A Summary and Analysis of Frank R. Stockton’s ‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’ is a widely studied short story by the American writer Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902). This classic short story, which was first published in The Century magazine in 1882, began life as a story Stockton told at a party; he published it when it received a strong response from his friends.

In ‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’, we are presented with an ancient system of justice whereby a suspected criminal has to choose one of two doors. Behind one is a lady, whom he will marry; behind the other is a tiger, which will devour him. You can read the story here before reading our summary and analysis of Stockton’s tale below (the story takes around 10 minutes to read).

‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’: plot summary

Some time in the past, a ‘semi-barbaric’ king has an arena built, in which justice is administered. Any man arrested on suspicion of committing a crime has to choose one of two doors in the amphitheatre, without knowing what is concealed behind the two doors. All he knows is that behind one door is a lady, and behind the other door, a tiger.

Behind one door is a lady, who has been handpicked from the population as a suitable bride for the man. If he chooses this door, he will be married to the lady immediately in a wedding ceremony performed in front of the crowd. Even if he already has a wife, he must marry this new bride and be with her.

The alternative is far worse. For behind the other door is a tiger, which – if he chooses this door – will leap upon him and devour him in front of the audience. This is the king’s way of serving justice in his realm: effectively, he places responsibility for their fate into the criminal’s own hands, although of course it is purely a matter of chance as to which ‘prize’ they get.

One day, the king learns that his daughter, the princess, has fallen in love with a young courtier. He is horrified that a princess could have been led astray by a commoner like this, and he has the young man arrested. It is announced that he will face his justice before the whole kingdom, in the arena, and men are immediately dispatched to find a suitable potential bride for him. Meanwhile, the fiercest tiger in the whole land is sought out.

The princess, who loves the young man, is at the arena on the day of her lover’s ‘sentencing’. When the young man sees the princess, he can tell that she has done as he expected her to do: that she has used money and her powerful status at court to discover which door hides the lady and which the tiger. When he makes eye contact with her, he asks her, ‘Which?’, and she gestures to her right.

So she has signalled which door he should choose. But at this point, the third-person narrator of the story tells us that he cannot tell us whether the princess directed her lover to choose the ‘lady’ door or the ‘tiger’ door. He tells us, though, that she knows the identity of the lady concealed behind one of the doors, and it’s a beautiful lady at court who is clearly attracted to the young man; what’s more, the princess has suspected for a while that her lover likes this lady, too.

So, did she help him to escape the fate of the tiger’s jaws, and effectively give the man she loves to another woman, with whom he will probably be perfectly happy? Or did her jealousy get the better of her, and she gestured to the door behind which the tiger waits to devour him? The narrator leaves this question unanswered, instead encouraging us to think for ourselves about which decision the princess would have made.

‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’: analysis

In many ways, ‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’ resembles a fable or fairy tale, and indeed the story’s author, Frank R. Stockton, wrote a number of fairy tales for children. But this is a fairy tale with a difference, since Stockton concludes the story without providing us with the final denouement. We are left wondering what the fate of the young man was: did he marry a beautiful woman (albeit not the princess), or was he eaten alive by a tiger?

But in subverting the reader’s expectations on the final page, Stockton is doing more than providing a nice talking-point for dinner-party conversations (to hark back to the supposed origins of the story). Instead, he is tacitly inviting us to pause and consider narrative conventions by taking a step back from the story itself and acknowledging that it is just that: story, narrative, fiction.

The princess, king, and youth who appear in the story never existed, and are merely products of an author’s imagination. So, too, then, are their fates, including the unspecified fate of the youth who loved the princess. Most stories are what the French literary theorist Roland Barthes calls readerly texts: they provide the reader with everything he or she needs to understand the story, and the reader can passively sit back and simply enjoy being entertained.

By contrast, writerly texts – to use Barthes’ term – are those fictions which engage the reader more actively in the events of the story or novel. In a writerly text, the reader will have to work harder to make sense of the narrative. For the most part, critics apply Barthes’ term ‘writerly’ to the works of those authors who deliberately make us work hard from page one: Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and other modernists.

What is curious about ‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’ is that it begins, in Barthesian terms, as a readerly text, but then at the last moment Stockton subverts our readerly expectations and the story becomes a writerly text, throwing the onus on us to determine what we think happened to the young man.

If Stockton had simply told us that what door the man had opened, we would have been told what the princes had decided to do. But by withholding this crucial piece of narrative information from us, Stockton makes us examine the princess’s mental and emotional state more closely, based on the information we have been given, in order to deduce what she would be most likely to have done.

Of course, we still cannot answer the question posed in the story’s title, ‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’, for certain (and note how even the question mark in the story primes us for a more active role than we might otherwise be used to when reading, or even analysing, a short story). This is what makes the story such a perennial favourite in classrooms: readers are unlikely to reach a consensus on what the princess decided to do.

But in withholding this information, Stockton created, in ‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’, a forerunner to many twentieth-century modernist stories which would be similarly open-ended and ambiguous. Perhaps even without fully realising it himself, Stockton toppled the author from his godlike pedestal and made us, the readers of his story, the final ‘authors’ of the story’s conclusion.


In this, too, he anticipates Barthes, whose 1960s essay ‘The Death of the Author’ would argue that the godlike authority of the author must be resisted in favour of ‘the birth of the reader’.

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