The Lady or the Tiger Has Been Solved

I was reading Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, as one does, and the preamble to one of the stories extensively discussed Frank Stockton's “The Lady or the Tiger”. I had only a passing familiarity with the story – I remembered it ended on a cliffhanger, and it was up to the reader to decide which ending was more likely. According to the preamble, the author had written a sequel, but it was similarly unsatisfying, which had led another author to, many decades later, write a sequel for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine entitled "The Lady and the Tiger", which wrapped up the story in a satisfying fashion. Sadly I was unable to track that story down, but I was able to find the sequel to The Lady or the Tiger, published one year later, a short story called “The Discourager of Hesitancy”. Reading it, I discovered something interesting – not only was it not as unsatisfying as had been reported, but it seemed to provide the ending for “The Lady or the Tiger” that the original story lacked. I believe that Frank Stockton offered a solution to the readers who were desperate for any resolution, and he did it in a manner so brilliantly obscure that I could find no evidence that anyone has come across it.

I'll start with a recap of “The Lady or the Tiger”. It's the Middle East, during the Middle Ages. A king lives by a simple rule – agree with him in all things. If someone commits an interesting enough crime, or even does something which displeases him, the king has announced that fate will decide their punishment. He accomplishes this by placing them in an arena with a door at either end. Behind one is a woman who the king has decided will be a perfect match for the man; behind the other is a hungry tiger. The man on trial (side note - this punishment is only for men – given the setting and era, women were likely considered property and legally incapable of committing 'crimes') must choose a door, and either be immediately killed by a tiger or married to a woman.

The story revolves around a specific instance of this trial. The King's only daughter has been involved in a love affair with a minor noble – one too far below her station for it to be an appropriate match. This is a grievous crime, so the man is placed on trial. The princess doesn't want her lover to be eaten by a tiger, but she also doesn't want to see him with someone else – especially once she discovers that the woman he's been matched to is a courtly lady who already had her eyes set on the minor noble. The princess discovers which door will have the tiger, and which will have the woman, and when the trial commences, the minor noble looks to her, and she directs him towards one of the doors. But which one did she send him to?

There's no real evidence in the story to suggest which door the princess indicated – the story equally gives weight to her driving instincts, love and jealousy, meaning that the reader must bring their own beliefs and values to the story – transforming it into a kind of personality test. Because the princess is perched on the fence, ready to tip one way or the other, the reader provides the push in whatever direction their own instincts prefer. Most readers come away from the story with a good idea of what happens next, but it says more about their own character than it does the text.

The only way to figure out what the princess chose would be to know something about her character, but the text gives us nothing. However, that doesn't leave us at a dead end – if we can figure out what the king's character is, then perhaps we can figure out whether his daughter would bend more towards kindness or cruelty, selfishness or selflessness, because that's what's going to push her in one direction or the other.

Which brings us to the king. Is he a fundamentally cruel man who enjoys watching people suffer as their fate is decided by little more than the flip of a coin, or a kind one who honestly believes that surrendering to fate is what's best for everyone? I'm not saying that he isn't mad – it's obviously a crazy sort of trial to have constructed, but the thing we need to determine is what motivates him – does he take pleasure in cruelty, or does he consider himself an instrument of fate?

The story is decidedly coy about this, unwilling to give up even the slightest clue. The closest thing we get to a hint is the fact that the King specifically selected a woman who was already in love with the minor noble to be his sentence, but even that could be an attempt to be cruel to his daughter, forcing her to watch someone else be happy with her lover. It's noted in the text that when a man is put on trial his old life essentially ends. Even if he isn't killed by the tiger, if he was already married that wedding is set aside so that he can wed the woman the king has chosen. So even in the 'happy' option there's a chance that the king reveling in a kind of cruelty.

The king's character is the key element here – if we can figure out what the king wants, we can figure out who he is as a person, what kind of culture he creates around himself, and yes, whether his daughter is fundamentally a kind or cruel person.

Luckily, the story's sequel is almost entirely about the King's character, and is designed specifically to let the audience know how the first story turned out. Not that it seems that way on first glance. No, initially, the story seems to be a middle finger raised at all of the people who bothered Frank Stockton for a year, demanding to know what the ending to the Lady or the Tiger was. In the story's most brilliant and devious accomplishment it slaps the audience in the face for even asking for the solution, while giving them all the clues they need to figure it out, provided they can look past their initial frustration.

So, let's take a look at “The Discourager of Hesitancy”.

