The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife Summary and Analysis of "The Orphanage" (5), "The Fire" (6), and "The Butcher" (7)


"The Orphanage" begins with a scene of early morning in Brejevina: Bis is snoring and Barba Ivan emerges. The fisherman offers Natalia a little background about the diggers, and expresses doubt that their cousin’s body will be found after such a long period of time. He then sets off in his fishing boat, accompanied by Bis. Natalia and Zora set off for the monastery, where they will administer medicine to the orphans; soon after they arrive, they find the good-natured Fra Antun, who is working in the garden.

Fra Antun introduces the young woman to some of the features and decorations of the monastery. These include numerous portraits of Bis and a cannonball from a Venetian ship, lodged in one of the monastery walls. In order to get the children to cooperate with the vaccination procedures, Natalia and Zora distribute candy, but soon they realize that they have made a mistake: by distributing candy before the medical procedures, they have given the children less of an incentive to behave. During a break, Natalia has a discussion with Fra Antun about the diggers and learns a little about the local superstitions. Apparently there is a mora, or a spirit that collects grave offerings, that is native to the region of Brejevina. Natalia also learns in the course of this discussion that Zdrevkov, where her grandfather died, is only about an hour's drive away.

Under the pretext that she is going to buy more candy, Natalia makes her way to Zdrevkov. The town is generally run-down and deserted, but there are a few men in the town bar. Natalia informs these men, who are somewhat suspicious, that she needs to collect the belongings of a man who has died. Eventually, a barman produces a blue plastic bag that contains her grandfather's possessions, but offers little in the way of meaningful information. She signs for the items and departs.

"The Fire" shifts timeframe to describe a habit of celebrated doctors, including Natalia's grandfather: these men would gather for lunch in an Old Town restaurant, where they would trade stories. Natalia's grandfather was famous for saving the life of the Marshall. This rescue had been a coincidence: the Marshall had fallen ill near the grandfather's lake house in Borovo, and the grandfather acted quickly to remedy a burst appendix.

Natalia then explains some of her own life in medicine: she had initially wanted to help people who had been strongly affected by violence and warfare, but soon realized that success in medical school would require clever planning. In particular, she and Zora would need to win the favor of Mica the Cleaver, a school official who distributed cadavers for study. Unfortunately, Zora insulted the Chair of Genetics, and Natalia fainted after seeing a mouse decapitated. Their reputations compromised, the two young women then attempt to obtain contraband skulls for study, only to meet with another misadventure: Natalia's skull (attributed to a magician named the Magnificent Fedrizzi) is confiscated at a border check. Natalia's grandfather comes to retrieve Natalia and Zora, yet the story makes its way to Mica and wins Natalia and Zora his favor.

Despite the ongoing disruptions of the war, Natalia's grandfather decides to take a trip to Verimovo to see and assess his old country house. Natalia accompanies him, and they also take along a young dog to leave on the property. Upon their arrival they meet their neighbor Slavko, who is roughly the same age as Natalia's mother, and settle into their war-damaged house. During the night a fire springs up. Natalia stays near her house to protect it from the flames, while her grandfather goes to join a firefighting effort elsewhere. When he returns, he tells her about his second meeting with the Deathless Man.

In 1971, Natalia's grandfather went to a holy site called the Church of the Virgin of the Waters, which had attracted a large number of sick pilgrims. In this time, drunks have also been gravitating to the church, and some of these people tend to be held overnight in a church annex. On one quiet night, Natalia's grandfather hears a voice from the annex: it is Gavo, asking him for water. As he was at his first meeting with Natalia's grandfather, Gavo is very pleasant. He explains more about his backstory: Death is Gavo's uncle, and Gavo's deathlessness is a punishment from this uncle, since Gavo defied his duties and protected the life of a woman he loved. By morning, some of the people at the church (whose deaths Gavo predicted) have died, and Gavo himself has disappeared.

With "The Butcher,” the narration returns to events in Galina. Luka and Jovo return from the hunt and spread accounts that glorify the blacksmith, but the real focus of this chapter is Luka himself. Although Luka grew up to be a violent man, as a boy he was attached to his mother and drawn to music; he was never comfortable with his rough father Korcul, or with the confined nature of life in Galina. Luka eventually bought a gusla (a one-stringed instrument) off of a peddler and made his way to the significantly larger town of Sarobor. He joined a group of lively yet uncouth musicians, but remained ambitious about his own musical art.

