Monday, May 11, 2009

Reader's Diary #488- Frank Stockton: The Lady or The Tiger?

In case you haven't heard about my Sporcle love, I'm as addicted as ever. Last week they had a short story authors game in which we were given the title and had to give the title. I got 14 out of 15, blanking on a few that I really should have gotten. There were also a couple that, while I was familiar with the author, hadn't heard of the story. But one really jumped out at me; I hadn't heard of the short story or the author. Yet, according to Wikipedia, "The Lady or The Tiger" has become a "staple in English classes in American schools."

After reading it, I can certainly see its value in school. However, most of the discussion that would surely follow this story seem better suited for an ethics or law class than an English class.

Before going on, I should note that it would be impossible or pointless to review this story without talking about the ending, so if you don't want a spoiler, proceed no further, read the story and come back.

The title, complete with question mark, is also part of the final sentence: "Which came out of the open door-- the lady, or the tiger?" Answering this question has surely been the dominant focus in all those classes.

At first I was a little put off by the question. I didn't need a conclusion, necessarily, but wasn't this all a rather roundabout way of simply asking the reader, "Are you a cynic or not?"

But upon reflection, I think there was more to it.

Leading up this question is the story of a king who holds trials in which the accused would decide his own fate by opening one of two doors, one of which held a ferocious tiger and the other, a beautiful lady with whom he'd be married to on the spot, like it or not. In the king's mind this represented a simple verdict of guilty (followed by punishment), and not-guilty (followed by reward).

It gets a lot more complicated when the accused is a man who had a secret affair with the king's daughter. Before the trial, the princess finds out which door held the lion and which held the lady. As the accused looks to her for guidance, his fate is in her hands.

At this point she recalls moments when the accused had been seen talking with the lady. Had the princess noticed something between them? Would he be happy with this other lady? Could she bear it? Would it be better to have him mauled to death by a tiger?

Essentially I think Stockton really poses three questions at the end:

1. What door did the king's daughter pick?

At first this seems rather obvious. The fact that the king's daughter would even question the right choice shows what a selfish woman she is. I'm sure most people would answer that she sent him to the tigers.

2. What would you do?

We always assume that we'd take the moral high ground, don't we? Sure, we've all felt jealousy at some point, but we're not murderers after all.

3. Really, what would you do?

With nameless royalty, and a clearly moral tone, Stockton's story is a parable disguised as a fairy tale. Because we assume and adopt the frivolous air of the story, most of us decide the princess is a murderer without much hesitation.

But let's reconsider. We haven't really been shown the king's daughter in any other context. This may have been the first time she'd ever shown a trace of jealous tendencies. Let's face it, her lover is on trial for betraying her deranged father and there's a savage tiger hiding behind a closed door. These are not normal circumstances. How could she think clearly? Yes, it may seem shocking to us that she'd hesitate for even a second. But she's stressed, she can't think straight...

Under extraordinary pressure, isn't it fathomable that you, too, might momentarily falter in your good judgement? And if not, isn't it also plausible that the princess also came to her senses?

Oh, why didn't we read this story when I was going to school? This could have been so much fun to do in class.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave your link below.)


barefootheart said...

I remember reading this story in High School although the details are lost to me now. Probably my 12 or 14 year old self saw it in a different light than I would now. I should check it out for a re-read.

JoAnn said...

This story sounds so familiar! I probably did read it in high school, but I think I'll take another look at it.

Carrie K said...

I read it in school but I evidently retained nothing of the story, only the choice. I'll have to reread it.

raidergirl3 said...

I suppose you are still blaming me for the sporcle addiction?


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I do recall reading that story somewhere in my youth. I say, Tiger Him!

John Mutford said...

Barefootheart: Too bad you couldn't dig up an old journal entry about it to compare, eh?

JoAnn: I think mine was quite possibly the only school not to have read it-- or I was playing hooky that day. I vaguely recall the principal me threatening me with two mysterious doors when I came back.

Carrie: Then come back and tell me what you think.

Raidergirl: It won't be so funny when you catch me on "Intervention" next week.

Barbara: Meow!

Teddy Rose said...

Great review John! I really like how you formed it. I just printed off the story to read.