The Street-car Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice
“The Broken Tower” by Hart Crane
The epigraph to A Streecar Named Desire is taken from a Hart Crane poem titled “The Broken Tower.” Crane and Williams had a personal affinity: both had a bitter relationship with their parents and suffered from alcoholism. Unlike Williams, Crane succumbed to his demons,and drowned himself in 1932 at the age of thirty-three.
Williams was influenced by Crane’s imagery and by his attention to metaphor.
Plot– Blanche Dubois, a very proper, talkative woman from Mississippi, arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella Kowalski. Blanche is very concerned with her appearance, cleanliness, dress, and upper-class mentality, while Stella, who is pregnant, has married someone of lower status, Stanley Kowalski. Stanley is from Poland, works in a factory, has little education, but is extremely passionate and handsome. From the beginning of her stay, Blanche and Stanley are in contrast; they have opposing ideals and ways of life and they contradict each other on every minute detail of life. Blanche tells Stella that she has lost Belle Reve, their childhood plantation home. Stanley wants to see the paperwork regarding the property and confronts Blanche about it. He also starts searching for evidence on Blanche’s blemished past, finding people who knew her in Laurel, the town where she lived and taught English. She shared company with many men, she was involved with a seventeen-year-old boy at her school, which is the reason for her sudden departure. She also lived among prostitutes in a cheap hotel. However, Stanley’s attempts to “unmask” her are predictably cruel and violent. Their final confrontation, (Tennessee Williams alludes to rape, but never states it directly) results in Blanche’s nervous breakdown. Blanche meets one of Stanley’s friends Mitch and they start flirting but he will leave her after discovering her past. Stella has the baby and she finally realizes that Blanche has problems and decides, with her husband, to put her in a state institution for mentally sick people.
Blanche DuBois – The epigraph is a representation of Blanche’s life: it describes love as only an “instant” and as a force that precipitates “each desperate choice” Crane’s line, “I know not whither [love’s voice is] hurled,” suggests Blanche who, with increasing desperation, “hurls” her continually denied love out into the world. From the very beginning of the play, Blanche is a fallen woman in the society’s eyes – she had lost her family, her fortune, her suicidal husband. Her sexual behaviour and her drinking problem have marginalized her. She appears snobbish and proper but these attitudes only conceal her insecurity and lack of balance. She is afraid of death and of aging, of fading her beauty as she depends on male sexual admiration for her sense of self-esteem. Blanche hopes to escape poverty and the bad reputation that haunts her by marrying and Mitch is her only chance, even though he is not her ideal.
The play chronicles the Blanche’s break down till Stanley’s last stroke when he rapes her and then sends her to an insane asylum. In the last scene, Blanche blindly follows the doctor without turning towards her crying sister: it is the culmination of Blanche’s vanity and total dependence upon men for happiness.
Stanley Kowalski – at the beginning Stanley appears to be an egalitarian hero, loyal to his friends and passionate to his wife with an animal-like physical vigour His family is from Poland, and can’t stand being called “Polack” by Blanche, asserting that he was born in America and can only be called “Polish.” Stanley represents the new, heterogeneous America in contrast with Blanche who is a relic of a social hierarchy. Stanley hates Blanche for her snobbish attitude perceiving the lie hidden behind her way to fool him and his friends into thinking she is better than they are, and he shows his feeling investigating about her past, and revealing it to Mitch.
In the end, Stanley proves his nature: he is crude and brutish and his degenerated nature is fully evident with Blanche’s rape – he shows no remorse for his brutal actions. In the last scene Stanley appears again as the ideal family man near his wife and their newborn child, scene which underlines once more the society’s decision to ostracise Blanche.
Harold “Mitch” Mitchell – Mitch is a sensitive man who lives with his dying mother. He hopes to marry so that he will have a woman to bring home to his dying mother.
