Sweet Bird of Youth

by

Tennessee Williams

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Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Purity and Corruption Theme Icon
Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sweet Bird of Youth, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Icon

Chance Wayne’s love of Heavenly drives him throughout the entirety of Sweet Bird of Youth, encouraging him to not only endure a number of social disgraces, but also to face down dangerous threats. The only reason he has worked so hard to become famous, he claims, is so that he can return to St. Cloud and earn Boss Finley’s blessing to marry Heavenly. However, because this never comes to pass—and because Chance and Heavenly never actually share any intimacy in the course of the play—it’s hard to discern whether or not his claims of love are genuine. Though most playwrights might allow a love story like Chance and Heavenly’s to triumph over everything else, Tennessee Williams is more interested in exploring how Chance’s attempt to court Heavenly actually drives him farther and farther from her. By the end of the play, it’s unclear whether his refusal to comply with Boss Finley’s orders to leave St. Cloud arises out of his steadfast love of Heavenly or the headstrong vanity he has cultivated as a dashing gigolo and actor. In this way, Williams intimates that the mere idea of love can overshadow a person’s actual romantic feelings, ultimately becoming more of a mental fixation than a genuine emotional experience or connection between two people.

Throughout Sweet Bird of Youth, Chance’s determination to make a life with Heavenly never falters. Until the very end, he tries to carry out a scheme that will make both of them rich and famous, ostensibly enabling them to be together. As he does this, Boss Finley threatens to kill or castrate him unless he leaves St. Cloud. Nevertheless, he doesn’t leave, and in the final scene he finally allows himself to be overtaken by Finley’s goons, preparing for extreme violence because he’s unwilling to give up. Judging by this, it’s easy to think that his love for Heavenly is steadfast and authentic. However, it’s hard to overlook the fact that he has only visited Heavenly periodically in the last several years, always swooping into town for short stays, making love to her, and leaving again to resume his fast life as an aspiring actor and well-known gigolo. During one such visit, he even gave her an STD he picked up while working as an escort, and although he knew that he had it and that he had probably given it to her, he didn’t say anything. “I thought if something was wrong she’d write me or call me,” he lamely justifies to Heavenly’s brother, Tom Junior, who points out that Heavenly couldn’t have reached him even if she wanted to, since he never gives her reliable ways to contact him when he leaves. Not only does this behavior suggest that Chance doesn’t care as much about Heavenly as he claims, it also emphasizes how much he has been absent from his lover’s life. Although he might argue that he has been off trying to become famous so he can provide for Heavenly, it seems more likely that he has simply come to enjoy his debauched lifestyle—so much that he doesn’t mind abandoning Heavenly even after transmitting a disease to her.

Williams’s onstage treatment of Chance and Heavenly’s relationship is quite fleeting, yet again suggesting that the supposed “love” flowing between them isn’t as strong as Chance would like to think. Indeed, Chance spends the majority of the play talking about his relationship with Heavenly, but the audience only gets to see them together for a few seconds. During this moment, the stage directions note: “At this instant she runs in—to face Chance…. For a long instant, Chance and Heavenly stand there: he on the steps leading to the Palm Garden and gallery; she in the cocktail lounge. They simply look at each other…” Before either of them can speak, Heavenly is ushered offstage again. This is the only interaction they have throughout the entire play. After “a long instant,” during which they don’t even speak, Heavenly leaves, essentially providing the audience with very little insight into their relationship. Although this moment could be seen as an “instant” of intense emotion, it also hints at a certain tension, as if Heavenly is confronting Chance with her stare (this is, after all, the first time she’s seen him since he gave her an STD). Overall, it’s difficult to discern whether or not true love exists in their relationship. At the very least, the playwright’s decision to keep them from coming together onstage destabilizes the idea that their love is strong, authentic, and capable of overcoming hardship. In turn, Williams forces the audience to judge Chance and Heavenly’s relationship based only on Chance’s interpretation of their love—an interpretation that, given his unrealistic expectations in other areas of his life, comes to seem less and less reliable.

