Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams is a play written with realism, despite the narrative being allegorical. The allegory itself has various themes—which are explored both poetically and realistically in the story—such as the symbiotic relationship of the soul and the body, and why the experiences of each one are different.
The play also explores the themes of innocence and experience. Alma's struggle with sexual repression and sexual liberation is an illustration of this particular theme. The character of Alma (a Spanish word meaning "soul") also illustrates the theme of the dynamics between the soul and the flesh. Her body craves the sexual experience, but her mind (or soul) rejects it due to religious indoctrination.
However, her soul begins to conform to her body's cravings, and she eventually desires sexual intimacy. Overall, the play's allegory has a theological subtext, in which the main characters are likened to mortals trying to attain a higher plane of existence, or divine experience, but failing to do so because of human flaws. However, Williams hints that even the carnal acts that lead to ecstasy are a form of divine experience.
Themes and Meanings
Summer and Smoke examines the frustrated love of a soulful, faded southern belle for a handsome, virile young physician. On the most obvious allegorical level, it is a play about the eternal conflict between body and soul. John, like his father, ministers to the needs of the body, and Alma, whose very name means “soul,” is the daughter of a minister, who attends to the needs of the soul.
Alma’s spiritual preoccupation is evident as early as the play’s prologue. At the age of ten she already knows that the name of the fountain’s prominent angel means “something that goes on and on when life and death and everything else is all through with.” Even as a child, John deals with the physical, the visible. He struck his dying mother because her appearance had changed so much that she no longer looked like his mother, and it was this act that earned for him the appellation of “devil.” As an adult, John still fails to recognize the existence of the soul, for it is not visible on his chart of the human anatomy. What he does recognize in Alma is her repressed sexuality, that part of her Doppelgänger nature which she fears to acknowledge.
The duality of body and soul is seen also as that of the sacred and profane. The soul is associated with the sacred through Alma’s church affiliation. She uses the image of a Gothic cathedral to symbolize “the everlasting struggle and aspiration for more than our human limits have placed in our reach,” a struggle that she sees as “the principle back of existence.” The devil in...
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