Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Lady or the Tiger?

I taught "The Lady or the Tiger?" to the seventh graders today in my Storywriting class. I think I first read it in school when I was in seventh grade myself, but I hadn't looked at it since then until I re-read it this morning. 

Today's topic was endings. We talked about what endings should do, what makes a good ending, and what endings of books, movies, and stories they've liked and disliked. We read "The Sniper," another English class chestnut, and they worked on their own stories for a while. But I knew we'd have some time to spare at the end of our two-hour block. Last night I was casting about for another story to do, finding that all of the Ray Bradbury stories I had in mind were too long for convenient use. 

My wife happened to hand me a list of short stories that she can choose from when teaching her 8th grade communication arts class this coming school year. "The Lady or the Tiger?" was the last one on the list—and it jumped out at me right away as a perfect one to use. 

I remembered it as the classic gimmick ending, a somewhat contrived plot that the author declines to finish off, leaving the ending unresolved. It's the type of ending I don't want my students to indulge in—along with endings in which the main character commits suicide or wakes up to find that it's all been a dream.

But revisiting Frank Stockton's story after all these years, I found myself quite tickled by it. It's the type of story that rarely gets written these days: a display of authorial wit and dry humor, a story that emphatically chooses telling over showing. The closest contemporary analogue I can think of is the short fiction of Steven Millhauser, who typically is less concerned with individual human beings and more with exploring conceits and conundra. 

T. Coraghessan Boyle's "Chicxulub" is similar in a way, too. As I did with "The Lady or the Tiger?", I often read "Chicxulub" aloud to my class. Both stories are tours de force, prose confections that create for their readers or listeners experiences that could not be duplicated with any other medium. 

The short fiction of our era, mostly, descends from Chekhov, in its devotion to the details of everyday life, its attention to character and consciousness. This type of fiction is certainly what I use in teaching my high school students to write stories. The Raymond Carver model is approachable for students, duplicable—and it can lead to some genuinely good fiction.

You could never build a class around stories like "Chicxulub" or "The Lady or the Tiger?" I do both stories at the end of my courses for exactly that reason—so that students don't try to imitate them. But they're worth appreciating nonetheless. 


Cowe, Mista said...

This story-puzzle seems to me to solve itself in the same way that The A&P tells you whether its comic or ironic: by referring to a time period after the events of the story have transpired:
"In after years such things became commonplace enough, but then they were in no slight degree novel and startling."

framiko said...

Interesting point. But that quote from the story doesn't necessarily rule out the lover's being ripped apart by the tiger, does it?

I just learned that Stockton wrote a sequel to "The Lady or the Tiger?" You can read it here. It's amusing but not as good as the original.

In any case, though, Stockton seems committed to the notion that the original story puzzle remains inconclusive.