The Lady Or The Tiger?

TigerI was going to save this post for my editing blog this Saturday, but honestly this is what I’m thinking about, so this is what I’m writing.

Last week at Rewrite, Reword, Rework I wrote an article about story structure entitled “A Story’s Bare Bones.” I needed to do some tweaking to it and in the process came to this line:

Most stories resolve in a more hopeful or positive way, but certainly not all. But “resolve” they must.

My mind immediately went to a short story I read when I was in school and which I later taught: “The Lady or the Tiger?” by Frank Stockton. It’s a story that does not resolve. The ending is wide open and the author actually turns the question back onto the readers: “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”

When I read it as a kid, I hated the story for the very reason that it did not resolve. What was the point of reading it, I thought, if you don’t get to find out what happens.

But as a teacher, I sussed out the only possible ending. Sure, the author undoubtedly believed he was creating an unanswerable, unresolvable dilemma. But I don’t think so.

Here’s the story in a nutshell (it’s online in its entirety, so you can read the whole thing for yourself if you prefer).

A certain princess fell in love with a young man of “low station,” and “she loved him with an ardor that … [made] it exceedingly warm and strong.” After several months her father the king, a semi-barbaric ruler, discovered the affair and had the young man cast into prison.

This particular king had devised a system of justice that left the sentence of guilt or innocence to chance. He built an arena much like the Coliseum in Rome, but his had a quirk.

When all the people had assembled in the galleries, and the king, surrounded by his court, sat high up on his throne of royal state on one side of the arena, he gave a signal, a door beneath him opened, and the accused subject stepped out into the amphitheater. Directly opposite him, on the other side of the enclosed space, were two doors, exactly alike and side by side.

Behind one door was a tiger that would immediately pounce, kill, and devour the subject. If the accused opened this door he would be considered guilty of his crime.

ladyBehind the other door was a beautiful woman most suited to his age and station in life–no matter whether he was already married or enamored with someone else or not. Should he choose this door, he would be declared innocent.

The princess’s young man was doomed to the arena where he would either die or instantly be given in marriage to someone else.

She was a determined young woman, with “a soul as fervent and imperious” as her father’s. Hence, she went about learning behind which door stood the tiger and which, the lady.

Not only did she succeed, she also learned the identity of the young woman. “It was one of the fairest and loveliest of the damsels of the court . . . and the princess hated her.” She was actually jealous of her because she’d seen this lady talk with her young man and sneak a peek at him now and then. She’d even suspected he’d met her gaze.

So, the day of trial-by-chance arrived. The princess’s young man knew her well. He was certain she would not stop until she had learned the secret: behind which door stood the tiger and which, the lady?

When he entered the arena, he looked up at her and she, having weighed the consequences of her decision over many anguished days and nights, indicated the door on the right. Without hesitation, he marched up to the door.

And then, Mr. Stockton’s ending:

The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?

Seems unsolvable, doesn’t it. But the answer actually lies in the story. She loved him. He trusted her.

Which would you point to if you were the princess and the person you loved were on the arena floor?

Published in: on July 17, 2013 at 6:34 pm  Comments (4)  
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  1. I’d point to the right one, get up in tears, and run downstairs to wrestle the other woman out of the way!


  2. […] I was editing yesterday’s post about “The Lady or the Tiger?” I realized the story posed an ethical question. It’s a test of values really, challenging us […]


  3. Yeah, it’s like Solomon’s, “Cut the baby in half.” “Perfect love casts out fear.”


    • GREAT analogy, Kathy. Yes, the mother who loved her child was willing to sacrifice and take the pain herself.



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