The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife Summary and Analysis of "The Bombing" (11), "The Apothecary" (12), "The River" (13), and the Epilogue


At the beginning of "The Bombing,” Natalia recalls a period of wartime chaos that occurred a few years before her grandfather's death. The narrative shifts to this timeframe.

Natalia's grandfather continues to make house calls, and follows the gruesome reports that have emerged from the city zoo: the owls and wolves have resorted to cannibalism, and one of the zoo tigers has begun to eat its own legs. Residents of the city have begun to dress up as wild animals and congregate in the area of the zoo, even though the danger posed by falling bombs is ever-present. One night, Natalia's grandfather decides to take Natalia to one of these zoo vigils. During this trip--which occurs just over a year before he discovered that he was dying--Natalia's grandfather describes his third meeting with the Deathless Man.

Before his third meeting with Gavo, Natalia's grandfather had been called on to tend to wounded men in Marhan. The nearby city of Sarobor was under siege: this Muslim city was dear to Natalia's grandfather, since it was where Natalia's grandmother had been born, and was where he had spent his honeymoon. In this time, Natalia’s grandfather makes his way to Sarobor's Hotel Amovarka, the site of his honeymoon itself, and settles into the hotel restaurant. This restaurant is almost deserted: the only other people in sight are a very polite and particular Muslim waiter and one other customer, clad in a suit and tie and reading a newspaper.

Although Natalia's grandfather wants to order a lobster dinner, lobster is not available. He then eyes the other guest, who asks for water and reveals himself as Gavran Gaile. The two of them sit together and order John Dory, a type of fish that Natalia's grandfather especially likes, along with other items that add up to a luxurious dinner. Gavo reveals that the woman he himself had loved was a resident of Sarobor, but then reveals something else that agitates Natalia's grandfather: the waiter who is serving them is doomed to die. Gavo has decided not to warn this man, deeming it best to let the waiter enjoy his final hours of life rather than fall into a panic. The Deathless Man does reveal, however, that Natalia's grandfather will not die, even though his beloved city of Sarobor is being decimated.

"The Bombing" concludes with a brief description of what happened to the zoo tigers in Natalia's time. The tiger who was eating his own legs was shot, and this tiger's mate subsequently ate one of her own cubs. To keep the remaining young tigers safe, zookeepers raised the cubs in their own homes.

The narration returns to Galina in "The Apothecary,” and begins with a vision of the final fight between Darisa and the tiger. In the early morning, Marko Parovic discovers a bloody pelt that belongs to Darisa. There is uproar in the village: the Tiger's Wife is blamed for the death of the famous hunter. Mother Vera seems to have intuited what in fact happened with Darisa, Natalia's grandfather, and the pregnant Tiger's Wife, but Natalia's grandfather fears for the isolated deaf-mute girl.

Obreht then considers the origins of the town apothecary, an ugly, yet dignified man. At the age of ten, the apothecary had been discovered in a monastery by a group of hajduk marauders; they took him in and let him travel with them until they were wiped out by a group of bounty hunters. Only the apothecary and a single one of his companions, Blind Orlo, survived. In this time, the apothecary nurses Blind Orlo back to health, and the two of them then travel from village to village, as Blind Orlo earns money by posing as a soothsayer. This stage of the apothecary's life ended when a disgruntled soothsaying customer shot Blind Orlo. Apparently, the apothecary found the next, less exciting stage of his existence--his role as an authority figure in the town of Galina--to be a welcome reprieve. At one point, the apothecary even threatened to run Luka out of town, in response to Luka's abuse of the Tiger's Wife. Such authority was undermined, however, by an epidemic that killed most of the children in Galina and caused the townspeople to doubt the apothecary's powers.

When the apothecary learns of the death of Darisa, he decides to take action towards the pregnant Tiger's Wife. At first, he attempts to bring her a potion that is normally administered to expectant mothers, but he finds that she is hostile and distrusting: she even emits an animal-like hiss to ward him off. The apothecary then decides to send Natalia's grandfather to administer the potion. This is accomplished, but it turns out that the potion was designed to poison the Tiger's Wife. By killing the young deaf-mute, the apothecary reclaims some of his former respect--only to be hanged when Germans pass through the town in the course of World War II. Mother Vera and Natalia's grandfather decide to leave the community behind. The apothecary dies an admired figure, while even the place where the Tiger's Wife is buried remains unknown or forgotten.

