PW: In “Tennie,” the protagonist Dennis, full of desirous feelings toward Tennie, stood next to her in his room, during a moment when there appeared to be an opportunity to make a move. One interpretation is that he held back because he felt that making a move would have been acting on his and her fleeting appetites, rather than on rational thoughts. What’s the difference between a man like Dennis and a man who would have taken advantage of the situation and made a move despite the likelihood that it might have had regrettable aftereffects?
IL: The moment you allude to is one of the more important ones in the story. It is in fact the climactic scene, though it ostensibly ends in anticlimax. Dennis had all along been hungering for Tennie, and now here is his chance. Why doesn’t he take it? It isn’t fear. And it isn’t some puritan rejection of sex itself. He feels no guilt about his desire for Tennie. But in the course of living with her, he has come to know her. And he understands—or thinks he understands—her state of mind. He perceives her vulnerability, and that by going to bed with her he would be making an implicit promise—the promise of love—that he is fairly certain he will be unable to keep. He anticipates the pain the breaking of that promise would cause—not because he is himself such a catch, necessarily, but because any rejection is painful, and doubly so when a person is in an emotionally weakened state like Tennie is at that moment—and he is unwilling to go down that path. If the two of them were on an equal footing here, with more or less matched desires, he would likely have gladly gone through with it. But that is not the case. Tennie’s vulnerability makes her open to exploitation, just as her immigration status had made her exploitable by her employers. So the choice Dennis makes is not to be an exploiter. To restrain his own desire out of consideration for another human being, who would be hurt if he indulged it.
Of course, the caveat here is that Dennis’s interpretation of the situation and of Tennie’s psychological condition may not be accurate. She may have no interest in anything but a roll in the hay (if that), some physical intimacy to lift her spirits, and may feel no disappointment if his interests were confined to that as well. Whatever the case may be, like all of us Dennis has to operate based on his subjective view of things, and he chooses to err on the side of honesty and consideration, as he sees it, of not making promises he can’t keep, and of placing the possibility of causing pain above the satisfaction of his desire.
I do also want to point out, though, that the story’s ending hints at the potential for an encounter with a different outcome…