Penny and Primrose are two girls who are evacuated with a group of children to a mansion in the English countryside during World War II. They are evacuated to escape the German bombing of London (i.e., the Blitz), which took place in the early 1940s. The children are described as a ragtag bunch, with scuffed shoes and scraped knees, and carrying toys and dolls as items of comfort, most likely to forestall the terror they must feel.
Penny is tall, thin, and pale—possibly older than Primrose, who is plump with curly blond hair. They become friends on the train during the evacuation, discussing their bewilderment over the situation, wondering “whether it was a sort of holiday or a sort of punishment.” The train is hot and dirty, and as it passes through unfamiliar countryside, the children feel the dread of not knowing where they are going or when they will return. The narrator compares them to Hansel and Gretel, two fairy tale children who were likewise led into a strange environment with no promise that they would return.
Feeling alone and scared, Penny and Primrose latch on to each other. The nascent friendship becomes a way to combat the feelings of isolation and dread they feel due to being evacuated under the threat of bombs and separated from their families. By comparing the girls to Hansel and Gretel, well-known fairy tale characters, Byatt signals that this story is a modern take on the fairy tale genre, with strong elements of fantasy and allegory.
The girls arrive, along with a group of many other children, at the mansion: a big, eerie place surrounded by a forest. 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 motions of getting ready for bed, eating a meager supper and settling down in military cots with “shoddy blankets.” Some of the children cry themselves to sleep that first night.
As the girls settle down for the night, they further reflect on their isolation and fear. The trauma of their separation from their families and the frightening atmosphere of the mansion begin to affect them, setting the stage for their nightmarish encounter with the Thing. Penny and Primrose’s story is quite singular in nature, but by grouping them together with other evacuees in this way, Byatt shows that the trauma they face is unfortunately all too common in wartime.
The next morning, after breakfast, Penny and Primrose go outdoors with the other children, who play ball and other games. Instead of joining these games, the girls decide to explore the forest. A younger child, Alys—pretty, with pale blue eyes and golden curls, but “barely out of nappies” (i.e., diapers)—wants to go with them, but they tell her no, saying she is too little. Alys persists, promising not to be a burden, the way younger kids do who idolize older ones, but Penny and Primrose refuse.
By refusing to let Alys accompany them, Penny and Primrose unwittingly limit the impact of meeting the Thing to just the two of them. This makes them more isolated later in life, as the experience proves to be a traumatic one that only they share. This refusal also creates a unique bond between Penny and Primrose that enables Byatt to contrast the way the two confront their trauma as adults.
Creeping into the forest, the girls vow not to go too far, wanting to stay in sight of the gate. The forest is thick and menacing, paradoxically “inviting and mysterious.” Suddenly, they hear a “crunching, a crackling, a crushing, a heavy thumping, combining with threshing and thrashing,” plus a host of other disturbing noises. They also smell a stench like that of “maggoty things at the bottom of untended dustbins, blocked drains, mixed with the smell of bad eggs, and of rotten carpets and ancient polluted bedding.”
Byatt’s description of the approach of the Thing creates an atmosphere of unreality and terror, both of which make it hard for Penny and Primrose to accept the existence of what they see. The incomprehensibility and horrid nature of the Thing speaks to the girls’ feelings of confusion, fear, and shock at being sent from their homes due to the approach of the war.
Finally, Penny and Primrose catch sight of the source of the smell coming toward them through the woods, and they crouch behind a log so as to remain unseen. The thing has a face like a rubbery mask on top of a “monstrous turnip,” which is “the color of flayed flesh” and wears an expression of “pure misery.” Its most prominent feature is its enormous mouth, and its face is low to the ground as it trundles through the forest and toward the girls on short, squat arms. The girls watch as the giant caterpillar-like creature comes crushing through the foliage, destroying everything in its path with its very large, “turd”-like body, which appears to be made of “rank meat.” When it encounters large trees or rocks, rather than navigating around them the thing splits into two or three distinct worms before rejoining as one body. All the while, the thing lets out a pained moaning sound “among its other burblings and belchings.” The girls stare at it with “horrified fascination” as it passes.
Laying eyes on the Thing intensifies the girls’ fright. They can scarcely believe such a creature exists. The destructive nature of the creature as it devours things in its path parallels the destructive nature of war, subtly foreshadowing the deaths of the girls’ fathers and the unravelling of their families as a consequence of the war. And yet, Byatt writes that the girls look on with a strange mixture of terror and fascination, suggesting that even the most horrible of events—such as war—can have a dark and undeniable allure in people’s minds, provoking excitement and fascination despite the very real potential such events contain for violence and tragedy.
