Frank R. Stockton,“The Lady, or the Tiger?”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Century, 25 (November 1882): 83-86; collected in The Lady, or the Tiger? and Other Stories (New York: Scribners, 1884)
Though relatively unknown today, the stories of Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902) once challenged the popularity of writers such as Mark Twain and William Dean Howells. Stockton wrote prolifically and in many genres, from science fiction and adventure to fantasy. In the 1960s Maurice Sendak illustrated two of Stockton’s children’s stories—“The Bee-Man of Orn” (1883) and “The Griffin and the Minor Canon” (1885). Recently critics have acknowledged Stockton’s contributions to the fairy-tale genre. Stockton’s interest in fairy tales can be
seen in “The Lady, or the Tiger?” (1882), his most anthologized short story. It remains compelling because of its timeless themes: the notion of free will, the cruel arbitrariness of fate, and the twin emotions love and jealousy. The open-ended conclusion forces readers to think carefully about specific details and the characters’ underlying motivations. In doing so, it offers an excellent introduction to literary analysis.
Stockton wrote “The Lady, or the Tiger?” after some friends requested that he create an amusing story for some guests at a dinner party. He was already well known as an editor and contributor to St. Nicholas, a magazine for children, and he had published many books for adults and children. At the party, Stockton failed to narrate what would become his most famous story because he was reluctant to tell a story that lacked a clear resolution. Throughout his literary career, Stockton celebrated family and domesticity; yet, here was a story that did not present itself that way. Before publication, he attempted no fewer than five different conclusions. None satisfied him. Eventually he gave up and submitted the “unfinished” work to the Century shortly before setting sail on a long vacation to Europe. Stockton was abroad when the literary pandemonium began that would change his life.
Following the fairy-tale paradigm, the story occurs at an indeterminate time and place. A “semi-barbaric” king learns of his daughter’s affair with a man he finds unsuitable. The king has devised what he feels is the ideal justice system, one that rests on its utter impartiality and reliance on fate as ultimate judge. The accused must choose between two doors—one hides a beautiful maiden (not the princess) ready to marry him, and the other hides a hungry tiger and a dreadful end. The princess, who is there to witness the judgment, has divined the secret behind the doors. To complicate matters, she knows and resents the maiden because in the past she had seen what she assumed to be flirting between her lover and the maiden. When her lover enters the arena, the princess covertly signals the door to the right. Without hesitation, he moves to open that door. At this very moment—the climax of the story—it ends. For an additional page, the narrator speaks directly to the audience about what might have happened next, but the last line leaves the question for readers to decide: “Which came out of the opened door,—the lady, or the tiger?”
Immediately after publication, the Century was inundated with mail demanding that the author explain what had really happened. The deluge was relentless and lasted for years. More than a decade later Stockton’s wife claimed that every few years there was a renewed interest in the story followed by more correspondence and suggested outcomes. Until Stockton’s death twenty years later, his readers tried to corner him about what “really” happened when the door opened. Exasperated, Stockton answered his critics with the story “His Wife’s Deceased Sister” (1884). In this story a writer decides to withhold rather than publish a potentially famous story. The title “The Lady, or the Tiger?” (fortunately changed from Stockton’s original “In the King’s Arena”) became so well known that popular culture referenced it well into the twentieth century.
As Stockton anticipated, the literary world has largely forgotten him. There are, however, a handful of critical overviews that students will find valuable. Sarah Madsen Hardy’s explication of “The Lady, or the Tiger?” in Short Stories for Students, volume 3 (1998) connects the story’s subversive nature with Stockton’s manipulation of the fairy-tale genre. Jack Zipes argues in his book When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition, second edition (2007), that Stockton’s fairy tales are important because his mature themes influenced L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), who wrote the Wizard of Oz books. Tanya Gardiner-Scott, in an essay also included in Short Stories for Students, expands on some of the religious themes in the story that Henry Golemba noted in his critical biography Frank R. Stockton (1981). Golemba does not spend a great deal of time on “The Lady, or the Tiger?” but focuses on Stockton’s other works in an effort to revive Stockton’s reputation as a writer generally.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. The gender issues raised in the story account for a large part of its appeal. According to the fan mail Stockton received, women tended to believe the tiger would emerge from behind the door, whereas men thought it would be the maiden. What explains this difference? A quick survey of males and females in a modern classroom would likely renew many of the enthusiastic gender debates this story triggered more than a century ago.
