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Written by Timothy Sexton
The play opens within a jungle-like garden filled with garish colors and dominated by a Venus Flytrap which becomes something of conversationalist piece in which to commence Violent Venable’s opening conversation with a psychiatric physician she hopes will perform a lobotomy on her niece. The Venus Flytrap is, of course, a planet notorious for eating insects. The unusual carnivorous appetite of a planet is clearly a metaphor for something, but nothing deemed universally particular. Some suggest that the carnivorous plant is a metaphor for the figuratively incestuous relationship between Violet and Sebastian based on the predatory nature of Mrs. Venable. That same predator nature, however, can equally well be applied to Sebastian’s use of Catharine as “bait” with which to trap the young men he carnally pursues. Still others are resistant to applying the plant metaphorical weight too literally; its significance is, this camp suggests, far more suggestive of the general predatory nature of all people who are not assumed to be so. A plant normally does reveals its means of gaining sustenance in such a violently obvious way; from a certain perspective both Violet and her son would not immediately be recognized as sharing attributes with such a plant.
"It's like a well-groomed jungle."
One of the doctor’s first lines is a strange and equally ambiguous observation about the garden in which this opening conversation is taking place. He compares the garden to a jungle; specifically one which has been groomed so as to remove, supposedly, its wild, unplanned topographical architecture. In fact, of course, the garden is not like an orderly jungle, it is an orderly jungle. Thus, we are presented with a simile that, technically, isn’t really a simile since what the doctor is saying is actually a literal statement. One can argue about the detailed semantical differences between a garden and a jungle, but effectively—at least under certain circumstances such as this one—they are synonymous. What is any garden—really—but a well-groomed jungle? Jungles are by definition separated from gardens primarily on the basis of one being wild and one being planned. So to suggest that Sebastian’s garden now in the hands of his mother is like a well-groomed jungle is to make a comparison that is literally equal, not figuratively equal. And it is that distinction which becomes important because one of the great debates about Suddenly, Last Summer is whether the cannibalistic feeding frenzy which ends Sebastian’s life is intended to be taken literally or figuratively. Catharine alone of all the characters to appear on stage knows the truth and, if her aunt is to be believed, she’s suffered a severe mental breakdown. So this simile that compares one thing literally to another which it, in fact is, foreshadows the attempt to determine whether or not Catharine’s account of the final minutes of Sebastian’s life is a literal witnessing or a figurative recounting of something her mind simply cannot accurately describe.
Pregnant with Poetry
According to Mrs. Venable, her son Sebastian was a quite unusual poet. He produced exactly one poem a year. Every summer would see the delivery of a new poem after having worked on it like a truly dedicated artist for the preceding nine months. A delivery after nine months. The playwright—as dedicated a writer as his character and certainly more prolific—is creating an unspoken simile in which the process of producing a creative work is akin to the process of creating life. This comparison, of course, carries an extra layer of meaning when the artist in question is homosexual and thus considered to be incapable—at least unlikely—to create life through procreation. Things have changed scientifically since 1958, of course, but the metaphorical implication remains the same.
The Spider's Web
As Mrs. Venable slowly builds to a state of frenzied anxiety, she reveals to the doctor that Sebastian’s last completed poem was the last summer that she spent with him. His notebook ends with that last poem nothing follows but blank page after blank page. That time also corresponds to when she was no longer able to accompany him on his summer trip which resulted in the birth of his annual work of verse. In her absence, her niece—Sebastian’s cousin—Catharine instead was his traveling companion. While showing this book to the doctor, Violet voices the following simile: “A poet’s vocation is something that rests on something as thin and fine as the web of spider.” This comparison a metaphorical reach far beyond the immediate comparison, however: not only is a poet’s vocation resting on a thin string, but so the Venable family’s reputation. Implicit in her judgment of this fragility lies yet an unspoken metaphor: Sebastian’s very life rested on the weak construction of the web Catharine was able to spin—accepting him for what he was—and he died as a result of the absence of the more solid foundation of the web she herself spun: denial of who her son was and what he was really doing every summer.
"Sebastian was a poet."
This is another example of how the play deals ambiguously with the distinction between the literal and the figurative. Sebastian is, of course, quite literally a poet and so on the surface this statement by his mother does not seem to carry any figurative freight. However, coming as it does just two lines after she has previously asserted that “his life was his occupation” and coming just two lines before she goes on to explain “the work of a poet is the life of a poet, and vice versa” it becomes more evident that the mother is actually asserting something more than literal. In order for Violet Venable to retain the all-important grip on how society views the Venable family, it has become imperative upon her to reconstruct the literal biography of Sebastian into a more figurative biography. Only a mother absolutely blind to everything about her son could possibly have failed to grasp that Sebastian is not merely homosexual, but aggressively sexual in nature. And yet, she insists upon presenting him as a poetic soul divorced such low and common earthly pursuits. Her demand to the doctor that Sebastian was a poet goes much deeper than merely describing what he did with his talent; it is a less a job description than a character analysis. In the end, it is a metaphor for a man who was both less than mere man and far, far greater than a mere man. He was a poet!
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