Penny and Primrose share a traumatic experience as children, and perhaps as a result they grow up to be lonely adults. Their trauma is worsened, then, by their having no one to lean on, no relationships to enrich their lives. In this way, Byatt depicts relationships as an integral part of life, fundamental to the processes of healing and maturation.
The story begins with children being evacuated from war-torn London—an experience which puts a strain on those children’s relationships with their families, as the children would be scared and worried about being away from home. This separation heightens the overall feeling of dread in the story. The narrator notes that Penny and Primrose “did not even know why they were going,” and they wondered whether it was “a sort of punishment.” Such a strain on the girls’ familial relationships put each of them in a more fearful frame of mind, in turn heightening their sense of terror when they eventually encounter the loathly worm.
Each girl’s father was killed during the war. The girls “found it hard, after the war, to remember these different men.” Death is the ultimate separation, and it furthers the girls’ sense of loneliness and alienation, which they maintain into adulthood. Their careers, both of which involve building and nurturing relationships with children, are extensions of their personalities, which have been shaped by their individual responses to a shared traumatic experience. Penny is a psychologist who specializes in autistic children; her patients are often uncommunicative and closed off from the world, unable to share their dreams with Penny. She sees her patients as lonely and isolated like herself, and wants to help them. Primrose tells stories to children, so her career requires creativity and imagination, but it is less demanding than Penny’s career—which aligns more generally with Primrose’s rootless, carefree existence. Yet her stories seem to enable her to form deeper connections with children than Penny’s therapy practice. These connections perhaps account for Primrose’s ability to move on from her search for the loathly worm as she realizes she no longer needs to confront it.
The story is built around Penny and Primrose’s relationship, which consists of just two meetings, each a coincidental one in which they happen to be in the same place at the same time. The friendship is not a strong one, which is no doubt part of the reason why each woman goes into the forest alone when they return as adults. The need of each woman to confront the loathly worm on her own reinforces their loneliness as well as the isolating nature of trauma and the experience of recovery. After seeing the worm as children, the two girls walk back to the mansion, after which they “[do] not speak to each other again.” Their friendship is a weak alliance, one born of extreme circumstances but not nurtured through time. Byatt suggests that the girls’ relationship is insubstantial—as tenuous as their memories of the worm itself. As adults, Penny and Primrose discuss their experience as children, with a goal of making sure that what they remember really happened. They are comforted by the assurance that they are able to give one another. “Well, we know we’re not mad,” Primrose says after their conversation. Yet they don’t become true friends, as evidenced by the fact that, although they make dinner plans for the following night, neither of them shows up. The uncertain nature of their girlhood friendship has extended into adulthood, reinforcing their feelings of alienation and dread, and giving each one the incentive to return to the forest to confirm her own experience and confront her own terror alone.
A network of strong relationships can be an asset when dealing with loss and hardship. Penny and Primrose each felt abandoned as children in different ways, and they carry that sense of loneliness with them into their adult lives. While Penny is plagued by feelings of alienation until the very end of the story, Primrose manages to find human connection through storytelling, and Byatt suggests that she ultimately recovers from the horror of witnessing the Thing in the forest, whereas Penny seems to implode under the weight of her emotions and loneliness. In this way, Byatt seems to confirm the essential nature of relationships and human connection to the process of growth and self-fulfillment.
Relationships Quotes in The Thing in the Forest
She believed in Father Christmas, and the discovery that her mother had made the toys, the vanishing of magic, had been a breathtaking blow. She could not be grateful for the skill and the imagination, so uncharacteristic of her flirtatious mother.