Study Guide

A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body Paradox

By Andrew Marvell

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We understand paradox because we misunderstand it. Bam. Scratching your head over these seemingly illogical pieces of Marvell-ian insight? At first glance, paradoxes seem absurd, but delve deeper and you'll discover the secret code under the grey, scratchy label, the meaning behind the madness. Marvell uses these mind-benders to make you think deeply and to highlight whatever is startling or contradictory about the relationship between the soul and the body, life and death, physical and emotional pain.

This dialogue tackles some huge topics, and it's no surprise that a lot of what goes down between the body and soul seems completely cray-cray. Paradoxes emphasize the craziness—and also explain it away.

  • Lines 5-6: The soul ramps up its complaints with some well-placed paradox, making sure we realize that living in a body is not all it's cracked up to be. Did you list "sight" and "hearing" on your Thanksgiving "I am thankful for.." list? Think again, clueless. This soul is blinded by eyes and deafened by ears. That's what happens to refined spiritual essence when it's forced inside a human being.
  • Lines 17-18: The body strikes a more pitiful note with its paradox. It's obsessed with the idea that not living at all would be better than living and then dying. And since there's no heaven for it to look forward to, death really is the end. That means that the soul is particularly spiteful in animating the body: it brings the body to life only to let it die.
  • Lines 23-24: According to the soul, one of the worst things about its situation is feeling every bodily pain. On its own, the soul is like a fluffy, vaporous cloud, feeling nothing. But inside the body, everything is painful paradox. Suddenly the unfeeling soul is full of feeling, all of it bad.
  • Lines 28-29: This soul likes nothing more than a nice, juicy paradox. Here the jolt of unexpected comes from the soul's claim that diseases are bad but cures are worse. Health is a shipwreck because this soul wants nothing but death. And if heaven is the long-awaited port, then a long healthy life must be a high seas disaster. What was that again? It all makes sense if you're a soul longing for death.
  • Line 30: It's no surprise that the soul goes out with a paradoxical bang.

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