Penny and Primrose huddle together, shaking as they watch the thing slither away. They exit the forest wordlessly and without looking behind them, worried that the mansion will have been “transmogrified,” or will have vanished altogether. But when they arrive they find the other children still on the lawn, continuing to play, oblivious to what the girls have just experienced. They don’t discuss what they saw. The next day, all the children are sent to temporary homes for the rest of the evacuation. Penny goes to a parsonage, Primrose to a dairy farm. They can’t forget what they saw, remembering the sight and sound and smell of the creature, as well as the mixture of excitement and terror they felt. They do not dismiss the creature as a nightmare, focusing on it instead as “a real thing in a real place.”
This marks the beginning of Penny and Primrose’s lifelong struggle to make sense of what has happened to them, as they struggle to accept what they have seen. When they exit the forest expecting to find that the world as they know it has disappeared or transformed, it is an indication of the ways in which a traumatic experience such as wartime evacuation (or seeing a ghastly giant worm in the forest) can unground a person and alter their relationship to reality completely. Their unwillingness or inability to discuss the Thing, even with each other, deepens their feelings isolation and dread, as does their sudden departure from the country mansion.
After the evacuation, the girls each return to their families, which the war has altered. Primrose’s father is killed on a troop carrier in the Far East, and afterwards her mother remarries, having 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 India Docks on the Thames. Her mother withdraws afterwards, becoming a shut-in.
Each girl lost her father during her exile in the country mansion. These losses destabilize each of their families, further exacerbating the transformative and destructive effects of the war on their lives. That instability, coupled with their frightening encounter with the Thing in the forest, constitutes a complex compound of early childhood traumas that each girl spends her life trying to overcome.
The years pass, and Penny, a good student, becomes a child psychologist, “working with the abused, the displaced, and the disturbed.” Primrose, by contrast, struggles in school due to having to babysit her younger siblings, and holds a series of odd jobs before settling down as a well-loved children’s storyteller, with a corner to herself in a local shopping mall. There, she keeps an eye on other people’s children, “offering them just a frisson of fear and terror” in her stories. The narrator notes that Primrose “got fat as Penny got thin. Neither of them married.”
The girls respond to the instability of their families in different ways, leading them to different career paths and lifestyles. Yet they are united by the experience they shared. Byatt uses the girls’ seemingly diverging trajectories into adulthood to suggest that there are different methods of overcoming trauma, and nearly identical circumstances can be processed very differently by different people—leading to very different results.
The story picks up again in 1984. The country 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 same day by pure coincidence, each unaware that the other is there. Both of their mothers have recently died. The women have not spoken at all since the day they saw the thing in the forest.
Though they may not be consciously aware of the reasons behind their trip, Penny and Primrose are each drawn back to the site of the trauma that so radically changed their lives (whether that’s the war, or the sighting of the Thing). The return is a necessary first step in the healing process, and it mirrors the ways in which people constantly revisit the traumas of the past in their minds, if not by physically traveling to revisit the places where the events occurred.
Penny and Primrose recognize each other almost immediately when they find themselves side by side, looking at an old book on display in the mansion museum—a “nineteenth-century mock-medieval” volume with pictures of a knight lifting his sword to slay something not quite visible on the page. A description next to the book tells of the Loathly Worm, a giant creature that, according to legend, had terrorized the countryside around the mansion. Various people over the years had tried to kill the worm, but it had always come back, having the ability, like garden worms, to grow new body parts if divided.
By stumbling across what they believe to be evidence of the Thing’s existence, Penny and Primrose take the next step in the healing process: naming the object of their terror. This makes it seem less mysterious and more real despite its fantastic qualities and legendary status. Making the Thing more real gives Penny and Primrose the courage to return to the forest for a second confrontation.
Delighted to see each other again, the women go out for tea. They talk about their jobs, being unmarried, and their parents. They talk about the mansion, commenting on how, despite all the history on display, there are no indications that the place was ever used to house evacuees. Finally, they discuss the thing they once 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 “did [them] no good.”
Small talk helps the women get reacquainted, though it does not strengthen their bond. Instead, it seems to further alienate them. Turning their discussion to the loathly worm is important because it makes the fantastic creature seem more real, and it constitutes the next step in the healing process: talking about the trauma.
Penny comments that the thing “finished [her] off,” prompting Primrose to remember Alys, the child who had begged to go with them into the forest. Recalling how they never saw Alys after that moment, and how no one ever asked about her or looked for her, they conclude that the thing must have killed her. Reliving their encounter with the worm reassures them that, as Primrose says, they are “not mad, anyway.”
