Sweet Bird of Youth

by

Tennessee Williams

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Sweet Bird of Youth: Act Two, Scene One Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Boss Finley meets with George Scudder inside his house and laments the return of Chance Wayne, scowling that the wretched man “had” Heavenly when she was only fifteen. He knows this because he has seen the picture Chance took of Heavenly on the sandbar, which a dishonest photo developer circulated amongst his friends. Hearing Boss Finley’s anger, Scudder suggests that he call off the political rally he’s planning to have that night, but Finley refuses. He then calls his son, Tom Junior, into the room and asks if Chance has left St. Cloud yet. Tom Junior informs him that Hatcher claims they’re still at the Royal Palms. “Is this Hatcher a talker, or can he keep his mouth shut?” Boss Finley asks, and Scudder chimes in to assure him that he told Hatcher to handle the matter discreetly.
Although Chance has mentioned Boss Finley to the Princess, this is the first time the man appears onstage. As the chief antagonist of the play, he reveals his dislike of Chance right away. Indeed, his aversion to Chance seemingly stems from the fact that Chance had sex with Heavenly when she was still quite young. In turn, Williams suggests that Boss Finley is upset by the idea that Chance “corrupted” what he most likely sees as his daughter’s purity by bringing her into the world of adulthood before she was ready.
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Purity and Corruption Theme Icon
Questioning Scudder’s ability to communicate a message discreetly, Boss Finley says, “Discreetly, like you handled that operation you done on my daughter, so discreetly that a hillbilly heckler is shouting me questions about it wherever I speak?” Scudder, for his part, insists that he did everything he could to keep that operation a secret, but Finley changes the subject, saying he merely wants to know if Chance has left yet. To his dismay, Tom Junior and Scudder inform him that Chance is holed up with an old movie star named Alexandra Del Lago, who isn’t “well enough to travel.” “Okay,” says Boss Finley to Scudder, “you’re a doctor, remove her to a hospital. Call an ambulance and haul her out of the Royal Palms Hotel.” When Scudder asks how he’ll justify this, Finley tells him to say that the Princess has something contagious.
Although it’s left vague what kind of “operation” Scudder performed on Heavenly, it’s clear that it was something Boss Finley doesn’t want people to know about, since he critiques Scudder for not handling the procedure “discreetly.” This obsession with secrecy makes sense, considering that Boss Finley is a political figure who wants to carefully manipulate how he presents himself to the public. What’s more, the fact that Heavenly had to get a secret “operation” in the first place—likely having to do with an STD—surely upsets Boss even more, causing him again to face the fact that Heavenly isn’t a virgin anymore.
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Boss Finley states the reason he wants Chance Wayne removed from St. Cloud, saying: “My daughter’s no whore, but she had a whore’s operation after the last time he had her. I don’t want him passin’ another night in St. Cloud.” He then tells Tom Junior that Chance must be gone by midnight, and when Tom asks if he can borrow his father’s boat to carry out this job, Boss Finley merely says that he doesn’t want to know the specifics of how Tom plans to remove Chance. Just then, a car horn sounds through the air as Chance approaches in the Princess’s Cadillac.
When Boss Finley refers to Heavenly’s secret operation as “a whore’s operation,” he confirms the notion that her procedure—whatever it was—was the result of sleeping with Chance Wayne. What’s more, he reveals his deep investment in bigoted ideas of purity and innocence, believing that Chance has corrupted his otherwise perfect daughter, turning her from a girl into a “whore.
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When Chance pulls into Boss Finley’s driveway, he sees Aunt Nonnie and calls to her, but she pretends to not hear him. Finally, he drives away, and Boss asks Nonnie why she didn’t acknowledge Chance. “I hoped you hadn’t seen him,” she says. She admits that she went to the hotel to warn Chance to leave, but that he wouldn’t listen. Finley then accuses Nonnie of showing Chance too much kindness, saying she “aided and abetted him in his corruption of Heavenly.” In response, she says, “I remember when Chance was the finest, nicest, sweetest boy in St. Cloud, and he stayed that way till you, till you—” Before she can finish, Finley cuts her off, ordering her to fetch Heavenly.
Throughout the play, Boss Finley fixates on the idea that Chance corrupted Heavenly. In this moment, though, Aunt Nonnie underhandedly suggests that Boss actually corrupted Chance, and though she doesn’t yet make clear how this is the case, the audience can guess that it must have something to do with the way Boss responded to Chance’s interest in his daughter. This shift of perspectives is important, as Williams explores the ways people can drive one another away from an original sense of wholeness and wellbeing. Indeed, while Boss Finley believes Chance corrupted Heavenly with his sexual exploits, Nonnie seems to think that Boss corrupted Chance with his hate and prejudice.
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When Aunt Nonnie leaves, Boss Finley complains about the fact that everybody he’s associated with ends up dragging his name into trouble. This offends Tom Junior, who is proud to have organized the Youth For Tom Finley club for his father’s campaign, but Boss Finley points out that the club is just made up of hooligans like Tom, who has gotten his name in the paper several times for unsavory activities like drunk driving. Insulted, Tom Junior brings up his father’s “well-known promiscuity” with his mistress, Miss Lucy. “Who is Miss Lucy?” Boss Finley says, playing dumb. “Who is Miss Lucy?” Tom Junior laughs. “You don’t even know who she is, this woman you keep in a fifty-dollar-a-day hotel suite at the Royal Palms, Papa?”
