropriate match for the accused; behind the other is a fierce, hungry tiger. The accused is compelled to select a door. If he chooses the door with the lady behind it, he is innocent and must immediately marry the woman, but if he chooses the door with the tiger behind it, he is deemed guilty and is immediately devoured by the tiger.

The king learns that his daughter has a lover, a handsome and brave youth who is of lower status than the princess. The king does not shirk from his duty to hold a tribunal, and the princess' lover is thrown into prison to await his trial in the arena. The princess, meanwhile, through intrigue and influence, discovers which door conceals the lady and which door conceals the tiger. Once in the arena, the accused looks to the princess for help, and she discreetly signals for him to choose the door on the right, which he does. However, it is unclear whether she has sent him to his death or to a marriage with a woman she resents as a rival.

The author then departs from the narration, summarizing for the reader various facts about the princess' state of mind and her attitude towards the woman the king chose for the arena's door, and challenges the reader to decide which door the princess indicated for her lover. The story ends with the famous quotation: "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," [2] a short story, sequel, of sorts, to "The Lady, or the Tiger?," that begins with travelers visiting the kingdom to discover whether the prince in "The Lady or the Tiger" chose death or the maiden. This is answered with a second story, in which a prince comes to the kingdom to find a wife. He is blindfolded, married to one of forty beautiful maidens and given the ultimatum that he must correctly identify his bride. If he fails, the king's guard will immediately put him to death. He narrows the choice to two maidens, one of whom smiles and the other who frowns. He chooses correctly and the visitors who came for their answer are told they will only be given the answer to "The Lady or the Tiger" conundrum if they answer this new one correctly.

By other artists[edit]

A play adaptation by Sydney Rosenfeld debuted at Wallack's Theatre in 1888 ran 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.[3]

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.[4]

The story was the inspiration for Raymond Smullyan's puzzle book by the same title, The Lady, or the Tiger?.[5] 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.[6]


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]