Found Text | December 01, 2003
“The Swan” was written when Thomas Lanier Williams, age twenty-eight, had just reinvented himself as “Tennessee.” Under this name in 1939 he had finally had a story accepted by Story magazine, a Holy Grail for young writers, and had sent to a Group Theatre contest four plays that would earn him his first playwriting award. The contest was limited to writers under twenty-five, so he subtracted from his age the three “wasted” years from 1933 to 1935, when his father, a sales manager for International Shoes, had made him quit college to work as a clerk in the company factory. It was the Great Depression, and jobs were hard to find, but to Tom, the aspiring writer just beginning to achieve recognition, typing shoe orders eight hours a day was his “season in Hell.” It took a nervous breakdown and recuperation with his grandparents in Memphis to free him once more to write. He had been reared by his grandparents during the seven years of his childhood when his father was a traveling salesman. Tom’s grandfather, an Episcopal clergyman, was his role model, and his grandmother was the angel who through his penniless years would stitch five-dollar bills into her letters to him. In addition to falsifying his age to enter the Group contest, Tom had adopted his grandfather’s house number in Memphis as his mailing address. Although he typed “Tennessee Williams, Memphis, September 1939” at the end of this story, he was not in Memphis that September but in New York City to meet his newfound agent and to study the professional theater firsthand.
Whether “The Swan” was written in the YMCA in New York or earlier, in the hot attic of his parents’ home, it is a St. Louis story. Forest Park with its zoo, lagoon and pavilion is the setting for two strangers’ adventure on a summer night. Williams builds up an atmosphere of stifling heat—a metaphor for his character’s feeling of suffocation and his need to escape the domestic tyranny of lace curtains and the sleeping wife whose curled fingers make him think of “moist flowers of the insectivorous kind.” Fleeing to the nearby park, he meets a girl equally desperate for relief. As they sit in darkness by the lagoon and the girl tells her story, their mutual understanding peaks in a violent moment that is cooled by the passing whiteness of a swan. Any possible storybook finish is dispelled by irony, although each character is allowed a small revelation.
“The Swan” is one of several stories the young Williams wrote that would feed into The Glass Menagerie, the work that made him famous overnight. The story anticipates the desperation of that play’s Tom—the would-be writer confined to a boring job in “that celotex interior” and bound to a nagging mother and a sister who lives in a dream world of mental delusion. Laura in The Glass Menagerie, with her thwarted love, seems an extension of the girl in “The Swan.” Both can be seen as portraits of Williams’s own sister, Rose. The portrait of his mother, Amanda, in that play is a considerably softened version of the sickly, clinging wife in “The Swan.” Both story and play address the themes of confinement and escape present in most of Williams’s early work.
Williams would remain the rare writer who produced poetry, fiction and drama all his life. “The Swan” displays characteristics of all three genres in its poetic descriptions, suspenseful narrative and dramatic climax. It is typical of Williams’s work habits that two years later he expanded his short story into a full-length play, Stairs to the Roof; in Scene 10 of that play, the girl’s confessional monologue from “The Swan” is reproduced word for word. Striving for the sort of commercial success he had seen on Broadway, Williams disposed of the clinging wife, developed the couple’s chance meeting into a boy-girl romance and conceived what may have been the only happy ending he would ever write. The play never made it to Broadway, but since the year 2000 it has been produced successfully several times. Perhaps the story’s real significance is as a study for the playwright’s first masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie.
I HAD BEEN LIKE THIS for the past few nights, breathlessly still and overpoweringly hot, as though the earth’s long, circular motion through space had been suspended, perhaps through a kind of cosmic lassitude, and that [sic] now the discouraged sphere was drifting slowly downwards through dense, sultry darkness toward a forced landing in the sun’s great bin of ashes. No feeling of animation was in the air. Even the leaves of the peach tree, just outside the bedroom window, hung motionless like thousands of slender black fingers pointing with a curious insistence down at the earth. They seemed to indicate that something was buried down there, something that still lived and gasped for air. Its suffocation was palpable: he could feel it as plainly as he could his wife’s deep, regular breathing.
