Fairy tales, despite being thought of as stories for children, are often full of trauma. Especially in stories that deal with the process of “coming of age,” experiences of trauma and loss often spur characters to come to terms with the reality that the world can be a harsh, unforgiving, and scary place. Penny and Primrose deal with literal and figurative loss along their journey to make sense of their encounter with the Thing in the forest. The characters’ pursuit of truth should be healing for them, yet the story’s ending suggests that Penny is destroyed by her search, which has become an obsession (she went into the forest twice, after all). Byatt seems to encourage confrontation with the losses and traumas of the past while warning that there is no guarantee that such confrontations will ultimately be healing.
Penny and Primrose suffer various traumas in their childhoods. Apart from the general trauma of the war (and their evacuation as a result), each of their fathers dies during the war, leaving their mothers to hold together their fragmented families. However, Byatt suggests Penny and Primrose’s mothers each fail their daughters in different ways, setting the stage for the girls’ eventual return to the forest as adults. In the wake of her husband’s death, Penny’s mother “embraced grief, closed her face and her curtains.” This withdrawal no doubt reinforces the loneliness and abandonment Penny felt when she was sent to the country mansion during the evacuation, as well as when her father died. Thus, by returning to the forest to confront the loathly worm, Penny is also confronting that feeling of abandonment. Primrose’s mother, by contrast, marries again, has numerous children, and lives a hard life, developing “varicose veins and a smoker’s cough.” Primrose likewise has an unsettled adulthood, doing “this and that,” mirroring the ways in which her childhood was unsettled by the war, the loss of her father, and by the appearance of five new siblings. By returning to confront the worm, Primrose is also confronting that feeling of chaos.
Consciously or unconsciously, the loathly worm seems to symbolize, for the characters, the traumas of their childhood. Part of growing up is facing those traumas and overcoming them. Byatt illustrates just how frightening and difficult this process is through Penny and Primrose’s fear of the loathly worm—a fear that stays with them as they grow into adults. Penny and Primrose encounter the loathly worm as children. This exposure to something nightmarish leaves them “shaking with dry sobs” and unable to escape the memory of it. The encounter is an external representation of the dread of war and loss—as well as the fear and uncertainty that many children feel when they learn the harsh truths of life. As adults, Penny and Primrose speculate on the death of the younger child, Alys, who had wanted to go into the woods with them. Her death symbolizes the way the loathly worm “finished off” young Penny and Primrose. In other words, if the worm is a symbol of trauma—whether it’s the devastation of war or the loss of a parent—then Alys represents the girls’ innocence, which the worm destroyed without leaving a trace.
As adults, Penny and Primrose return to the woods in search of the worm. After attempting to suppress their memories of it for years, the women realize that making that journey again to confront the worm is the only way to overcome the traumatic experiences of their childhoods. They approach the confrontation in different ways, with different results. In this way, Byatt suggests that each person processes trauma in unique ways. Primrose does not meet the worm when she returns to the forest. Instead, her mind wanders as she thinks of toys her mother gave her, and the stories she made up featuring herself and those toys. She leaves feeling a sense of closure. Later, she turns her experience of the worm into a story that she tells to amuse children. Thus, Primrose’s approach to trauma is to enter the world of imagination—an approach which seems to heal her. After Penny returns to the forest and does not find the worm, she returns a second time, determined to “look it in the face.” She does not merely tell herself a story like Primrose and then walk away. Instead, Penny—a psychologist—feels a need to analyze her childhood trauma closely, firsthand. She needs to see and hear it. Byatt alludes to the risks of this approach through suggesting that Penny, like Alys, is ultimately destroyed by the worm—consumed by the trauma of her childhood.
Encountering the loathly worm is a childhood trauma that Penny and Primrose carry with them into adulthood. They return to the forest to confront the worm as well as their own pasts. Confrontation and closure are, for Byatt’s characters, necessary parts of the years-long process of healing from trauma. Byatt cautions, however, that the need for closure can be the thing that prevents healing.
Trauma and Loss ThemeTracker
Trauma and Loss Quotes in The Thing in the Forest
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.