During this conversation, Tom Junior reveals Boss Finley’s hypocritical tendencies. Indeed, Boss Finley adamantly condemns Chance’s sexual promiscuity, but he himself apparently has a mistress. In this way, Williams demonstrates that people who criticize others for not upholding certain moral standards are often just as likely as anyone else to transgress against the very same set of values they so ardently advance.
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Boss Finley denies Miss Lucy’s existence until Tom Junior tells him that she recently wrote “Boss Finley is too old to cut the mustard” on a mirror at the Royal Palms. After a tense moment, Boss tells Tom to mind his own business. Just then, Heavenly enters, and Boss Finley sends Scudder and Tom away. Suddenly affectionate, Boss tells Heavenly they need to talk, but she says she can’t right now and tries to leave.
The message that Miss Lucy has supposedly written on the mirror at the Royal Palms refers again to one of the play’s main themes: the idea that youth fades. Indeed, Boss Finley must suddenly face the notion that he’s no longer young enough to satisfy his lover. Worse, this has been put on public display, disparaging him in the public eye. For someone who cares so much about his image as a politician, this is surely devastating news.
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When Heavenly tries to leave, a servant gets in her way as he enters and turns on a lamp, which casts a beautiful light onto Heavenly, one that pacifies Boss Finley’s anger as he looks fondly at his daughter. Williams notes here that “it’s important not to think of [Boss’s] attitude toward her in the terms of crudely conscious incestuous feelings, but just in the natural terms of almost any aging father’s feeling for a beautiful young daughter who reminds him of a dead wife that he desired intensely when she was the age of his daughter.” After a moment, Boss Finley regains his composure and says, “You’re still a beautiful girl,” and she jokes that “the embalmers must have done a good job.”
Williams’s note about Boss Finley’s relationship with Heavenly is strange, as he calls attention to an uncomfortable “incestuous” dynamic while simultaneously trying to normalize this dynamic by saying that “almost any aging father” might feel mildly attracted to his daughter if she looks like his dead wife. In turn, he gives the audience a chance to look deeper into Boss Finley, who clearly harbors some complicated feelings about his daughter’s sexuality. What’s more, these feelings most likely fuel his desire to keep Heavenly innocent and young; to protect her from sexual beings like Chance (and, perhaps, his own repressed desires). On another note, it’s worth pointing out that he says Heavenly is “still” a beautiful girl, implying that she has indeed been corrupted and altered by her past experiences with Chance. Unfortunately for Heavenly, she seems to have internalized this idea, since she herself makes a morbid joke that she has died, suggesting that she believes her operation has changed her for the worse.
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Boss Finley complains that Heavenly has become a “subject of talk” and “scandal,” which threatens to defeat his “mission.” Cutting him off, she tells him not to give her his “Voice of God speech,” claiming that he missed his chance to “save” her because he didn’t allow her to marry Chance when she was “still young and clean.” Instead, she says, he “drove him away” and tried to force her to marry “a fifty-year-old money bag,” who was the first in a long line of suitors Boss has tried to get her to marry. Meanwhile, she claims, Chance tried to “compete” for her hand by getting famous, though “the right doors wouldn’t open, and so he went in the wrong ones.” “Papa, you married for love,” she says, “why wouldn’t you let me do it, while I was alive, inside, and the boy still clean, still decent?”
Interestingly enough, Heavenly apparently believes—like her father—that she has lost her purity, that both she and Chance are no longer “clean.” At the same time, though, she raises a difficult question: can other people be blamed for another’s loss of purity?  Heavenly believes that Chance went into the “wrong doors” because Boss Finley forced him to do so. Similarly, she blames her father for her own loss of innocence, insinuating that she wouldn’t have had pre-marital sex if he had simply allowed Chance to marry her in the first place. Although these are interesting points to consider, it’s also worth noting that Heavenly’s ideas here ignore her own agency and culpability, effectively foisting all responsibility on her father. In turn, this devalues her own authority, causing her to strip herself of any power or agency she might otherwise possess.
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Boss Finley tells Heavenly a story about her mother. When she was ill, he knew she was about to die, so he went out and bought a $15,000 clip, which he pinned onto her nightgown. Although she protested that the gift was wasted on her, he said, “If you was dying, if there was any chance of it, would I invest fifteen grand in a diamond clip to pin on the neck of a shroud?” In turn, she started to act as if she weren’t dying. Instead, she laughed and took visitors for the rest of the day—until she died at midnight. Instead of burying her with the clip, Boss Finley took it off and returned it to the jeweler. Hearing this, Heavenly sarcastically says, “I guess that shows, demonstrates very clearly, that you have got a pretty big heart after all.”
