Tennessee Williams Williams, Tennessee - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Tennessee Williams 1911-1983

(Born Thomas Lanier Williams) American playwright, novelist, essayist, short story writer, screenwriter, and memoirist. See also Tennessee Williams Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 5, 7, 8, 19, 30, 111.

While Williams is best known as one of the greatest American dramatists of the post-World War II era, he also wrote short stories that explore isolation and miscommunication within families and small groups of misfits and loners. These stories have often been viewed as simply apprentice works for his dramas, developing themes and characters that he later incorporated into his plays, but a number of critics have argued that they deserve to be considered on their own merits and have drawn comparisons between them and the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Mann.

Biographical Information

Born in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents at an Episcopal rectory in Clarksdale, Mississippi; his father, a traveling salesman, was frequently absent. After a near-fatal bout of diphtheria, Williams remained a sickly child in the constant care of his overprotective mother. He also developed a close attachment to his older sister, Rose, who suffered from schizophrenia and, later, mental deterioration after an unsuccessful lobotomy. In 1923 his family moved to St. Louis, where his father was transferred to assume a managerial position. To relieve his sense of isolation in his new environment, Williams began to write poetry and short fiction. At the age of sixteen, he won an essay contest sponsored by Smart Set magazine; the essay, entitled “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?,” became his first published work. In 1929 he entered the University of Missouri, though he was forced by his father to return home after failing ROTC in his third year. He took a menial job in a shoe warehouse and wrote short fiction and essays until suffering a nervous breakdown in 1935. During his convalescence, he collaborated on the comedy Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! (1935). After that experience, he decided to devote himself to writing. He began taking classes at Washington University in St. Louis, but subsequently transferred to the University of Iowa. In 1938 he received his bachelor's degree in English. The next year he published “The Field of Blue Children” in Story magazine, his first work to appear under the name Tennessee. That same year, he received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, which allowed him to write his play Battle of Angels (1940).

In the early 1940s Williams was offered a salaried position with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood; he produced several unaccepted screenplays, and was released at the end of his contract. His first major dramatic success, The Glass Menagerie, was staged in 1944 and won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award the next year. He followed this with several triumphs, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), both of which won New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. In the late 1950s Williams underwent intensive psychoanalysis to treat his depression, providing material for Suddenly Last Summer (1958), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and Period of Adjustment (1958). After Night of the Iguana (1960), his last notable success, Williams continued to produce numerous dramatic works of diminishing critical importance until the end of his life. His mental instability and increasing dependence upon drugs and alcohol worsened during the next two decades. In 1969 he was briefly hospitalized following another mental breakdown. On February 24, 1983, in New York City, he accidentally choked to death on the cap of a medicine bottle.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Like his drama, Williams's short fiction focuses on marginalized or outcast individuals struggling with their own fears and insecurities and is imbued with an air of melancholy and corruption. Critics identify the key thematic concerns in his fiction as decay, disease, dysfunction, abnormality, and the destructiveness of desire. Set in New Orleans, his story “One Arm” chronicles the downfall of the handsome Oliver Winemiller. After losing his arm in a car accident, Oliver must give up his career as a champion boxer and degenerates into a male hustler and alcoholic. He eventually murders a man who had paid him to participate in a pornographic movie. Awaiting execution, Oliver experiences an epiphany about his life, as well as regret over his actions, but he is put to death with “all his debts unpaid.” In “Desire and the Black Masseur,” which is considered an early version of Suddenly Last Summer, Anthony Burns visits a massage parlor and receives a rigorous massage from an African American masseur. Attracted to him, Burns returns again and again, forming a sadomasochistic relationship with the man. With his consent, Burns is tortured and eventually killed and eaten by the masseur, who gathers his bones in a sack and throws them into a lake. Critics perceive this story as an allegory for spiritual alienation and isolation. In “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which Williams eventually adapted as The Glass Menagerie, Tom escapes the claustrophobic intimacy of his relationship with his mentally ill sister, Laura, by joining the Merchant Marines. “Three Players of a Summer Game,” an early version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, concerns the deterioration of Brick Pollitt, a weak, wealthy man who struggles with alcoholism and impotence as well as an emasculating wife. When his one comfort, his relationship with a young widow and her daughter, fails, he is bereft of hope and falls back into his dysfunctional relationship with his wife.

