April 20, 2012

Death of Stockton: Its perfect fairness

Frank R. Stockton was born outside of Philadelphia in 1834 and spent the majority of his life in Pennsylvania. He later moved to New Jersey and was in Washington D.C., however, when he died on April 20, 1902, just fifteen days after his 68th birthday. His cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried at The Woodlands in Philadelphia.

Despite his family's wishes to study medicine, Stockton became a wood engraver in the periodical industry while also contributing stories. Much of his work is either humorous or aimed at children and, when his eyesight began to fail him in 1878, many of his stories had to be dictated and written down by others.

Stockton's most famous work, "The Lady, or the Tiger?," was first published in 1882, twenty years before his death, originally under the title "In the King's Arena." In the story, the barbaric king has set up a perfect system of justice: those accused of significant crimes enter an arena and choose between two doors. In one, a ferocious and hungry tiger is waiting; in the other, a beautiful maiden awaits. If the criminal chooses the tiger, chance has proven him guilty, and the animal executes him instantly. If he chooses the door with the maiden, he is assumed innocent and instantly married (even if he already has a wife). "This was the king's semi-barbaric method of administering justice," Stockton writes. "Its perfect fairness is obvious."

One day, however, the king learns that a respected and handsome man has been secretly courting the princess. The princess does not deny this, but the king does not approve and the man is sentenced to the arena. As the man looks at the princess, however, she gives him a signal that she knows which door is which and encourages him to choose the door on the right. The princess has spent many days determining which door to suggest. Would she want him to suffer the cruel fate of being destroyed by the tiger? Or could she stand to see him married off to another woman?

He turned, and with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovably upon that man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.

Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady ?

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