Mitch is not the ideal man for Blanche, they come from completely different worlds: he is clumsy, sweaty, he lacks education and spirituality, and she toys with his lack of intelligence. However they both need companionship and support, and both have experienced the death of a loved one. Blanche’s trap to seduce him is the refusal of his sexual attentions. She does not want to sleep with him and does not want to show her real age by refusing to go out with him in daylight. When Mitch discovers Blanche’s sordid sexual is both angry and embarrassed. He states he deserves to have sex with her, but he thinks he no longer respects her enough to think her fit to be his wife. But unlike Stanley he does not rape her and leaves when she cries out. His tears when Blanche leaves show that he genuinely cares for her. Mitch and Stella are the only one who understand the tragedy of Blanche’s madness.
Fantasy’s Inability to Overcome Reality – The play is a work of social realism. Blanche explains to Mitch that she fibs because she refuses to accept the hand fate has dealt her. Lying to herself and to others allows her to make life appear as it should be rather than as it is. Stanley, a practical man firmly grounded in the physical world, disdains Blanche’s fabrications and does everything he can to unravel them. The antagonistic relationship between Blanche and Stanley is a struggle between appearances and reality. It propels the play’s plot and creates an overarching tension. Ultimately, Blanche’s attempts to remake her own and Stella’s existences—to rejuvenate her life and to save Stella from a life with Stanley—fail.
One of the main ways Williams dramatizes fantasy’s inability to overcome reality is through an exploration of the boundary between exterior and interior. The set of the play consists of the two-room Kowalski apartment and the surrounding street. Williams’s use of a flexible set that allows the street to be seen at the same time as the interior of the home expresses the notion that the home is not a domestic sanctuary. The Kowalskis’ apartment cannot be a self-defined world that is impermeable to greater reality. The characters leave and enter the apartment throughout the play, often bringing with them the problems they encounter in the larger environment. For example, Blanche refuses to leave her prejudices against the working class behind her at the door. The most notable instance of this effect occurs just before Stanley rapes Blanche, when the back wall of the apartment becomes transparent to show the struggles occurring on the street, foreshadowing the violation that is about to take place in the Kowalskis’ home.
Though reality triumphs over fantasy in A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams suggests that fantasy is an important and useful tool. At the end of the play, Blanche’s retreat into her own private fantasies enables her to partially shield herself from reality’s harsh blows. Blanche’s insanity emerges as she retreats fully into herself, leaving the objective world behind in order to avoid accepting reality. In order to escape fully, however, Blanche must come to perceive the exterior world as that which she imagines in her head. Thus, objective reality is not an antidote to Blanche’s fantasy world; rather, Blanche adapts the exterior world to fit her delusions. In both the physical and the psychological realms, the boundary between fantasy and reality is permeable. Blanche’s final, deluded happiness suggests that, to some extent, fantasy is a vital force at play in every individual’s experience, despite reality’s inevitable triumph.
The Relationship between Sex and Death – Blanche’s fear of death manifests itself in her fears of aging and of lost beauty. She refuses to tell anyone her true age or to appear in harsh light that will reveal her faded looks. She seems to believe that by continually asserting her sexuality, especially toward men younger than herself, she will be able to avoid death and return to the world of teenage bliss she experienced before her husband’s suicide. However, beginning in Scene One, Williams suggests that Blanche’s sexual history is in fact a cause of her downfall. When she first arrives at the Kowalskis’, Blanche says she rode a streetcar named Desire, then transferred to a streetcar named Cemeteries, which brought her to a street named Elysian Fields. This journey, the precursor to the play, allegorically represents the trajectory of Blanche’s life. The Elysian Fields are the land of the dead in Greek mythology. Blanche’s lifelong pursuit of her sexual desires has led to her eviction from Belle Reve, her ostracism from Laurel, and, at the end of the play, her expulsion from society at large. Sex leads to death for others Blanche knows as well. Throughout the play, Blanche is haunted by the deaths of her ancestors, which she attributes to their “epic fornications.” Her husband’s suicide results from her disapproval of his homosexuality. The message is that indulging one’s desire in the form of unrestrained promiscuity leads to forced departures and unwanted ends. In Scene Nine, when the Mexican woman appears selling “flowers for the dead,” Blanche reacts with horror because the woman announces Blanche’s fate. Her fall into madness can be read as the ending brought about by her dual flaws—her inability to act appropriately on her desire and her desperate fear of human mortality. Sex and death are intricately and fatally linked in Blanche’s experience.
