The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin

by Tennessee Williams

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Tom, the twelve-year-old narrator, is bewildered because suddenly his sister is receiving all the attention from his mother and grandmother. The girl is said not to be feeling well, a euphemism for the fact that the physical manifestations of her passage from childhood to womanhood have just begun to show themselves. When Tom becomes frustrated with the situation and yells at his sister, his grandmother, who usually treats him with great gentleness, twists his ear. Tom wants his sister to go out and play but is told that she must practice her piano, which she starts to do. When Tom asks Grand why his sister cannot practice later, the girl flees from the piano in tears and goes to her bedroom. Tom does not know what to make of any of this.

The girl’s rites of passage are symbolized by her being taken downtown by her mother on an expedition from which Tom is excluded. When his sister and mother return, the girl’s long hair has been cut: “The long copperish curls which had swung below her shoulders, bobbing almost constantly with excitement, were removed one day.” Tom’s relationship with his sister has changed in ways that he cannot quite fathom.

Tom’s sister takes piano lessons from Miss Aehle, a spinster who is extremely encouraging of all of her students’ abilities, regardless of whether they are gifted. She need not exaggerate, however, to praise the musical virtues of Tom’s sister, who is a quite gifted pianist for her age. Soon, Miss Aehle’s students are to give a concert in the parish hall of Tom’s grandfather’s church. Tom’s sister and Richard Miles are to play a duet: she at the piano, Richard at the violin. The two practice constantly, both alone and together, in preparation for the event. These are troubling days for Tom’s sister, because her musical talent seems to be declining. She has great trouble remembering the music, and her fingers are not working well.

Richard, who is handsome, talented, and sensitive, has obviously stolen the heart of Tom’s sister, and Tom also feels a sexual attraction to Richard. He is disturbed at the awakening of his own sexuality: “How on earth did I explain to myself, at that time, the fascination of his [Richard’s] physical being without, at the same time, confessing to myself that I was a little monster of sensuality?” Not only has Tom lost his sister as a playmate, but he also finds himself in an unmentionable and, at the time in which the story is set, unthinkable competition with her for the affections of the same boy.

The concert takes place, and Tom’s sister, almost pathologically shy and sensitive, nearly goes to pieces before it. She complains that her hands are stiff. She fills her room with steam from the bath and opens the windows, which Grand closes, saying that the girl will catch her death of cold, whereupon the girl uncharacteristically snaps at the grandmother. Finally, she gets to the parish hall and tries to play her duet with Richard. She is so nervous that she cannot remember the piece beyond the first few pages, so she keeps returning to the beginning. Richard follows skillfully and does what he can to be understanding and encouraging. He plays loudly when she is making mistakes, and the pair receives an ovation, largely because of Richard’s skillful handling of a tense situation.

On the drive home from the parish hall, Tom’s family remains silent. Soon the family moves from the South. They learn that Richard, who had always seemed too good to be real, has died of pneumonia. The narrator muses on how Richard’s violin case had looked like a little black coffin made for a child or a doll.

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