The Lady or the Tiger

TV producer David Chase caused a bit of a stir a while back when he revealed the fate of mobster Tony Soprano, the lead character of his HBO series The Sopranos. The final episode had ended in 2007 with an abrupt cut to black, leaving unanswered the question of whether Tony lived or died. Chase, who had been notably close-mouthed on the subject since the series ended, apparently told a reporter in an unguarded moment that Soprano “is not dead.” A publicist later released a statement claiming Chase’s response had been misconstrued. Since I am not an HBO subscriber and saw only one or two episodes in the series, I confess I find the whole subject a bit mystifying. From what I saw, Tony Soprano was nothing but a foul-mouthed thug, and it’s hard to understand why anyone cared whether he lived or died. And why would viewers still be speculating years later about the fate of someone who never actually existed?

I can understand that people don’t like to be left hanging. As a plot device, The Sopranos ending is a bit like coitus interruptus, but it is hardly without literary precedent. I first encountered it in junior high school when we read a short story entitled “The Lady or the Tiger” by Frank Stockton. The story is named for a peculiar form of justice favored by a certain “semi-barbaric” king. Subjects accused of wrongdoing are sent into an arena, where they are made to open one of two doors. Behind one is a ferocious tiger and behind the other a maiden whom the accused is expected to marry on the spot.

The king discovers that his beloved daughter is romantically involved with one of his courtiers, a handsome young man of low birth. For having aspired above his station, the courtier is sent into the arena. However, the king’s daughter learns which door opens to the tiger and which to the maiden -- one of her own ladies-in-waiting. She signals to her lover that he should choose the door on the right, which he does without hesitation.

Here the story pauses while the narrator ponders the courtier’s fate. The king’s daughter loves him and can’t bear the thought that he will be torn apart by the ferocious tiger. But she is also exceedingly jealous, and can’t stand to see her lover in the arms of another. Will she send him to his death or let him live? Either way she will lose him forever. The story ends in a way that is even more frustratingly unresolved than the Sopranos finale. Having thoroughly explored the daughter’s dilemma, the narrator concludes:

The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door - the lady, or the tiger?

Like the producer of The Sopranos, the author of “The Lady or the Tiger” was besieged by fans who demanded to know how the story ended. Stockton stuck by his guns, refusing to provide any additional clues. It was up to the reader to decide. Stockton would say only that the readers’ choices would say something significant about them. In effect, they were no longer passive observers but had become entangled in the plot, deciding for themselves whether the courtier lived or died.

I am reminded of “The Lady or the Tiger” when contemplating a famous thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat. Erwin Schrödinger was an early quantum physicist trying to come to grips with the bizarre actions of elementary particles. Quanta of light behave like waves or particles, depending on how they were measured, and atoms spin clockwise and counterclockwise simultaneously. According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, elementary particles remain in an indeterminate state until they are observed. Schrödinger’s thought experiment was originally intended to point up the absurdity of such a notion. A cat is placed in a sealed container with a radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, a hammer and a vial of poison. If the radioactive substance decays, the Geiger counter is activated, causing the hammer to break the vial of poison, which kills the cat. However, since the radioactive substance remains in an indeterminate state until the container is opened and the contents observed, the cat is both dead and alive.

One can easily imagine a similar arrangement in which the cat is replaced by two doors, one of which holds a ferocious tiger, the other a lady. Depending on whether the radioactive substance decays or not, one or the other door opens. Until the experiment is observed, the radioactive substance remains in an indeterminate state, and the courtier is torn apart by the tiger and marries the lady. Or perhaps the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory is true, and universe splits in two, with the courtier torn apart in one world and married to the lady in another. So what’s it to be? The courtier enters the arena. The king’s daughter signals that he should choose the door on the right, which he does without hesitation. The door opens and – CUT TO BLACK.

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