Téa Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife

  • 39-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 13 chapter summaries and 6 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by an experienced high school teacher with a PhD in English Literature
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The Tiger’s Wife Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature.  This 39-page guide for “The Tiger’s Wife” by Tea Obreht includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 13 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Power of Storytelling and Myth and Death.

Plot Summary

Set in an imaginary modern-day Balkan country, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife chronicles the effects of prejudice, isolation, and war on both a personal and universal scale. Obreht’s characters struggle to survive and live meaningful lives under the shadow of a lengthy war and its aftermath.

Natalia Stefanović, a young female doctor and the narrator of the novel, learns that her beloved grandfather has died far from home on his way to visit her. Her investigation into the puzzling circumstances of his death leads her to a powerful story of violence and redemption from his childhood: the tale of the tiger’s wife.

Natalia also retells a folktale that her grandfather began relating to her in her teenage years: the story of the deathless man. These two folktales, woven into the fabric of Natalia’s own story, help her understand her grandfather’s life. Through retelling these powerful stories to herself and the reader, Natalia processes her grief over her grandfather’s death. Furthermore, Natalia’s narratives delineate powerful themes and motifs concerning grief and death, the transformative power of storytelling, and the nature of secrets and lies.

The narrative shifts between Natalia’s present-day life in the remote villages of Brejevina and Zdrevkov, her earlier life, her grandfather’s narration of the deathless man story, and her own retelling of the tiger’s wife story. Natalia narrates the sections about the tiger’s wife and her grandfather’s childhood in Galina, reconstructing his life—and the story of the tiger’s wife—from the information she gathers from the villagers. At several points, she also speaks from the point of view of the tiger. She imagines her grandfather telling the deathless man story, so he speaks in his own voice. By the novel’s end, she is several years older.

Angry and confused by his traveling so far from home when he was terminally ill, she cannot possibly return home for his funeral until she solves the mystery of her grandfather’s death. The mystery gives her a convenient excuse for not going home immediately; she doesn’t even tell her best friend and traveling companion, Zóra, that her grandfather has died. This secret is one of many that pervade the novel.

Zóra and Natalia’s hosts in Brejevina are Barba and Nada Ivan, parents of the village monk, Fra Antun, who runs the orphanage. They welcome the two women warmly. Their property also hosts a family digging in the vineyard for the missing body of a cousin, and several of the children are very sick. The head of the family, Duré, believes the restless spirit of his dead cousin is causing his children’s illness. Only putting his spirit to rest will make Duré’s family well.

After beginning to treat the orphans in Brejevina, Natalia takes the car, under the pretext of going out at lunch time to buy more candy with which to bribe the children. Natalia retrieves her grandfather’s belongings from Zdrevkov.

She returns to the orphanage in Brejevina where the body has been located in the vineyard. She offers to help the family complete the required ritual: burying the heart of the dead man at the crossroads, where the mora—or collector of dead souls—can find him. In return for this significant favor, Natalia demands that Duré allow his wife and children to receive medical treatment.

The novel contains several elements of magical realism, reality, which is frequently violent or war-torn, appears side-by-side with the fabulous. For example, a real tiger escapes a bombed-out zoo and wanders into the grandfather’s childhood village. Later in the novel, Natalia buries the dead man’s “heart” at the crossroads and watches a man dig it up, certain that that man is Gavran Gailé, the deathless man from her grandfather’s story. Most significantly, her grandfather’s copy of The Jungle Book disappears.

After returning her grandfather’s belongings to her grandmother, Natalia visits Galina to piece together the grandfather’s story of the tiger’s wife, but not every mystery is resolved or explained. Tracking down the story of her grandfather’s childhood, however, allows Natalia to move on after her grandfather’s death. The last chapter is narrated by an older Natalia. The reader leaves her knowing that she has gathered together all the stories, all the life lessons that she could to learn, and all that her grandfather could teach her.

Just as her grandfather’s memory remains with her, the tiger still prowls the night in Natalia’s imagination and in the imaginations of Galina’s villagers, who warn their children against going out after dark.

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