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A Streetcar Named Desire Theme

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1. Did Stella ever know that Stanley raped Blanche? If so, why didn’t she care? 2. Why was there no apparent difference between blacks and whites in the play, given the time period? 3. Does Blanche ever heal and go on to live a normal life on her own? CRITISISM

From a feminist perspective, A Streetcar Named Desire is a work ready to be analyzed. The differences between men and women are especially prominent in the relationship between Stanley and Stella. The language and actions that Stanley uses to address his wife are quite vulgar. He swears at her regularly, and in many instances hits her. Stella’s response is that of a loyal dog, following Stanley around and excusing his maltreatment of her without a second thought. Also throughout the play, women never hold any significant position of power. In fact, men hold all the power, as seen when Stanley beats Stella and rapes Blanche, both without any repercussions. Neither Blanche nor Stella holds a job, and Blanche’s most recent job included prostitution. The female experience as portrayed by Tennessee Williams is that of an altogether suppressed and chained-down gender role. Women do not have any power, and they are in submission to the men’s desires at all times. Blanche is characterized as essentially hopeless without a man, and Mitch dictates their relationship. The major theme for female characters through the production is that they are weak individuals who do not possess the capacity to be worth much more than a reproductive machine and cook.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Fantasy is used as a coping mechanism until reality becomes too much to be covered by a simple illusion of the mind.

Ashley James
AP English 12 Period 5
January 10, 2013
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams is a play that has been performed for years. The story of two sisters takes place in New Orleans. Tennessee Williams takes a situation and personifies it through the stage. Throughout the production, Williams uses multiple literary elements to get the theme across to the audience. The theme of the overall work has much to do with fantasy as a coping mechanism; every character Williams introduces is guilty of this in one degree or another. The drama is wrapped around two worlds; one that is made up and full of fantasy, and the real world. Hence, the theme of the work is that fantasy can only be used as a coping mechanism until reality becomes too much to be covered by a simple illusion of the mind. The theme is enhanced by Williams’ plot structure and the elements that it entails. The initial exposition is that Blanche and Stella grew up on a rich southern plantation, as evident when Eunice meets Blanche and asks EUNICE: And you’re from Mississippi, huh?

EUNICE: [Stella] showed me a picture of your place, the plantation… A place likethat must be awful hard to keep up (Williams 9). Since the plantation has been lost, Blanche’s life has gone downhill. It is because of this downhill trajectory that Blanche seeks to stay with her sister while she gets herself together, explaining to her sister that she has lost her job because BLANCHE: I was so exhausted by all I’d been through me – nerves broke. [Nervously tamping cigarette] I was on the verge of – lunacy, almost! So Mr. Graves – Mr. Graves is the high school superintendent – he suggested I take a leave of absence (14). The main complication of the entire play is that Blanche is struggling with insanity; however she refuses to admit any of it, as show in the preceding quote. Blanche has been fired for sleeping with a student, but in her own made-up reality, she is simply taking a short leave. Blanche even fantasizes even that Stella’s lowly apartment should be better than it is in reality, when she says BLANCHE: This –can this be—her home? (7).

The crisis scene is when Blanche’s fantasies become more noticeable and consequently, a bigger part of her life and the plotline. Blanche eventually moves to obsess over a well-to-do doctor suitor who hails from Florida who will be coming to fetch her anytime, then switching the man who is her supposed savior, saying BLANCHE: Just when I thought my luck had begun to fail me – STANLEY: Into the picture pops this Miami millionaire.

BLANCHE: This man is not from Miami. This man is from Dallas (154). This is a part of Blanche’s memory that she has completely made up in fantasy. Blanche wants nothing more than for a worthy man to come rescue her damsel self, and since there is nobody in that situation, she becomes caught up in the fantasy of it all. In this, Blanche is completely oblivious of her own insanity and therefore of reality, until reality becomes so intense that she has no other choice than to face it, and Blanche resists going with the doctor at first, when “the matron catches hold of Blanche’s arm and prevents her flight. Blanche turns wildly and scratches at the Matron” (177). Blanche knows she is going to be taken from safety, and after fighting her reality for so long, she eventually accepts it and leaves with the doctor, saying BLANCHE [holding tight to his arm]: Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers (178).

Through the plot’s progression, Blanche uses fantasy as a way to push the story along, but when her false reality becomes too much to handle, Blanche has no choice other than to face what has really been happening, and it takes until the last few minutes of the last scene for this to happen. The character of Stella also portrays an example of making up extravagant fantasies to cope with a reality she does not want to face, but eventually must. Stella comes from the same well-to-do plantation family as Blanche, but has a completely separate fate. Our first scene with Stella is her in complete submission to her husband, with him throwing a package of meat at her, when Stanley “heaves the package at her. She cries out in protest but manages to catch it: then she laughs breathlessly. Her husband and his companion have already started back around the corner” (4). Stella happily does whatever her beloved Stanley asks. She also has an air of being proud of her house, when in reality it is nothing special and could even be called shabby, when Blanche asks why Stella did not tell her that BLANCHE: …[Stella] had to live in these conditions!