“Uhhh, my God!” he muttered.
He sat up in bed. Hot rivulets of sweat coursed between the two points of his collar-bone. He tore the pajama coat open and drew a deep breath. It gave him no relief, there was no freshness in it. The curtains that hung at the window, the curtain of leaves beyond them, filled him with savage impatience. Too many walls, he thought, too many little partitions! The world is full of waste matter. He pushed the lace curtains aside and peered up at the sky. No stars were in sight, only a dull, impenetrable grey. The brilliant region of the heavens through which things moved with the rapturous precision of a dance, had now been lost completely, was left far above this thickening, dull atmosphere through which dead planets drifted. . . .
He turned and looked down at the sleeping body of his wife. She lay without moving. Her arms were flung wide across both pillows, unconsciously asserting even in sleep her full proprietorship. Her fingers were loosely curled. They made him think of those pale, moist flowers of the insectivorous kind. They looked as though some vegetable sentience in them would make them close on the unsuspecting intruder. Her face had a blank, empty look which did not reassure him but rather intensified the malignantly vegetative aspect her sleeping body had taken.
Without knowing why, he got quietly out of bed and began to dress.
“I want something cool,” he muttered to himself as he moved toward the front of the house.
He pushed the screen door open. It was not altogether dark outside. The sky refracted a grey leaden light that was like the light in a subterranean vault, coming deviously through cob-webbed chinks. To the east was a very faint, nacreous blur back of which the moon was concealed. It was possible to see the shapes of houses across the street, the low peaked rooves of the monotonous brick bungalows and here and there the ambiguous shadow of a tree shape or dark line of a hedge. In his own yard he could see the black fountain of the crepe myrtle bush and the faint, faint whiteness of honeysuckle along the screens of the porch. The sweetness was cloyingly heavy, it thickened the air, so he moved away from it, down the walk from the steps and then to the left, along the street toward the park about two blocks beyond. Mechanically he lifted his watch from the pocket of his linen pants and stared down at it until the glow from a street-lamp made the dial visible to him. Eight after twelve was the time. “Good,” he murmured without the slightest conviction. “A short walk will cool me off and then I can go home and sleep.” But the thought of returning was still repugnant to him. He saw again the vacant, vegetative look of his sleeping wife’s face and her curled fingers and he felt once more the nearly desperate need for some kind of coolness somewhere. . . .
At the end of the block was a drug-store but it was closed.
Yes, I still have some.
He thrust one in his mouth and struck a match. The lightless corner, whose lamp had been demolished some nights before when a car full of drunk adolescents plunged over the curb, now bloomed in wavering twilight. Windows and walls winked at him, the Chesterfield girl smiled dimly. And in this momentary flare he saw something white in the drug-store doorway. It stirred a little and uttered a low, sharp cry.
The match flickered out but its light had been long enough to establish the figure as that of a woman in white.
“Hello,” he said quickly. He was surprised at the clear, relieved tone of his voice. Why should it please him so much to find a strange woman on this deserted street-corner?
For a second or two his greeting was left unanswered. Then the vague white shadow moved out of the doorway and glided noiselessly toward him.
“You frightened me,” she murmured.
They both laughed a little uncertainly.
With her face half averted, she seemed for a moment to consider this question.
“I don’t know. I’m terribly nervous,” she told him. “You live on the block, don’t you?”
“So do I. I have a terrible headache. I wanted to buy something for it but the drug-store’s closed.”
“It’s after midnight.”
“I know, I know, but I wasn’t able to sleep!”
She lifted one hand to her forehead. Her face was lowered and half concealed by the broad white brim of her hat. He wondered what she looked like.
“Do you work?” he asked.
“That’s bad. I’m in the same boat.”
She laughed softly and without moving seemed to approach him still closer.
“Let’s walk,” he suggested.
“Oh, would you like to?” she answered eagerly. “I think that would help a lot. Just to be moving around makes a little coolness on your face, don’t you think?”
They had already started across the street and were continuing up the next block toward the park.
