Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams Essay - Tennessee Williams Short Fiction Analysis

Tennessee Williams Short Fiction Analysis

Although during his lifetime Tennessee Williams was commonly held to be without peer among America’s—many would say the world’s—playwrights, he began his career writing short fiction, with a story entitled “The Vengeance of Nitocris” in Weird Tales in 1928. As late as 1944, when his first theatrical success was in rehearsal, George Jean Nathan reportedly observed that Williams “didn’t know how to write drama, that he was really just a short-story writer who didn’t understand the theatre.” In proportion to the worldwide audience familiar with Williams’s dramas, only a handful know more than a story or two, usually from among the ones later transformed into stage plays. Seven of Williams’s full-length dramas, in fact, had their genesis in the fiction: The Glass Menagerie in “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”; Summer and Smoke (1947) in “The Yellow Bird”; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in “Three Players of a Summer Game”; The Night of the Iguana and Kingdom of Earth (1968) in stories of the same names; The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963) in “Man Bring This Up Road”; and Vieux Carré (1977) in “The Angel in the Alcove” and “Grand.”

“The Night of the Iguana”

The play The Night of the Iguana is sufficiently different from its progenitor to indicate how Williams rethought his material in adapting it to another medium. Both works portray a spinsterish artist, Miss Jelkes; but while Hannah in the play has fought for and achieved inner peace, Edith’s harsher name in the story belies her edginess, neurosis, and lack of “interior poise.” Having channeled her own “morbid energy” into painting, she discerns in the contrasting “splash of scarlet on snow a flag of her own unsettled components” warring within her. When a servant at the Costa Verde hotel tethers an iguana to the veranda, Edith recoils hysterically from such brutality against “one of God’s creatures,” taking its suffering as proof of a grotesque “universe designed by the Marquis de Sade.”

This picture of cosmic indifference, even malevolence, occurs in a handful of Williams’s stories, most notably in “The Malediction,” in which the lonely Lucio exists in a meaningless universe verging on the absurd, ruled by a God “Who felt that something was wrong but could not correct it, a man Who sensed the blundering sleep-walk of time and hostilities of chance” and “had been driven to drink.” Edith finds God personified in a violent storm “like a giant bird lunging up and down on its terrestrial quarry, a bird with immense white wings and beak of godlike fury.”

Her fellow guests at the hotel are two homosexual writers. Squeamish and yet attracted by the forbidden nature of their relationship, Edith insinuates herself into their company only to become the object of a desperate attack on her “demon of virginity” by the older of the two. Although she has earlier hinted that she always answers, with understanding, cries for help from a fellow sufferer, she ferociously fends off his pathetic advances, metaphorically associated with the predatory “bird of blind white fury.” Afterward, however, once the younger man has mercifully cut loose the iguana, Edith feels her own “rope of loneliness had also been severed,” and—instead of drawing back in “revulsion” from “the spot of dampness” left on her belly by the older writer’s semen—exclaims “Ah, life,” evidently having reached through this epiphanic moment a new acceptance and integration of her sexuality. Yet, unlike Hannah, whose compassionate response to Shannon in the play is for him a saving grace and who can affirm, along with Williams, that “Nothing human disgusts me unless it’s unkind, violent,” Edith’s inability to answer unselfishly the older man’s need—the cardinal sin in Williams—may have permanently maimed him by destroying his self-respect.

Williams does not always capitalize fully on his gift for writing dialogue in his stories. For all its interest in light of the later play, the pace of “The Night of the Iguana” is curiously desultory and enervated, which might not have been true if the story had been written from Edith’s point of view. Williams does indeed prove adept at handling first-person narration in several autobiographical tales, whose content seems hardly distinguishable at times from the sections of the Memoirs (1975).

“The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin”

He can, however, become annoyingly self-conscious when, in authorial intrusions analogous to the nonrepresentational techniques that deliberately destroy the illusion of reality in his dramas, he breaks the narrative line in a dozen or so stories to interject comments about himself as writer manipulating his materials, sometimes apologizing for his awkwardness in handling the short-story form, or for playing too freely with chronology or radically shifting tone. At times these stories provide some notion of Williams’s aesthetic theories and practice, as when, in “Three Players of a Summer Game,” for example, he discusses the method by which the artist orders experience by a process that distorts and “yet may be closer than a literal history could be to the hidden truth of it.” These “metafictional” asides might indicate his conception of character portrayal. On that point—while without qualms at employing clinical details when necessary—Williams insists, in “Hard Candy,” on the need for “indirection” and restraint rather than “a head-on violence that would disgust and destroy” if he is to remain nonjudgmental and respect the “mystery” at the heart of character.

An almost identical comment occurs in “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” part of a small group of rites de passage stories in the Williams canon. The story centers on a love triangle of sorts as the young narrator faces the destruction of the “magical intimacy” with his pianist sister as she enters adolescence—that “dangerous passage” between the “wild country of childhood” and the “uniform world of adults”—and turns her attentions towards a fellow musician, Richard Miles. It is as if she has deserted the narrator and “carried a lamp into another room [he] could not enter.” He resents the “radiant” Richard, but also feels a frightening prepubescent physical attraction for the older boy. Like many of Williams’s adult neurotics whose libidinous desires rebel against their Puritan repressions, the narrator longs to touch Richard’s skin, yet recoils in shame and guilt from the boy’s offer of his hand as if it were somehow “impure.” Seeing Richard play the violin, however, provides an epiphany as the narrator “learns the will of life to transcend the single body” and perceives the connection between Eros and Thanatos. For the narrator equates the act of playing the phallic violin with “making love,” and the violin case to “a little black coffin made for a child or doll.” He mourns the loss of youth and innocence and the birth of the knowledge of sin and...

(The entire section is 2952 words.)