9th Grade Short Stories: The Lady or the Tiger by Frank Stockton

Word Count 2734

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.

He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his
varied fancies into facts. He was greatly given to self-communing, and, when he and himself
agreed upon anything, the thing was done. When every member of his domestic and
political systems moved smoothly in its appointed course, his nature was bland and genial;
but, whenever there was a little hitch, and some of his orbs got out of their orbits, he was
blander and more genial still, for nothing pleased him so much as to make the crooked
straight and crush down uneven places.
Among the borrowed notions by which his barbarism had become semified was that of
the public arena, in which, by exhibitions of manly and beastly valor, the minds of his
subjects were refined and cultured.
But even here the exuberant and barbaric fancy asserted itself. The arena of the king
was built, not to give the people an opportunity of hearing the rhapsodies of dying
gladiators, nor to enable them to view the inevitable conclusion of a conflict between
religious opinions and hungry jaws, but for purposes far better adapted to widen and
develop the mental energies of the people. This vast amphitheater, with its encircling
galleries, its mysterious vaults, and its unseen passages, was an agent of poetic justice, in
which crime was punished, or virtue rewarded, by the decrees of an impartial and
incorruptible chance.
When a subject was accused of a crime of sufficient importance to interest the king,
public notice was given that on an appointed day the fate of the accused person would be
decided in the king’s arena, a structure which well deserved its name, for, although its form
and plan were borrowed from afar, its purpose emanated solely from the brain of this man,
who, every barleycorn a king, knew no tradition to which he owed more allegiance than
pleased his fancy, and who ingrafted on every adopted form of human thought and action
the rich growth of his barbaric idealism.
When all the people had assembled in the galleries, and the king, surrounded by his
court, sat high up on his throne of royal state on one side of the arena, he gave a signal, a
door beneath him opened, and the accused subject stepped out into the amphitheater.
Directly opposite him, on the other side of the enclosed space, were two doors, exactly alike
and side by side. It was the duty and the privilege of the person on trial to walk directly to
these doors and open one of them. He could open either door he pleased; he was subject to
no guidance or influence but that of the aforementioned impartial and incorruptible chance.
If he opened the one, there came out of it a hungry tiger, the fiercest and most cruel that
could be procured, which immediately sprang upon him and tore him to pieces as a
punishment for his guilt. The moment that the case of the criminal was thus decided, doleful
iron bells were clanged, great wails went up from the hired mourners posted on the outer
rim of the arena, and the vast audience, with bowed heads and downcast hearts, wended
slowly their homeward way, mourning greatly that one so young and fair, or so old and
respected, should have merited so dire a fate.
But, if the accused person opened the other door, there came forth from it a lady, the
most suitable to his years and station that his majesty could select among his fair subjects,
and to this lady he was immediately married, as a reward of his innocence. It mattered not
that he might already possess a wife and family, or that his affections might be engaged
upon an object of his own selection; the king allowed no such subordinate arrangements to
interfere with his great scheme of retribution and reward. The exercises, as in the other
instance, took place immediately, and in the arena. Another door opened beneath the king,
and a priest, followed by a band of choristers, and dancing maidens blowing joyous airs on
The Lady or the Tiger! Frank Stockton
1golden horns and treading an epithalamic measure, advanced to where the pair stood, side
by side, and the wedding was promptly and cheerily solemnized. Then the gay brass bells
rang forth their merry peals, the people shouted glad hurrahs, and the innocent man,
preceded by children strewing flowers on his path, led his bride to his home.
This was the king’s semi-barbaric method of administering justice. Its perfect fairness is
obvious. The criminal could not know out of which door would come the lady; he opened
either he pleased, without having the slightest idea whether, in the next instant, he was to
be devoured or married. On some occasions the tiger came out of one door, and on some
out of the other. The decisions of this tribunal were not only fair, they were positively
determinate: the accused person was instantly punished if he found himself guilty, and, if
innocent, he was rewarded on the spot, whether he liked it or not. There was no escape
from the judgments of the king’s arena.
The institution was a very popular one. When the people gathered together on one of
the great trial days, they never knew whether they were to witness a bloody slaughter or a
hilarious wedding. This element of uncertainty lent an interest to the occasion which it could
not otherwise have attained. Thus, the masses were entertained and pleased, and the
thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan, for did
not the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?
This semi-barbaric king had a daughter as blooming as his most florid fancies, and with
a soul as fervent and imperious as his own. As is usual in such cases, she was the apple of
his eye, and was loved by him above all humanity. Among his courtiers was a young man of
that fineness of blood and lowness of station common to the conventional heroes of
romance who love royal maidens. This royal maiden was well satisfied with her lover, for he
was handsome and brave to a degree unsurpassed in all this kingdom, and she loved him
with an ardor that had enough of barbarism in it to make it exceedingly warm and strong.
This love affair moved on happily for many months, until one day the king happened to
discover its existence. He did not hesitate nor waver in regard to his duty in the premises.
The youth was immediately cast into prison, and a day was appointed for his trial in the
king’s arena. This, of course, was an especially important occasion, and his majesty, as well
as all the people, was greatly interested in the workings and development of this trial. Never
before had such a case occurred; never before had a subject dared to love the daughter of
the king. In after years such things became commonplace enough, but then they were in no
slight degree novel and startling.
The tiger-cages of the kingdom were searched for the most savage and relentless
beasts, from which the fiercest monster might be selected for the arena; and the ranks of
maiden youth and beauty throughout the land were carefully surveyed by competent judges
in order that the young man might have a fitting bride in case fate did not determine for
him a different destiny. Of course, everybody knew that the deed with which the accused
was charged had been done. He had loved the princess, and neither he, she, nor any one