“It’s nice of you to walk with me. I’m afraid to walk by myself at night. You read so often about girls getting in trouble.”
They were passing beneath a lamp post and he looked quickly down to probe the meaning of her speech. Was it a warning to him, or rather a bit of calculated suggestion? Her face was still hidden, however, beneath the white hat. His eyes dropped down to her figure and observed that it was youthfully slender with breasts firm and moderately full. It may have been only the effect of the white costume, but she seemed to emanate an atmosphere of coolness which he found very pleasant. I won’t try to look at her more closely, he decided. Her face might turn out to be definitely unattractive and that would spoil it all. . . .
“Have a cigarette,” he offered. She took one. They walked on in silence till they reached the end of the block. Across the street was the black domain of the park. This section was like a jungle. There was something forbidding, frightening about its utter blackness. It made you feel that to enter would be to lose yourself completely and forever, but at the same time it excited a perverse desire to enter and be lost. . . .
“Shall we cross?” he asked softly.
Her hesitation seemed to create a fluttering movement in the darkness around them.
“Shall we?” she echoed.
Such a suggestion of pliancy was held in her tone, that his last doubt left him. He laughed and caught at her elbow. She moved very lightly before him. Her skirt made a whispering sound. The sleeve of her blouse slid over his own white sleeve and its touch was as light as the brush of a cool white feather.
Gravel crunched under their feet.
“I can’t see!” she breathed. “It’s so pitch dark that I can’t make out a thing!”
“Here! I’ll guide you!” he whispered, catching hold of her hand. As he did so he felt a ring. There was no stone in it. The metal was broad and flat. A signet or class-ring he thought. She isn’t married. . . .
After a moment his eyes were able to penetrate the deep grey before him and he picked out the black trail of a bridle-path winding among a maze of hedges and shrubbery into the interior of the park. As they moved along this path he looked sharply to right and left but could find no suitable place. It was all overgrown with bushes.
“Oh, I’ve been so nervous all week!” the girl exclaimed.
“Have you?” he answered absently, intent upon his search.
“Yes! I’ve felt so restless! Like I ought to be doing something but I don’t know what!”
Her fingers pressed slightly into the cup of his palm.
This was superfluous, he thought. There was enough already to make them sure of each other.
“I guess it’s the heat,” she went on. “Hot weather always makes me restless—I’m from up North, you know.”
“Oh, are you?”
“Yes, I thought you could tell by my voice.”
“It is a little different.”
For some reason he was pleased by the fact that she came from away. He didn’t want to know from exactly where. The word “north” had a remote and unspecific charm. He thought vaguely of snow-mantled landscape and cool expanses of green water.
They had now gone past the zoo. The warm, fetid odor of the animal cages was left behind and they had reached the loveliest part of the park, the open space surrounding the Chinese lagoon, the golf-club and the refreshment pavilion. The links rose before them in a long, even swell of fragrant grass and on the top was silhouetted a row of giant trees against the grey sky. Benches were scattered here and there along the lake shore. The water was a level blackness.
They walked closer to its edge. Willow leaves brushed his forehead. To the left he saw the pagoda-shaped roof of the pavilion. The heat seemed to recede. There was no wind stirring and yet a coolness passed over his body. He felt his fingers spasmodically tightening upon the girl’s hand. Dark, glittering wings were lifted inside him and their tumultuous motion filled the night.
The girl was the first to speak. Her voice was nearly stifled.
“Let’s stay here a minute.”
“Yes, let’s do,” he answered. “Let’s sit down on the grass!”
“Is it dry?”
Once more he felt that breathless hesitancy in her voice.
“Perfectly,” he assured her.
For a moment her fingers slightly resisted the pull of his hand. Then she seated herself beside him.
“This is a crazy thing to be doing,” she said. “Wouldn’t it give my boss a laugh if he could see me doing a crazy thing like this?”
“Your boss!” he scoffed impatiently. “What business is it of his?”
She suddenly jerked her hand from his and leaned slightly away from him.
“I’m in love with my boss,” she whispered.