Dependence on Men – A Streetcar Named Desire presents a sharp critique of the way the institutions and attitudes of postwar America placed restrictions on women’s lives. Williams uses Blanche’s and Stella’s dependence on men to expose and critique the treatment of women during the transition from the old to the new South. Both Blanche and Stella see male companions as their only means to achieve happiness, and they depend on men for both their sustenance and their self-image. Blanche recognizes that Stella could be happier without her physically abusive husband, Stanley. Yet, the alternative Blanche proposes—contacting Shep Huntleigh for financial support—still involves complete dependence on men. When Stella chooses to remain with Stanley, she chooses to rely on, love, and believe in a man instead of her sister. Williams does not necessarily criticize Stella—he makes it quite clear that Stanley represents a much more secure future than Blanche does.
For herself, Blanche sees marriage to Mitch as her means of escaping destitution. Men’s exploitation of Blanche’s sexuality has left her with a poor reputation. This reputation makes Blanche an unattractive marriage prospect, but, because she is destitute, Blanche sees marriage as her only possibility for survival. When Mitch rejects Blanche because of Stanley’s gossip about her reputation, Blanche immediately thinks of another man—the millionaire Shep Huntleigh—who might rescue her. Because Blanche cannot see around her dependence on men, she has no realistic conception of how to rescue herself. Blanche does not realize that her dependence on men will lead to her downfall rather than her salvation. By relying on men, Blanche puts her fate in the hands of others.
Light – Throughout the play, Blanche avoids appearing in direct, bright light, especially in front of her suitor, Mitch. She also refuses to reveal her age, and it is clear that she avoids light in order to prevent him from seeing the reality of her fading beauty. In general, light also symbolizes the reality of Blanche’s past. She is haunted by the ghosts of what she has lost—her first love, her purpose in life, her dignity, and the genteel society (real or imagined) of her ancestors.
Blanche covers the exposed lightbulb in the Kowalski apartment with a Chinese paper lantern, and she refuses to go on dates with Mitch during the daytime or to well-lit locations. Mitch points out Blanche’s avoidance of light in Scene Nine, when he confronts her with the stories Stanley has told him of her past. Mitch then forces Blanche to stand under the direct light. When he tells her that he doesn’t mind her age, just her deceitfulness, Blanche responds by saying that she doesn’t mean any harm. She believes that magic, rather than reality, represents life as it ought to be. Blanche’s inability to tolerate light means that her grasp on reality is also nearing its end.
In Scene Six, Blanche tells Mitch that being in love with her husband, Allan Grey, was like having the world revealed in bright, vivid light. Since Allan’s suicide, Blanche says, the bright light has been missing. Through all of Blanche’s inconsequential sexual affairs with other men, she has experienced only dim light. Bright light, therefore, represents Blanche’s youthful sexual innocence, while poor light represents her sexual maturity and disillusionment.
Bathing – Throughout A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche bathes herself. Her sexual experiences have made her a hysterical woman, but these baths, as she says, calm her nerves. In light of her efforts to forget and shed her illicit past in the new community of New Orleans, these baths represent her efforts to cleanse herself of her odious history. Yet, just as she cannot erase the past, her bathing is never done. Stanley also turns to water to undo a misdeed when he showers after beating Stella. The shower serves to soothe his violent temper; afterward, he leaves the bathroom feeling remorseful and calls out longingly for his wife.
Drunkenness – Both Stanley and Blanche drink excessively at various points during the play. Stanley’s drinking is social: he drinks with his friends at the bar, during their poker games, and to celebrate the birth of his child. Blanche’s drinking, on the other hand, is anti-social, and she tries to keep it a secret. She drinks on the sly in order to withdraw from harsh reality. A state of drunken stupor enables her to take a flight of imagination, such as concocting a getaway with Shep Huntleigh. For both characters, drinking leads to destructive behavior: Stanley commits domestic violence, and Blanche deludes herself. Yet Stanley is able to rebound from his drunken escapades, whereas alcohol augments Blanche’s gradual departure from sanity.
