Analysis of 'A streetcar named Desire', by Tennessee Williams

Analysis of ‘A streetcar named Desire’, by Tennessee Williams

Author Background

Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams to C.C. Williams and Edwina. His father was an alcoholic salesman and his mother often had bouts of hysteria. His father’s alcoholic ranting and his mother’s search for the perfect home saw them changing houses several times in a year. This unstable life had a disastrous effect on the children with both Tennessee and Rose, his sister, having to seek psychiatric help. Rose underwent prefrontal lobotomy which left her institutionalized. Williams’ university education was frequently interrupted by his father’s capricious behavior and his own lack of focus. Writing was his only solace. Williams was profoundly influenced by Hart Crane. The Glass Menagerie was his first big success that catapulted him to the ranks of the finest modern dramatists. This was followed by A Streetcar named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Alcoholism and drug abuse stunted his output and changing literary interests reduced interest in his plays.

Relevance of the Title

The desire here refers to the actual streetcar named Desire that Blanche takes to arrive at her sister Stella’s home and the metaphorical desire for love and sex that drove Blanche out of Laurel. Her reputation follows her wherever she goes. Stanley desires Blanche in a violent way; she uses the rape as punishment for her class act though she has a sordid past behind her.

Main Themes

Fantasy Vs Reality

The struggle between fantasy and reality is seen best in Blanche DuBois who prefers to live in a make believe world where she is a Southern belle who belongs to a wealthy landed family living in a beautiful mansion. Reality is that the family wealth and honor have squandered by her ancestors and she has nothing to fall back on. Her own past which Stanley digs up is besmirched with immorality and falsehoods. The tension between Stanley and Blanche is a reflection of the struggle between reality and fantasy. Blanche puts on an aristocratic air that inflames Stanley who can see through her appearances. He is crude and coarse to her but she invites his ridicule because he knows that her upper class airs are completely false. She has been thrown out of the school where she taught as she had had an affair with a student. She has been driven out of Laurel where she was living in a hotel soliciting men. Even at the very end when Blanche is fast losing touch with reality and plunging into insanity, the tussle continues. When the doctor play acts as a gentleman asking for her hand, she follows him but not until then.

Restrictions In Women’s Lives

Both Stella and Blanche depend on men for their happiness and livelihood. In Blanche this goes a step forward – she has been dismissed from the school where she taught for a physical relationship with a young student. Stanley, Stella’s husband is abusive and strikes her but she does not walk away from this marriage that destroys her self esteem. Even when she is told that her husband has raped her sister, she prefers to pretend it has not happened. In Blanche’s case, her dependence on men for her promiscuous sexual needs has led to the loss of reputation in her home town. She hopes to find in Mitch a provider but is disappointed as he rejects her.

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Characters

Blanche DuBois is the female protagonist of the play. She is nearing thirty; an English teacher, she was forced to quit following an affair with a student. Blanche is emotionally fragile, living in the past when her family was wealthy and well known. Promiscuous by nature, her sexual escapades have led her to leave her home town and move in with her younger sister, Stella. Blanche cannot get along with Stanley, her crude and vulgar brother in law who can see through her aristocratic pretences. By raping her, Stanley destroys the little sanity that was remaining in her and commits her to life in an institution for the mentally ill.

Stanley Kowalski

Stanley is the very antithesis of the cultured American of the south that Blanche seeks to represent. He is from Poland and is the face of the new America whose ancestors did not come on the Mayflower. He takes pride in that; when Blanche puts on her aristocratic airs, he seeks to destroy it. Stanley is crude and violent. His language, his temper and his treatment of his wife are all reprehensible. He is dynamic; when he is on stage the audience expects sparks to fly. His treatment of Blanche is heartlessly cruel. She is already vulnerable; by raping her he destroys what is left of her mind.

Stella Kowalski

Stella is Blanche’s younger sister who is married to Stanley. She is mild mannered and no match for Stanley’s violent ways. But there is a vibrant sexual chemistry between them that keeps Stella tied to Stanley. Stella may appear to be different from Blanche but in steadfastly refusing to see the degenerate violent side of her husband, she too is refusing to face reality, like her sister.

Summary

Blanche arrives at her sister Stella’s house for presumably a long stay. The sisters belonged to a southern family that at one time was wealthy. But the family home has now been sold to settle debts. Stanley, Stella’s husband has no patience with Blanche’s genteel airs. He suspects that she may have sold the house and appropriated the money. Blanche claims that she has taken long leave from her job as an English teacher as she has frayed nerves. Blanche conceals that she has a drinking problem. She considers Stanley to be coarse and below their social standing and wants Stella to leave Stanley. But Stella and Stanley share a vigorous sexual relationship on which Stella depends. Stella is pregnant now. Blanche constantly criticizes the working class neighborhood in which Stella and Stanley live.