Instantly the adventure’s whole aspect was changed. The mysterious wings in the air about him grew still and the heat seemed to settle again. The hot, turgid presence of human relations hovered about him once more and he felt an unreasonably strong resentment.
“What kind of a stall is this?” he muttered.
“What do you mean, a stall?”
“What is it then? We take a walk, we come to a nice cool place, there seems to be a kind of understanding, and then all at once, like a silly jack-out-of-the box, your boss sticks his head in between us!”
“The head of my boss!”
She spent her breath in a fit of violent laughter.
“The head of my boss,” she repeated, “the head of my boss.”
“What’s funny about it?”
Her laughter stopped short, her breath was caught in a sob.
“He does have a head,” she said.
“I’m sure that he does. In fact I can see it plainly. It’s rather bald and puffy-looking. Resembling nothing so much as a slightly green tomato.”
“Oh, no!” she breathed. “That isn’t his description!”
Her tone was so shocked that it amused him.
“What does he look like then?”
“He looks very much like you!”
His interest was stimulated once more. The situation had narrowed a moment before to only include the strange young woman in white and her alleged employer. But now its bounds expanded around himself again and he felt more at ease.
“How can you tell what I look like in this darkness?”
“I couldn’t now. But I saw your face when you struck the match on the corner.”
“Oh. And I look like your boss?”
“Surprisingly much. That’s why I cried out loud when I saw your face in the match-light!”
“So that was the reason?”
“Yes—I actually thought you were him!”
“Yes, it was absurd. That’s the terrible thing about it,” she whispered. “If love could be dignified, it wouldn’t be so awful, would it?”
“Isn’t it dignified?”
“No, not for me. It makes me act like a fool.”
She raised a dab of white to her invisible face and made a faint, sniffling sound.
“Nothing much ever happened to me before this,” she whispered.
“I went to business-school. Economized on lunches at the drug-store so I could go to a show once a week. Sunday I wrote home to my mother in Webb, Mississippi. I never had much to say. It was hard to fill two pages about business-school. I told her the scores I made in the latest typing drills and what my Gregg speed was. And she was pretty satisfied with that. She seemed to be sure that I would manage to get a good job some day. And it turned out that I did. This man’s stenographer quit and he needed another and I saw the ad in the paper and when I applied for the job, he didn’t even look at me, just asked what my typing speed was and gave me a little dictation and told me to start work Monday. I had on a light pink dress and when I got up, he asked me not to wear pink. I’ve got an allergy to pink, he said. That’s the only personal thing he’s ever said to me. And just the other day I wore the pink dress again because I thought it might make him look at me and make some personal remark. But he didn’t. He just frowned a little when I walked in the office. He wears a white linen suit most days in summer, with a pale blue tie. Maybe when I have on pink it looks too much like it was a social occasion. You guess that’s it?—I don’t know. At first I only thought to myself He’s nice!—And that’s all it was. It started out very slowly, the way that some fevers start, hardly noticeable, a fraction of a degree one day, another fraction the next, till all of a sudden you find that you’re burning up, your flesh is on fire, your bones nearly melted with it!”
“Is that how it is?”
“Yes!—I always felt that I had a big empty space in me, a kind of a room, without any furniture in it. I used to wonder what that emptiness was and why it was there. And then one day I happened to go by the door and the room was full, it was completely furnished!—You see what I mean?—But I couldn’t go inside!”
“The air was solid against me, it wouldn’t let me in.”
“Is that how it is?”
Love, he thought. Love . . .
A curious sickness!
“If I could cry out,” she went on, “If I could scream—if I could make a big scene—that might be some relief. But I can’t or I’d lose my job! I have to walk back and forth, back and forth, with bunches of legal papers, open drawers, shut drawers, bang away at those goddam little white keys!—Sometimes I want to stop and say to him, very quietly, ‘This is against my nature!’—D’you guess he’d understand?”
“I don’t think so.”
She tossed her head far back.
“He would say—’You are not satisfied?’—And if I said ‘No!’ he would think that I meant with the job!”
“If he isn’t a fool he’s probably noticed something.”
“No. He’s blind with something himself the same as I am.”
