The story concerns a barbarian king in some unnamed kingdom in the distant past. This king --- an absolute monarch --- has some pretty quaint ideas, especially about justice. Now, the king has a drop-dead gorgeous adult daughter, and like most daddies, she’s the apple of his very overprotective eye. She gets involved with a lower-class youth, and they have a secret relationship for several months, until daddy inevitably discovers it. To say daddy’s not pleased is like saying the Pacific contains some water, and this is where the youth runs afoul of the king’s justice system.
The king’s method of judging someone accused of a sufficiently noteworthy crime is simple: the person is placed in a public arena, with thousands gathered to watch; there are two sound-proofed doors on the arena’s opposite side; and the accused must open one. But wait, there’s more! Behind one door is a large, vexed, hungry tiger; behind the other is a beautiful maiden. (Sometimes the tiger’s behind door #1, sometimes #2. It varies, and is a huge secret. No one outside the games overseer knows which it’ll be.) If the accused picks the tiger’s door, it emerges and all sorts of bloody mayhem ensues. If the accused picks the maiden’s door, they’re immediately married (his prior marital status is irrelevant). So, essentially, the accused judges himself: picking the tiger means he’s guilty, picking the maiden proves his innocence.
I know, I know, he said wearily. Ridiculous, nonsensical method of administering justice. But then again… stranger, more stupid things have been dreamt up by real-world despots over humanity’s long, embarrassing history, believe me. Anyways, that’s not the point of today’s epistle.
Returning to the story… the youth is condemned to ‘stand trial’ in the arena. Pretty neat solution, as far as daddy’s concerned because, well, either way, the youth is ‘taken care of.’
Now, the story’s main wrinkle is this: daughter/girlfriend discovers which door houses which fate. (Oh, and she hates the maiden chosen, with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.) So, it kinda goes without saying she’s fairly conflicted by her choice: watch boyfriend messily torn apart by the tiger, or married off to a girl she’s having the mother of all social media feuds with?
The youth knows his girlfriend, and that she’ll have found out which door hides the tiger. On trial day, he looks at her, and she surreptitiously indicates one door. Without hesitation, he goes to that door, and opens it.
And that’s where Frank ends his story… well, no, actually, he rubs salt in the reader’s wound by asking what you think. Which came out of the door: the lady, or the tiger? (Matter of fact, for the half-dozen of you who’ve never read this story, that’s its title, and the author’s full name is Frank Stockton.)
Frank meekly says it’s not his place to dictate the ending of the story. My students always, unanimously, disagreed. Vociferously. And that’s the point of today’s epistle: asking the question, how do you like your story endings? Rare, or well done? That is, messily raw and inconclusive, or well done, trussed up in a neatly tied bow?
Nearly all people, I think, like story endings to be the latter. The reason is relatively simple: in real life, as a species, we crave certainty, crave it as a drowning person craves a lifeboat’s sweet sanctuary (except for that weird minority of people who inexplicably seem to thrive on chaos and uncertainty --- and many of them are likely Darwin Award candidates). Mostly, this is because our world is often a very dangerous and uncertain place. (To put it mildly. Oy.) Remember Tolkien’s jolly ol’ Mouth of Sauron? “Surety you crave! Sauron gives none. If you sue for his clemency, you must first do his bidding.” (My obligatory LOTR quote for the day.) Yep, Sauron and pretty much the rest o’ the world, too, folks… surety, certainty, conclusivity… whatever term you want to use, it’s in woefully short supply on this battered old rock. And so, if we can’t occasionally/frequently/ever have it in real life… why, then, the vast majority of us damned well want it in our stories, at least, thanks very much.
This is not the same thing as happy endings, although most of us prefer those, too (unless we’re heavily into dystopian science fiction), and for probably pretty much the same reason… though as Orson Welles noted, happy endings are largely dependent on where you end your story. In fact, when you get right to it, “And they all lived happily ever after” is really rather a cheat, don’t you think? Especially to feed to impressionable young children. Because… as adults (and, alas, too many children) know, life isn’t all peaches ‘n cream: Will’s ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ pretty much guarantee we don’t all live happily ever after. But it’s an understandable cheat precisely because of that: at least our stories can end conclusively and on happy notes. Yeah, we know, the evil dragon’s destroyed, but that doesn’t mean evil’s been banished forever. In fact, there’s probably a pretty nasty troll hiding under that next bridge just over yonder. But allow us to savour the triumph of the moment with a little certainty.
By the way… Frank wrote a sequel to The Lady or the Tiger. It’s called The Discourager of Hesitancy, and I used to sell it to my students by saying it answered the question posed in the first story. They clamoured to hear it, so I would read it aloud… and they discovered he answered the Lady/Tiger question… only by asking another concerning human nature, and leaving the sequel on the same maddeningly inconclusive note.