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"It's hard to be human": The Ironies in Tennessee Williams's "Tent Worms".

Like so much of Tennessee Williams's early fiction, "Ten Worms" (written in 1945 but first published in Esquire [May 1980]) has been consigned by the critics to unjustified neglect or, worse yet, botched apprenticeship. Dennis Vannatta hastily concluded that the publication of "Tent Worms" added "luster to neither Esquire nor Williams's reputation" (Tennessee Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction [Boston: Twayne, 1988], 48). Among Williams's shortest pieces of fiction, "Tent Worms" is a masterfully crafted story with Chekhovian irony, psychological symbolism and characterization, and the resonating lament about loss heard throughout Williams's canon. In this story, he treats the impending loss of a spouse to illness years after marriage, a theme found in such earlier works as "Sand," more elaborately spun in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Rose Tattoo, and the subject of several late plays (e.g. Lifeboat Drill) as well.

In "Tent Worms"" the long-married Foxworths are ending their yearly summer retreat "on the Cape," presumably Cape Cod (Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories [NY: New Directions, 1985], 200). The wife Clara has kept a secret for some time about her husband Billy's fatal illness, believing she had "information to which he did not have access" (200). But in no way an invalid, Billy works feverishly to rid the garden of tent worms (scientifically, canker caterpillars) that build "great sagging canopies of transparent gray tissue among the thickly grown berry trees that surrounded their summer cottage" (200). To combat these worms, Billy lights torches made out of newspaper and fires the trees, releasing "poisonous vapors" that make Clara sick. As an anecdote to her despair, she dreams of the upcoming winter when Billy will be gone and, in her "fantasies" (203), can dress "in black furs"" be wooed by "various escorts," and enjoy restaurants, theatres, and even apartments (202).

Yet this early Williams story is about more than a wife who has to postpone her amorous dreams until her husband dies. Rather, "Tent Worms" interrogates how the human heart can die and then be reborn through loss, all in a single day. Suffused with Chekhovian tragicomedy, Williams's story follows the unities of time, place, and action imbued with Williams's gift of symbolism. The story follows the course of the day from sun to moon, reflecting the decline of the Foxworths's marriage and Billy's life in particular. As the story opens, there is "sun on the terrace" in the morning and in the afternoon when Billy begins his fiery fumigation. Disgruntled, Clara sips Tom Collinses until "about five o'clock [when she is] happy with drink" (201). Toward the end of the day, and about two-thirds through the story, we hear about the "sun deserting," then it "disappears" "dark falls," and "the moon rises ... to replace the sun's vigil" (203). Williams's carefully mapped trajectory of day into night correlates with Billy's vigorous activity during the day and his "slow exhausted return" (203) as night descends. "He had a defeated look and he burned himself in several places" (203) until he collapses in his "sun chair." Finally, "a chill wind embraces the couple in the moonlight."

Like the waning day, the landscape mirrors the couple's psychological traumas, too. As in his later works, Williams personifies place as a human text/space/body. In fact, the terrain of "Tent Worms" symbolically represents the human body and heart significantly. The Foxworths are at the end of their stay in a "summer place to which they would never return" (204). Appropriately enough, this cottage is "rented" just like the time the couple has spent there and will spend until Billy's death. Their cottage is on "the Cape," the edge of land boundaries, the protrusion of earth into the liminal world of the unknown sea, suggesting death. The trees around the cottage are as diseased as Billy. The tent worms have "devoured" the berry bushes and these are "little stunted trees where [they] had built their houses" (201). The grey webs engulfing the late summer foliage may on one level symbolize the histological condition of Billy's own body as Williams artfully but sadly describes their common condition. The trees like Billy's life are being invaded by a fatal pestilence, a grey, tissue-like enemy. In attacking the predators, Billy "burned himself in several places" (203) exacerbating his illness. Like the paper and the trees, Billy is consumed, eaten up, and wisely tells his wife: "A blight in vegetation is like the blight in your body" at the end of the story (204). So much is blighted in "Tent Worms," then--the landscape, the wife's love, the husband's health, the shrinking calendar of time.

