Owp! (or “The Mother Who Came to A Crisis Point”)

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I have read Judith Kerr's The Tiger Who Came to Tea aloud many times. I have had read it aloud, perhaps, 6322 times. That's no exaggeration. Or if it is, it's only slight. I've read it in day-lit rooms. I've read it, squinting, in gloomy rooms. I've "read" it in pitch-dark rooms, where I've realised that the physical book has now become just a prop for the benefit of a toddler who likes things just so. I know it off by heart. Every line.

So I feel I'm speaking with some expertise when I say that the Tiger is not just a trickster and a sprite, but a sort of Macguffin. He enters the world of Sophie and her mother, eats the edibles, drinks the drinkables, and departs. Leaving Sophie's mother unable to give her child a bath (the Tiger having consumed all the water in the pipes) and, crucially, unable to prepare tea for the father/husband who's due home imminently.

The image of her alone in the desolation of her kitchen, pondering this dilemma, sadly, always makes me cry. Even when it's dark. And I can't see her (but can still imagine her).

Enter the father/husband.

We then have the book's most haunting, and telling, image.

Sophie's mother animatedly explains the outrageous reasons for the absence of food on the table. The father/husband sits, listening, with the weary/resigned (?) look of someone who's been down this road before. Domestic chaos. No tea. Bare cupboards. An unwashed child. A "Tiger" blamed.

If this were a gritty, kitchen-sink, 60s play the drunken ogre of a husband might now explode into "Where's me dinner?!" violence. But there's no judgement. No fury. Just the tender suggestion that they all head out into the night to the local café for sausages and chips and ice-cream. The crippling loneliness, boredom and frustration of Sophie's mum's socially-enforced domestic servitude (echoing Betty Friedan's "the problem that has no name") may have conjured the Tiger – as a friend and a companion, an excuse and a justification – but he has perhaps, served his purpose. As an agent of change. An animal spirit guide. And Sophie loves him.

And so, in the morning, they go shopping and buy lots more things to eat. And a very big tin of Tiger food in case the Tiger should ever come to tea again.

But he never does.1

Footnotes
  1. How to read this. Is the husband's "resignation" actually of the "poor hysterical/addled woman, I must humour her" variety? Is the trip to the café, instead, an act of love? Does the Tiger's failure to return really signal change (and a new harmony), or is this the death of a cherished sustaining fantasy? I may have to squint at it in the gloom some more. [back]

December 20, 2011

11 responses to Owp! (or “The Mother Who Came to A Crisis Point”)

  1. Jo said:

    Oh My God.

  2. I’ve read this many times and always hear the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s little helper in my head when I read it. My take: The mother is a lush (or on heavy medication), the father a put-upon forebearing company man – look at those dead soul-less eyes. Ken Loach and Mike Leigh could never do this book justice.
    The clue to the fantasist aspect is on the next page of the book when they’re walking down the street – A striped tabby cat on the sidewalk. The trip to the cafe? – Not an act of love, just pragmatism – That child needs to be fed.

  3. fústar said:

    Walter – Someone else just mentioned the cat. A “tiger” now reduced from fantasy object to banal, everyday moggy.

    There may be medication involved (and even some lushness), but given the domestic realities, who can blame her?

  4. Eadaoin said:

    My familiarity with the work has been similarly honed over a period of multiple re-readings in dimly lit rooms. For me Sophie’s Mummy represents the resourceful mother figure, entering Sophie’s created world of an imaginary tea party. The tiger is reality knocking on the door: “all Daddy’s beer” hints at what Sophie has been unable to name. Daddy returns and appears remorseful, but the illustrations betray the fact that nothing has changed, as Daddy washes down his sausages and chips with a pint of beer.

  5. fústar said:

    So, Daddy’s an alcoholic, and Mummy’s an alcoholic? And the “Tiger”, who gulped back all Daddy’s beer, is an alcoholic? So, the only one who *isn’t* an alcoholic is (debatably) Sophie?

  6. fústar said:

    Actually, Eadaoin, now I look at the final image above it looks more and more like a father full of pie-eyed bonhomie who swans in full of mad ideas. Being brought back to his senses by a mother fire-fighting on the front line. Or the opposite. Truly this story is all things to all readers.

  7. Emma said:

    This made me cry, which may be much more to do with my weird childhood than your interpretation of the story. Either way, I love this story and your blog made it better.

  8. fústar said:

    Thanks, Emma. Much appreciated.

  9. Pingback: Chocolate Coated Teddy Thrill | Shannon McEwan

  10. Phill said:

    This article is really sad and depressing… It’s a good example of what family troubles alcoholism may cause.

  11. Sean Blair said:

    The dad is Nigel Kneale by the way…

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