Drabble: The Lady or the Tiger

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[Content Note: Gladiator arenas, Wild animals, Forced marriage]

I read Frank Stockton's "The Lady Or The Tiger?" in grade school and was utterly furious at the lack of a proper ending. Yes, it was supposed to "make you think" and in that regard it did so because I thought about the story off and on for years afterwards. At first, I simmered at the gimmick of the story: a moral dilemma without proper closure. Later, I found more things to dislike: its aggressive monoamory (why shouldn't the youth love two women? why is the princess' jealousy treated as a given?) and the plight of the "rival" who faces forced marriage to a man she's spoken to only briefly and may not even want.

These failings are meant to contribute to the characterization of king and princess as "barbarous", but this too feels like a cop-out by the author; cruelty without examination or resolution is titillation, not education. Titillation is not in itself a bad thing but here is a story which fancies itself a Serious Thought Experiment while failing to question its own underlying assumptions. In that respect, "The Lady Or The Tiger?" reminds me of the Heinz Dilemma, another thought experiment whose premises are too often left unexamined.

So here is my answer to the question of the Lady or the Tiger. I urge people to read the original story here, as mine will make little sense without context.

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The lady came out of the opened door.

Of course she did, and how could she not? A princess possessed of the power, influence, and force of character to breach the secret of the doors without alerting her father the king to her activities was, by definition, a princess intelligent enough to realize that death was inalterable while marriage was not. So she gestured to the right and her lover opened the door without hesitation to find a bride waiting on the other side.

The lady was as beautiful as the day, as innocent as the night, and the delight of the watching crowd. They had fretted to see the lovely young man face such a terrible judgment but now their joyful cries drowned out the band of choristers and the horns of dancing maidens who surged forward to engulf the happy couple. The priest joined them in a more sedate walk, solemnizing the wedding between the two attractive strangers as the arena crowd all but rioted in celebration, content that justice had been served. The handsome youth who dared to love a princess had been deemed innocent by fate, and all were satisfied.

Well, not all. The king sat high upon his throne of royal state, surrounded by his court, and reflected that he had not enjoyed this judgment as much as he had previous ones. Before, whenever a subject was accused of a crime of sufficient importance to interest him, he'd always been open to the idea of their innocence. This was part of what made the game fun for him; he took pleasure in selecting the fiercest tigers and finest brides to set behind the doors, certainly, but he enjoyed no less the reveal of innocence or guilt. Yet this time, when he was quite certain of the subject's guilt, fate had decreed otherwise. This galled him--not the injustice of the situation but the subversion of his royal will, which was itself a greater injustice.

Still, he sat through the festivities he had decreed and comforted himself with the fine wine he had procured for the occasion. He listened to the peal of the gay brass bells announcing the marriage and he smiled at the shouts of his people and he watched as the troublesome youth led his bride to his home over the carpet of soft petals strewn for them by small children who would be fed afterwards for their trouble. His semi-barbaric heart comforted him that he was a fine ruler, his people were content, and the youth was no longer a thorn in his side. Should he wake in the morning and still harbor animosity towards the boy, he could always find pretext for another trial. Innocence today did not augur innocence tomorrow or the next day after.

Such were the thoughts lulling him to sleep the night of that last judgment. Whether he would have carried through on such threats is not for me to presume to answer, for his life ended that night as he slept. His daughter the princess, she possessed of a soul as fervent and imperious as his, cut his barbaric throat with a tiger's talon which she had procured during her quest to breach the secret of the doors. She had wrested the claw from the savage beast intended for her beloved, through ferocities which bespoke her own semi-barbaric nature, and now inflicted a matching blow to her father which he had inflicted upon her heart.

Swift were her movements then through the castle, gathering his court to her. This courtier had lost his eldest son to a tiger, and was her fast and immediate friend; that courtier had been forced to set aside the wife he loved when he was judged 'innocent' of a crime he had not committed, and was overjoyed to kiss her hand in fealty. Few among the court were untouched by the late king's cruelty, and those who might have fancied themselves loyal to him regardless now reflected on what the princess had known all along: death was inalterable, and resistance would not bring the barbaric king back.

Driven by her own white-hot ardor, she flew with courtiers and guard to the home of her beloved, arriving just as the moon reached the zenith of her nightly trek across the sky. Stepping over the threshold of the house as mistress of all she surveyed, her barbarian heart was overjoyed to hear voices not in the throes of passion but in quiet conversation. She flung open the bedroom door and the couple who leaped to their feet and bowed in confusion at her entrance were clothed as they had been at high noon: he, the beautiful condemned, and she the blushing bride.

Explanations came after the fierce embrace she demanded as her right, but they came in due time. The lady--for all that she found the youth to be admirable, kind, and pleasing to the eye--was not interested in marrying anyone, let alone the princess' lover. A priest was sent for to annul the wedding and the princess, now queen, raised the lady before the court as her dearest adopted sister and maiden companion. Any hatred she had once held for the lady turned to fondest love at being granted her heart's desire without complaint or resistance, and many a courtier would soon learn that the surest way to bring his suit to the queen's ears was through the favor of her trusted maiden companion.

So the semi-barbaric queen reigned with her fine consort, her beloved friend, and her court who found life much improved without the constant threat of mauling and marital upheaval hanging over them. The tigers were no longer forced to feed on criminals and found their diet much improved in the queen's newly commissioned zoo. Her countrymen applauded the new entertainment to be had at the zoo, for while it was less bloody of a spectacle, the food was as fine as before and the children were less wont to cry afterwards.

And so I leave it with all of you: Who had the happier ever after - the lady, or the tiger?

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