The Thing in the Forest

by

A.S. Byatt

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Penny Character Analysis

One of the two main characters, Penny is a young girl at the beginning of the story who is evacuated from London with a group of children to escape the German bombing of London during World War II. She ventures into the woods with her new friend, Primrose, and together the two see the Thing in the forest (i.e., the loathly worm). They survive the encounter, and by the time Penny is returned to her family, her father has died. Her mother withdraws after this, leaving Penny to feel emotionally abandoned. She grows up to become a child psychologist specializing in children with severe autism. People with autism are often withdrawn, as Penny herself was, and she hopes that, by reaching out to them, she can help them in a way that no one helped her. She returns as an adult to the woods where she once encountered the loathly worm in the hopes that, by confronting the terror from her childhood, she can diminish its power over her and, in doing so, overcome her childhood trauma. Penny is a scientist, someone who relies on observation, data, and her five senses. When she does not encounter the worm on her return to the forest, she returns a second time, determined to draw the worm to her so that she can see it. She finally hears the worm approaching, and in this moment seems to be at peace, her “nerves relaxed” and her “blood slowed.” Byatt leaves it unclear whether Penny survives this second meeting with the worm. Because the worm is such a clear symbol of trauma and loss, this ending implies that Penny is ultimately destroyed by her grief surrounding her childhood trauma.

Penny Quotes in The Thing in the Forest

The The Thing in the Forest quotes below are all either spoken by Penny or refer to Penny. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The Thing in the Forest published in 2003.
The Thing in the Forest Quotes

There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.

Related Characters: Penny, Primrose
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

They remembered the thing they had seen in the forest, on the contrary, in the way you remember those very few dreams—almost all nightmares—that have the quality of life itself. (Though what are dreams if not life itself?)

Related Characters: Penny, Primrose
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

I think, I think there are things that are real—more real than we are—but mostly we don’t cross their paths, or they don’t cross ours. Maybe at very bad times we get into their world, or notice what they are doing in ours.

Related Characters: Penny (speaker), Primrose
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

“Sometimes I think that thing finished me off,” said Penny to Primrose, a child’s voice rising in a woman’s gullet, arousing a little girl’s scared smile which wasn’t a smile on Primrose’s face.

Related Characters: Penny (speaker), Primrose
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

It was the encounter with the Thing that had led her to deal professionally in dreams. Something that resembled unreality had lumbered into reality, and she had seen it.

Related Characters: Penny
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

When it came, she would look it in the face, she would see what it was. She clasped her hands loosely in her lap. Her nerves relaxed. Her blood slowed. She was ready.

Related Characters: Penny, Alys
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The Thing in the Forest LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Thing in the Forest PDF

Penny Character Timeline in The Thing in the Forest

The timeline below shows where the character Penny appears in The Thing in the Forest. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Thing in the Forest
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Penny and Primrose are two girls who are evacuated with a group of children to a... (full context)
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
  Penny is tall, thin, and pale—possibly older than Primrose, who is plump with curly blond hair.... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
...The mansion has “imposing stairs,” shuttered windows, and “carved griffins and unicorns on its balustrade.” Penny and Primrose are anxious and scared, thinking of themselves as orphans. They go through the... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
The next morning, after breakfast, Penny and Primrose go outdoors with the other children, who play ball and other games. Instead... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
Finally, Penny and Primrose catch sight of the source of the smell coming toward them through the... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Penny and Primrose huddle together, shaking as they watch the thing slither away. They exit the... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
...five more children. Primrose’s mother’s health suffers; she develops varicose veins and a smoker’s cough. Penny’s father, a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service, dies in a fire in the East... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
The years pass, and Penny, a good student, becomes a child psychologist, “working with the abused, the displaced, and the... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
...mansion that had housed the evacuees during the war has been turned into a museum. Penny and Primrose, now adults, each turn up for a tour of the museum on the... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Penny and Primrose recognize each other almost immediately when they find themselves side by side, looking... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
...saw in the forest. “Did you ever wonder,” Primrose asks, “if we really saw it?” Penny replies, “Never for a moment.” They talk about their horror that day, and how it... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Penny comments that the thing “finished [her] off,” prompting Primrose to remember Alys, the child who... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
Penny and Primrose agree to have dinner together next evening, but neither of them keeps the... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Penny is in a different part of the forest, trying to find the spot where she... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
Penny and Primrose take the train back to the city. They do not sit together. When... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
Penny tries to see patients again, but she can’t stop thinking about the worm. She discovers... (full context)