- 2. Students’ understanding of the story and the gender issues it raises will be enhanced by recognizing the fairy-tale paradigm that Stockton subverted when he wrote it. As Madsen Hardy has noted, the story contains many of the elements common to fairy tales: it takes place in an indeterminate time and place; its main characters include a king and a princess; and the male lead in the story, a man too far “beneath” the princess to be considered suitable, might well be compared with the kiss-seeking frog, Beauty’s Beast, or even Cinderella, all characters who found similar obstacles to their ambitions. Fairy tales of this type operate as literary comedies: young lovers, mixed identities, and happy marriages are the raw materials here. Readers of fairy tales have come to expect that obstacles will be overcome and true love must be vindicated by a “happy ever after” conclusion. Stockton denies such expectations. Instead, he places the essential ingredients of the fairytale comedy inside the king’s arena, the classic domain of tragedy. Given the story’s parameters, neither of the two choices Stockton offers his readers allows the princess and her lover to become united. It is worth noting that many of Stockton’s fans, desperate for a happy ending, suggested elaborate and contrived ways that the lovers might have outmaneuvered the king, but the text supports none of these possibilities. Support your conjectures with specific passages.
- 3. Stockton does an excellent job manipulating reader response and using dramatic irony to create tension. Opinions naturally split on which of the two possible outcomes seems most likely. Students should look closely at how much text Stockton devotes to describing each outcome, particularly in the last section, where the narrator speaks directly to the audience. Based strictly on this single measure, the princess’s lover appears headed for trouble. Stock ton ratchets up the tension even further by describing the princess’s jealousy of the maiden who, she suspects, has flirted with her lover in the past. Finally, students may overlook the simple fact that the princess actually debates whether or not she should send her lover to a gruesome death—in effect, she considers a kind of premeditated murder. Thus, while the fairy-tale genre has conditioned the audience to seek a happy resolution, Stockton emphasizes details that suggest (but certainly do not guarantee) a tragic outcome. It is worthwhile to explore the dynamic schism between these expectations.
- 4. Like her father, the princess is described as barbaric, although exactly what Stockton implies by this word is unclear. Barbarism in this story relates to power, specifically the power to determine the lover’s fate. The princess uses “gold, and the power of a woman’s will” to divine what no one has been able to learn: the secret of what lies behind the doors. Connections between different kinds of power, barbarism, and “the feminine” suggest themselves throughout the story and should be explored.
- 5. Knowing the depths of the princess’s power, her lover comes to the arena fully confident that she will know the secret behind the doors. That he immediately follows her instruction to open the door on the right signifies his blind trust not only in her power but also in the purity of her love and good will toward him. Readers, however, know better. Although he correctly understands her power, he appears oblivious to the vacillations caused by her jealous heart. If Stockton intended these nameless, “everyman” characters to be interpreted symbolically, what is he implying about the underlying truth of love?
- 6. This question becomes more complex if students consider the arena and its two doors metaphorically. Stockton would not be the first author to suggest that we are but pawns in a chaotic world ruled by chance. In Stockton’s other works marriage serves as a bulwark against life’s absurdities. With a good partner, Stockton seems to say, a person can overcome and even laugh at life’s obstacles. But in “The Lady, or the Tiger?” Stockton undermines this thesis with the terrifying possibility that in fact—and unknown to us—we stand in life’s arena alone. What makes the story so compelling is that this idea ultimately remains only a possibility, not a certainty. Without a clear ending, readers must decide for themselves whether the story is a comedy or a tragedy. As Stockton rightly explained when he was asked, the way in which a reader interprets the ending may say more about that reader and how that reader views the world than anything else. Consider what their interpretation of the ending says about them.
Henry L. Golemba, Frank R. Stockton (Boston: Twayne, 1981).
Claims that Stockton deserves to be read again and includes a solid biography in the first third of the book followed by literary analysis of the novels and stories. To highlight Stockton’s other achievements, Golemba delays analyzing “The Lady, or the Tiger?” until the end. The book includes an excellent annotated bibliography of primary and secondary works.
“The Lady, or the Tiger?” in Short Stories for Students, volume 3, edited by Kathleen Wilson (Detroit: Gale, 1998), pp. 177-193.
Excellent overview of the story and its themes that includes two interpretive essays on “The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Tanya Gardiner-Scott and Sarah Madsen Hardy. The entry also includes commentary by William Dean Howells.
Jill P. May, “Frank R. Stockton,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 42: American Writers for Children Before 1900, edited by Glen Estes (Detroit: Bruccoli Clark Layman/Gale, 1985), pp. 332-338.
Good summary of Stockton’s life and works. May interprets the suspense in “The Lady, or the Tiger?” as stemming from “the idea that love can destroy as well as redeem.”
Frank R. Stockton, “How I Wrote ‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’ and What Came of the Writing of It,” Ladies’ Home Journal, 10 (November 1893): 1-2.
Discusses the many creative endings to the story people had sent the author in the decade after publication.
Jack Zipes, “Frank Stockton, American Pioneer of Fairy Tales,” When Dreams Came True: Classic Fairy Tales and Their Tradition, second edition (New York: Rutledge, 2007), pp. 187-194.
Analysis of Stockton’s important contributions to the American fairy-tale genre.