Sunday, April 25, 2010
27. The Lady or the Tiger by Frank Stockton
I picked up this paperback from 1968 in an antique store in the Eastern Townships here in Quebec. It was part of a complete set of Airmont Classics. I picked up a couple of others but most weren't interesting to me. I guess Frank Stockton and in particular the titular short story were quite popular back in the day (it was first published in 1882). Each of these stories had really intriguing premises and were written in a very pleasant way, with a kind of Americanized British syntax, which was probably a popular style around the turn of the century. The problem is that a lot of the stories don't really go anywhere. The promise of the premise is never fulfilled. They do often have a nice satisfying romantic conclusion, but I get the sense that was just to satisfy the demands of readers at the time. There is also a nice element of fantasy in some of them.
The Lady or the Tiger takes place in a kingdom with a unique legal system. When someone is accused of a heinous crime they are put into an arena to face two doors. Behind one door is a ferocious tiger that will eat them. Behind the other is a beautiful maiden who will marry the culprit. In the story, the culprit's crime is to fall in love with the king's daughter. At the time of the punishment, the king's daughter knows what is behind each door and she gives a signal to her lover. The question is, knowing that if he goes through one door he'll be killed or if he goes through the other, he'll have to marry some other maiden, which signal did she give him?
This question supposedly tantalized readers of the past. You can share their feelings by reading the actual story here.