The Lady or The Tiger? My Take On Who Or What Emerged From The Door

The story of The Lady or The Tiger is a classic riddle. Because it was written in 1882, it makes for pretty heavy reading, and thus I have taken the plot summary from Wikipedia, which I shall now quote:

The “semi-barbaric” king of an ancient land uses a unique form of trial by ordeal for those in his realm accused of crimes significant enough to interest him. The accused is placed alone in an arena before two curtain-draped doors, as hordes of the king’s subjects look on from the stands. Behind one door is a woman appropriate to the accused’s station and approved for him by the king; behind the other is a fierce (and nearly starved) tiger. The accused then must choose a door. If by luck (or, if one prefers, the will of heaven) he picks the door with the woman behind it, he is declared innocent and set free, but he is required to marry the woman on the spot, regardless of his wishes or his marital status. If he picks the door with the tiger behind it, the hungry beast immediately pounces upon him–his guilt thus manifest, supposedly.

When the king discovers that his daughter, the princess, has taken a lover far beneath her station, the fellow is an obvious candidate for trial in the arena. On the day of his ordeal, the lover looks from the arena to the princess, who is watching in the stands, for some indication of which door to pick. Even the king doesn’t know which door hides the maiden, but the princess has made it her business to find out, as her lover knew she would. She makes a slight but definite gesture to the right, which the young man follows immediately and without hesitation. As the door opens, the author interjects, “Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?”

The author then playfully sets out for the reader the dimensions of the princess’s dilemma, and that of the reader in answering the question he has posed. The reader is told that the princess knew and “hated” the waiting maiden, one of her attendants, whom she suspected of being infatuated with the princess’s lover. The princess, the reader must keep in mind, is “semi-barbaric,” too, or she wouldn’t have come to witness the ordeal at all; and though she has shrieked when struck by the thought of her lover torn to bits before her eyes, the thought of his dancing out of the arena with his blushing bride has afflicted her more sharply, and more often. In either case, the princess knows her lover is lost to her forever. She has agonized over her decision, but by the time she arrives at the arena, she is resolute, and she makes her gesture to the right unhesitatingly. The author denies being in a position to answer his question with authority, and the story ends with the famous line, “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”

After posing this question to a few of my friends, one particular response struck me (he chose the tiger):

Wow…this is so philosophical. I will play along and play this out with a little game theory. To be honest, I never for the life of me, have ever thought that I would write about game theory and philosophy. If you’re unfamiliar with applied/discrete mathematics, let me break it down for you simply. Here goes…

First of all, let’s examine the man (naturally, as men are not as complicated as women). The man has 2 choices to believe or not to believe, leading to 2 outcomes, either he lives (good) or he dies (bad). In the story, he chose to believe and this is likely to be the lack of information. He doesn’t know who the girl behind the door is and has no reason to suspect the princess of any foul play. However, it would have been more interesting if he had the same information as the princess. That’s probably another write-up for another time. Suffice it to say for now that he believes that his goal and the princess’ goal is aligned and ergo, he chose the right door.

The princess also has 2 choices, to lie or not to lie which also leads to 2 outcomes, her lover dies (bad for her lover and bad for her), or her lover lives (good for her lover but bad for her) but with another woman. Assuming that the princess is rational, the obvious answer would be a (somewhat) happy ending (i.e. the princess points to the door with the lady behind it). However, we all know that “the heart can be deceitful above all things”, and here is where it gets interesting, because the reader’s beliefs and values are called into play. Your world view will most probably determine your answer. So are you a realist or an idealist?

If you read the subtext hard enough, you’ll know my answer. [He chose the Tiger.]

This is my take:

The classic predicament of whether it was the lady or the tiger emerging from the opened door stem from two issues:

  1. Why did the man immediately follow the princess’ instruction “without hesitation” after she gestured to the right? As my friend has rightly pointed out, there was a lack of information on the man’s part. But to what extent can we realistically expect the lack of information to shape the man’s decision to completely trust the princess, especially in a life or death situation where he stood to lose more than she gained?
  2. The princess loves him, why should she choose to let him die; the princess loves him, why should she spare him only to have him marry another?

While my friend has argued for the tiger to emerge through the door, my take is that the princess chose the lady for her lover.

In the story, due to the man’s lack of information of what lay behind both doors (which the princess had information about), the man is tasked to act on his lover’s loyalty towards him instead. He could either choose to believe (follow her gesture) or disbelief (open the other door on the left). In this case, the author has already made it clear the man did as he was instructed, and chose the door the princess pointed to.

Under these circumstances, the man now understands and rationalises the issue to no longer be what lay behind the two doors anymore, but rather, what his own knowledge of his “semi-barbaric” lover tells him he must do instead.

He thinks: “My lover is a semi-barbaric princess. If she is more barbaric than civilised, I will have no choice but to open the other door instead of the one she has chosen for me in order that I may live. But if my lover has more civilised tendencies in her than barbaric ones, then I shall follow her instruction without hesitation.” We assume the man to prefer the lady over the tiger, and he would rather stay alive than die.

While the princess mulls over which fate she should send the man to, the man is likewise deliberating over whether his sweetheart is more half-good or half-bad. He eventually decides she is more good than bad, as seen in the story, and thus opens the right door without any misgivings.

Now, since we agreed the princess to be more half-good than half-bad, and that was why the man did as he was told, we are now faced with the question of what the princess chose for the man.

In this instance, we cannot take “love” into the equation because both options would clearly be justified in the name of love: Love is selfish, thus the tiger would be the right choice. But love is also unconditional, so it has to be the maiden that the princess picked for her lover.

Discounting the “love” factor, I personally feel choosing the maiden would make more sense.

Here are three reasons why:

  1. The princess is a semi-barbaric person. If she chooses the tiger for the man, she knows the other lady would never get to marry him. However, she would never know if he truly did love her. The princess chooses the maiden for her lover to see her lover’s reaction, and learn how he subsequently behaves, all of which are very telling pointers of his true feelings towards her. It would still not be too late to have him killed if she discovers his deceit.
  2. The princess, if she discovers her lover to genuinely be in love with her, will still get to see him surreptitiously even after he marries another.
  3. If the princess kills the man now through the tiger, she will never be able to do anything about her decision later. It is best to keep all options open.

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So anyway, my friend, after reading my answer to the riddle, has remarked that based on the D&D alignment system, I am definitely a chaotic good person.

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