The story picks up a few months after “The Lady or the Tiger”. A group of ambassadors from a nearby country come to visit the Kingdom, and during their meeting with an Officer of the government, they mention that a countryman of theirs was in the arena's audience for the Minor Noble's trial, but was so overwhelmed by tension that he fled before discovering which door the man picked. Now the people of the neighbouring country want to know what happened to the man.

The Officer offers them a deal – he'll tell them the true story of another one of the king's trials, and if they can tell him how it ended, he'll tell them which door was picked. They agree, and the story begins.

In addition to his notably crazy ideas about justice, the King is famous through the region for the retinue of beautiful noblewomen who serve as ladies in waiting in his palace. The most attractive and well-mannered women are selected from all over the Kingdom and brought to the palace to provide company for the king and his daughter. A prince from a neighbouring kingdom figures that this would be the perfect place to find a wife, so he petitions the king to allow him to marry one of the women.

The king is vexed – either because he's not sure how fate wants this to turn out, or because he doesn't want to lose one of his prized attendants – so he crafts a new kind of trial. The Prince is dressed in wedding clothes, blindfolded, brought to a hall, and married to one of the women. His blindfolds are removed, and he finds that all forty women are lined up in the room. The king gives him an ultimatum – pick out his wife, and they go in peace, happily ever after. Choose the wrong woman, and he'll immediately be executed.

The Prince looks all of the women over, but has no clue which is his wife. So he looks them over again, but this time notices that one of them slightly smiles at him, and one of them slightly frowns. As the only two to make a reaction, one of them must be his wife – but which one? Running out of time, the prince chooses one, and the king congratulates him – he's chosen his wife, and everyone lives happily ever after!

With the story done, the Officer tells the ambassadors that if they can tell him which woman the Prince chose, the smiling one or the frowning one, he'll tell them how “The Lady or the Tiger” ended. As the story ends, the five ambassadors are unable to come to a decision.


This ending at first seems designed to frustrate audiences. The characters who represent the readers who demanded an answer from Stockton find themselves posed with another unanswerable riddle instead of being satisfied.

I don't believe frustrating his audience was Stockton's goal, however, because if it was, he wouldn't have told us that the Prince was successful, and that the story had a happy ending. If he wanted to frustrate us, he would have left us hanging. The first story ends asking the reader what they think happened, while this one ends with the challenge to the ambassadors to solve the puzzle. That change places the stories in completely different context, because one is a suggestion to reflect, and the other is a call to action.

I think that the Officer, who represents the author, is telling the truth – if the Reader, who are represented by the ambassadors, can figure out how this story ends, they'll also know how “The Lady or the Tiger” ended. And because there's no answer written at the back of the book like in Encyclopedia Brown, the only way the solution to the first story could be contained in the second is if the solution to the second story told us something that changed the way we read the first one. Specifically, if it answered our questions about the king's character: What does he want, and what motivates him? A love of suffering or an adherence to fate? Fundamentally, is he cruel or is he kind?

“The Discourager of Hesitancy” answers that question definitively, and the author wanted to make so sure that people were able to figure it out that he put the clue right in the title. The Discourager of Hesitancy is an incredibly awkward title, one that's both hard to remember and tells you nothing about the story. Heck, 'Discourager' is barely even a real word. “The Lady or the Tiger” is elegant and simple – not only are you immediately intrigued, but because it also serves as a synopsis of the plot, just hearing the title will bring the whole story rushing back into your mind. “The Discourager of Hesitancy” is a terrible title by comparison, referring to a tertiary character who, at first glance, is completely unimportant to the plot - so unimportant that I left him out of the above synopsis and it didn't seem like anything was missing. The author obviously had a sense for what made a good title, so why isn't this called 'the riddle of the 40 brides' or something along those lines? Feel free to check over this bibliography of his works - 'The Discourager of Hesitancy' is one of the strangest titles that he ever employed.

So why call the story that?

The answer is that the Discourager of Hesitancy is secretly the most important character in the story, because his very existence gives the reader the insight they need into the king's character to solve both stories. His presence in the story provides the concrete proof readers require.

So, who is the Discourager of Hesitancy? He's a palace guardsman who wields a scimitar. The story explains that above everything else the king values people agreeing with him, and it's the Discourager's job to stand behind important people at key moments and remind them of the consequences of not being on the same page as the king – immediate execution. Not that he has to kill many people – simply stating his catchphrase 'I am here' is enough to get people on board.

The Discourager reminds the prince of his presence twice in the story. The first is to convince the Prince to take part in the blindfolded marriage ceremony. The second is when the King wonders why it's taking the Prince so long to pick out his bride from the forty women. These are key moments, and by personifying the King's will as the Discourager, rather than just having unnamed guards as a source of threat, they let the audience know just how important the moments are.