“What’s he blind with?”
“Yes, of course. What else could it be?—I hear them talk on the ‘phone and when he hangs up, his head bends over the desk, I can see the little pink lines where his scalp shows through his hair, and once he was holding a pencil that snapped in two!”
“You see how fantastic it is?”
“If something could be very straight, very simple, very white and cool-looking, what a relief it would be!”
“Um-hmm. I see what you mean.”
“But nothing’s like that. It’s all tangled up and confused and the heat is something terrific!”
“I went to the priest and said, ‘Father, I’ve got to have peace!'”
“Did he give you peace?”
“No, of course not! How could he?”
“What can I do?”
“I don’t know.”
“No. There is nothing. The situation is hopeless.”
“I wouldn’t say that.—How does your boss feel about you?”
“He despises me!” she said quickly. “He thinks that I’m silly! Yesterday when he asked me to take a letter I started crying. I couldn’t help myself. He asked me what was the matter and I told him I guessed it must be the heat.”
A note of strangled laughter shook from her throat.
“Can’t you snap out of it?”
“No, I can’t!” she sobbed. “I’ve tried so hard!”
For a minute neither of them spoke. A dim white shape was moving in from the center of the lake. There was something spectral about its quiet, leisurely approach. It made a barely distinguishable rippling sound as it moved.
With a low gasp the girl rose and caught at his arm.
“Oh, my, what is that?”
“A swan,” he answered. The sound of the word gave him a quick pleasure. It diverted him from the girl’s unhappy problem. He turned away from her shadowy whiteness to the more distant and still more shadowy whiteness of the floating bird.
“A swan? Why, yes, so it is!”
There was a note of sudden eagerness in her voice. She crouched toward the water’s edge and coaxingly held out one hand toward the spectral white bird but it only stared at her from a casual distance upon the level black surface of the water and then wheeled about, like a sailboat catching fresh wind, and floated silently off till its white shape faded and diminished into the Stygian blackness from which it had come.
When the girl leaned back, sighing a little, her shoulder touched his. He had almost forgotten her presence as he watched the withdrawing swan, but now he suddenly remembered her and the touch of her shoulder released some inner violence and he flung his arm roughly about her and pressed her down toward the grass.
“Don’t!” she breathed. But made no move to resist. He was shocked at the violence of his action. It was more like an act of fury than an act of love. Dimly he realized, in the unenflamed areas of his mind, that it was not the girl that he was possessing. It was the cool, white, unpossessable purity of the swan.
Her lips were stammering something against his.
“Daniel, Daniel!” she whispered.
He wondered vaguely whose name it was-and in an instant her arms flew around him and her fingers clawed wildly at his shoulders.
The cry still made him wonder until at the moment when every thought is extinguished, it came to him in a burning wave of compassion that this was the name of her boss—and was now his name as hers had become the swan!
* * *
They walked in silence. Separate. Cool. Relaxed.
“How is your headache?” he asked her as they went by the drug-store corner where he had met her an hour before.
“It’s all gone now,” she murmured.
“So’s mine. I guess we’ll be able to sleep the rest of the night.”
“I hope so,” she murmured. “Well, here’s my place.”
He looked toward the dark shape of the old-fashioned red brick boarding house. And as he looked at it he suddenly saw also the face of the girl in full daylight. He saw her getting off at his car-stop in the evenings and walking a little distance in front of him up the block to this house. He saw a face shining with perspiration and colorless except for a sunburned nose. He saw a chin that was slightly recessive and glittering rimless glasses and black hair that straggled beneath a shapeless white felt hat. It was a very plain face, a face which, in full daylight, he would never have given a second glance.
“Good night,” he said quickly. He started moving away and he felt the girl standing motionless, watching him, and after a painfully long interval, he heard her own footsteps recommencing, going slowly up the walk and then up the steps of the red brick boarding house.
Then he remembered the swan moving in from the center of the lake, the white, wing-like rustling of the girl’s linen skirt as she walked beside him, and the feeling of coolness returned, the memory (image?) of her face was forgotten.
There was only the smooth black lake and the swan.
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