What is “unspoken” in Tennessee Williams’s play “Something Unspoken”?




·        Nehtra Govender




Nehtra Govender


The "something unspoken" in the play is Cornelia's lingering, solitary homosexual love for her secretary of fifteen years, Grace. However, her love is not reciprocated, as Grace constantly eludes the subject of love, whenever Cornelia alludes to it.


Cornelia longs to disclose her sentiment to Grace, for she has lengthy, verbose paragraphs, which do not, considering the length of her communications, seem to convey anything particularly significant. This mirrors her inability to make known her feelings to Grace, as Cornelia frequently whispers her love to Grace in tenuous shapes, such as the gift of roses; her desolate attempts at declaring her love are like her conversations with Grace, frivolous and on the whole ignored by Grace. Thus the telephone is a personification of Cornelia as Cornelia is repeatedly using it, this illustrates her futile struggle to manifest her love, because after all her endeavours and aspirations to be re-elected (like her desire to declare her love to grace) she ultimately loses the election, as she foolishly thinks that she can organize an election over the phone, this is paralleled in her failure to confess her secret, her "something unspoken" to Grace. The inkling at the denouement is that this "something unspoken" will remain just that always, as Cornelia's pride will not allow her to confess. Grace's symbol is the phonograph, this represents sound, or more appropriately noise. Grace turns the phonograph on almost immediately when she comes to breakfast, demonstrating her wanting to drown out Cornelia's voice and her indifference to what Cornelia has to say. Cornelia says to Grace " several times lately you've rushed away From me as if I'd suddenly threatened you with a knife", this is referring to one of Cornelia's allusions to her love. This is another indication that the "something unspoken" will remain something unspoken.


Throughout the play Cornelia is painted as the authoritative, superior person in the relationship, she is aristocratic, she belongs to the "Confederate Daughters" association; she is patronizing towards Grace and treats her like a schoolgirl as evident in her "Hush" to Grace, which cuts Grace off in the middle of her sentence. Grace is subservient; she is Cornelia's mysterious secretary, yet it is Grace who ultimately wields the power in this extraordinary relationship. In the exposition, Cornelia is seen impersonating Grace, she pretends to be her own secretary as Grace woke late, as the "light was so dim", which is meagre excuse, evidently she does not attach much gravity to her occupation. Grace deliberately plays Vivaldi at breakfast, when she probably knows full well that Cornelia dislikes him, she rings the bell for the housekeeper, louder each time with knowledge that the housekeeper is not at home, to aggravate Cornelia, Grace has the power to annoy Cornelia, an asset that Cornelia does not possess, as Grace has the capability to manipulate Cornelia, for example it is odd that a mere secretary has the choice of music at breakfast. Cornelia endures this, as her love for Grace is dedicated. Furthermore the "something unspoken" may be viewed as the hidden power Grace exercises over Cornelia, for at first glance it is assumed that Cornelia is at the helm of the relationship, however it is Grace who holds the power and never allows Cornelia to state her love. Grace has the ability to tactfully change the direction of a conversation as illustrated when Cornelia begins her long winded introduction and hint at her closet love for Grace, she commences "It was fifteen years ago…" Grace artfully alters the situation from escalating into something serious by making a joke out of her predicament and laughing, to which Cornelia responds "What a cutting remark!" proving Grace's superiority in their relationship.


Grace diminishes the value of the roses given to her by Cornelia. Cornelia sees the roses as a symbol of her love and their relationship, something romantic, Cornelia says to Grace "you made this house a house of roses?" and Grace responds with the clinical " I've been your secretary for fifteen years", there is no emotion attached to that statement. Grace pretends to be someone she is not in this relationship, the secretary who is "embarrassed by sentiment", therefore in another light the "something unspoken" could be viewed as the disguise Grace wears, the "something unspoken" is her true nature which she does let Cornelia see, in order to keep her power.


The "something unspoken" is primarily Cornelia's love for the mysterious Grace, secondly the power Grace holds, and it is also the "real" Grace hiding from Cornelia. As Grace enigmatic Grace says "What lovely roses! One for every year!" evidence of her true self her "equivocal smile… not quite malicious but not really sympathetic", and her unwavering power, as she knows that the roses will continue to appear.