Reading Like a Writer: THE TIGER'S WIFE and Strange Perspective

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife is about a young doctor who pieces together the history of her grandfather—a mysterious life story that is filled with fairy tale-like magic—while she cares for orphans in a war-torn country.

I want to look at the somewhat peculiar POV that happens in The Tiger's Wife. The book is narrated in the first-person, but it's a knowledgeable first-person. The character doing the talking tells about scenes she was not yet born to witness and even gives the thoughts of other characters. She gets away with this because she's done a lot of research about the things she can't know. She also takes a lot of liberties with her storytelling, speculating when necessary, but weaving those guesses together with what she assures us are facts. So we know she makes things up, but we also believe her.

One of the wildest leaps of this storyteller is when she goes into the perspective of a tiger. And yet, I believe it.

He did not fear the hunter because he did not know how or why he should. He knew only that the smell that clung to this man was different—a cluttered smell, the smell of earth and heavy rot, of possessions over which death had been repeatedly smeared—and he found that it did not invite him. It did not invite him when he watched the man from his clearing from the ridge, or when he found it around his old hiding places along paths he had walked the day before. It was not the hunter's smell, but the scent of a badger, unsteady and warm with winter sleep, that he followed down from Sveti Danilo the day he came across the ox cart, hidden in a pine grove.

The tiger had come up from behind, upwind of the cart, and the surprising shape, the sheer size, of the cart had pulled him down onto his belly. Crouching behind it, he could see beyond the bracken to were the wheels had sunk into the snow, and the where the oxen stood, half-blind with hair, flank to flank for warmth, their breath curling out. The smell of the hunter was everywhere.

The tiger lay in the black thicket behind the wagon for a long time, waiting for something, something just out of reach of his understanding of the situation. Then the wind turned and the oxen got his scent and they began to shift nervously, their harnesses clanking, the chains that yoked them to the wagon shuddering with silver sound. This pulled him forward a little, only a little, out of the bracken, and their side-slit eyes caught sight of him, and the wagon rumbled forward as they bolted. The tiger, finding his instincts slammed open, was up and running, a full rush of blood already in his chest as he cleared the wagon and sprang for the hindquarters of the ox on the right. He had him, for a moment—claws ripping into the hips and his teeth on the thick base of the tail—but then there was the harness and the cart and the other ox, and somewhere in the confusion something struck him in the ribs and he let go and dropped away, and was left behind, watching the cart's wavering path until it came to rest beyond the clearing.

The first-person perspective is still there, but effaced in this moment, so the passage functions as a close third-person telling, aligned to the tiger. We feel like we're inside the tiger's head, experiencing his thoughts and sensations. It's almost hypnotic. And yet, this is a tiger! Paradoxically, I think Obreht brings us close to the tiger by creating a peculiar distance—it feels fuzzy to me like a daydream does. The fuzziness is why I believe it is tiger.

Perhaps the distance I feel is not to the tiger's consciousness but the distance the tiger must feel to a clear or human understanding of the world. I'm inside the brain of something that sorts and processes the world in a way unknown to me.

One way Obreht creates this fuzziness is through a carefully controlled sense of disorientation. We are told of it in "something just out of reach of his understanding" but also made to feel the out-of-grasp-ness because the "something" is not named. We can figure out what is going on, but it is not spelled out. Rather, a jumble of images first "clutters" my brain, then is sorted. A jumble of unsorted images happens again later, with the same effect: "but then there was the harness and the cart and the other ox, and somewhere in the confusion something struck him in the ribs." In each of these cases, the moment before the sorting mimics what I take to be a tiger's understanding.

What the tiger knows often comes out of the negative. "He did not fear the hunter because he did not know how or why he should." So we're made to imagine the tiger's thoughts but without the clarity of having those thoughts spelled out for us. What is the absence of fear caused by the absence of knowing? It's a strange way to experience an emotion and thus makes another sort of haze.

Obreht also uses different forms of filtering (a habit often discouraged by writing instructors and workshops) to create an underwater feel. Phrases like "he could see," rather than either "he saw" or cutting the filtering altogether, put the reader at a remove from the one doing the seeing. Similarly, sometimes the grammar makes it clear it's what he must see instead of what he does see, again making us feel not so much inside the tiger's head as standing beside or above him. Even a construction like "watching the cart's wavering path" hints at the way we are outside the tiger's brain. Watching implies striving to see, rather than easy sight and so we get the sense of some barrier.

All of this creates distance instead of immediacy. But in this case it's distance that creates the sense of tiger. It acknowledges that the tiger's way of knowing is not the same as ours. We're forced to squint and that feels more like tiger than anything else would. Through all of this distancing, we still understand that we're experiencing these things with the tiger. Perhaps it's the reader's struggle to push past the distancing techniques that creates the haze I'm so excited about. Or maybe that idea is too wild.

"The smell of the hunter was everywhere" is interesting in this regard, too. It makes the scent bigger, of course, which feels right for the tiger's experience of it. (Whether or not it is biologically true that tigers have a keen sense of smell, it's common for human beings to understand animals this way.) But it also keep us at that wary distance, at arm's length. We're not exactly told the tiger smells it or that we're smelling it through the tiger. Standing beside the tiger, we'd get the same effect, right? But would it be so overpowering? Probably not. This is a way to get us as close as possible to the tiger, but still acknowledging how impossible it is to really get the tiger's perspective. The paradox creates a wondrous sense of otherness—of tiger.

We should also consider the way the tiger doesn't move, but is pulled. Even when he acts, it's as if he can't help it. The phrase "it did not invite him" is repeated. Another example is "this pulled him forward a little." It would be more active to say he does or does not like, but this method establishes that repulsion and attraction are not things the tiger owns or controls. It feels like instinct instead of decision. Even when Obreht is explicit about the tiger's instincts, "finding his instincts slammed open" the phrasing emphasizes the way the tiger is at the mercy of those instincts instead of commanding them because he "finds" that it has happened.

It's also important that the passage focuses on sensations rather than thoughts. We get a lot of smells, as makes sense for a tiger: "the smell of earth and heavy rot, of possessions over which death had been repeatedly smeared." The smearing of death over possessions seems a bit deep, a bit abstract for a tiger, and yet it doesn't have to be taken that way. Some of the brilliance of the line is in how a tiger might understand smeared death as a body and its secretions even as a human being can think of it more metaphorically. Related, is the phrase "full rush of blood already in his chest." It's a brilliant example of making an emotion physical by putting it in the body and describing the literal sensations.

I like that the shape and size of the cart—rather than simply the sight of it—is surprising. The tiger must see these things, but the phrasing implies he might sense them in other ways. I also love that the tiger can experience something like breath as having a shape—of "curling out." Human beings can only see or feel shapes, but if our sense of smell were stronger, maybe we could also smell shapes, as the tiger must be doing with the oxen's breath. The senses are crossed again with the phrase "silver sound." The synesthesia of these descriptions works to refresh our understanding of the world and accustom us to a way of knowing that is vastly different, literally exposing us to new uses of the senses.

I love that so many of the strategies I've just talked about are frequently argued against. And yet, here, they are exactly right. In this passage, a carefully controlled distance, combined with immediacy of sensation, creates a mesmerizing fuzziness—the spellbinding pull of a tiger.