Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Happy August the Tenth” was written during a crucial period in Tennessee Williams’s own life, and Elphinstone clearly represents Williams, who had himself been in psychoanalysis. Williams had broken up with Frank Merlo, his lover of several years. After the breakup, which was caused in part by Williams’s flagrant infidelities, Merlo became seriously ill and finally died. Williams, who spent much of his time at Merlo’s bedside during the final months of Merlo’s life, felt great guilt about his treatment of Merlo, whom he loved deeply. In many respects, “Happy August the Tenth” provides insights into Williams’s relationship with Merlo. More important, the story points to what might have been. It suggests that they could have gone on together, although in the continuation of their relationship they would have been quite unlikely to find peace or even what most people would regard as happiness.

The story suggests that people are essentially in a trap. They engage regularly in love-hate relationships, but interdependence keeps these relationships together in spite of the incredible cruelty that frequently characterizes them. If this story is a comment on the nature of people, it suggests that people feel very much alone, very much excluded, and that they reach out for any kind of relationship that will make them feel a part of something.

A naturalistic determinism pervades most of Williams’s major dramas, and that determinism is also a part of this story. When Horne views New York City as a great necropolis, when she views its tall buildings as tombstones, she is essentially suggesting that people have little control over their own destinies. She is better resigned to this reality than Elphinstone is. Elphinstone wants more from life—she searches genealogies, ferrets out past greatness. Horne more realistically works for a journal that deals with social commentary, that deals with the here and the now. Elements of the kind of nihilism that pervades the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Edward Albee, and Samuel Beckett are present in this story and in much of Williams’s other work.