Shadows and Cries – As Blanche and Stanley begin to quarrel in Scene Ten, various oddly shaped shadows begin to appear on the wall behind her. Discordant noises and jungle cries also occur as Blanche begins to descend into madness. All of these effects combine to dramatize Blanche’s final breakdown and departure from reality in the face of Stanley’s physical threat. When she loses her sanity in her final struggle against Stanley, Blanche retreats entirely into her own world. Whereas she originally colours her perception of reality according to her wishes, at this point in the play she ignores reality altogether.
The Varsouviana Polka – The Varsouviana is the polka tune to which Blanche and her young husband, Allen Grey, were dancing when she last saw him alive. Earlier that day, she had found him with an older male friend in bed. The three of them then went out dancing together and in the middle of the Varsouviana, Blanche tells Allen he “disgusted” her. He ran away and shot himself in the head.
The polka music plays at various points in A Streetcar Named Desire, when Blanche is feeling remorse for Allen’s death. The first time we hear it is in Scene One, when Stanley meets Blanche and asks her about her husband. Its second appearance occurs when Blanche tells Mitch the story of Allen Grey. From this point on, the polka plays increasingly often, and it always drives Blanche to distraction. She tells Mitch that it ends only after she hears the sound of a gunshot in her head.
The polka and the moment it evokes represent Blanche’s loss of innocence. The suicide of the young husband Blanche loved dearly was the event that triggered her mental decline. Since then, Blanche hears the Varsouviana whenever she panics and loses her grip on reality.
“It’s Only a Paper Moon” – In Scene Seven, Blanche sings this popular ballad while she bathes. The song’s lyrics describe the way love turns the world into a “phony” fantasy. The speaker in the song says that if both lovers believe in their imagined reality, then it’s no longer “make-believe.” These lyrics sum up Blanche’s approach to life. She believes that her fibbing is only her means of enjoying a better way of life and is therefore essentially harmless.
As Blanche sits in the tub singing “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” Stanley tells Stella the details of Blanche’s sexually corrupt past. Williams ironically juxtaposes Blanche’s fantastical understanding of herself with Stanley’s description of Blanche’s real nature. In reality, Blanche is a sham who feigns propriety and sexual modesty. Once Mitch learns the truth about Blanche, he can no longer believe in Blanche’s tricks and lies.
Meat – In Scene One, Stanley throws a package of meat at his adoring Stella for her to catch. The action sends Eunice and the Negro woman into peals of laughter. Presumably, they’ve picked up on the sexual innuendo behind Stanley’s gesture. In hurling the meat at Stella, Stanley states the sexual proprietorship he holds over her. Stella’s delight in catching Stanley’s meat signifies her sexual infatuation with him.
1. What does Williams’s depiction of Blanche and Stanley’s lives say about desire?
As its title indicates, A Streetcar Named Desire explores the destinations to which desire leads. In following their respective desires, Blanche and Stanley end up in very different places. Blanche is the victim of a culture that has unhealthily repressed its connection to primal and natural urges. Blanche’s culture also forbids love to cross boundaries of class, race, and “normal” gender relationships. This means that, for Blanche, all but a narrow realm of sex is illicit, demonized, and taboo. The suppressed desire of Blanche and her forebears erupted from time to time in “epic fornications.” Blanche’s ancestors paid for their lust with their wealth, and Blanche pays with her sanity.
The interclass bond between Stanley and Stella, on the other hand, is animal and spiritual rather than intellectual or practical. Blanche cannot understand why her sister would enter into such a rough-and-tumble union, because Blanche has never reconciled her genteel identity with her own profound desire. The divide between her aristocratic sense of self and the “animal” urges that have at times controlled her is too great. Instead, Blanche invents a reality that conveniently ignores her own sexuality, her own vitality. She knows that a streetcar named Desire brought her to her present predicament, but intellectually she separates that desire from herself.
