Sweet Bird of Youth

by

Tennessee Williams

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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.
Purity and Corruption Theme Icon

In Sweet Bird of Youth, the antagonistic Boss Finley sets forth bigoted notions of racial purity as well as patriarchal views regarding womanhood. Not only does this politician believe whites and blacks shouldn’t integrate or copulate, but he also thinks his daughter Heavenly has been corrupted—defiled—by her pre-marital sexual exploits with Chance Wayne. In other words, Boss Finley loathes what he sees as impurity, and so he brings his racist and misogynistic agenda to bear on the people around him. In turn, this leads him to promote unconscionable acts of violence. By portraying Finley as such a blatantly evil man, then, Williams warns against using the idea of purity to justify hatefulness.

Early on, Boss Finley warns Heavenly that her actions affect his political career. In particular, he scolds her for consorting with Chance Wayne, whom he hates and believes unworthy of his daughter’s love. Because of this dynamic, Chance has always felt he needs to become rich and famous so that Boss Finley will finally relent and allow him to marry Heavenly. To do this, he has spent the last several years trying to become a well-known actor, but because this hasn’t worked, he has resorted to what is essentially prostitution, working as a gigolo to earn money. During his last visit to St. Cloud, he transmitted an STD to Heavenly, forcing her to have a surgical operation that unfortunately went wrong, leaving her sterile for the rest of her life. To Boss Finley, this is the ultimate corruption of his young daughter’s purity. To make him even more furious, people have been taunting him at rallies by referencing Heavenly’s operation, which is why he decides that she must come to his next event dressed in all white. “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… to scotch these rumors of your corruption.” Boss Finley is so horrified by the idea that his daughter has been “corrupted” that he tries to overcompensate, dressing her up to communicate a message of purity and innocence to voters. Of course, it’s clear the people of St. Cloud already know Heavenly’s secret, but Boss Finley still insists that she radiate the stereotypical incorruptibility of an unmarried young woman, desperately wanting his daughter to at least act as if she too holds his same ideas of purity in high esteem.

Presenting his daughter as uncorrupted and pure isn’t Boss Finley’s only goal. In fact, he has an ulterior motive driving his decision to have her stand next to him dressed in white—a motive that aligns with his political campaign. “Lookin’ at you, all in white like a virgin,” he explains to Heavenly, “nobody would dare to speak or believe the ugly stories about you. I’m relying a great deal on this campaign to bring in young voters for the crusade I’m leading. I’m all that stands between the South and the black days of Reconstruction. 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.” Here, Boss Finley reveals that he wants to use Heavenly to project the bigoted message of racial purity to Southern voters. Not only does he see womanhood as something that can be made impure by others, but he also sees the white race as something that is “in danger” because of the prospect of racial integration. Under this racist interpretation, white Southerners are under threat because they might soon come together with black Southerners. Instead of seeing this as a positive unifying experience, Boss Finley sees it as a corruption of racial purity, investing himself in homogeneity rather than diversity.

There are, of course, other bigoted people in St. Cloud who agree with Boss Finley’s racist ideas regarding corruption and purity. As Chance’s old friend explains at one point, a group of white men overtook a black man “and castrated the bastard to show they mean[t] business about white women’s protection in this state.” This, it seems, is the violent agenda advanced by Boss Finley’s racist rhetoric regarding purity and corruption. In his twisted view, castrating a black man is justifiable as a protection of purity, which is why he threatens to do the very same thing to Chance Wayne: he sees Chance as someone who has corrupted his daughter’s purity. He even unabashedly endorses the use of violence in such contexts. Indeed, when Heavenly ventures that he “wouldn’t dare” hurt 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.” In this moment, he conflates Chance Wayne’s so-called “corruption” of his daughter with integration, making it clear that the two matters are more or less the same to him even though Chance is white. After all, he believes that both black people and Chance present a threat to purity.

This is obviously a very narrow-minded viewpoint that lacks even the slightest trace of empathy, and the fact that Boss Finley uses such an absurd outlook to justify violence is a clear indication of his lacking moral character. As such, Williams emphasizes the ways in which bigotry and hate can lead to inexcusable behavior, demonstrating that people sometimes claim that certain values (like incorruptibility or purity) are upstanding when in reality they’re only using these values to advance divisive and violent agendas.

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Purity and Corruption ThemeTracker

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

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

SCUDDER: There’s a lot more to this which we feel ought not to be talked about to anyone, least of all to you, since you have turned into a criminal degenerate, the only right term for you, but, Chance, I think I ought to remind you that once long ago, the father of this girl wrote out a prescription for you, a sort of medical prescription, which is castration. You’d better think about that, that would deprive you of all you’ve got to get by on. […]

CHANCE: I’m used to that threat. I’m not going to leave St. Cloud without my girl.

Related Characters: Chance Wayne (speaker), Dr. George Scudder (speaker), Heavenly Finley, Boss Finley
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

You were well born, weren’t you? Born of good Southern stock, in a genteel tradition, with just one disadvantage, a laurel wreath on your forehead, given too early, without enough effort to earn it…where’s your scrapbook, Chance? […] Where’s your book full of little theatre notices and stills that show you in the background of…

Page Number: 29
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:
Act Two, Scene One Quotes

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:

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. 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. And you’re gonna wear a proud happy smile on your face, you’re gonna stare straight out at the crowd in the ballroom with pride and joy in your eyes. Lookin’ at you, all in white like a virgin, nobody would dare to speak or believe the ugly stories about you. I’m relying a great deal on this campaign to bring in young voters for the crusade I’m leading. I’m all that stands between the South and the black days of Reconstruction. 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.

Related Characters: Boss Finley (speaker), Chance Wayne, Heavenly Finley, Tom Junior
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:
Act Two, Scene Two Quotes

Chance, when I saw you driving under the window with your head held high, with that terrible stiff-necked pride of the defeated which I know so well; I knew that your comeback had been a failure like mine. And I felt something in my heart for you. That’s a miracle, Chance. That’s the wonderful thing that happened to me. I felt something for someone besides myself. That means my heart’s still alive, at least some part of it is, not all of my heart is dead yet. Part’s alive still…Chance, please listen to me. I’m ashamed of this morning. I’ll never degrade you again, I’ll never degrade myself, you and me, again by—I wasn’t always this monster. Once I wasn’t this monster. And what I felt in my heart when I saw you returning, defeated, to this palm garden, Chance, gave me hope that I could stop being a monster. Chance, you’ve got to help me stop being the monster that I was this morning, and you can do it, can help me. I won’t be ungrateful for it. I almost died this morning, suffocated in a panic. But even through my panic, I saw your kindness. I saw a true kindness in you that you have almost destroyed, but that’s still there, a little…

Page Number: 74
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: