University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Tea with the birds
The human being is a social creature with an essential need to socialize, but in our modern society many people feel that they are isolated and lonely in a world surrounded by people. The people of modern society are prejudice and judgmental towards the ‘unknown’ person, and we will rather observe and assume things about each other than getting to know one another. This is also the case for the main character and her neighbors in Joanne Harris novel ‘Tea with the birds’ from 2001. The narrator lives in a flat in Mortimer Street. The narrator describes Mortimer Street as being “busy without being comfortable; crowded without being friendly”.Mortimer street has a sense of coldness around it, and no-one really knows their neighbors even though they “live like birds in cages”. The coldness suits the narrator, because she enjoys the solitude, privacy and silence of her own flat.
This has aroused her neighbors’ curiosity and suspicious towards her, because as she describes “I’m a completely different race from my neighbors”. Both the narrator and her neighbors consider her as an outsider, but this does not bother the narrator. Her neighbors consider her as being snobby cause of her reluctance to speak with them. Therefore her neighbors observe her and presume, she is a student nurse and she doesn’t bother to correct them. Mortimer Street is a reflection on the narrators own personality. She is very introverted and doesn’t have an interest in getting to know her neighbors. The narrator lives her lonely life, until the day when Mr. Juzo Tamaoki moves in the apartment opposite to hers. “Another foreigner said the Mortimer Street grapevine, with barely concealed disapproval”.
This once again shows Mortimer Streets residents’ insecurity towards anyone different from them self. When the narrator and Mr. Tamaoki meet, his expression reminds her of a bird, she once saw in a zoo and still sees every morning, when she looks in the mirror. The bird resembles the narrator in the way that it has been bred in captivity, and the narrator has been kept in captivity in the two years she spent in a psychological hospital. The two years of solitude and silence and being hidden away from others has affected the narrator’s psychology, as she is now overwhelmed by the free and loud world and she has become introverted.
The narrators` only wishes towards Mr. Tamaoki is that he will be quiet and leave her alone, and to her surprise he is the most silent neighbor, she ever had and he keeps to himself. Mr. Tamaoki begins to awaken her curiosity and interest, as she realizes that he is as much a foreigner in Mortimer Street as herself. He always nods and smiles, when he meets the narrator. This is the only kind of social contact, they have with each other. Mr. Tamaoki seems as the perfect neighbor, until he starts receiving a delivery of groceries at five-thirty in morning, which wakes the narrator because she suffers from insomnia. The narrator tries to complain to Mr. Tamaoki by pinning notes to his door, and she starts to resent Mr. Tamaoki for his lack of responds.
The narrator’s irritation over Mr. Tamaoki lack of responds shows that she has an interest in social human contact. The narrator doesn’t want to admit her interest in social human contact, so she disguises her interest as irritation and resentment. The narrator starts observing Mr. Tamaoki and becomes like the neighbors’ without noticing it herself. Mr. Tamaoki is both a reflection of the narrator’s current person and the person, she wishes to become even though the narrator is ignorant of this fact.
Mr. Tamaoki is a foreigner in a new country, where he does not speak the native language. This isolates him from the rest of Mortimer Streets residents. The narrator thinks that Mr. Tamaoki resembles herself ,because she believes that he has chosen to isolate himself from the other residents’ of Mortimer Street. This however is not the case. The narrator overhears Mr. Tamaoki practicing English phrases and this shows that Mr. Tamaoki has a desire to interact with people.
This desire is shown again, when Mr. Tamaoki invites the narrator in for a cup of tea. This interaction translates to the title of the novel. The narrator has previously compared Mr. Tamaoki and herself to the bird from the zoo. Now the two birds are sitting in Mr. Tamaoki apartment drinking tea. Even though the narrator and Mr. Tamaoki sit in silence, she feels comfortable around another person. Mr. Tamaoki stands op after a while and get the narrator to look in the refrigerator. There she sees a colorful display of vegetable birds. She is amazed, and she notices how beautiful and detailed every bird is.
The narrator`s anger towards the vegetable delivery disappears. When the narrator was unaware of the use of the vegetables’ ,they were an irritation to her but after she discovered the use of them, she sees the beauty in them. The narrator describes how people would perhaps wonder the birds briefly but they where most likely to ignore them altogether and therefore ever discover their beauty. These birds are a symbol of how the people of modern society observe and do not make an effort to discover the beauty and details of others.
Mr. Tamaoki leaves Mortimer Street soon after the visit. Mortimer Street was Mr. Tamaokis nest. It was isolated and safe from the rest of world, but Mr. Tamaoki has left the nest by moving and is now facing the world.
The narrator starts missing the sounds and movements coming from Mr. Tamaoki apartment after his departure. The coldness of Mortimer Street is no longer a comfort to her, and the narrator starts noticing her other neighbors. One day she finds the door to Mr. Tamaoki apartment open, and she goes inside where she finds a packet of Japanese green tea with her name on it. The narrator decides to invite her new neighbor in for a cup of tea. The departure of Mr. Tamaoki has made the narrator realize that people are not supposed to live like birds in cages. People should interact with each other like birds are meant to be flying among other birds and not be watched though the bars of a cage. The novel also ends with “… In the semi-darkness of my room, with the fire casting stilted red shadows on the wall, the rising steam looked like a bird’s wings fluttering, ready to fly away.” The narrator is now ready to fly freely among other people.