The symbolic agents of such destruction are the tent worms, another Williams totemesque animal used as a unifying trope as are the nightingales/canaries (Not About Nightingales (1938), unicorns (Glass Menagerie), moths (Streetcar), turtles (Suddenly Last Summer), and iguanas (Night of the Iguana). Like these animals, the tent worms evoke several larger archetypes/myths in what on the surface appears to be a simple narrative. On one level, the tent worms are harbingers of death. "I am for the worms," quips a corpse from the grave in Elmer Rice's Adding Machine. Williams's worms consume flesh, flora, and life. Their grisly memento mori connotations are captured in John Lawson's painting "Tent Worms," with its worms and skull, based on Williams's story and displayed at the Tennessee Williams Visual Arts Exhibition, March-April 2002 in New Orleans. On another level, the worms conjure up hellish serpents, agents of destruction in the world of sunlight; they invade the garden and "spread their dominion" (201), a Biblically loaded word connoting diabolical perfidy (e.g., St. Paul's "dominion of the dark"). In combating them, Billy is injured by the fires in which they are destined to be encrusted. Ironically, the worms may "die" for the season but, unlike the Foxworths, will return the next year--in the millions. But the tent worms encode another symbolic heritage. They build their own "houses" in opposition to the human psychic spaces of houses in Williams's story. Totally frustrated by her husband's frenzy, Clara tells herself, "let the worms eat the whole place up, let them eat the trees, the house, and the beach and the ocean itself as far as she was concerned" (201). If he doesn't stop, she tells Billy's doctor on the phone, "I'm going to go, alone, back to the city" (203). Clara allows the worms to subvert her marriage, nature, even her very humanity as symbolized in the Jungian meanings of" 'house" to stand for anima. "I've turned savage," she bristles (203).

The symbolism of the worms encodes even subtler, poetic truths. In filling the final days of her marriage with fantasies and secrecy about Billy's health, Clara had "withdrawn" as "actors disperse to their offstage lives when a curtain had fallen and they're released from performance" (202), totally disregarding the doctor's counsel that "love takes disguises" (203). The "performance" of Clara's emotional attachment is finished and, in the most bitter line of the "Tent Worms," she remarks to herself, "Yes she felt sorry for him but when love ceased being five or six years ago, why make an effort to think it would be a loss" (202). The love and affection that loss should inspire have vanished. The "grey canopy" the worms spin around the stunted trees may be analogous, symbolically speaking, to the curtain that falls on Clara's marriage. Imagery of webs, tissue, smoke, and vapors further suggest the depletion, corruption, and closure, of feelings in her marriage. Almost expressionistically, the worms thus help project Clara's psyche.

But it is Billy who surprises Clara and redeems her heart. All along, he knew of his fatal illness, and when he claims "a man in his youth is like a summer place" (203), she gains a keen, even epiphanic insight about Billy and herself. Throughout Clara had spurned his worm burning as "childish" (200) and berated his behavior all summer as "childish" (201), yet Billy's raids reveal his wanting to be young again for her and himself. Seeing that, Clara draws the psychic moral of the story, recalling "the early passion for each other and how time had burned it down as he attempted to burn the tent worms away from their summer place" (203).

At the end of Williams's story, Clara moves her chair next to Billy's and "a pair of long companions respond[ed] to the instinct of drawing closer together" (204). The grey tissue, webs, curtains, and smoke have lifted and the couple's love has been reborn. The symbolic tent worms have not eaten away Clara's heart, and Billy, with his subtle use of psychological landscapes, has made it easier for her to be human again. Interestingly, in addition to uncovering the secrets of tent worms like Billy, Tennessee Williams spent a lot of time in the summer of 1940 working "at his typewriter on the screened porch just within" (200).

Philip C. Kolin, University of Southern Mississippi
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Author:Kolin, Philip C.
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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