How does the idea of light and darkness play out in Suddenly, Last Summer? 

How does the idea of light and darkness play out in Suddenly, Last Summer?


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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Suddenly, Last Summer is one of several Tennessee Williams plays in which light, usually in the forms of whiteness (the color more so than the race) and blondness, plays a role. 

In Suddenly, Last Summer, Catherine, Sebastian Venable's cousin and travel companion, has been committed to a mental institution by her Aunt Violet after Sebastian's death, in which he is devoured by a group of boys in one of the southern European countries in which he went seeking boys or men for sex. Catherine witnesses his being devoured in a cannibalistic frenzy and has a mental breakdown.

Catherine's doctor in the institution is a young, blonde man. He is described in Scene One as wearing white, causing him to appear "glacially brilliant." He also has an "icy charm." Later in the play, Catherine sees him standing at the window, but says that he's too blonde "to hide behind window curtains" because the light catches him, "he shines through them." She then recalls how her now dead cousin planned to take her to one of the "northern countries" where she -- his man-bait -- would help him procure men. 

Catherine ends her remembrance of Sebastian with a quote from somebody: "We're all of us children in a vast kindergarten trying to spell God's name with the wrong alphabet blocks." Sebastian's fascination with blondes plays into cultural narratives that equate blondness with purity. This is why the doctor "shines through" the light. His fair skin and hair convey the senses that he is pure and true. The quote suggests that his intention to procure blonds, in an attempt to become true and pure, was misguided. 

The doctor's "light" appearance is in marked contrast to that of Aunt Violet who, strangely, has light pink or orange hair, and wears a lavender dress. She has traditional Southern charms, manners known for their masterful evasions and hypocrisies. Her manners contrast with the doctor's "icy" clinical approach to people. Once again, there is a sense that, as an embodiment of scientific truth, he is "pure" and will reveal the truth about Catherine's mental breakdown, whereas her aunt seeks to obscure that truth. In fact, when Violet speaks, Catherine directly accuses her of lying.

In sum, the blonde doctor dressed in white represents the "light" of truth in the play. Ironically, he was what Sebastian was looking for in life, but could only achieve in death: a man, particularly a blond man, who would help him come to terms with his identity. However, as was the case in her procurement of men for Sebastian, Catherine serves as the surrogate through which Sebastian Venable's truth becomes known. Violet Venable represents the "darkness" of dishonesty. When the doctor pulls the secret out of the closet, Aunt Violet goes mad, unable to live with the truth of who her son was.

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Suddenly Last Summer

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