The Thing in the Forest

by

A.S. Byatt

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The Thing in the Forest (The Loathly Worm) Symbol Analysis

The Thing in the Forest (The Loathly Worm) Symbol Icon

In the forest, Penny and Primrose encounter a horrible creature, which they later learn is called “the loathly worm.” Immediately, the worm seems to be a clear symbol of the war and all its horrors, which the girls were sent to the mansion to escape. The memory of the Thing haunts the girls throughout their childhoods and into adulthood, underscoring the traumatic effect that wartime can have on a young person—even a young person who is relatively insulated from the ravages of a brutal war. With the worm, Byatt seems to be saying that the War was so overwhelmingly awful that no one could escape it, no matter where they hid. As adults, when Penny and Primrose return to the forest to look for the Thing again, Byatt makes it clear that their journey is as much about “the worm” as it is about confronting the trauma they experienced in childhood, having both lost their fathers to the war. As such, the Thing in the forest is not merely a symbol for the horrors of war, but for trauma more generally—and the ways in which, through time, it can easily become an all-consuming, formless thing that defies any objective understanding and destroys lives.

The Thing in the Forest (The Loathly Worm) Quotes in The Thing in the Forest

The The Thing in the Forest quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Thing in the Forest (The Loathly Worm). 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:

Primrose knew that glamour and the thing they had seen, brilliance and the ashen stink, came from the same place.

Related Characters: Primrose
Page Number: 32
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:

Primrose sat on the edge of the fountain. She had decided what to do. She smiled her best, most comfortable smile, and adjusted her golden locks. Listen to me, she told them, and I’ll tell you something amazing, a story that’s never been told before.

Related Characters: Primrose (speaker)
Page Number: 43-44
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Thing in the Forest (The Loathly Worm) Symbol Timeline in The Thing in the Forest

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Thing in the Forest (The Loathly Worm) 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
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
...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... (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 forest wordlessly and without looking behind them, worried that the... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
...have recently died. The women have not spoken at all since the day they saw the thing in the forest. (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
...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.... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
...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... (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 had begged to go... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Reality vs. Fantasy Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Trauma and Loss Theme Icon
Relationships Theme Icon
...see in each other’s faces the same misery they once saw in the face of the worm . Then they part ways. (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 that “the black veil had somehow become part of her vision,” and... (full context)