Did you read Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?” when you were in school? The short story was in our Eighth Grade anthology for Mrs. Steinley’s English class. “Now the point of the story is this,” Stockton wrote at mid-point. “Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?”
Let’s back up. A “semi-barbaric” king discovers his daughter has a lover, a man below her station. As punishment, the king orders a public trial by ordeal. In an arena, the man must choose between two doors. If he’s lucky, he’ll choose the door behind which is a lady, in this case one of the princess’ attendants, who the man must marry on the spot. Behind the other door is a starving tiger and sure death. No one knows which door hides his fate, except the princess who made it her business to find out. Her lover knows this and in the arena looks to the princess for guidance. She gestures, and the man follows her advice without hesitation. “Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?”
Stockton continued the story with further plot complications. The “semi-barbaric” princess hates the lady, who she suspects is in love with the man. Although the thought of her lover’s death haunts her, seeing her lover happily married to the hated waiting lady seems to pain the princess more. But either way she loses. By the time of the trial, she has made her decision and gestures to her lover without hesitation. What follows is the last line of the story: “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”
Mrs. Steinley asked our class the same question. Everyone yelled, “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger!” except me. Why did I raise my hand and vote for the lady? That short story, Eighth Grade English class, and day in my life helped clarify the person I wanted to be.
I was contrary. If everyone agreed on the tiger, there was nothing to discuss. A lively debate struck me as more fun.
My classmates – Cliff, Ricky, Suzie, Joyce, etc – made much of the princess being “semi-barbaric,” as did the author. But, I wondered, weren’t we “civilized” folks only one step away from barbarism? Weren’t all humans “semi-barbaric?” As I studied history and watched the news in the mid-60s, that point seemed pertinent – and it still does today.
In Eighth Grade, my thinking wasn’t quite that sophisticated. My classmates rightly accused me of being naïve, a Pollyanna. And yet, I remember the feelings behind my convictions. I stood up for hope, for the potential we “semi-barbaric” people have for kindness and courage when we find ourselves in an arena having to choose between bad and worse for ourselves, or good and bad for others. I wanted to think the princess and I could chose what seemed more painful to us in order to do good for others.
In small ways and large, I think people make this kind of decision every day: “Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”