Critical Reception

The critical reaction to Williams's short fiction has been mixed. Certainly his contribution as a short story writer has been overshadowed by his fame as a playwright, and scholars have often focused on how Williams developed his plays from ideas he introduced in his short stories. Some have regarded the stories as simplified and sharpened versions of his plays. Many reviewers have found his fiction morbid and grotesque and have compared it to that of Edgar Allan Poe. Detractors of Williams's work contend that he is a sadist who creates characters only to humiliate them, but his supporters assert that in general he treats his characters with sympathy and compassion. Some critics have seen in the stories' concern with the interplay of death and desire a similarity to works by Thomas Mann. Commentators have also examined autobiographical aspects of Williams's short stories, particularly his treatment of homosexuality and family dynamics. Recent studies have elucidated the role of women in his fiction, and have investigated his unconventional themes, experimental narrative technique, and use of symbols, particularly religious ones.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

One Arm and Other Stories 1948

Hard Candy: A Book of Stories 1954

Three Players of a Summer Game and Other Stories 1960

The Knightly Quest: A Novella and Four Short Stories 1966

Eight Mortal Ladies Possessed: A Book of Stories 1974

Collected Stories 1985

Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! [with Doris Shapiro] (play) 1935

Battle of Angels (play) 1940; revised as Orpheus Descending, 1957

The Glass Menagerie (play) 1944

27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other One-Act Plays (plays) 1946

A Streetcar Named Desire (play) 1947

Summer and Smoke (play) 1947; revised as Eccentricities of a Nightingale, 1966

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (novel) 1950

The Rose Tattoo (play) 1951

Camino Real (play) 1953

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (play) 1955

Suddenly Last Summer (play) 1958

Sweet Bird of Youth (play) 1959

Night of the Iguana (play) 1961

The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (play) 1962

The Seven Descents of Myrtle (play) 1968; revised as Kingdom of Earth, 1975

Memoirs (memoirs) 1975

Where I Live: Selected Essays (essays) 1978

William Peden (review date 8 January 1955)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Peden, William. “Broken Apollos and Blasted Dreams.” Saturday Review 38, no. 2 (8 January 1955): 11-12.

[In the following review, Peden offers a mixed assessment of One Arm and Other Stories.]

Tennessee Williams's One Arm and Other Stories contains some stories which have greatness in them; of some of the others, however, John Randolph's irreverent comment about Henry Clay seems appropriate: how like a dead mackerel in the moonlight [are they], that shines and stinks, and stinks and shines.

Characteristic is “Desire and the Black Masseur,” the story of Anthony Burns, a little man with “an instinct for being included in things...

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Luke M. Grande (essay date November 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Grande, Luke M. “Metaphysics of Alienation in Tennessee Williams' Short Stories.” Drama Critique 4, no. 3 (November 1961): 118-22.

[In the following essay, Grande argues that humanity's metaphysical alienation is a central theme of Williams's fiction.]

Simultaneous with the New York Times advertisements for Tennessee Williams' latest (but short-lived) drama, Period of Adjustment, came prophecies of a new and happier direction to his writing. Such predictions seemed not only premature (especially in light of the rather strained comedy that Period turned out to be and also word that The Night of the Iguana, based on a...

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William H. Peden (essay date summer 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Peden, William H. “Mad Pilgrimage: The Short Stories of Tennessee Williams.” Studies in Short Fiction 1, no. 4 (summer 1964): 243-50.

[In the following essay, Peden elucidates the defining characteristics of Williams's short fiction.]

The short stories in Tennessee Williams (1914-), collected in One Arm (1948) and Hard Candy (1954),1 have been largely overshadowed by the author's continuing success and notoriety as a playwright. In addition to possessing special interest as occasionally being the first or early versions of characters and situations eventually developed into full-length plays,2 Williams' stories are...

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Paul J. Hurley (essay date fall 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hurley, Paul J. “Williams' ‘Desire and the Black Masseur’: An Analysis.” Studies in Short Fiction 2, no. 1 (fall 1964): 51-5.

[In the following essay, Hurley views “Desire and the Black Masseur” as an allegory of spiritual masochism.]

That Tennessee Williams' plays have been more successful than his fiction has brought about a curious situation. Because his dramas have elicited so much (usually violent) critical controversy, his stories have remained relatively unnoticed. But readers of his novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, and his two collections of short stories, One Arm and Hard Candy, seem to agree that his fiction is...

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Lester A. Beaurline (essay date September 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Beaurline, Lester A. “The Glass Menagerie: From Story to Play.” Modern Drama 8, no. 2 (September 1965): 142-49.