Williams advocates a moderate approach to the indulgence of desires. Desire is a fact of life and a driving force in the lives of Williams’s characters. Though Stanley, a rapist and wife beater, is no one’s prototype for the perfect man, Blanche’s denial of her desire, which leads her to hit on young boys, is equally dangerous.
2. The plot of A Streetcar Named Desire is driven by the dueling personalities of Blanche and Stanley. What are the sources of their animosity toward one another?
The most obvious difference between Blanche and Stanley is one of social background. Whereas Blanche comes from an old Southern family and was raised to see herself as socially elite, Stanley comes from an immigrant family and is a proud member of the working class. They meet one another in the socially turbulent postwar period in New Orleans, one of America’s most diverse cities. Each represents values that are antagonistic to the other’s chance at success in the modern world.
Within the play, Stella’s loyalty serves as a symbol of that societal success. Blanche attempts to convince Stella to leave Stanley because she was born for better society and values, while Stanley keeps Stella in his grasp through his unpretentious, powerful sexual attraction. The basic differences in Blanche’s and Stanley’s social stations and relationship to Stella expand into larger issues that make compromise impossible.
Blanche and Stanley are polar opposites in several respects. Blanche clearly represents the world of fantasy. As she admits to Mitch, she wants to misrepresent things, and she wants things misrepresented to her. She lives for how things ought to be, not for how they are. She prefers magic and shadows to facing facts in bright light. Stanley, on the other hand, is a no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. He looks for joy in life, and where he finds it, he celebrates it. But, as he says, he expects people to lay their cards on the table. He has no patience for idle chit-chat, social compliments, fools, and frauds.
Blanche repeatedly refers to Stanley and his world as brutish, primitive, apelike, rough, and uncivilized. Stanley finds this sort of superiority offensive and says so, but there is something primal and brutish about Stanley. By contrast, Blanche represents civilization on the decline. She speaks vaguely of art, music, and poetry as proof of progress, but reveals little true knowledge. Blanche does not give Stanley credit for any higher feelings, but Stanley dislikes Blanche because of her unwillingness to reconcile herself to her own “lower” feelings.
3. A Streetcar Named Desire can be described as an elegy, or poetic expression of mourning, for an Old South that died in the first part of the twentieth century. Expand on this description.
The story of the DuBois and Kowalski families depicts the evolving society of the South over the first half of the twentieth century. The DuBois clan, embodied in the play by Blanche, represents the genteel society of the Southern plantation owners that presided through the nineteenth century. Stanley Kowalski, the son of Polish immigrants, descends from new Southerners. He works in a factory and is therefore engaged in the industrialization of the South, which contributed to the demise of the agrarian society in which Blanche and Stella were raised. The play demonstrates that Stanley is well adapted for survival in the New South, represented by the diverse city of New Orleans, while Blanche is unable to survive in the new society.
Blanche and Stella are remnants of Southern aristocracy’s decadence. The family’s material resources have been swallowed up, and all that remain are its manners and pretensions. Blanche deludes herself and imagines she lives in a world in which manners and pretensions are still relevant. Stella, however, has turned her back on her ancestors and married someone who would have been considered below her station by her own people. Stanley is new blood, for a new South in transition. But Williams portrays Stanley as possessing a fare share of brutality, suggesting that the changing world in which Stanley fits so perfectly is not necessarily a kind one. The struggle for survival has replaced gentility, and Blanche is an inevitable loser in this struggle.
The events of the play’s conclusion represent the death of the Old South. Unable to cope or to find a way to support herself since the loss of Belle Reve, Blanche goes mad and departs from reality. Stella sustains herself through her marriage and sexual union with Stanley. Stella and Stanley’s newborn child, a mixture of immigrant American and Southern American heritage, represents the South’s future.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Describe the use of light in the play. What does its presence or absence indicate?
2. How does Williams use sound as a dramatic device?
3. How does Blanche’s fascination with teenage boys relate to her decline and fall?
4. Compare and contrast Mitch to the other men in the play.
5. Compare and contrast Blanche and Stella.