So let's consider the situation the Prince is in – one woman has smiled at him, the other has frowned. Knowing that his life depends on making the right decision, his mind races, trying to figure out what the expressions could possibly mean.

So what did they mean? A smile means come closer, a frown means go away. The king chooses everyone close to him based on their agreement with his worldview. So are the ladies in waiting cruel or are they kind? Is the woman smiling because she believes the king has found a perfect match for her, or because she's anticipating the gory spectacle of seeing the Prince beheaded in front of her? This is what races through the Prince's mind, and it's his lowest moment in the story.

This is what's important, because what happens next lets us know everything we need to about the King's character. If the king were cruel, he would relish the panic that the Prince is suffering, he would enjoy watching him run back and forth in a panicked state, growing increasingly harried. If he were a kind man, who truly believed in fate, he would simply want the trial to end, one way or the other.

The author gives us a full paragraph of the Prince's panicky reasoning, trying to figure out a solution to the problem, but his thought process is cut off by the Discourager whispering “I Am Here”.

Because that's what the king wants. He doesn't want suffering, he doesn't want hesitation, he doesn't want agony. He wants a snap decision. He wants instinct and fate to win out. The last lines tell us all we need to know:

“Smiles invite the approach of true love. A frown is a reproach to a tardy advance. A smile…….."
The Prince can think of a reason that his wife would smile, and he can imagine a reason that his wife would frown, but he is cut off before he can come up with a reason why a woman that isn't his wife would smile at him.

He knows what these expressions mean – a smile means come closer, a frown means go away. The Discourager is there to remind him to commit, to trust instincts. To not hesitate. So of course he chose the woman who smiled. How could he do anything else? There's no reason for the Discourager of Hesitancy to be in the story other than for this moment, to tell the audience that the Prince went with his gut, and that this is what the king wanted to happen.

And as the officer tells us, he made the right choice, and bells rung out to celebrate the marriage, and the whole city cheered.

This is all the evidence you need – the King believes in fate. The king is a kind man who wants the best for people, whether he's going about it in a sane way or not. This is a King who acts out of kindness, rather than cruelty, and who surrounds himself with people who agree with him.

The Officer was telling the truth – if the reader can figure out what the king's character is, and what kind of kingdom he runs, they can extrapolate that, however conflicted she might be, his daughter the Princess must have that kindness in her as well. That kindness would have pushed her in the direction of selflessness, and she directed her lover towards the Lady.

So there's the answer to one of the greatest mysteries in literature. In “The Lady or the Tiger”, Stockton created one of the most brilliant personality test stories of all time, but he couldn't keep from having his own thoughts on the subject – he always knew how it ended, but clearly thought the story was perfect as it was, so he didn't want to just provide an answer. Instead, he crafted a mystery that let the reader solve both stories for themselves. It's a brilliantly structured accomplishment, and one of the most satisfying mysteries I've ever encountered.

At some point I will have to check out “The Lady and the Tiger” from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and find out what that author came up with...

Want to cite this blog post in your paper? Here's the Bibliography information:

APA: Weissenberger, D, (2018 July 8). The Lady or the Tiger Has Been Solved [blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.vardulon.com/2018/07/the-lady-or-tiger-has-been-solved.html

MLA: Weissenberger, Daniel "The Lady or the Tiger Has Been Solved", Caslte Vardulon, 8 July 2018, www.vardulon.com/2018/07/the-lady-or-tiger-has-been-solved.html


Anonymous said...

I found a Google book that holds the missing story you referred to, by Jack Moffitt.

wootsy1 said...

Nice analysis.
I came up with the same conclusion but leaned more heavily on the concept of fate independent of the daughter's actions. As you correctly stated, the king believes in fate. The whole trial system is based on karma.
Now with the lover, there was no indication that he committed any crime. His only infraction was falling in love with the princess, thus by extension, he is an innocent man. In the King's world view and paradigm, it's pretty black and white. If you're innocent, you live, if you're guilty, you die. Thus it would stand to reason that if the young man was innocent of a crime, he does not deserve death, by virtue of how fate works, he would pick the door with the lady regardless of which door the princess pointed to. Or one can say, she chose the door with the lady not because of her kindness but that is what that man's fate demands because he is innocent.

Doug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doug said...


Just did an episode of my podcast featuring these stories and I gave your blog a little shout out. I found this post while I was researching and quite liked it! Thanks for the well written piece.