[In the following essay, Beaurline traces the adaptation of the short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” into the play The Glass Menagerie.]

“Not even daring to stretch her small hands out!—nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” Tennessee Williams scrawled these words from e. e. cummings at the top of the last page of The Glass Menagerie sometime after finishing the one-act play that was to grow into his first successful work. The quotation suggests the gentle, elegiac tone that he tried to attain, and since the...

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Tom S. Reck (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Reck, Tom S. “The Short Stories of Tennessee Williams: Nucleus for His Drama.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 16 (1971): 141-54.

[In the following essay, Reck identifies three ways Williams utilized his short fiction in his plays.]

Especially for the Williams' loyalist, the playwright's current difficulties (The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, The Seven Descents of Myrtle, Slapstick Tragedy, and In a Bar of a Tokyo Hotel) ask for re-reading of his earlier successful works; i.e., you go back to them again in order to validate your original enthusiasm. And from here it is only a natural step, if you are familiar with...

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Charles E. May (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: May, Charles E. “Brick Pollitt as Homo Ludens: ‘Three Players of a Summer Game’ and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” In Tennessee Williams: 13 Essays, edited by Jac Tharpe, pp. 49-63. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1980.

[In the following essay, May investigates the cause of Brick's malaise and alienation in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, arguing that Williams's story “Three Players of a Summer Game” offers insight.]

If Maggie the Cat is one of Tennessee Williams' most dramatically engaging characters, her husband, Brick Pollitt, is one of his most metaphysically mysterious. Brick's enigmatic detachment in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has...

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Kathryn Zabelle Derounian (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Derounian, Kathryn Zabelle. “‘The Kingdom of Earth’ and Kingdom of Earth: (The Seven Descents of Myrtle): Tennessee Williams' Parody.” University of Mississippi Studies in English 4 (1983): 150-58.

[In the following essay, Derounian examines the connection between the story “The Kingdom of Earth” and Williams's later play Kingdom of Earth, focusing on his use of parody in both works.]

Tennessee Williams critics know that this playwright's composition process is more complex than most. The writer himself long ago revealed his usual procedure in producing full-length drama: “My longer plays emerge out of earlier one-acters or short...

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Gore Vidal (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Vidal, Gore. Introduction to Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories, pp. xix-xxv. New York: New Directions Books, 1985.

[In the following essay, Vidal considers Williams's stories as the “true memoir” of the author and underscores the role of physical desire in his short fiction.]


Thirty-seven years ago, to the day that I am writing this note, Tennessee Williams and I celebrated his thirty-seventh birthday in Rome, except that he said that it was his thirty-fourth birthday. Years later, when confronted with the fact that he had been born in 1911 not 1914, he said, serenely, “I do not choose to count as part of my life the...

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Gordon Weaver (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Weaver, Gordon. “Apprenticeship: The Early Years (1928-40).” In Tennessee Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3-22. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, Weaver provides an overview of Williams's early short stories.]

His name was not really Tennessee, of course; it was Thomas Lanier Williams. Nor was he from Tennessee; he neither was born nor lived there, except for two years in Nashville when he was too young to have remembered it and a few months with his grandparents in Memphis one summer. The nickname was hung on him at the University of Iowa by fellow students who could not remember just which of the Southern states this...

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Francesca M. Hitchcock (essay date fall 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hitchcock, Francesca M. “Tennessee Williams's ‘Vengeance of Nitocris’: The Keynote to Future Works.” Mississippi Quarterly 48 (fall 1995): 595-608.

[In the following essay, Hitchcock demonstrates the significance of “The Vengeance of Nitocris” to Williams's later work.]

Throughout his literary career, when asked about “love,” Tennessee Williams almost always answered with an explanation about his relationship with his sister, Rose. He called their love “the deepest of their lives,” a love that precluded the need for “extrafamilial attachments.”1 Various friends of Williams saw the connection between Tom and Rose as so close...

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Robert K. Martin (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Martin, Robert K. “Gustav von Aschenbach Goes to the Movies: Thomas Mann in the Joy Rio Stories of Tennessee Williams.” International Fiction Review 24, nos. 1-2 (1997): 57-64.

[In the following essay, Martin perceives “Hard Candy” and “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” as revisions of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Tonio Kröger.]