In "The River,” Natalia tracks the figure that she encountered at the end of "The Crossroads." Despite her fears, she follows him past a minefield, through a forest, and into a group of deserted structures. Natalia sees a light in a small stone house: she enters and discovers Barba Ivan, surrounded by the offerings (coins, flowers, pictures) that he collects in his role of mora. He claims that his role is mostly unknown to the village, and Natalia consents to keep Barba Ivan's activities a secret.

The final section of the novel records the fates of the present-day characters: Natalia's grandfather is remembered as a hero for attempting to save the boys from Zdrevkov, Zora has a son and is employed at the Neurology Institute in Zurich, and Natalia has taken stock of her grandfather's belongings. Her grandfather's copy of The Jungle Book has disappeared. Natalia admits that she cannot fully piece together the story of the Tiger's Wife, even though the story lingers in her mind--and in the minds of the villagers of Galina. As she imagines it, the tiger still haunts the Galina countryside, having forgotten much of its earlier life, except the figure of the Tiger's Wife.


Despite the importance of warfare as a theme in The Tiger's Wife, Obreht's novel has refrained for the most part from direct depictions of war. It continues to do so in "The Bombing,” but uses careful suggestion to capture some of the true randomness and absurdity of war. The wartime dead are never shown: even Arlo, who died in an act of senseless violence, is mentioned only in an anecdote. Instead, the brutality of the animals at the zoo is used to suggest the brutality that people at war show towards one another--to capture the horror of intra-species murder on a vast scale. The events in Sarobor offer a different though perhaps equally pointed commentary. People who attempt to maintain their normal lives during wartime may simply be living a delusion: the waiter goes about his duties, and seems to grow increasingly unaware of the fact that he will die.

These are symbolic and instructive sections. Yet Obreht's most symbolic characters are not static, and both the Deathless Man and the Tiger's Wife demonstrate profound changes in the closing chapters of the novel. The Deathless Man is still courteous in demeanor, but he has arrived at a firm philosophy of how to handle death: avoid intervention, and avoid panic. His own vision of the best possible death is that "Suddenly, you go. And with you, you take all the contemplation, all consideration of your own departure" (Page 301). Natalia's grandfather, a compassionate and intellectual man, cannot embrace a conception that relies so much on unthinking immediacy. Yet the Deathless Man has decided on this approach for both logical and emotional reasons: it is better to enjoy the final moments of life than to waste them in a panic that, in truth, is finally futile.

The Tiger's Wife also evolves at this point. She underwent transformations before, when the disappearance of the abusive Luka had a liberating influence. By this point in the narrative, "she had successfully frightened the villagers into reverential awe" (Page 319) and even intimidates one of the most educated and reflective among them, the apothecary. She has transformed into a force that is seen as brutal and inhuman, and not simply by those who believe that the tiger is the devil. The apothecary himself hears her release a beast-like hiss. After being subjected to inhuman treatment for so long by her husband, and being ostracized by the town, the Tiger's Wife now stands as a figure outside both the human community and human culture.

In some respects, the final chapters of The Tiger's Wife follow a traditional structure. Among the most common plot devices in contemporary American fiction is the use of a revelation or epiphany towards the end of a narrative: just such a revelation occurs here, when it is revealed that Barba Ivan has taken on the role of the mora. In other respects, these last stages of the novel do not seem expected at all: while it would be natural to put the apothecary's backstory earlier in the novel, when the apothecary is first introduced, Obreht here saves this information for the lead-up to the book's climax. Such narrative techniques make the end of the novel doubly unpredictable: both what will happen to the Tiger's Wife and how Obreht will convey these events are not easy to foresee.

The final pages of the book return to the idea that the past is unknowable. Even a figure like the Tiger's Wife, who lacked so many forms of sophistication, is impossible to pin down. In Natalia's words, "In the end, I cannot tell you who or what she was" (337). This may seem like a frustratingly oblique conclusion to draw, but it is exactly the conclusion--and a valuable one--that The Tiger's Wife leads to. A close relationship, such as that which exists between Natalia and her grandfather, is nonetheless in many ways premised on nondisclosure, silence, and mystery. Beyond such relationships, the world is full of strong impressions and fundamental unknowns.