How is the use of word “thing” another example of ambiguity?
“The Thing in the Forest”
In the previous thread, I assigned the questions from the textbook. I don’t, however, think those questions adequately cover all the issues that Byatt presents in this story, and I am now presenting questions that go deeper in understanding symbolism and figurative language. These questions should help you develop your analytical skills to a further extent. Please respond to at least three of them (a, b, or c from any section) that you choose. Your answer to each question should be a full and thoughtful paragraph in length.
This is a double assignment (8 and 9) and is worth double points.
1. Let us consider the opening sentence: “There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.”
a. There is a literary term to apply to this sentence with which you might not be familiar: Ambiguity. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines literary ambiguity as “Intentional ambiguity is the use of language or images to suggest more than one meaning at the same time.” In other words, it creates a sense that causes one to question the truth of a comment that has no definite meaning. Whatever is discussed may or may not be as it seems, and, in most cases, the author never gives an absolute answer to the question of what really happened. How does Byatt create ambiguity or doubt from the outset of the story in this one sentence?
b. How is this sentence like or unlike a fairy tale? What other fairy tale similarities occur in the text? How does this relate to the conclusion in which Penny seems to have had a nervous breakdown but Primrose seems inspired to tell the children a new story they have never heard before?
c. How is the use of word “thing” another example of ambiguity? What is the “thing”? Do we or can we know with any certainty?
2. About Alys
a. This small girl wants to follow Penny and Primrose into the forest, but they leave her behind. Years later, they assume that Alys disappeared and was never seen again. After seeing the picture of the mythological wyrm, they assume that the Thing killed her. Given their ages when the initial incident occurred, how would they know what happened to her. What “evidence” does Penny “discover” that might suggest that she had found Alys’s remains? But could the bones be something else entirely?
b. There is more to the definition of allusion than what the textbook presents on p.150. An allusion is a reference to any cultural, social, historical, artistic person, place, text, or object. Now, this is just my opinion, and we cannot know if this is what Byatt is hinting at, but in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, a sequel to his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, his protagonist Alice hears a nonsense poem about a creature called the “Jabberwock.” Carroll doesn’t describe or define this creature, but his original illustrator provided a visual image. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jabberwocky To what extent does this creature resemble the one the girls describe? There are references to wyrms, creatures that are similar to sea serpents that come ashore and wreak havoc throughout British mythology, so this might be an allusion known to the British children in the story. As an additional note, “Alys” is a variation on the name Alice.
3. Trauma and Lifelong Effects
a. During the evacuation, Penny and Primrose are at the mansion only a few days before they are separated and sent to different families who are taking in the children. They do not see or communicate with each other again until they are in their middle-age, so they had little opportunity to exchange ideas about the meaning of the Thing. Their individual interpretations of the Thing only come to a head when they are reunited. How might the Thing be a metaphor or symbol of the trauma they experience by means of the war and the continual bombing of London, by the evacuation itself, or by the deaths of their respective fathers?
b. In the years after the war, Penny, who is highly educated, becomes a child psychologist while Primrose, who has very little education, becomes a story-teller who keeps children entertained while their mothers shop. How might the Thing have inspired their work in adult life? How is it significant that Penny, who should be rational and scientific because of her profession, apparently suffers what appears to be a psychological crisis after exploring the forest on her own, while Primrose, who is imaginative and loves fairy tales, seems to her separate venture in the forest?
c. Folie à deux is a psychological disorder in which two people who are close to one another share a delusion. Is it possible that both girls, under the influence of trauma, are deluded about the existence of the Thing? Why, after their first adult encounter, do they seem to go out of the way to avoid one another? How, considering Penny’s profession, is this ironic?