Tennessee Williams's short story “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” written in 1941 at the very beginning of his career before he was known at all as a playwright, appears to have held a particular fascination for the writer, for he returned to the material twelve years later, writing a second story, “Hard...

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Annette J. Saddik (essay date fall 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Saddik, Annette J. “The (Un)Represented Fragmentation of the Body in Tennessee Williams's ‘Desire and the Black Masseur’ and Suddenly Last Summer.Modern Drama 41, no. 3 (fall 1998): 347-54.

[In the following essay, Saddik explores the connection between homosexuality and cannibalism in “Desire and the Black Masseur” and Suddenly Last Summer.]

If psychoanalysis were to have an innovative role in a Fouca[u]ldian genealogy of the human subject in Western societies, it would not be because it explains our nature in terms of our sexuality (this would be merely an addition to the history of attempts to define a “human...

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Jürgen C. Wolter (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolter, Jürgen C. “Tennessee Williams's Fiction.” In Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 220-31. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Wolter outlines the prevalent critical approaches to Williams's short stories.]


Tennessee Williams's obvious urge to publicize his personal dilemmas shows not only in his Memoirs and the novel Moise and the World of Reason, which has been called a “fictional counterpart to the Memoirs” (Savran 154) and an “apologia pro vita sua” (Sklepowich 538), but in all of his...

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Allean Hale (review date fall 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hale, Allean. “The Clock and the Cage: An Afterword about ‘A System of Wheels.’” Michigan Quarterly Review 38, no. 4 (fall 1999): 512-13.

[In the following review, Hale analyzes the symbolism of the clock in “A System of Wheels.”]

“A System of Wheels,” written around 1936 when Williams was twenty-five, recreates those years when Tom, not yet “Tennessee,” had to quit college to work in the shoe warehouse. Trapped in the mechanical job of typing orders eight hours a day, he still managed to write a story every Saturday, polish it on Sunday, and mail it the coming week. This narrative, first entitled “The Treadmill,” reflects the bleakest...

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Allean Hale (essay date fall 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hale, Allean. “Tennessee Williams: The Preacher's Boy.” Southern Quarterly 38, no. 1 (fall 1999): 10-20.

[In the following essay, Hale discusses autobiographical aspects of “The Preacher's Boy.”]

In the Tennessee Williams papers at the University of Texas is an early undated story called “The Preacher's Boy” by Thomas Lanier Williams. It begins: “When the preacher and his wife came to Creve Coeur, Mississippi, their son was a delicate boy of nine years. A congenital weakness of the heart … kept him from leading an active child's life. His features were spiritually beautiful, his skin transparently fine. Blue veins were visible around his throat...

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Philip C. Kolin (essay date fall 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kolin, Philip C. “Tennessee Williams's ‘Interval’: MGM and Beyond.” Southern Quarterly 38, no. 1 (fall 1999): 21-7.

[In the following essay, Kolin asserts that the story “Interval” “bears scrutiny as a disclosure of Williams's view of art, sex, and the imagination, all fused in America's quintessential worlds of illusion making—Hollywood and Broadway.”]

Of all Tennessee Williams's short fiction, perhaps no story has been more undeservedly unattended by critical commentary than “Interval.” Yet this story characteristically unveils key places, times, and events in Williams's early life and art. “Interval” documents the recuperable hiatus...

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Michael R. Schiavi (essay date 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Schiavi, Michael R. “The Hungry Women of Tennessee Williams's Fiction.” In Tennessee Williams: A Casebook, edited by Robert F. Gross, pp. 107-20. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Schiavi elucidates the role of feminine hunger in Williams's short fiction.]

Throughout his “secondary” career as a fiction writer, Tennessee Williams repeatedly staged dramas of female appetite. This theme also anchors some of his seminal stagework: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Summer and Smoke (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), and Kingdom of Earth (1968) all pivot upon women's sexual needs and satisfactions. In short stories,...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Kolin, Philip C. “‘No Masterpiece Has Been Overlooked’: The Early Reception and Significance of Tennessee Williams's ‘Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll.’” ANQ 8, no. 4 (fall 1995): 27-34.

Surveys the early history of “Big Black: A Mississippi Idyll” to illuminate “the literary world in which Williams found himself from 1929 through 1932.”

Southern Quarterly 38, no 1 (fall 1999).

Issue devoted to Williams; includes several essays on his short fiction.

Tischler, Nancy M. “Romantic Textures in Tennessee Williams's Plays and Short Stories.” In The Cambridge...

(The entire section is 261 words.)