For Boss Finley, relationships are transactional. Rather than taking the time to help his wife through her difficult period of dying, he used his riches to buy her some semblance of happiness. However, he himself isn’t capable of much sentiment, which is why he coldly returned the clip after his wife died. As such, the audience sees that Boss’s romantic relationships have very little to do with actual emotions. In light of this, it’s rather unsurprising that he doesn’t care if Heavenly and Chance are in love or not: he doesn’t care at all about actual romantic feelings.
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Before Heavenly leaves the room, Boss Finley tells her that a heckler has been disrupting his political rallies, yelling, “Hey, Boss Finley, how about your daughter? How about that operation you had done on your daughter at the Thomas J. Finley hospital in St. Cloud?” In response, Heavenly apologizes that her operation has caused him trouble, but she also points out that she herself is already humiliated. “I felt worse than embarrassed when I found out that Dr. George Scudder’s knife had cut the youth out of my body, made me an old childless woman,” she says. “Dry, cold, empty, like an old woman.” Because of her sterility, she tells her father, she has decided to join a convent, where she won’t be able to “embarrass” him anymore.
Heavenly has internalized her father’s ideas about youth, purity, and innocence. Indeed, she believes that George Scudder “cut the youth out of [her] body.” By saying this, she frames “youth” as a tangible thing, something that can be physically removed from the body. In reality, of course, youth isn’t quite so straightforward, and isn’t something a person can simply lose all of a sudden. Nonetheless, her belief that she is a “dry, cold, empty” “old woman” shows the extent to which she believes her sexual encounters with Chance have marred her youthful beauty and personal worth.
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Boss Finley is incensed to hear that Heavenly wants to join a convent, telling her that he is a Protestant and that—even though she took to her mother’s Catholicism—he won’t allow her to undermine him this way. Plus, he has a plan for her: she’s going to accompany him tonight to the Youth for Tom Finley rally in the ballroom of the Royal Palms Hotel. “You’re going to be wearing the stainless white of a virgin, with a Youth for Tom Finley button on one shoulder and a corsage of lilies on the other,” he says. “You’re going to be on the speaker’s platform with me, you on one side of me and Tom Junior on the other, to scotch these rumors about your corruption.” When people see her dressed in white like this, he claims, they won’t be able to keep circulating “ugly stories” about her.
Once more, Boss Finley demonstrates his desire for Heavenly to be the symbol of unsexualized purity. However, he also reveals another motive here: not only does he want her to regain her innocence, he wants her to do it publicly so that he can benefit politically from her apparent reformation. In this way, Williams shows the audience that there is very little in Boss Finley’s life that he won’t politicize and manipulate to his advantage. While youth and purity are important to him personally, what he really wants to do is project a message of “stainless white” innocence to the voters he’s trying to win over. In addition, considering that Sweet Bird of Youth takes place during a period of racial integration in the South, this message—of “white” purity—also takes on a racist agenda.
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Going on, Boss Finley tells Heavenly that he’s relying on his campaign “to bring in young voters for the crusade [he’s] leading.” Adding to this, he says: “And you and Tom Junior are going to stand there beside me in the grand crystal ballroom, as shining examples of white Southern youth—in danger.” Heavenly protests this idea, saying she won’t stand up there with him, and this prompts her father to threaten Chance’s safety, saying, “If you won’t, you won’t. Bu there would be consequences you might not like. Chance Wayne is back in St. Cloud.” He then says that he’s going to “remove” Chance, asking, “How do you want him to leave, in that white Cadillac he’s riding around in, or in the scow that totes the garbage out to the dumping place in the Gulf?”
Building upon his statement that Heavenly will represent the “stainless white of a virgin” when she stands next to him at the rally, Boss Finley transitions into a conversation about race relations in the South, explicitly addressing his bigoted belief that “white Southern youth” are “in danger” because of integration. According to him, Heavenly and Tom Junior will symbolize what white Southerners supposedly stand to lose if they integrate with black Southerners. Boss Finley has conflated his own obsession with sexual purity—and the corruption of youth—with the politics of fear regarding racial segregation.
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When Heavenly says that Boss Finley “wouldn’t dare” do something violent to Chance, he says, “A lot of people approve of taking violent action against corrupters. And on all of them that want to adulterate the pure white blood of the South.” He then goes on to tell his well-worn story about how when he was fifteen he came out of the “red clay hills as if the Voice of God” had called him. “I firmly believe He called me,” he says. “And nothing, nobody, nowhere is gonna stop me, never.” Saying this, he leaves to go see Miss Lucy.
Boss Finley uses his obsession with purity and corruption to fuel a racist agenda, this time making it all the more explicit that he condones “violent action” against people who “want to adulterate the pure white blood of the South.” In turn, the audience sees how truly racist he is, and one gets the sense that he is motivated first and foremost by fear (and certainly not by the “Voice of God”)—indeed, he thinks that he will lose his privileged status if true integration takes place in the South. Rather than interrogating his insecurities, he directs anger at people who he thinks might “corrupt” his way of life, which is why he not only encourages violence against black people, but also against Chance, who he thinks has “corrupted” his daughter. Boss’s hypocrisy is also highlighted by the fact that he invokes the “Voice of God”—who disapproves of adultery—and then immediately goes to see his mistress.
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