Friday, June 17, 2011

Did he choose the lady or the tiger?



Not long ago we featured a late-19th century travel pamphlet for the Bahamas that told of the quaint life in Nassau and of the colorful inhabitants of those islands.

In those days, you took a steamship from New York or Savannah, and you might make a stop off in Jacksonville to pick up or discharge passengers, before arriving in that lush island paradise for an extended stay at the luxurious Royal Victoria Hotel.

Frank R. Stockton
The pamphlet was printed by the steamship company in an effort to encourage more travel to the islands -— and thus, bring in more business for the steamship company. The piece contained an article by Frank R. Stockton that had first appeared in Scribner’s Monthly in November 1877, and that had been republished clearly because it lent an air of authority in what otherwise was a biased effort to induce travelers to visit the islands.

We noted that Stockton was a prolific writer who was known for, among other things, his Lewis Carroll-style children’s stories that gained considerable attention during his lifetime. Stockton also wrote many short stories. We made a passing reference to one of them, “The Lady, or the Tiger,” which was published in 1882. That story is the title tale in a volume of Stockton’s short stories that is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

Stockton showed early promise as a writer, winning a writing contest in high school. Stockton’s father, however, a prominent Methodist minster who was himself known for writing on religious subjects, did not want his son to be a writer. Frank acceded to his father’s wishes. Instead, he became a highly skilled wood engraver and worked with his younger brother John, who became a steel engraver. They opened a print shop in New York City.

After his father’s death, an eye infection ended his career as an engraver. To support his family, he turned to freelance writing; his wife, Mary Ann, took dictation. It was not long before Stockton became widely published.

The major character of His first novel, Rudder Grange, was based on a 14-year-old girl from an orphanage the family hired as a maid. She was an odd girl with the peculiar habit of reading horror stories aloud to herself in the kitchen. Stockton imagined her as the maid for a couple who lived on a canal boat. The stories were first published as magazine articles and attracted so much attention that they were republished as a book.

His next novel was The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, the tale of two proper New England ladies who are shipwrecked on a remote island with a man. The ladies were based on two women Stockton knew.

“The Lady or the Tiger” was originally written to be read before a literary society to which Stockton belonged. It concerns a hapless young man who had the misfortune to fall in love with the king’s daughter. He continued the affair even after the king forbid the romance. In this land, the king had an interesting way of dealing with scofflaws. There was no trial. Instead, the accused would be taken to a public arena. There were two doors leading to the arena. Behind one door was a woman who had been chosen by the king to be married to the accused. (It didn’t seem to matter if the accused was already married.) Behind the other door was a hungry tiger. If the accused chose the first door, he was innoncent. If he chose the second door, he was guilty. Simple as that.

In Stockton’s story, the princess signals to the young man which door to choose but Stockton never reveals which door it is. The cliffhanger ending caused quite a stir in the literary society. Later it was published in a magazine, where it continued to be vigorously discussed. And even today, the debate goes on. Did the princess send her lover to the arms of another or to certain death?

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