The Lady, or the Tiger? Frank R. Stockton: Summary & Analysis

'The Lady, or the Tiger?' is a renowned short story authored by Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902), captivating readers with its gripping narrative and thought-provoking theme. Originally shared as an anecdote at a party, the tale garnered significant praise from Stockton's friends, leading to its publication in The Century magazine in 1882. The story presents an ancient system of justice where a suspected criminal must face an enigmatic choice between two doors, each concealing a drastically different fate – marriage to a lady or death by a ferocious tiger.

Plot Summary

In a past era, a king deemed 'semi-barbaric' establishes an arena for administering justice. When a man is arrested on suspicion of a crime, he faces a peculiar dilemma in the amphitheater. Two doors stand before him, their contents veiled in mystery. Behind one door awaits a lady, specifically selected by the king as a suitable bride for the accused. Choosing this door would bind him in matrimony to the lady, regardless of whether he already has a wife or not.

The alternative, however, is far grimmer. Concealed behind the other door is a fierce tiger, poised to pounce and devour the criminal before an assembled audience. This peculiar method of justice places the fate of the accused squarely in his own hands, though it ultimately hinges on chance alone as to which fate befalls him.

One day, the king learns that his daughter, the princess, has fallen in love with a young courtier. Outraged by the idea of his princess being charmed by a commoner, he orders the young man's arrest. A public spectacle is announced, and the search for a suitable bride begins. Simultaneously, the hunt for the kingdom's fiercest tiger commences.

On the day of her beloved's 'sentencing,' the princess is present at the arena. As the courtier gazes into her eyes, he discerns that she has employed her influence and wealth to discover the doors' hidden secrets. Desperate for guidance, he implores her silently, 'Which?'. The princess responds with a gesture to her right, indicating one of the doors.

At this crucial juncture, the omniscient narrator interjects, informing the reader that he cannot reveal which door the princess directed her lover to choose. He divulges that she knows the identity of the lady behind one door, an attractive woman from the court who seems interested in the young man. Furthermore, the princess suspects that her lover reciprocates those feelings.

Thus, the reader is left with an unresolved question – did the princess, in her love for the courtier, guide him to safety behind the 'lady' door, giving him away to another woman? Or did her jealousy override her emotions, leading her to signal the door harboring the tiger, condemning him to a gruesome fate? The story tantalizingly leaves this choice open-ended, encouraging readers to contemplate and reach their conclusions regarding the princess's ultimate decision.


In essence, 'The Lady, or the Tiger?' takes on the qualities of a fable or fairy tale, a genre with which Frank R. Stockton was familiar, given his work in writing fairy tales for children. However, this tale distinguishes itself by leaving readers in suspense, denying them a definitive resolution. The story's conclusion remains open-ended, leaving us pondering the fate of the young man – did he marry a woman or meet a gruesome end at the tiger's claws?

By challenging conventional storytelling norms, Stockton prompts readers to contemplate the art of narrative itself. He invites us to recognize that the characters in the story are fictional creations, and their destinies are mere constructs of the author's imagination. In doing so, the tale transcends its initial role as an entertaining story and evolves into a thought-provoking work of fiction.

Stockton introduces us to the concepts of "readerly" and "writerly" texts, as proposed by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes. Typically, most stories are readerly texts, providing readers with all the necessary information to comprehend the narrative effortlessly. On the other hand, writerly texts require active engagement from the reader, demanding deeper analysis and interpretation of the events presented. This distinction usually applies to the works of modernist authors like Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, who deliberately challenge readers to actively participate in their literary works.

Intriguingly, 'The Lady, or the Tiger?' begins as a readerly text, guiding us through the narrative smoothly. However, at the critical juncture, Stockton subverts expectations, transforming the story into a writerly text. He withholds crucial information regarding the young man's fate, compelling us to delve deeper into the princess's psyche and emotional state to deduce her possible decision.

Although we remain unable to definitively answer the question posed in the story's title – 'The Lady, or the Tiger?' – this ambiguity serves as one of the tale's enduring charms, especially in educational settings where readers' interpretations diverge widely. By keeping us in suspense, Stockton creates a precursor to the twentieth-century modernist stories known for their openness and ambiguity. Inadvertently or not, he challenges the traditional notion of the all-knowing author and empowers readers to become co-authors of the story's conclusion.

In this respect, Stockton's approach aligns with Barthes' influential essay from the 1960s, 'The Death of the Author.' Barthes argued against elevating authors to godlike authorities and emphasized the significance of the reader's role in shaping the meaning and significance of a literary work.

'The Lady, or the Tiger?' remains an enduring classic precisely because of its intriguing narrative structure, evoking diverse interpretations and discussions among readers, inviting them to take an active role in the story's resolution. This timeless tale continues to captivate and challenge audiences, making it a cherished addition to literary discourse.

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