The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin

by Tennessee Williams
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

Tennessee Williams is said to have used his short stories as sketch pads for his plays. Certainly, in the case of “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” the situation is reversed; it is the story in the Williams canon most closely related to The Glass Menagerie (1944)....

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Tennessee Williams is said to have used his short stories as sketch pads for his plays. Certainly, in the case of “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” the situation is reversed; it is the story in the Williams canon most closely related to The Glass Menagerie (1944). The story is autobiographical in all of its details, although the time sequence and locales are slightly distorted.

Williams’s own sister Rose was the very essence of Tom’s sister in this story, a beautiful but wretchedly insecure adolescent who grew into a neurotic and, finally, psychotic woman. Rose eventually had to be institutionalized and was lobotomized, after which she required custodial care lasting all of Williams’s lifetime. In actuality, Rose played the violin, not the piano, as the sister in the story did; in The Glass Menagerie, Rose fantasized about her collection of glass animals, the only things with which she felt safe and somewhat secure.

Williams constantly explored the question of what inroads the real world makes on the psyches of sensitive people. The Blanche DuBois-Stanley Kowalski relationship in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) centers on this same consideration. Blanche is the typical idealized southern woman who, like the women in Williams’s own family, has retained the gentility of the South’s vanished glory but has fallen on hard times. Stanley Kowalski represents the modern industrial age that will bring the gentle southerners to their knees, but in A Streetcar Named Desire, at least, not without the connivance and enticement of these southerners. In “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” the unfeeling world is more vague than it is in some of Williams’s other work, but it is still devastating to the sensitive.

Williams is concerned with sexual pressures as a root cause of human tensions, and “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin” clearly illustrates the effect of these pressures on the central characters in the story. However, Williams also drops hints about the effects that such pressures have on the parents in the story. Williams writes of the mother, “Upstairs my mother began to sing to herself which was something she only did when my father had just left on a long trip with his samples and would not be likely to return for quite a while.”

Obviously, the parents in the story do not have a close or loving relationship. As the story unfolds, Tom is systematically excluded from the family, a boy among three women—a grandmother, a mother, and a sister—who whisper among themselves about confidences to which the boy is not privy. The healthiest person in the story, Richard Miles, is ironically the one who does not live to maturity. One senses some kind of perverse divine retribution in the fact that the sister lives on with her great emotional pain, that Tom lives on with his unresolved guilt and his feeling of detachment from those he loves, while Richard, who seems well adapted to his world, is taken from it.

The theme of personal isolation pervades the story, for despite the fact that members of families cling to one another, the individual members of the family are very much isolated in their own discrete worlds. Tom’s sister, as she is seen here, is in the process of constructing around herself the wall behind which she will spend her life. In The Glass Menagerie, the wall becomes so strong as to be virtually impenetrable, and so did it come to be in the case of Williams’s own sister.

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