The Tiger, poster child for literary symbolism

From the Bengal tiger in LIFE OF PI to Rudyard Kipling’s Shere Khan in THE JUNGLE BOOK to Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes fame, the tiger is among the most pre-eminent of literary (and sometimes not so literary) symbols. Poet William Blake nails the tiger’s perfect symbol-ness in “The Tyger” (1797) when he describes a creature at once awesomely beautiful and terrifying. Anything that confusing has to mean something. Speculation has been all over the place as to what Blake’s tiger symbolizes including the evil or the presence of evil in the world and, paradoxically, the divine.

Now, there’s THE TIGER’S WIFE by Tea Olbrecht. This runaway best book of 2011 has generated a lot of discussion among our family and friends. The book club had an enthusiastic discussion about it although one member complained later that we hadn’t adequately addressed the book’s symbolism (presumably the tiger).
Like Blake’s tiger, Obrecht’s is dichotomous. An escapee from a zoo in an unnamed Balkan country, the tiger stalks a mountain village terrorizing the villagers except for the butcher’s mute wife who feeds him and invites him in to purr on her hearth. Witness to all of this is a young boy, who knows about tigers from THE JUNGLE BOOK, a copy of which he carries with him into later life when he becomes the grandfather of the book’s narrator. The tiger’s story is among many stories in the book which vividly evokes the Balkan wars of the 1990’s.

The tiger is what captivates our stepfather, who has read the book twice partly to suss out the meaning of the big cat. There are two tigers, he muses, “One is Shere Khan and the other, the actual tiger which terrified villagers and indeed, ate some of them…”

Tea Obrecht has given a fair number of interviews about her book, including the following excerpt from The Daily Beast in which she describes her intent vis-a-vis the tiger:

“I think animals can end up being symbols, but I've never begun a story using an animal as a stand-in for a theme or as a metaphor. With the tiger, for instance, I was interested in his character's journey. Whatever he came to represent to the people of the village, the origins of the tiger in the context of the narrative. Animals have a way of tapping into human emotions and strife as well.”

But who can let go of the notion that something that magnificent has to mean something. “Yes,” says our stepfather, when we share the above quote with him, “that may have been what she intended, but it doesn’t stop the tiger from being a symbol.” He ruminates, “The tiger escaped from the zoo. It was half tame. Half wild, but half tame.” He pauses to be sure we have absorbed the significance of that and then, he pounces, “It is hard not to see it as a metaphor for the Croatian people.”

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

–       William Blake