The Lady or the Tiger: Tone, Moral & Quotes

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Frank R. Stockton's short story ''The Lady, or the Tiger?'' is a classic story that explores the meaning of justice and the workings of human emotions.

Short Summary of the Plot

Have you ever had to choose between two items or paths in life without knowing anything about the options? In Stockton's modern fairy-tale ''The Lady or the Tiger,'' the lover of the princess faces this type of dilemma. After meeting in secret for some time, the love affair is discovered.

Secret Love Affair
A Secret Love

Hence the poor young man must enter the king's arena and choose one door or the other. Behind one door awaits a ferocious and hungry tiger, while behind the other is one of the most beautiful maidens of the court.

If the tiger emerges from the chosen door, the victim will be eaten on the spot for the entertainment of the masses. However, if the maiden emerges, the lucky man will be married to her right there in the arena, complete with a priest and musical accompaniment. This is the strange way in which this semi-barbaric kingdom administers justice for the most serious crimes.

Sounds simple enough - although quite cruel and unfair. But there is one twist in the plot that makes all the difference. The princess has used her wealth and influence to find out which door holds the tiger and which the maiden. Of course, it is no trouble at all to give her doomed lover a slight signal. And this she does, as he stands before the royal party ready to choose his own fate.

If you are a reader who likes a clear-cut ending to a story, you might be a bit unhappy with Frank R. Stockton's writing strategy. At the end of the tale, we assume that the young man follows his lover's advice and chooses the door on the right. However, we never find out whether the tiger devours him or he marries the beautiful girl.

A 50/50 Chance

Either way, the princess loses out!

Tone of the Story

Fairy-tales are generally meant to tell a story that makes a specific point, often called the moral. Familiar tales from times past have either a happy ending where the protagonist is rewarded for good deeds, or end in tragedy in order to punish a wrongdoer and warn the reader. But which strategy is Stockton adopting in ''The Lady or the Tiger''?

Actually, he is avoiding the traditional moral message altogether. Stockton's story is something of a parody of the traditional fairy-tale, and the rather ironic tone of the story reflects this approach.

What About the Moral?

So what is the moral of this modern-style fairy-tale? Stockton is actually raising questions more than offering advice. First, think about the way that the crime is punished in this strange kingdom. Do they ever really deliberate on the facts of the case or make considered judgments of right and wrong? Of course not. Whether or not the young man in the story did anything criminal, he will be rewarded or punished purely based on chance.

A Strange Form of Justice
The Fateful Door


The very first sentence of the text is quite telling:

''In the very olden time there lived a semi-barbaric king, whose ideas, though somewhat polished and sharpened by the progressiveness of distant Latin neighbors, were still large, florid, and untrammeled, as became the half of him which was barbaric.''

A traditional fairy-tale would never begin by calling the king in the story semi-barbaric, which implies that he is neither good nor bad, but somewhere in between. This idea sets the tone of the entire story, in which justice is impossible to determine in any reasonable way.

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