In the short opening section of the novel, Natalia narrates a routine from her youth. On a regular basis, she would accompany her bald, stately grandfather to the city zoo, where the two of them would observe the tigers. Natalia's grandfather, a doctor, would carry a copy of The Jungle Book, and would refer to a mysterious figure known as the Tiger's Wife. On one occasion, a dustpan keeper attempts to brush his hand against a tiger: the tiger attacks the dustpan keeper. In response, Natalia's grandfather offers the wounded man both criticism and medical assistance.
In the next section, "The Coast,” Natalia describes how a soul of a recently departed person will circulate in the world for forty days. In the timeframe of this section, Natalia's grandfather has just died and Natalia herself is on her way to the town of Brejevina, where she and her friend Zora will inoculate the children at the town orphanage. For his part, Natalia's grandfather was away from home in a small town called Zdrevkov when he met his end. Natalia and her grandmother, who is agitated by the turn of events, are in contact by phone.
Despite Natalia's loss, Natalia and Zora do not interrupt their trip to Brejevina. Both of the young women have recently been in trouble with the authorities: Natalia for siding with a group of nurses during a strike, and Zora for her conflicts with a medical official nicknamed Ironglove. The trip will take them away from their home city, into territory where the residents are somewhat suspicious. While traveling, the two young women stop at a food stand called "Boro's Beefs,” and Natalia once again gets in touch with her grandmother, who is worried about the possessions of her deceased husband.
Natalia and Zora arrive in Brejevina around nightfall. They make their way to the house of Barba Ivan, a local fisherman who will serve as their host. Barba Ivan's family members will also be of service: his son, a monk called Fra Antun, will help Natalia and Zora gather the town children for their medicine. Barba Ivan's wife, Nada, also helps to welcome the young women to the town and offers them dinner. Barba Ivan's energetic dog, Bis, also makes an appearance.
During these preliminaries, Natalia and Zora discover that a group of diggers is at work in a nearby vineyard. One of the children with this group appears in Barba Ivan's house: this little girl is visibly unwell, and has a pouch (which can supposedly ward off bad influences) hanging from her neck. Nada openly criticizes the way the diggers are living. The two guests eventually settle in for the night, still not entirely sure what the diggers are up to.
The next section, "The War,” features Natalia's earlier life with her grandfather. She refers to the two stories that defined him, those of the Tiger's Wife and the Deathless Man, before explaining how their trips to the zoo became an annoyance once she grew older. Natalia's generation as a whole, though, would be marked by wartime uncertainties and deprivations, despite the best efforts of their elders to maintain normal lives. Contraband goods defined many relationships: Natalia's teacher M. Dobravka, a political dissident, is remembered for sneaking a pair of lungs into one of her classes for a demonstration, while Natalia's boyfriend Ori provided hard-to-find recordings of American music.
The suspicions of wartime also invade Natalia's household in the figure of an official (referred to as "the hat") who comes to question her grandfather. Natalia lets this man in and feels guilty about her actions; her grandfather, after answering questions for a time, angrily throws "the hat" out of the house. But the state of political uncertainty also brings Natalia and her grandfather closer: one moonlit night, the aging doctor leads Natalia out into the street, where the two of them encounter an elephant being led along. Cautioning Natalia to keep the moment between them (instead of saying anything about the elephant to her friends), Natalia's grandfather tells her of the deathless man. The narration shifts to the time of her grandfather’s story.
In the summer of 1954, Natalia's grandfather arrived in a village that in the midst of an epidemic. Soon after he and his assistant Dominic Lazlo arrive, they are told of a remarkable event: a dead man sat up in his coffin. They find the dead man, Gavran Gaile or "Gavo,” in a coffin in the middle of a church: despite being shot in the head, Gavo is still alive. Gavo's demeanor is extremely pleasant, though his remarks and ideas are unusual: he explains that his uncle has forbidden him to die; in an apparent proof of his immortality, he drinks coffee without leaving any grit in the cup.
Incredulous and somewhat annoyed, Natalia's grandfather demands a firmer demonstration of Gavo's immortality. Gavo agrees to tie himself to cinderblocks and go to the bottom of a lake, and the two men decide to stake prized possessions on the outcome. Gavo pledges his coffee cup, while Natalia's grandfather pledges his copy of The Jungle Book. Gavo survives underwater: he emerges as day is breaking, but does not take the pledged copy of The Jungle Book; instead, he wanders off into a forest nearby.
Even in these early stages of the novel, Obreht establishes the method that will guide her composition as a whole: important figures are introduced, explained to some extent, temporarily disregarded, and then explained further later on. One especially important example here is the Tiger's Wife of the title. When she is first mentioned, the Tiger's Wife is simply described as a nameless woman who "loved tigers so much she almost became one herself" (Page 4). Only later does it become clear that the Tiger's Wife could not, as an illiterate deaf-mute, state her name--or what becoming a tiger entailed for her.
Despite this somewhat nontraditional structure, the first chapters also perform the somewhat traditional task of setting out the characters' basic personalities. Natalia's grandfather, who both scolds and assists the man attacked by the tiger, is revealed as both critical and fundamentally compassionate. Natalia's grandmother, in a series of phone calls, is shown to be devoted to her family and husband. (Curiously enough, she will never emerge as much more than a voice over the phone--a fact that nicely establishes her role as a secondary character.) And Zora, who antagonizes both border officers and a few of the men at Boro's Beefs, manifests the outspoken personality that will appear again and again in Obreht's narrative.
The only character that remains rather undefined is Natalia herself. Although Obreht outlines Natalia's activities and professional background, it is arguable that Natalia--less outrageous than Zora, less mysterious than her grandfather--is upstaged by some of the other characters. However, there are good reasons why this should be the case. The Tiger's Wife is a story about Natalia's discovery of her grandfather's past: Natalia seems designed to be absorb, receive, and analyze information without creating too many intrusions of her own. She also has a lot of information to introduce--about Nada and Barba Ivan, about her country, and about her generation. If she were as obtrusive or as opinionated as Zora, she would perhaps be a character poorly suited for these narrative tasks.
Natalia is also representative of a generation that has witnessed wartime upheaval, and that differs from older generations in its reactions. As she ruminates, "The years I spent immersing myself in the mild lawlessness of the war, my grandfather spent believing it would soon end, pretending that nothing had changed" (Page 42). In seeking to understand her grandfather, she faces more than the typical difficulties involved in trying to understand an impressive, somewhat reserved individual. She must also deal with a generational gap that has been widened by factors such as the war, her own teenage escapades, and her own potential for disillusionment. In context, Natalia's grandfather is trying to connect with a young woman who is somewhat jaded and materialistic. The fact that his fanciful stories can draw her in and overcome these sides of her personality speaks to these stories' power.
The story of the first meeting with the Deathless Man is significant on several levels. This account helps to firmly establish the combination of precise details (note how carefully Natalia's grandfather describes Gavo's coffin and wounds) and fantastic events that persists throughout The Tiger's Wife. But this account also appears to be instructive for Natalia, a young woman surrounded by war. Gavo speaks critically of people who oppose death: "All that refusal, all that resistance. Such a luxury" (line 71). The lesson that fighting death is a superfluous process may not be a pleasant takeaway, but it is a necessary takeaway for a young woman like Natalia, surrounded by war and (thanks to M. Dobravka) at least part of the way on her path to becoming a doctor.