Literary Analysis of "Summer and Smoke"

In Williams' Old South, sensual fire makes spiritual smoke.
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"You have a doppelganger," John Buchanan says to Alma Winemiller in Tennessee Williams' play "Summer and Smoke." The line is emblematic of the play, since it's an examination of role reversal and appearance vs. reality. Alma -- whose name in Spanish means "soul" -- is a vessel of spirit to John's fleshly impulses; by the play's end, they have rubbed off on each other, with the music of Williams' poetry echoing throughout the experience.

1 A Triangular Plotline

The play is set in the 1910s in Glorious Hill, Miss., the heart of Williams' homeland. John returns to take up his aging, unstable father's medical practice; he platonically romances Alma but enjoys sexual encounters with Rosa Gonzales at the Moon Lake Casino. The triangular affair represents Williams' clash between old South -- "We're a bit peculiar" says Alma -- and new South -- "Is it so hard to forget you're a preacher's daughter?" asks John. Rosa, representing both old and new Mexico, seems a forbidden afterthought -- "cantinas are more fun than saloons."

2 Williams' Style, Poetry as Prose

The wastrel-reformed-by-love storyline might be a tiresome melodrama; its QED message of spirit and flesh exchanging places is obvious. But we don't really notice that in experiencing William's extraordinary prose style, which reads as well as it plays: "She died last summer," says Alma of her doppelganger, "suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her." John responds with love-words of his own: "[my affection] was Puritanical ice that glittered like flame, but now I believe it was flame, mistaken for ice." The poetic conceits, together with Williams' fire-and-smoke imagery, lift the melodrama into poignant tragedy.

3 Symbolism in Stone and Paper

Williams grounds the story further with two dominant symbols, a stone angel beside a fountain -- a setting which opens and closes the play -- and an anatomy chart. Both are replicants, dopplegangers for the main characters. Alma, like the stone angel, is "straining for something out of the reach of stone fingers"; her stone wings carry her nowhere. John explains man's brain, hungers and sexuality -- "I've fed all three" -- with the anatomy chart, which to him is the "high conception of human desires." Alma points out that the chart has no soul -- no Alma.

4 Flesh into Spirit, and Vice Versa

As in his other memory play "Glass Menagerie," Williams ends "Summer" with wistful lack of fulfillment. John leaves his wastrel life to study medicine; Alma invites a traveling salesman -- an impermanent lover -- to the Moon Lake Casino. We recognize that spiritual solidity and fleshly impermanence have swapped places. But Williams has created rounded and emotionally full characters, and we feel their losses keenly; Alma's gloved final salute to the angel indicates her doppelganger may re-emerge.

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.