Byatt uses the character of Alys to further blur the boundary between reality and fantasy. Thus, discussing Alys helps the women confirm their memories of the girl, which is one more step in overcoming their trauma because, even though it may seem like an insignificant detail, each woman feels less isolated by realizing they have this memory in common.
Penny and Primrose agree to have dinner together next evening, but neither of them keeps the appointment. They don’t see the purpose of further reminiscences. Instead, on the following day, they set out separately for the forest surrounding the mansion. Primrose hikes for a while, then sits on a tree trunk, thinking of her mother, who used to make stuffed animals to give to her. Her mother didn’t tell stories, as a mother might be expected to do, but she was “good with her fingers,” which Primrose sees as an unimpressive talent. It ruined the magic of the animals when she discovered her mother had made them.
Primrose’s reflections on her mother reveal how her mother’s behavior helped destabilize the family, contributing to the emotional trauma that Primrose must overcome. With her father dead and her mother underwhelming, Primrose was left to figure things out on her own, contributing to her feelings of isolation. Feeling alone, Primrose turned to her imagination—finding it disappointing when she learned that the animals her mother had made were not “real,” but manmade. In this way, Primrose shows that she prefers the inventions of her own imagination to the cold facts of reality.
Standing up, Primrose resumes walking, telling herself a story about “staunch Primrose” (herself) bravely walking through the forest. She stops again, remembering more about the death of her father and her “sniveling” mother with her “dripping nose,” and she considers the difference between reality and imagination, characterized by her talent (storytelling) versus that of her mother (knitting). She decides that her memory and imagination are more real to her than where she actually lives (a lonely apartment “above a Chinese takeaway”) or other elements of her life. Then she leaves the forest.
Primrose takes her next step in the healing process, a step that is unique to her. She inverts the normal order of reality and fantasy by deciding that her imagination (and her vision of herself as brave) is just as real, if not more real, than objective reality. This becomes her method for dealing with her trauma, as it enables her to shape and define herself by crafting her own identity. She does not need to see or hear the loathly worm again. All she ever needed to heal was inside herself, and she finally tqps into this wellspring of strength and self-reliance.
Penny is in a different part of the forest, trying to find the spot where she and Primrose had seen the loathly worm as children. She finds evidence of the worm, “odd sausage-shaped tubes of membrane, containing fragments of hair and bone and other inanimate stuffs.” Finding a spot to sit down, Penny reflects on her career as a psychologist, realizing that her encounter with the worm all those years ago “had led her to deal professionally in dreams.” Penny is a scientist, “drawn to the invisible forces that [move] in molecules,” and she therefore has to see and hear things to find them real. She hears a rumbling and thinks it is the worm returning, but she sees nothing. She thinks about her dead father. After a while, when night falls, she leaves the forest.
Primrose appreciates the powers of the imagination in a way that enables her to move on with her life without answering the question of whether the Thing was real or imagined. In this way, the imagination is an integral tool and resource in her process of healing. Byatt contrasts this imaginative approach with Penny’s need to see and hear the worm. Penny feels that if she can confirm with her senses that the worm is real rather than fantasy, this knowledge will help her to heal, but this rigid approach to processing the traumas of childhood proves self-defeating.
Penny and Primrose take the train back to the city. They do not sit together. When they get out at the station, they see each other at a distance but don’t speak. They stare at each other through the “black imagined veil that grief or pain or despair hangs over the visible world,” thinking that they see in each other’s faces the same misery they once saw in the face of the worm. Then they part ways.
Seeing each other again does not make Penny and Primrose feel closer. It does not strengthen their bond. Instead, it reinforces in each of them the need to stick to her own path of recovery. For Penny, this means rationality and empiricism trump all else in the process of confronting and surmounting challenging emotional issues, while for Primrose, the imagination plays a key and liberating role.
Penny tries to see patients again, but she can’t stop thinking about the worm. She discovers that “the black veil had somehow become part of her vision,” and feels that she needs to see the worm, that it has become more real than the faces of her patients— more real, even, than herself. So she travels back to the forest. Finding the spot where she and Primrose had encountered the worm 40 years earlier, Penny waits and silently calls the Thing. She hears and smells it approaching. She thinks that when it arrives, she will look it in the face and see what it is. She is relaxed and ready.
Penny allows herself to be overtaken by her need to see and hear the worm again, which she believes is the only way she can move out from behind the “black veil” of her trauma. Whether she survives this second encounter is not stated, and the reader is left to speculate. Perhaps this second encounter is not literal but rather a symbolic description of a woman being destroyed by her grief and inability to rise above trauma.
Primrose returns to her life, and her job at the shopping mall “like a crystal palace” where she tells stories to children. The children enjoy juice and cookies, and they are described as being of “all colors.” Primrose smiles at the children and begins a story about “two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.”