Mitch is Stanley’s friend who comes to the poker parties that Stanley gives. Mitch gets along well with Blanche; this irritates Stanley who is drunk. The imbalance in Stella’s marriage is obvious when Stanley flies into a drunken rage and hits her following an argument in which Stella supports her sister against her husband. The two sisters run out of the house and take shelter with a neighbor. Blanche urges her sister to leave Stanley before he does her physical harm. But when Stanley turns remorseful and implores Stella to return to him, she does so to Blanche’s horror. Blanche too has to join Stella as she has nowhere else to go. The next day, Blanche plans to contact a rich man she knws for financial help. Stella considers her plans impractical. When Stanley walks in he hears Blanche mocking him. Enraged, he hints that he knows of her disreputable past. She fears that he could use this information to discredit her with Mitch.

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Soon Mitch arrives to take her out. Blanche confides in him that some years ago her young husband has committed suicide when she found out that he was a homosexual. This incident still troubles her as she feels responsible for his death. Mitch who has also lost a loved one earlier sympathizes with her. They think in terms of a long term relationship.

A month has passed when the next scene opens. It is Blanche’s birthday. Mitch is expected to come for dinner which Stella is preparing. Stanley comes in and spills out the gory details of Blanches past – how she had been living like a prostitute once she lost her family home and that she had indeed been dismissed from her job as she had had an affair with a student. Stanley boasts that he had revealed all this to Mitch too. Mitch does not come for the birthday dinner.

Stella goes into labor and Stanley takes her to the hospital. Blanche is by now drunk. Mitch arrives and accuses her of morally corrupt. She accepts that the details spilt by Stanley are true. Mitch is devastated. He declares that he had planned to marry Blanch and rescue her from the Kowalski household but now she is no longer fit for him. When Mitch leaves, Stanley arrives from hospital. Blanche and Stanley fight over her past. She hates him for ruining her chances with Mitch. But Stanley has no respect for her as a woman. As the fight intensifies, he overpowers her and rapes her.

Two more weeks pass before the next scene opens. Stella is packing a suitcase for Blanche. Blanche has by now retreated into a world of her own. Stella tells her neighbor that Blanche has told her of the rape but Stella is not ready to believe it. Maybe it is better for her equilibrium. Blanche believes that she is leaving to join the rich man who had once been her suitor. As the doctor and nurse comes to lead Blanche away to the asylum, Stella breaks down, baby in her arms. Ironically, Stanley comforts her.

Metaphors

Shadows

Blanche and Stanley are alone at home in Scene Ten. There is palpable tension between them as they bicker about Blanche’s past. Stanley has been heartlessly cruel to her gifting her a one way ticket to Laurel knowing that she cannot go back there. As the scene opens, odd shadows are cast on the walls giving a surreal feel. Blanche is fast losing contact with reality and Stanley’s action breaks the fragile grip that she had on it. The animal cries that are heard suggest that Stanley is giving into animal instincts where moral values do not exist.

The Varsouviana Polka

This is a tune to which Blanche and her young husband dance a little before he commits suicide. Unknown to her, he had been a homosexual. She comes on him with an older man when she returns home unexpectedly. Nothing much is spoken of the incident and all three go out together. But during the dance, Blanche tells her husband that his actions “disgusted” her. He rushes out and soon shoots himself. Blanche feels intolerable guilt over it. Whenever mentally disturbed, she hears the polka which drives her crazy. As the play progresses we hear it more often, indicating Blanche’s mental condition.

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Quotes

  1. They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!

Blanche is here describing her journey to her sister Stella’s house. The words chosen are not incidental. They metaphorically describe Blanche’s journey through life. In Laurel, Blanche was chasing sexual desires that led to her reputation dying. Those who are dead are buried in cemeteries. The next journey is to Elysian Fields which in philosophy is the land of the dead to which they journey.

  1. There are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years, affecting Belle Reve as, piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications—to put it plainly! . . . The four-letter word deprived us of our plantation, till finally all that was left—and Stella can verify that!—was the house itself and about twenty acres of ground, including a graveyard, to which now all but Stella and I have retreated.

The male members of Blanche’s and Stella’s family were a debauched lot who lost their legacy to fund their sexual escapades until all that was left was the house and twenty acres of land. Now that is also lost. Stella escaped the Blanche’s fate as she wisely left Laurel with her reputation intact. Though Stanley is no model husband, Stella has a house to call her own and a baby on its way. Blanche has nothing but the tatters of her past. Even her grip on her mind is slackening.

  1. Oh, I guess he’s just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume, but maybe he’s what we need to mix with our blood now that we’ve lost Belle Reve.

Blanche has a poor opinion about her brother in law Stanley’s origins. Though she is bankrupt financially and morally, Blanche does not let go of pretensions to genteel origins. Belle Reve was her and Stella’s ancestral home. They have lost it to creditors. Stanley is not the kind to appreciate signs of upper class like jasmine perfume. Blanche seems to suggest that since they have lost their ancestral home, they have been brought down to Stanley’s level.

  1. Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

No stranger has been unconditionally kind to Blanche. Their kindness depended on what Blanche was offering in return – most often sex. But she is so far removed from reality that whatever she imagines is reality for her. Here too she is ready to go with the doctor though she has no idea who he is.