In Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams, John and Alma argue about the anatomy chart in the doctor's office. What are their respective arguments and how did they change those arguments in the middle of the play?
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Alma Winemiller is a small-town preacher's daughter in the Tennessee Williams's play Summer and Smoke. Her name means "soul," and she takes that seriously. Alma is a spiritual being, and she believes humans are called primarily to a spiritual life, even comparing the human soul to a lofty Gothic cathedral, all of its points reaching toward something higher than it could ever possibly achieve.
This image is symbolic of the
the everlasting struggle and aspiration for more than our human limits have placed in our reach.
She is a sensitive spirit who generally discounts any physical aspects of life.
Alma's childhood friend is John Buchanan, the son of a doctor who is just the opposite. He gives little credence to spiritual matters and spends most of his time and energy fulfilling his physical wants and desires. While the two have a long-term relationship, they are not really able to communicate as those in a relationship should; and of course this difference in philosophy keeps them from ever being really together.
The incident to which you refer in your question happens in John's father's office, and the two aspects of their natures becomes even more apparent. John wants Alma to see that they are primarily physical beings and thus should feed their physical desires. He describes it this way as he points to various parts of a human anatomy chart:
This upper story's the brain, which is hungry for something called truth and doesn't get much but keeps on feeling hungry. This middle's the belly which is hungry for food. This part down here is the sex which is hungry for love because it is sometimes lonesome. I've fed all three, as much of all three as I could or as much as I wanted--You've fed none.
Of course he kind of traps Alma by asking her to point to the part of the anatomy where the soul is located; and of course she cannot do it.
Not surprisingly, John believes Alma's inability to identify a specific part of the body which is the soul means that he has won the argument. If so, it is a temporary victory because, by the end of the play, the relationship between the two of them has undergone a drastic change which will keep them apart forever.
As Alma says "the tables have turned with a vengeance," and now she is the one who no longer represses her sexuality but pursues every physical pleasure. John, on the other hand, finally begins to settle into his professional life as a doctor and his focus on sexual fulfillment has faded. other things have begun to matter more to him as he has matured.
This reversal of roles is interesting and reflects two kinds of dramatic change. Alma's transformation is a fundamental shift in character and, necessarily, changes the course of her life for the worse. In the end, we presume Alma is headed for a meaningless, promiscuous life with whoever will fulfill her needs.
John's transformation is more developmental, as he moves from less thoughtful behavior and thinking to more thoughtful behavior and thinking. By the end of the play, we do not have the same worries or feel the same despair for John as we do Alma.
This is a primarily allegorical or symbolic play, and what happens to each of these characters is a picture of what strict adherence to these views will do to those who pursue them. Despite that, John is actually one of the few healthy characters in Williams' works. He is a survivor and we do not fear for his future because he has matured in a healthy way.
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