My rating: Of this collection, I give the two stories The Lady or the Tiger and The Discourager of Hesitancy both a strong 10/10. The other stories in this little collection, a reasonable 7/10, allowing for their time of writing. Definitely period pieces, with the expected style and tone. Gently pleasant literary diversions.
Frank Stockton (1834 – 1902), though best known as the writer of the title short story, initially worked as a wood engraver and an editor, before settling to his productive and successful writing career. He wrote many short stories besides The Lady, and several humorous novels, none of which are in print today.
The Lady or the Tiger is a classic short story written in the 1880s, and still anthologized today as a prime example of the unsolvable “puzzle tale”. I am sure most people have read this at some point or another, most likely in a high school English class, but in case you haven’t, here is a complete plot summary courtesy of Wikipedia. I don’t know if a spoiler alert is needed, but if you want to read this for the first time yourself, stop now, and go instead to East of the Web – The Lady or The Tiger .
The “semi-barbaric” king of an ancient land uses a unique form of trial by ordeal for those in his realm accused of crimes significant enough to interest him. The accused is placed alone in an arena before two curtain-draped doors, as hordes of the king’s subjects look on from the stands. Behind one door is a beautiful woman appropriate to the accused’s station and hand-picked by the king; behind the other is a fierce (and nearly starved) tiger. The accused then must pick one of the doors. If by luck (or, if one prefers, the will of heaven) he picks the door with the woman behind it, he is declared innocent and set free, but he is required to marry the woman on the spot, regardless of his wishes or his marital status. If he picks the door with the tiger behind it, the tiger immediately pounces upon him–his guilt thus manifest, supposedly.
When the king discovers that his daughter, the princess, has taken a lover far beneath her station, the fellow is an obvious candidate for trial in the arena. On the day of his ordeal, the lover looks from the arena to the princess, who is watching in the stands, for some indication of which door to pick. Even the king doesn’t know which door hides the maiden, but the princess has made it her business to find out, as her lover knew she would. She makes a slight but definite gesture to the right, which the young man follows immediately and without hesitation. As the door opens, the author interjects, “Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?”
The author then playfully sets out for the reader the dimensions of the princess’s dilemma, and of the reader’s dilemma in answering the question he has posed. The reader is reminded that the princess knew and “hated” the waiting maiden, one of her attendants, whom she suspected of being infatuated with the princess’s lover. The princess, the reader must remember, is “semi-barbaric,” too, or she wouldn’t have come to witness the ordeal at all; and though she has shrieked often at the thought of her lover torn to bits before her eyes, the thought of his dancing out of the arena with his blushing bride has afflicted her more often. In either case, the princess knows her lover is lost to her forever. She has agonized over her decision, but by the time she arrives at the arena, she is resolute, and she makes her gesture to the right unhesitatingly. The author denies being in a position to answer his question with authority, and the story ends with the famous line, “And so I leave it all with you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”
Great little story. And I too have no idea which one it was! Worth reading and mulling over.
Full Table of Contents:
- The Lady or the Tiger ~ outlined above.
- The Griffin and the Minor Canon ~ a fable about a fearful griffin befriending a cleric, and about how the inhabitants of the cathedral town reacted to the griffin’s presence in their midst.
- Love Before Breakfast ~ a romantic interlude, sweet as cherry pie.
- “His Wife’s Deceased Sister” ~ a writer discovers the unexpected drawbacks to writing a bestselling story. Ironic and humorous, and very likely a comment on the author’s own most successful piece and the difficulties it brought about in his working life.
- Our Story ~ another romantic interlude, with a little twist at the end.
- Mr. Tolman ~ a successful businessman goes incognito to gain himself an interesting holiday, and ends up acting as Cupid to a couple of mathematical music students.
- Our Archery Club ~ a gentle satire on proper form versus successful results, plus another romance.
- The Discourager of Hesitancy ~ a sequel of sorts to The Lady or the Tiger, which promises at first to resolve that quandary, but which actually adds another dilemma to be wrestled with.