The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife Themes


In some cases, the major characters in The Tiger's Wife can be grouped into distinct family units: Natalia, her grandparents, and her mother; Barba Ivan, Nada, and Fra Antun; the diggers; Hassan Effendi and his daughters. With its focus on the mostly affectionate relationship between Natalia and her grandfather, Obreht's novel is in some ways a story about the strength of family bonds. However, family life can also be a reminder of loss (in the case of Barba Ivan and his dead son Arlo, for instance) and a source of tension. After all, even Natalia and her grandfather pass through periods when they become emotionally distant from one another.


Natalia, Zora, and Natalia's grandfather are all active in the world of medicine. Yet medical work has a somewhat different significance for the older, established doctor and the two younger women. For Natalia's grandfather, medicine is a way of winning and maintaining social respect (as seen through his past feats and his ongoing doctor's luncheons) and a way of making sense of forces such as death (as seen through his encounters with the Deathless Man). Natalia values medicine as a humanitarian force, yet also finds that medicine brings her (and, perhaps to a greater extent, Zora) into conflict with the authorities. What is clear, though, is how strongly all these characters are committed to the world of medicine--even, or especially, when such commitment puts them at odds with specific medical officials.

The Past

The Tiger's Wife is structured to reveal different elements of the past, item by item, as Natalia's narration moves along. Although they are introduced fairly early in the novel, characters such as the Tiger's Wife and the Deathless Man figure in a series of retrospective episodes that together explain much about the past life of Natalia's grandfather. This flashback-by-flashback structure indicates that the past cannot be grasped all at once. Yet the past also functions as a haunting influence: the people of Galina cannot shake their memories of the tiger, and, according to Natalia, remain convinced of its influence even in the present day.


Some of the major characters in The Tiger's Wife are desperate to leave their former lives behind and start anew. Luka, for instance, wants to leave his crude life in Galina and become an inspired musician; Natalia's grandfather also wants to leave Galina, but for a very different reason--his part in the events surrounding the death of the Tiger's Wife. Galina is a confining place for these characters, but not for all of the figures in Obreht's novel. In fact, Natalia must return to the town to piece together aspects of her grandfather's life.


Several characters in The Tiger's Wife serve as storytellers: the Deathless Man tells the story of his life to Natalia's grandfather, Natalia's grandfather tells Natalia about his past, and Marko Parovic tells Natalia about the events that took place in Galina. In many cases, Natalia's own task is to receive and make sense of this information. Yet she also becomes a storyteller herself, weaving together these other stories with events unique to her, such as the occurrences in Brejevina.


Warfare affects the characters of The Tiger's Wife on a few different levels. Natalia calls attention to some of the broad disruptive effects of war: her generation embraces an unusual combination of hedonism and altruism, and the animals in the city zoo fall into cannibalistic frenzies. But warfare is also capable of creating everyday tensions and disrupting everyday routines. These small disruptions--such as the appearance of "the hat" in Natalia's house and the end of the grandfather's trips to the zoo--can add up to a broader state of society-wide dissatisfaction and suspicion.


In The Tiger's Wife, Obreht is less interested in widespread, internationally known legends than he is in the legends and superstitions that spring up within relatively small communities. The tiger itself emerges as a figure of the devil, while Darisa is believed to have been raised among bears or to transform into a bear. While some of these ideas are shown to be inaccurate, they nonetheless show that people in a small community such as Galina will craft legends and myths to make sense of their world. Even the Deathless Man, a legend shared by Natalia and her grandfather, can be understood as an attempt to make sense of the confusing phenomenon of death.