Study Guide

A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body Themes

  • Suffering

    Woe, Woe, Woe is me (the soul) and me (the body). Welcome to the pity party, Shmoopers. "A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body" has got four stanzas of nonstop one-upping of who suffers more. Physical confinement and bodily pain? Or emotional torment and the capacity to sin? If you can't pick sides yet, at least you can dig deeper into the larger purpose of suffering, its effects on quality of life both physical and emotional, and the possibility of escaping it. Or could The Princess Bride be right? Is life really pain?

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What's worse: emotional pain or physical pain? Which convinces you more about this question, the soul or the body? Why?
    2. Who do you feel sorrier for, the body or the soul? Why?
    3. Is suffering necessary for both Soul and Body? Why or why not?
    4. Why doesn't Marvell take a stand on who suffers more in this bargain?

    Chew on This

    And the winner is… Soul! Physical pain is easier to endure than emotional pain because it's finite and curable.

    Hang on a second. We have a re-count. Body is the winner! Emotional pain is easier to endure than physical pain because it can't result in death.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    We're going to go out on a limb here: when it comes to conversations about life vs. death, most people are pro-life. Existence usually beats out non-existence. But in "A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body," the soul opts for death. It's not that our whiny pal is suicidal. On the contrary: this shrewd little soul knows that death is merely the gate to bigger and better things, a chance to shed the body and get going solo. The body, on the other hand, seems more ambivalent about the life/death thing. Lines like, the soul "has made me live to let me die" (18) indicate that this guy isn't too excited about living either—even if it knows that death means nothing but The End.

    That's why this poem splits up this trio of "life, consciousness, and existence." Once bodies lose life, they lose consciousness and existence, but for souls, existence and consciousness persist once a body's life has sputtered out. It's obvious who comes out on top here: the soul goes on and on.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. If a body can't exist without a soul, why does it complain so much about having one? How would the body answer that question?
    2. If souls exist after their bodies die, what's the point of even having a body? How might the soul answer that? 
    3. Does the body really want to die? What parts of the poem give you your answer?

    Chew on This

    It may sound super-dramatic, but the body would rather not live at all than live and ultimately die.

    Come on, Soul, admit it. The body has it worse in this dialogue because death offers it no release.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Give me liberty or give me death! Or, as the soul would interpret it, "Give me liberty by giving me death!" Like Patrick Henry and all those revolutionary dudes, we tend to associate freedom with a healthy, happy life. But the story's a little different in "A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body."

    Don't get us wrong: the soul and the body definitely hate being enslaved to each other—and they've got the rhetoric to prove it!—but they both have an original philosophy of freedom that's all tangled up with death. For the soul, freedom from the physical confinement of the body will only come with the body's death. For the body, freedom is even more unattainable, a conditional rather than a future tense. If only the soul had never made it live, the body might have been free forever. Now it's just waiting to die. And that's the worst kind of confinement of all.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Why do you think that the soul has more to say about freedom than the body? 
    2. Which claim is more compelling: the body is a disgusting enslaver or the soul is a malicious tyrant? What parts of the poem support your answer? 
    3. Why do you think the soul focuses so much on physical confinement?

    Chew on This

    The soul is upset about its physical confinement; the body is upset about a more abstract kind of tyranny. That's deep, Body, real deep.

    The soul knows its sob story has a hard sell—that's why it milks the tortured prisoner imagery for all it's worth.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    In "A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body," the body's final stanza is a catalogue of painful, emotional knowledge it has learned from soul school. After all, the body's just a stack of bones with skin on it, more animal than human. It's only through its soul partnership that it experiences all the fluffy stuff that makes us human—you know, humor, sorrow, joy, love. That leads us to the next point: not all this knowledge is bad. Hope and love, joy and memory? Sounds like a feel-good rom-com to us. But in the body's book, it all falls under the category of Stuff That Hurts More Than It's Worth. Hopes are dashed, yo, and all that love can easily go unrequited.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Why do you think the body compares these emotions to feeling sick?
    2. Why are hope and joy just as painful as fear and hatred in this poem? How would Body answer that question? How would Soul?
    3. How does sin fit into all these emotional experiences? 
    4. How would you describe the tone of the last four lines?

    Chew on This

    Ready for some bad news? The unpredictable, all-consuming force of emotions makes them all bad—even the "nice" ones like love.

    A body without emotions wouldn't be able to commit sin. Think about it.