else, thought of denying the fact; but the king would not think of allowing any fact of this
kind to interfere with the workings of the tribunal, in which he took such great delight and
satisfaction. No matter how the affair turned out, the youth would be disposed of, and the
king would take an aesthetic pleasure in watching the course of events, which would
determine whether or not the young man had done wrong in allowing himself to love the
The appointed day arrived. From far and near the people gathered, and thronged the
great galleries of the arena, and crowds, unable to gain admittance, massed themselves
against its outside walls. The king and his court were in their places, opposite the twin
doors, those fateful portals, so terrible in their similarity.
The Lady or the Tiger! Frank Stockton
2 All was ready. The signal was given. A door beneath the royal party opened, and the
lover of the princess walked into the arena. Tall, beautiful, fair, his appearance was greeted
with a low hum of admiration and anxiety. Half the audience had not known so grand a
youth had lived among them. No wonder the princess loved him! What a terrible thing for
him to be there!
As the youth advanced into the arena he turned, as the custom was, to bow to the king,
but he did not think at all of that royal personage. His eyes were fixed upon the princess,
who sat to the right of her father. Had it not been for the moiety of barbarism in her nature
it is probable that lady would not have been there, but her intense and fervid soul would not
allow her to be absent on an occasion in which she was so terribly interested. From the
moment that the decree had gone forth that her lover should decide his fate in the king’s
arena, she had thought of nothing, night or day, but this great event and the various
subjects connected with it. Possessed of more power, influence, and force of character than
any one who had ever before been interested in such a case, she had done what no other
person had done – she had possessed herself of the secret of the doors. She knew in which
of the two rooms, that lay behind those doors, stood the cage of the tiger, with its open
front, and in which waited the lady. Through these thick doors, heavily curtained with skins
on the inside, it was impossible that any noise or suggestion should come from within to the
person who should approach to raise the latch of one of them. But gold, and the power of a
woman’s will, had brought the secret to the princess.
And not only did she know in which room stood the lady ready to emerge, all blushing
and radiant, should her door be opened, but she knew who the lady was. It was one of the
fairest and loveliest of the damsels of the court who had been selected as the reward of the
accused youth, should he be proved innocent of the crime of aspiring to one so far above
him; and the princess hated her. Often had she seen, or imagined that she had seen, this
fair creature throwing glances of admiration upon the person of her lover, and sometimes
she thought these glances were perceived, and even returned. Now and then she had seen
them talking together; it was but for a moment or two, but much can be said in a brief
space; it may have been on most unimportant topics, but how could she know that? The girl
was lovely, but she had dared to raise her eyes to the loved one of the princess; and, with
all the intensity of the savage blood transmitted to her through long lines of wholly barbaric
ancestors, she hated the woman who blushed and trembled behind that silent door.
When her lover turned and looked at her, and his eye met hers as she sat there, paler
and whiter than any one in the vast ocean of anxious faces about her, he saw, by that power
of quick perception which is given to those whose souls are one, that she knew behind
which door crouched the tiger, and behind which stood the lady. He had expected her to
know it. He understood her nature, and his soul was assured that she would never rest until
she had made plain to herself this thing, hidden to all other lookers-on, even to the king.
The only hope for the youth in which there was any element of certainty was based upon
the success of the princess in discovering this mystery; and the moment he looked upon
her, he saw she had succeeded, as in his soul he knew she would succeed.
Then it was that his quick and anxious glance asked the question: “Which?” It was as
plain to her as if he shouted it from where he stood. There was not an instant to be lost.
The question was asked in a flash; it must be answered in another.
Her right arm lay on the cushioned parapet before her. She raised her hand, and made a
slight, quick movement toward the right. No one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his
was fixed on the man in the arena.
The Lady or the Tiger! Frank Stockton
3 He turned, and with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every
heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovably upon that
man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.
Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady ?
The more we reflect upon this question, the harder it is to answer. It involves a study of
the human heart which leads us through devious mazes of passion, out of which it is difficult
to find our way. Think of it, fair reader, not as if the decision of the question depended upon
yourself, but upon that hot-blooded, semi-barbaric princess, her soul at a white heat
beneath the combined fires of despair and jealousy. She had lost him, but who should have
How often, in her waking hours and in her dreams, had she started in wild horror, and
covered her face with her hands as she thought of her lover opening the door on the other
side of which waited the cruel fangs of the tiger!
But how much oftener had she seen him at the other door! How in her grievous reveries
had she gnashed her teeth, and torn her hair, when she saw his start of rapturous delight as
he opened the door of the lady! How her soul had burned in agony when she had seen him
rush to meet that woman, with her flushing cheek and sparkling eye of triumph; when she
had seen him lead her forth, his whole frame kindled with the joy of recovered life; when
she had heard the glad shouts from the multitude, and the wild ringing of the happy bells;
when she had seen the priest, with his joyous followers, advance to the couple, and make
them man and wife before her very eyes; and when she had seen them walk away together
upon their path of flowers, followed by the tremendous shouts of the hilarious multitude, in
which her one despairing shriek was lost and drowned!
Would it not be better for him to die at once, and go to wait for her in the blessed
regions of semi-barbaric futurity?
And yet, that awful tiger, those shrieks, that blood!
Her decision had been indicated in an instant, but it had been made after days and
nights of anguished deliberation. She had known she would be asked, she had decided what
she would answer, and, without the slightest hesitation, she had moved her hand to the
The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to
presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of
you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?