Part of what makes Chance’s supposed love of Heavenly seem inauthentic or unbelievable is the way he conceives of love in general. In a conversation with Alexandra Del Lago, he says, “The biggest of all differences in this world is between the ones that had or have pleasure in love and those that haven’t and hadn’t any pleasure in love.” At first glance, this statement seems rather wholesome, since Chance is arguing that love is something that defines a person. However, it’s worth noting that he isn’t championing love itself, but rather the “pleasure” that one can derive from love. As such, he approaches love in an unsentimental and unemotional manner, primarily searching for a kind of hedonistic (pleasure-seeking) gratification. If this is what’s driving him to work so hard to win Heavenly’s hand, it seems he has overestimated his feelings. At the same time, though, sexual or physical pleasure can naturally lead people to think they’re in love, so it’s unsurprising that Chance mistakes his obsession with Heavenly as a genuine romantic experience. In this way, Williams demonstrates that a person’s obsession with pleasure can overshadow—or even replace—the desire to attain true and genuine love.

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Love, Obsession, and Pleasure ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Love, Obsession, and Pleasure appears in each act of Sweet Bird of Youth. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Quotes in Sweet Bird of Youth

Below you will find the important quotes in Sweet Bird of Youth related to the theme of Love, Obsession, and Pleasure.
Act One, Scene One Quotes

Well, sooner or later, at some point in your life, the thing that you lived for is lost or abandoned, and then…you die, or find something else. This is my something else…

Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Whether or not I do have a disease of the heart that places an early terminal date on my life, no mention of that, no reference to it ever. No mention of death, never, never a word on that odious subject. I’ve been accused of having a death wish but I think it’s life that I wish for, terribly, shamelessly, on any terms whatsoever.

When I say now, the answer must not be later. I have only one way to forget these things I don’t want to remember and that’s through the act of love-making. That’s the only dependable distraction so when I say now, because I need that distraction, it has to be now, not later.

Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:
Act One, Scene Two Quotes

Yes, well…the others…[…] are all now members of the young social set here. The girls are young matrons, bridge-players, and the boys belong to the Junior Chamber of Commerce and some of them, clubs in New Orleans such as Rex and Comus and ride on the Mardi Gras floats. Wonderful? No boring…I wanted, expected, intended to get, something better…Yes, and I did, I got it. I did things that fat-headed gang never dreamed of. Hell when they were still freshmen at Tulane or LSU or Ole Miss, I sang in the chorus of the biggest show in New York, in Oklahoma, and had pictures in LIFE in a cowboy outfit, tossin’ a ten-gallon hat in the air! […] And at the same time pursued my other vocation….Maybe the only one I was truly meant for, love-making…slept in the social register of New York!

Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Princess, the great difference between people in this world is not between the rich and the poor or the good and the evil, the biggest of all differences in this world is between the ones that had or have pleasure in love and those that haven’t and hadn’t any pleasure in love, but just watched it with envy, sick envy. The spectators and the performers. I don’t mean just ordinary pleasure or the kind you can buy, I mean great pleasure, and nothing that’s happened to me or to Heavenly since can cancel out the many long nights without sleep when we gave each other such pleasure in love as very few people can look back on in their lives…

Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Two, Scene One Quotes

In her father, a sudden dignity is revived. Looking at his very beautiful daughter, he becomes almost stately. He approaches her […] like an aged courtier comes deferentially up to a crown princess or infant. It’s important not to think of his attitude toward her in the terms of crudely conscious incestuous feeling, 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.

Related Characters: Boss Finley (speaker), Heavenly Finley
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

Don’t give me your Voice of God speech. Papa, there was a time when you could have saved me, by letting me marry a boy that was still young and clean, but instead you drove him away, drove him out of St. Cloud. And when he came back, you took me out of St. Cloud, and tried to force me to marry a fifty-year-old money bag that you wanted something out of […] and then another, another, all of them ones that you wanted something out of. I’d gone, so Chance went away. Tried to compete, make himself big as these big shots you wanted to use me for a bond with. He went. He tried. The right doors wouldn’t open, and so he went in the wrong ones, and—Papa, you married for love, why wouldn’t you let me do it, while I was alive, inside, and the boy still clean, still decent?

Related Characters: Heavenly Finley (speaker), Chance Wayne, Boss Finley
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Three Quotes

Of course, you were crowned with laurel in the beginning, your gold hair was wreathed with laurel, but the gold is thinning and the laurel has withered. Face it—pitiful monster. [She touches the crown of his head.] … Of course, I know I’m one too. But one with a difference. Do you know what that difference is? No, you don’t know. I’ll tell you. We are two monsters, but with this difference between us. Out of the passion and torment of my existence I have created a thing that I can unveil, a sculpture, almost heroic, that I can unveil, which is true. But you? You’ve come back to the town you were born in, to a girl that won’t see you because you put such rot in her body she had to be gutted and hung on a butcher’s hook, like a chicken dressed for Sunday….

Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis: