You won’t get better than this…

29 May 2009

“Streetcar Named Desire” – Study Guide

Article by Rachel Kafka


Tennessee Williams

Perceptions of reality are central to A Streetcar Named Desire. A number of characters in the play choose and shape their own realities. The play explores how people engage in fantasy in order to cope with the often harsh or unpleasant reality of a situation. In A Streetcar Named Desire, realities are re-created so that characters can cope with the confusion that surrounds them. Each character’s sense of reality is personal, leading to conflict within the play when it is questioned and challenged. What reality actually is becomes a matter of perception and of who has the power to shape it. The presentation of multiple points of view on a character or situation is central to this play.

Williams’ plays often focus on women using their sexuality to survive in a brutal, male-dominated world. In A Streetcar Named Desire both Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski are forced to survive in a changing world, but choose alternate paths determined by their gender, social status and personal histories. Blanche’s sister and Stanley’s wife, Stella, adapts (for the most part) to a changing world. She enjoys the chaos and noise of New Orleans’ French Quarter and takes pleasure in her husband’s animal masculinity. Blanche, however, struggles to relinquish her connection to old Southern ways and to move into the future. Her experience of the past shapes her perception of her present situation.

Williams also explores mental illness as a condition which changes one’s perception of reality and how others see you. In the wider context of the play, Blanche’s mental illness raises questions about who has the power to construct reality, and indeed whether all realities are merely constructions. In the play’s dramatic climax, where a delusional Blanche is led away to a mental hospital, we must question whether it is ultimately the physically and emotionally powerful who decide on the reality others will accept.

The clash between fantasy and reality
The lines between fantasy and reality are repeatedly blurred throughout A Streetcar Named Desire. When fantasy becomes real for Blanche, Williams offers a clash between different versions of reality. Some of these may be seen as mere illusion, despite their being experienced as real and authentic by a character. Blanche is so distraught by the loss of the family home, Belle Reve, and the events of her more recent past, that she creates an alternative reality mired in her past triumphs. Her inability to tell truth from illusion intensifies throughout the course of the drama and any shred of sanity is destroyed at the play’s climax, when she is raped by her brutish brother-in-law, Stanley.

From the play’s opening, Blanche is presented as an outsider, emerging from another reality, described in the stage notes as ‘incongruous to this setting’ (p.117). Blanche has created a fragile and easily damaged reality, at odds with the often harsh world of the French Quarter of New Orleans in which Stella and Stanley reside. Blanche is initially aware that she creates ‘magic’ (p.204), rejecting realism for the creations of the ‘imagination’ (p.212). Blanche tells her suitor Mitch that she replaces the truth with ‘what ought to be truth’ (p.204). When her ‘pack of lies’ (p.186) is exposed by Stanley we witness Blanche’s rapid decline as she awaits a fantasy ‘cruise of the Caribbean’ (p.209) with Mr Shep Huntleigh.

Blanche substitutes the reality of her situation (poverty, unemployment and sex scandals) with the way she wants her life to be. She doesn’t tell Stella the real reason she ‘happened to get away from the school before the spring term ended’ (p.122), omitting from discussion the truth behind her recent expulsion from Laurel. Blanche’s fear of ageing and losing her attractiveness to the opposite sex is a manifestation of her fear of death. She already seems to be dying as her world and everything she knows collapses around her. Instead of facing her fears, Blanche simply hangs a paper lantern to diffuse the cruel glare of truth. When she sings ‘Paper Moon’ Blanche reinforces her belief that fantasy can become reality: ‘it wouldn’t be make-believe/ If you believed in me!'(p.186). The fantasy is shattered in Scene Seven when Stanley crudely reveals the truth about Blanche’s past in Laurel and her sexual promiscuities, including the seventeen-year-old boy ‘she’d gotten mixed up with’ (p.188).

Blanche’s belief in the power of fantasy to reshape reality is part of her attempt at rebirth. She tries to reclaim her beauty and purity. This extends beyond the evocation of her name or her wearing white clothing. Blanche fully embraces an alternative narrative for her life in which she is still ‘A cultivated woman, a woman of intelligence and breeding’ (p.211). This fantasy world reaches its peak in Scene Ten when, in a state of drunkenness and dressed in a ‘somewhat soiled and crumpled white satin evening gown and a pair of scuffed silver slippers’ (p.208), Blanche addresses ‘a group of spectral admirers’ (p.208). Her inability to tell reality from illusion has intensified – she no longer simply adapts reality to suit her needs, she has created a new reality altogether. The scene culminates in her rape, which symbolises the final violation of her fragile world of ‘lies and conceit and tricks’ (p.212) by the brute future Stanley represents.

To some extent, Blanche does recognise the tenuous nature of her grip on reality. She recognises that Stanley possesses the strength she and her sister require ‘now that we’ve lost Belle Reve and have to go on without Belle Reve to protect us’ (p.141). Despite this, Blanche implores Stella not to ‘hang back with the brutes‘ (p.164). She wants her sister to rejoin her in a now obsolete past, imploring ‘You can’t have forgotten that much of our bringing up, Stella’ (p.163).

The past cannot be escaped and repeatedly encroaches on Blanche’s fantasy life. The polka music of the ‘Varsouviana’ (p.199) is echoed at key moments throughout the play, transporting Blanche to the moment her young husband, Allan Grey, died. Blanche continues to be tormented by guilt, knowing ‘This beautiful and talented young man’ (p.190) killed himself because of her impulsive condemnation of his homosexuality. This revelation also helps to explain her dalliances with young men in Laurel, and her attraction to the young man ‘collecting for the Evening Star’ (p.172) in Scene Five, whom she warns ‘I’ve got to be good and keep my hands off children’ (p.174).

Illusion as refuge and salvation
Blanche is unable to let go of the past and constructs an illusory identity or alternative reality as a refuge from her fear of an uncertain future. This illusion can also be seen as a refuge from the consequences of her sexual desires. The play repeatedly suggests that sexual desire and death are connected, that sex is a way of staving off decay and death. Blanche’s journey on the streetcars named Desire and Cemeteries is symbolic of the connection between sexual desire and loss, isolation and death. As Blanche arrives in New Orleans, searching for her own ‘Elysian fields’ (in Greek mythology, the home of the blessed after death), she is ‘dressed in a white suit’ (p.117), which displays an illusion of her innocence and purity. This purity has long been forgotten, symbolised by the ‘red satin robe’ (p.135) she wears in Scene Two. Blanche later concedes to Stella that she has ridden on ‘that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter’ (p.162), that she has known ‘brutal desire’ (p.162) and that it is this desire which has brought her to New Orleans.

While readers/audiences may condemn Blanche for her lack of truthfulness, Williams highlights the usefulness and necessity of an imaginary world. Blanche is an escapist. Despite the inevitable destructive consequences of her dream-life, Blanche is able to cope on a day-to-day basis by imagining her life is something it isn’t. Her excessive consumption of alcohol helps her to deny this reality. For Blanche, sexual desire threatens the life of purity and refinement she pursues, so she pretends she doesn’t feel it. She takes refuge in a courtship with Mitch, believing his respectable love can save her. He seems more concerned, however, with his mother, fearing that ‘I’ll be alone when she goes’ (p.144). Blanche shares these fears. Later, after Stanley informs him of Blanche’s past, Mitch becomes frustrated by her illusion that ‘she had never been more than kissed by a fellow’ (p.186) and decides he doesn’t want to marry her anymore. He cruelly tells her, ‘You’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother’ (p.207). He is determined, instead, to take ‘What I been missing all summer’ (p.207). Blanche’s last chance to retreat into her past innocence vanishes with Mitch’s sexual demands.

Blanche tells Mitch, as the Mexican woman passes selling ‘Flores para los muertos‘ (flowers for the dead), that sexual desire is the opposite of death (p.206). Blanche talks to Stanley about the ‘epic fornications’ (p.140) of her forefathers which resulted in the loss of Belle Reve. After this loss, Blanche’s own sexual desire led to her expulsion from Laurel when the management of the second-class hotel Flamingo ‘requested her to turn in her room-key – for permanently!’ (p.187). It remains ambiguous throughout the play what the actual nature of Blanche’s sexual activities at the hotel were – whether they were simply meaningless affairs with local soldiers or actual prostitution. What we do know is that Blanche felt alive when she ‘slipped outside to answer their calls’ (p.206). Despite a fear of death, Blanche is initially unwilling to explain her sexual past, hiding behind the mask of ‘prim and proper’ (p.171) lady for Mitch and others. This is a more pleasant identity to present to others than the ‘Dame Blanche’ (p.187) Stanley reveals her to be.

Blanche is also haunted by the guilt she feels over her husband, Allan’s, suicide when she discovered his homosexuality. She recounts how she, Allan and his lover drove out to Moon Lake Casino, got drunk and pretended that she hadn’t just walked in on them in bed. But this illusion could not be maintained. Love is a ‘blinding light’ (p.182) and its loss plunged her into a darkness from which she has been unable to escape:

And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that’s stronger than this – kitchen – candle.… (p.184).

Trying to return to a time of lightness and young love, Blanche’s fear of her own mortality is apparent in her obsession with her age and looks. She takes refuge in the dark, not permitting Mitch to look at her in the ‘merciless glare’ (p.120), frightened of what truth the light may reveal. As she explains, ‘The dark is comforting to me’ (p.203). Blanche associates the ‘blinding light’ with her love of Allan and the past. She also takes refuge in her looks because she realises that being attractive to men is a way for her to survive in this world. She admits to Stella, ‘I never was hard or self-sufficient enough’ (p.169) to get by alone. Her fear of the future is clear in the following passage:

People don’t see you – men don’t – don’t even admit your existence unless they are making love to you. And you’ve got to have your existence admitted by someone, if you’re going to have someone’s protection (p.169).

Blanche realises that she must maintain the illusion of beauty and youth if she wants to belong but realises the difficulty of this: ‘I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft. You’ve got to be soft and attractive. And I – I’m fading now!’ (p.169).

Blanche’s rape reinforces the darker side of human sexuality. Stanley has been challenging her façade since her arrival and it seems inevitable that they will clash in the most violent way. As he notes, ‘We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!’ (p.215). Prior to the rape there has been a presentiment of the collapse of her illusory sanctuary. Blanche shatters the mirror she has been using in her drunken fantasy at the beginning of Scene Ten. It is a symbolic moment in which she is appalled by her reflection and smashes it.

Creating an illusory life in order to deal with reality is also true for Stella, particularly in the aftermath of her sister’s rape. Her eventual decision to believe Stanley is innocent encourages audiences to question the extent to which we construct our own reality through the choices we make. Do we often choose the reality that is easiest for us to live with, knowing, as Eunice Hubbel does, that ‘No matter what happens, you’ve got to keep on going’ (p.217)?

For Stella it is the ‘things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant’ (p.162). This ‘brutal’ sexual desire, as Blanche calls it (p.162), gives Stella’s life with Stanley meaning and it is to this that she returns when ‘his fingers find the opening of her blouse’ in the play’s final scene (p.226). This desire makes the reality she has chosen in the dilapidated apartment bearable and permits her to believe what she quite possibly knows is a lie. At the play’s end Blanche returns to her sphere of affectation and Stella and Stanley resume their relationship, only this time their love is also an illusion – a reality formed by Stanley’s lies and Stella’s choices. Despite exiling Blanche, frustrated by her inability to adjust to reality as he sees it, Stanley has invited a world of fantasy into his apartment, only this time it is he and Stella who are culpable in its creation.


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