In Sarobor, Luka finds an artistic and intellectual companion in Amana, the daughter of a merchant called Hassan Effendi. Their contact does not indicate much in the way of romance, since Amana has pledged to remain a virgin, and since Luka appears to be mostly attracted to men. Nonetheless, they arrange a marriage as a way of preserving their bond of close friendship. Two weeks before the wedding, Amana falls ill. Her life appears to be in danger, but she recovers--only to run off with the astonishing physician who rescued her from death. Determined to go through with the wedding in some form, Hassan Effendi switches in his other daughter--the deaf-mute girl who will become the Tiger's Wife--before Luka can object or back out of the marriage.

The marriage complete, Luka and his wife return to Galina to live with Luka's ailing father. Luka's goal is to collect inheritance and then, in some form, pursue his musical ambitions. However, his time in Galina is full of conflict and aggravation: his father attempts to molest the Tiger's Wife, and after Korcul's death, both Luka and his wife become subjects of suspicion and gossip. His musical ambitions apparently defeated, Luka begins to beat his wife violently, at least until he disappears from the village. It is believed that the Tiger's Wife has found a way to kill Luka, and the widespread wariness of her only increases when it is discovered that she is pregnant. Among the only villagers who offer her appreciable kindness are Natalia's grandfather (who attempts to show her the events that take place in The Jungle Book) and Mother Vera (who sends her essential goods). In return for his attention, Natalia's grandfather receives a present from her: a paper bag containing rust-colored hairs, apparently those of the tiger.


Among the most unusual features of Brejevina are the proliferating portraits of Bis the dog. While it may be clear from some of Natalia's endearing descriptions why children would be drawn to this animal, it is not exactly clear why Bis would inspire such universal interest. Whatever the reason, the images of this animal call attention to an important theme in The Tiger's Wife: the creation of local culture, habits, and rituals. By leaving the country where Natalia’s story takes place unnamed, Obreht has sidestepped issues of national culture and allows the town-by-town, village-by-village creation of customs (e.g., the legends surrounding the tiger, the devotion surrounding Bis) to come to the forefront.

In the course of these chapters, a second account of one of the grandfather's personal myths--the Deathless Man--emerges. Here, the context is important: Natalia is now describing how war and medicine guided her life, and has reached a stage of maturity that would make it impossible for her to see the Deathless Man simply as an odd or amusing fable. Natalia's grandfather, though, is prompted to tell his second Deathless Man story by the fire at the country house. These circumstances do not have an immediate link to war or medicine--the two contexts that would be enormously relevant to a figure of death--but that may be part of the point. Life is random: a house, or a person's life, can be threatened at virtually any point.

Natalia, for her part, has ceased to regard the Deathless Man as an item of mere myth. When she arrives in Zdrevkov, she reflects on the role of this figure in the real world: "I don't know how long I stood there before I thought of the deathless man. When I did, I knew immediately that it was the deathless man, and not me, my grandfather had come looking for" (Page 147). This may be Natalia's way of understanding the urgency of her grandfather's desire to save the two boys who were injured by the landmine. His devotion to medicine--along with hers, perhaps--is becoming so strong that saving a life feels less like an abstract task and more like a struggle against a real, human adversary.

Despite the generally bleak atmosphere of these chapters--to say nothing of the thoroughly unpleasant course that Luka's life takes--there are moments of harmony and escape. One of these involve Luka himself, during his time with Amana: "On their own, neither was a spectacular singer; but together their voices blended into a low and surprising sadness, a twang that pulled even the most optimistic crowds away from the foot-stomping revelry of the traditional bridge bands" (Pages 201-202). Luka did not enjoy his life before Sarobor, but he seems to have found a way to translate "sadness" into a form of expression that is truly affecting. Later, when he finds himself trapped in Galina, Luka even finds moments of pleasantness in his life with the Tiger's Wife: "Sometimes it was even pleasant to come home in the evenings, and have someone to smile at him" (Page 207).

While these moments give Luka complexity as a character, there is no question that Luka serves as a foil to Natalia's grandfather. The young boy develops a genuine bond with the Tiger's Wife (in contrast to Luka's obligatory bond) and is not emotionally warped by his time in Galina (in contrast to the brutal Luka). With their small, static social circles and air of general backwardness, towns such as Zdrevkov and Galina are the wrong settings for thoughtful men such as Luka and Natalia's grandfather. The difference is that one man found himself tied down to such a place, while the other was simply passing through.