Hidden meaning of The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Puzzle: Critics argue the tiger symbolises everything from the Nazis to the 1960s’ sexual revolution. © Judith Kerr

Is it literature or just a great story? The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr will become a TV film, with an all-star cast, this Christmas. Critics say it is a powerfully symbolic tale.

“He ate all the supper that was cooking in the saucepans…and all the food in the fridge…and all the packets and tins in the cupboard.”

These comfortingly familiar words have been read aloud in millions of childhood bedrooms for more than 50 years. And, this Christmas, they will enter our living rooms in a new television adaptation of Judith Kerr’s classic children’s book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

The short film, which tells the story of a young girl stuck at home on a rainy day and a tiger with an insatiable appetite, features an all-star cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Tamsin Grieg and David Oyelowo.

“They all loved the book, had read it to their kids, so they said ‘yes’ straightaway,” explains producer Ruth Fielding.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea is not just a much-loved children’s book. For decades, it has provided a rich ground for literary critics to debate the symbolism of the charming, menacing and, above all, very hungry tiger.

Many have fixated on the invasion of the tiger into the family home as an allegory for life under the Nazis. Kerr’s family fled Germany in 1933 after her father, a prominent Jewish theatre critic, was placed on a Nazi death list. The experience gave rise to Kerr’s semi-autobiographical story When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

“Judith knows about dangerous people who come to your house and take people away,” argued children’s author Michael Rosen.

However, evidence suggests that the late author, who died in May aged 95, did not share these lofty interpretations.

“I remember asking Judith Kerr if the tiger symbolised the 1960s sexual revolution, where normal mores and suburban life became upended by this wild and exotic creature,” recalls newsreader Emily Maitlis. “She told me ‘no’, it was about a tiger coming to tea.”

Robin Shaw, who is directing the new film, agrees.

“You don’t have to put any deeper meaning into it. There’s no sort of moralistic or developmental story arc applied,” he said.

The word “literature” comes from the Latin “litaritura”, meaning “writing formed with letters”. For hundreds of years, the term encompassed pretty much anything written down.

It was only in the Romantic Period that the idea that true literature must be “imaginative” — with artistic, intellectual value — started to evolve.

Is The Tiger Who Came to Tea literature or just a great story?

A roaring success?

It’s a great story and it doesn’t need to be anything more, argue some. Kerr herself repeatedly resisted attempts by high-minded critics to impose symbolic meanings on her story of a tiger and a little girl. Are we so conceited that we need to prove that something is intellectual in order to allow ourselves to enjoy it? What’s wrong with a classic, well-written story?

But, according to reader-response theory, the author’s supposed intention doesn’t really matter. There is a reason why the book has been so appealing to literary critics: it is rife with enigmatic symbolism, with childhood grief, and with Freudian tensions between pleasure and fear. This is great literature in its purest form, whether the author acknowledged it or not.

You Decide

  1. Should children’s books count as literature?
  2. Do all great stories have some features in common?

Activities

  1. Draw a front cover for your own children’s book, in the style of Judith Kerr’s illustrations.
  2. Choose your favourite book. Write a two-minute speech to the class explaining why you love it.

Some People Say...

“I never think about telling small children what to think.”

Judith Kerr (1923-2019), English author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Judith Kerr illustrated her own stories. Aside from The Tiger Who Came to Tea, she is renowned for her 17-book series about a cat called Mog, and her longer novels for older children, which are based on her own experiences as a child during World War Two.
What do we not know?
What makes a great children’s book. In The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote that a good children’s book should “promote [the child’s] ability to find meaning in life […]. It must stimulate his imagination; help him to develop his intellect and to clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to his difficulties, while at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems which perturb him.”

Word Watch

Insatiable
Impossible to satisfy.
Symbolism
A thing that stands in for something else, particularly when a material object stands for an abstract idea.
Allegory
A story with a hidden meaning, usually moral or political, which needs to be interpreted.
Semi-autobiographical
A partly-fictionalised account of one’s own life.
Mores
Norms.
Romantic Period
In the late 18th century, Romantic writers and artists challenged the rational ideas of the Enlightenment by celebrating the human imagination.
Conceited
Vain.
Reader-response
A school of thought that centres on the experience of the reader in creating the meaning of a text. It stands in contrast to other critical schools that try to understand the author’s intentions to better understand the text.
Enigmatic
Mysterious; difficult to understand.
Pleasure and fear
Critic Tim Beasley-Murray wrote an essay called ‘A Wolf in Tiger’s Clothing: Danger, Desire, and Pleasure in Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea’.

Subjects

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