Mad Pilgrimage: The Short Stories of Tennessee Williams

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Editors: Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau
Date: 2005
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 81)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,225 words

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[(essay date summer 1964) 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 important in their own right and are at their best a permanent addition to the "sick" fiction of the forties and fifties.

The world of Williams' stories possesses considerable variety of method, yet at the same time it is as limited and circumscribed as Poe's, which in some ways it resembles. His stories are alike in their preoccupation with what one Williams character speaks of as the "sense of the enormous grotesquerie of the world."3 They are permeated, too, with an air of profound melancholy, and iridescent with a faded beauty and corruption which recalls John Randolph's irreverent simile of a rotting mackerel in the moonlight, that "shines and stinks, and stinks and shines." Similar character types appear and reappear throughout Williams' stories: disillusioned or frustrated artists and intellectuals, sex-starved virgins or nymphomaniacs, faded gentlewomen and hypocritical clergymen, homosexuals and alcoholics, destructive women and likeable adolescents. Recurring motifs include decay, disease, abnormality, and above all loss, loss through the inexorable process of time and the subsequent fall from grace, a fall more often physiological than spiritual.

With almost no exceptions, Williams' people are adrift, unloved, and unwanted. Heredity often plays an important part in their alienation from "normal" or "approved" standards of conduct; their deterioration is hastened or precipitated by ironies of circumstance over which they have no control; they are exploited by their friends or family, or are slowly and often passively strangled by their own weaknesses and fears. "To love is to lose," Williams once wrote,4 and in one way or other his characters are losers, not winners. To alter his statement to "To live is to lose" would suggest the common chord of his short fiction.

With few exceptions, Williams' best stories are those concerned with basically non-exceptional characters who are depicted with an understanding, sympathy, and compassion which makes ridiculous the comment that Williams, like Hardy, is a sadist who creates his people only to humiliate them. Perhaps the most memorable and the most moving of these stories is "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," with its depiction of the shy and introverted Laura, the "petals" of whose mind had simply closed with fear and who could make no "positive motion toward the world but stood at the edge of the water, so to speak, with feet that anticipated too much cold to move"5 and who was to become the most appealing character in what still seems to be Williams' most moving play, The Glass Menagerie.

Characteristic, too, of this group of quiet, non-sensational stories is one of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420065274