55 pages 1 hour read

Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1987

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Summary and Study Guide


Penelope Lively’s 1987 novel Moon Tiger is a work of historical fiction. Set primarily in England and Egypt during the 20th century, the novel is a frame story that joins protagonist Claudia Hampton on her deathbed as she reflects on the relationships, memories, and historical forces that shaped her life. The author was awarded the 1987 Booker Prize for the novel. Moon Tiger explores the subjective nature of memory, the difference between lived and linear time, and the way global history overlaps with personal history. The setting of the Egyptian desert and the city of Cairo during World War 2 (WWII) feature prominently in the novel, inspired by the author’s childhood in Cairo during the 1930s and 1940s.

This guide refers to the 1987 Grove Press paperback edition of the novel.

Content Warning: The source text and guide both contain depictions of incest.

Plot Summary

Claudia Hampton is in her 70s and is dying. She is in the hospital, being treated for cancer. After a long career as a journalist and historian, Claudia spends her final days reflecting on her life. In addition to revisiting memories, she also seeks to contextualize her experiences in history more broadly. Claudia’s sharp, well-educated mind draws many connections between her personal experiences and important events.

In Chapter 1, Claudia gives a great deal of thought to the kind of history she wants to write about herself, knowing full well that the story she is writing will only ever appear in her head. She decides on a “kaleidoscopic” history, rather than a conventional, chronological history. This choice sets the stage for the structure of the novel, which takes the form of interconnected memories and vignettes.

Claudia begins with a memory of hunting for fossils on the beach with her brother, Gordon, when they were children. She recalls their fierce competitiveness. Racing him up the cliff, Claudia falls. She tells their mother that Gordon pushed her, prompting the first instance of a shift in perspective; the narrative moves briefly to their mother’s perspective, revealing her frustrated bafflement at her passionate children.

Claudia slips in and out of awareness in her hospital room. From time to time, she will say something out loud that connects to the memories playing in her head. Void of this interior context, though, the doctors and nurses don’t understand her statements and underestimate her mental acuity.

Claudia briefly describes her parents. Her mother led a withdrawn and quiet life, and her father died in World War 1 (WWI). She remembers being a young girl and realizing that she was pretty, admiring her red hair and green eyes in the mirror.

Typical of the non-chronological structure of the novel, the next memory that Claudia recounts is when she is in her late 30s and at a museum with Jasper, her lover. She’s telling him that she’s pregnant with his child. The two opt not to get married even though Jasper expresses interest in being involved with the child. This arrangement is unusually liberal for the time; though an exact date isn’t given, this event occurs in the late 1940s. Lisa, their daughter, is raised primarily by her two grandmothers.

Claudia recalls her brother’s jealousy at the celebration of his Oxford fellowship in 1946 over Jasper, who accompanied Claudia to the event. Gordon will go on to develop a successful career as an economist, advising governmental agencies, lecturing at prestigious universities, and, for a while, spending several months a year in the United States. That evening in 1946, Gordon’s future wife, Sylvia, is with them. Claudia finds Sylvia boring and “soft.” Sylvia always feels inadequate and left out in the company of the two outspoken, confident siblings.

Sylvia visits Claudia in the hospital. Claudia pretends to be asleep.

Claudia revisits a series of other memories with Gordon. In the memories, she asks him about his choice to marry Sylvia and competes with him for the attention of their tutor. Claudia also remembers their first conversations about sex. Gorgon, a year older, teased her for not knowing what he did about the mechanics of sexual intercourse.

Interwoven with Claudia’s memories are her meditations on the structure of her story, on which voices play the most important roles, and on how those memories connect with her ideas about wider history. She thinks for a while about the passengers of the Mayflower and the early European settlers in America. This reflection leads her to recall a visit to Plymouth with Gordon and Sylvia while Gordon was teaching at Harvard.

Waking in her hospital room, Claudia panics when she can’t remember the word for “curtain.” This moment leads her to consider language and how it shapes our thoughts and realities.

Claudia recalls taking Lisa, then five or six, for a walk in the woods. As with many of their interactions, both mother and daughter left feeling frustrated. Claudia because she failed to connect with her daughter and then got bored of her, and Lisa because she sensed her mother’s lack of interest in her and longed for more attention. The narrative shifts, as happens often throughout the novel, to show the event from Lisa’s perspective as well. Claudia moves on to remembering Lisa’s wedding and other encounters with Lisa as a young girl.

Lisa visits her mother in the hospital. She intentionally keeps the conversation on impersonal, mundane things. Claudia notices but decides to keep the peace and does not push Lisa for more. It is strange for Claudia to look at her daughter and see a middle-aged woman.

Chapters 6-10 are largely dedicated to Claudia’s recollections of her time in Egypt during WWII. She managed to land a job as a war correspondent writing for a few British newspapers, reporting on the Western Desert Campaign from Cairo. Cairo is a modern, comfortable city with many of the comforts of home life, including social clubs and polo fields. Claudia shares an apartment with a woman who works for the embassy.

While Claudia is with a few other journalists on an escorted tour of some of the battlegrounds in the desert, their Jeep breaks down. They are rescued by a tank commander, Tom Southern, with whom Claudia has a brief but passionate love affair. After Tom gets Claudia and the other journalists home safely, he looks her up every time he has leave from the front. The two fall in love. Tom brings out a softer, more thoughtful side to Claudia. Tom is killed in action. Before he dies, Claudia realizes that she is pregnant, but it ends in a pregnancy loss. Claudia returns home after the war, heartbroken. While they are together, Tom mentions that he keeps a diary. At the end of the novel, just before she dies, Claudia rereads his diary.

In Chapter 11, Claudia thinks back on the incestuous affair that she had with Gordon. It lasted for a few summers when they were both in college. He was the first man she was sexually interested in, and she describes viewing him as a male version of herself. She notes that their relationship was forever altered by their affair, bringing an exclusionary closeness that others find difficult to tolerate even without knowing why.

Jasper visits Claudia in the hospital. She tries to start a debate with him, because she loves a good argument, but he resists.

Claudia recounts the highlights of her career, which included writing for prominent newspapers, publishing well-received books, and even consulting for a movie about Cortez and Montezuma. She recalls her last moments with her brother, who wanted to argue with her until the very end.

In the 1950s, Claudia supports a young Hungarian art student, Laszlo, who cannot return home due to political unrest. He becomes like a son to her, much to Lisa’s chagrin. Laszlo visits Claudia in the hospital during her final days. She asks him to bring Tom’s diary from her home (without revealing what it is—their relationship has been a secret all these years); she wishes to read it one more time.

Chapter 16 is dedicated to Tom’s diary, the first time that the reader has access to Tom’s perspective. It reveals the trauma of war, but also Tom’s optimistic hopes for a future with Claudia, whom he thought of often.

Having revisited the major events of her life, Claudia spends her final moments thinking of Tom and how much she needs him and her other loved ones. She thinks that she will be preserved in their memories, much like Tom has been in hers. The novel concludes with her death and with the image of the evening news turning on in her now-empty hospital room.

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