A. S. Byatt

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What elements in "The Thing in the Forest" suggest "The Thing" was real, and which suggest it was not?

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In "The Thing in the Forest," some elements that suggest that "The Thing" is real are the vividness of detail in the story's descriptions, the legends of the Loathly Worm, and the women's certainty about their experience. Its existence as only imaginary is suggested by the narrator's discussion of dreams and the women's failure to encounter the creature again.

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“The Thing.” It's mysterious. It's horrible. It's the stuff of nightmares. But it is real? Penny and Primrose certainly believe they really see it when they enter the forest as two small girls and cling to each other in terror as they hide behind a fallen tree. But do they? Or are they merely imagining this strange creature? Readers may well come to different conclusions about the reality of “The Thing,” and the story provides evidence that points both ways, real and imaginary, and lets us decide the question for ourselves.

First, let's examine some evidence that suggests “The Thing” is indeed real. The sensory details surrounding its appearance are so detailed and vivid that we can hardly imagine that two little girls would be able to make them up. The girls hear the creature distinctly. It crunches, crackles, crushes, thumps, and thrashes. It gulps, boils, steams, and puffs. All other forest sounds are overtaken by its racket.

Its odor, too, encompasses everything else around the girls. “The Thing” stinks! It smells like something dead, something covered in maggots, something rotten. The girls are reminded of bad eggs and unclean drains. Then they see “The Thing,” and they know they will never forget its strange face,

which was triangular...like a rubbery or fleshy mask over a shapeless sprouting bulb of a head;

its expression of “pure misery” and intense pain; or its blind eyes. They notice all the bits and pieces it carries with it (or perhaps that it is made out of?), and they watch as it splits itself in half to move around trees and stones. How could two little girls make up such a horror? Could their imaginations be that strong or that vivid?

As adults, when Penny and Primrose return to the house, now a museum, they discover that perhaps they are not the only ones who have seen “The Thing.” Together they read about the “Loathly Worm” that

had infested the countryside and had been killed more than once by scions of that house.

The book's description of the Worm seems very much like their memories of “The Thing,” and Primrose suddenly declares, “We saw that thing. When we were in the forest.” “Yes, we did,” Penny agrees. “We saw it.” Penny has never doubted her experience or her memory for an instant. “I remember all of it,” she says,

there isn't a bit of it I can manage to forget. Though I forget all sorts of things.

Primrose agrees that the memory has stuck in her mind, too, “like a tapeworm in your gut.” Both women admit that their recollection of “The Thing” has done them “no good.” This, too, suggests that “The Thing” is real, that Penny and Primrose actually saw it, because why would they cling so closely to a memory of something they merely made up, especially when they feel the negative power of their recollections?

Yet is “The Thing” real? The story never says so explicitly. In fact, it includes other evidence that make us readers doubt whether the two girls in the forest actually see such a hideous creature. The narrator compares the girls' experience to dreams, speaking first of the bits and pieces of recollections from their time as evacuees that the girls carry into womanhood. These are small things. Primrose remembers milk, Penny a woman's empty corsets hanging on a clothesline. But the memories they have of “The Thing,” the narrator continues, are most like those remembered from

very few dreams—almost all nightmares—that have the quality of life itself.

Perhaps, the narrator suggests, the sensory details of their memories are a little too vivid, a bit too precise, rather too detailed to be real. They are more like the remnants of an especially vivid dream.

Also, when the women return to the forest many years later, they do not see “The Thing.” Primrose sits in a clearing, remembering her life but not really focusing on “The Thing.” Instead, she allows the details of her life to roll over her as she reflects on the meaning of all that has passed. Penny takes a more observant stance. She notices things that might suggest the passing of “The Thing,” broken plants, little pieces of fur, even some newsprint and cotton, but none of those prove that “The Thing” had been there. She notices other debris, too, and even some small bones that might be human (the unfortunate Alys?), or perhaps not, perhaps those of a fox or a badger. Nothing proves the existence of “The Thing.” Penny does think that she hears something, smells something, perhaps even sees the outline of something, but just as quickly, the experience is gone.

So is “The Thing” real or not? The story never tells us. We readers are left to decide for ourselves. Is “The Thing” a product of the overactive imaginations of two frightened little girls? Or is it still in the forest, waiting for someone else to witness its horror?

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