Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002
The main characters—Val, Lady, and Carol—are lonely, isolated figures. They do not fit into the environment in which they find themselves, are unable to communicate their deepest feelings and passions to others, or feel cut off. The uniqueness of their being is unable to find an outlet, or a fellow spirit, in a harsh world that continually frustrates human desires. Val sums up this theme when he says to Lady, "Nobody ever gets to know no body! We're all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!'' Val himself is a free, unconventional, artistic spirit who is bound to be misunderstood and isolated wherever he goes in a narrow, repressive society. Lady is trapped in a loveless marriage, in which her passionate nature has no opportunity to express itself, except through hate and resentment over the past. She echoes the theme of loneliness when she reminisces about her dying aunt. As a girl, Lady had asked her aunt what dying was like. The response was, ‘‘It's a lonely feeling.'' And Val knows that Lady's motivation in allowing him to stay at the store is because she feels lonely and needs a lover. Her loneliness and great need to overcome it is expressed at the end of act 2, when she yells that she needs Val and will follow him wherever he goes.
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The third character, Carol, tries to overcome her loneliness by her showy exhibitionism. This is really a desperate attempt to connect with others, to be significant to someone, and to get someone to take notice of her. During an emotional encounter with Val, she confesses that she uses sex for the same purpose. Even though lovemaking is physically painful for her, she endures it because "to be not alone, even for a few moments, is worth the pain and the danger."
In the world of the play, people's attempt to connect in a deep and meaningful way, to overcome the solitariness of their lives, is doomed to failure. Their happiness will be snuffed out almost as soon as it is gained. Val is correct: loneliness is the fundamental condition of humanity.
Sexuality, Freedom, and Repression
Throughout the play there is a contrast between the free expression of sexuality, presented as a positive life force, and the repressive, prudish mentality that prevails in the small town, in which the people are suspicious of anyone who does not conform to their narrow values.
Val is a very sexual figure. Women are attracted to him like bees around a honey pot. He exudes physical allure, and it is he who acts as a lightning rod for the suppressed longings of Lady and Carol. For example, after having established a sexual relationship with Val, Lady, who was full of physical and emotional tension, is restored to a new, fresh, life-affirming state of being. This is particularly emphasized when she discovers she is pregnant and exclaims, "I have life in my body, this dead tree, my body, has burst into flower!" Formerly, Lady had frequently complained of being cold, suggesting the frozen state of her inner being. Val, on the contrary, is always warm—he even claims that the temperature of his body is permanently two degrees higher than normal. It is as if Val lends Lady his heat, and only then she can blossom.
The erotic energy embodied in Val also manifests itself in his dealings with the sexually frustrated artist, Vee. He understands the essence of her visions and creativity, and as he touches her hands she shudders with excitement. Then as he tells her that she started to paint as if God had touched her fingers—just as he himself is doing at the time—it is as if, in his empathy and eroticism, he is divine himself. This impression is strengthened later, in act 3, scene 2, when Vee is struggling to convey her vision of the risen Christ: "His hand!—Invisible!— I didn't see his hand!—But it touched me—here!" At that point, she takes Val's hand and presses it to her chest. As in the previous incident, it is not difficult to make the connection, perhaps subconscious in Vee's mind, that Val himself is Christ. A moment later, Vee is on her knees with her arms around Val as he tries to lift her up—a fine visual image of the earthbound human artist being lifted by divine aid.
Val's sexual potency is also symbolized by his beloved guitar. When Val arouses the hostility of the men of the town, it is his guitar that fascinates them. Talbott wants to know more about it. Dog touches it and pulls it towards him. If the guitar is viewed as a phallic symbol, it might be said that the older men are experiencing sexual jealousy of the virile younger man. Pee Wee and others produce knives during this scene, which gives a hint, at least symbolically, of their desire to castrate their young rival. (The guitar has another, more obvious function: it represents music, specifically the power of music to give expression to human hopes and desires in a way that spoken words cannot.)
If sexual energy, in Williams's romantic vision, is life-affirming, it is counterbalanced in the play by its opposite—denial, negation, and death. Val represents a kind of innocence (his former dissolute life in New Orleans notwithstanding) and primal power, but Jabe, the cancerous authority figure with his yellow and gray appearance, represents death. Lady even refers to him in the final scene as "Mr. Death." At the end of the play, it is the death-impulse that overcomes the life-impulse. Lady and her unborn fetus are killed, and Val is burned to death, just as, a generation earlier, Lady's father and his vineyard (another symbol of Dionys-ian life and ecstasy) were also destroyed by fire. It is a grim, generation-to-generation reminder that the forces arrayed against life are powerful, and any happiness and fulfillment can last only for a brief time