STELLA: Aren’t you being a little intense about it? It’s not that bad at all! New Orleans isn’t like other cities (12). Stella sees no problem with sleeping three people in a one-room apartment. Beyond this, Stella has a hard time accepting her sister’s mental instability. Stella spends the majority of the play waiting on Blanche and making excuses for her sister’s behavior, evident when Stella tries to qualify her sister’s behavior to Stanley STELLA: You needn’t have been so cruel to someone as alone as she is. STANLEY: Delicate piece she is.

STELLA: She is. She was. You didn’t know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody was tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her to change (136). Stella is clearly over-fantasizing things to make the situation seem better in her own mind. By the end, however, things have gotten so out of hand that no fantasy Stella can imagine will save the situation. It is at that point where Stella has to accept her harsh reality and call a doctor for Blanche to be taken away. It is evident that this action is difficult for Stella to face because when Blanche is being taken, Stella expresses her agony to Eunice, STELLA: What have I done to my sister? Oh, God, what have I done?

EUNICE: You done the right thing, the only thing you could do. She couldn’t stay here; there wasn’t no other place for her to go (176). Stella finally has to accept the reality of her sister’s mental health, and it is only by the end of the storyline that Stella fully accepts the reality of Blanche rather than making up excuses for her behavior. The character development of the protagonist, Blanche, is also a major contributor to the fantasy as a coping mechanism for harsh reality theme. The story begins with a character who seems very prim and proper; a Blanche who is ready for the world. When she first enters Stella and Stanley’s abode, “She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district” (5). However, as the plotline progresses, this façade of put-togetherness is torn down. An action supporting Blanche’s hidden brokenness is her dependence on alcohol. In the first scene, when “suddenly she notices something in a half opened closet. She springs up and crosses to it, and removes a whiskey bottle. She pours a half tumbler of whiskey and tosses it down.

She carefully replaces the bottle and washes out the tumbler in the sink. Then she resumes her seat in front of the table (10). Blanche hiding the alcohol means that she is ashamed to admit her need to escape, and does it privately, keeping up her public appearance the whole time. As the play goes on, we meet Mitch, who influences the characterization of Blanche. He is the character through whom we find that Blanche has been lying all this time. He breaks up with Blanche after finding out that she was fired from her job as a schoolteacher for fornicating with a student, and that following that she became the town harlot and worked as a prostitute out of a dingy hotel. Blanche denies all of these accusations even though Mitchell has evidence from a first-person witness that the accusations are in fact, accurate. Blanche is so hurting and broken on the inside that she refuses to be honest and admit to reality, as with a conversation during Mitch’s break-up with Blanche, MITCH: …That pitch about your ideals being so old-fashioned and all the malarkey that you’ve dished out all summer. Oh, I knew you weren’t sixteen any more. But I was a fool enough to believe you was straight BLANCHE: Who told you I wasn’t – ‘straight’? My loving brother-in-law. And you believed him (145).

Blanche was so ashamed of her past that she did not disclose it to the man who was courting her. However, after several months of her lies blowing past Mitch, once he accuses her directly, Blanche admits that BLANCHE: …yes, I had many intamicies with strangers. After the death of Allan – intamicies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with… I think it was panic, just panic, that drove me from one to another, hunting for some protection. (146). In Blanche’s character development, her admitting to sleeping with many men is a big deal, because it is indicative of her beginning of acceptance of her twisted past. Blanche’s character develops from maintaining extravagant lies about herself to eventually facing them, if only some. The symbolism in A Streetcar Named Desire is also indicative of the theme. Light, as a major symbol is the biggest representation of illusion versus reality. Blanche is seldom seen in the light, and even adds a shade to the light in Stella and Stanley’s apartment to make certain that she will not be seen in the direct light. Even Mitch has not seen it, and at one point he asks her to see, saying MITCH [getting up]: It’s dark in here.

BLANCHE:I like it dark. The dark is comforting to me.
MITCH: I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in light [Blanche laughs
breathlessly] That’s a fact! (143). The absence of light is a way for Blanche to conceal her age and come off as younger by simply looking that way in the dark. One of Blanche’s most apparent fears is looking bad or ugly, and she copes with the harsh reality of age by always hiding in the dark, so that others will believe her fantasy life of being a young southern Belle once again. Eventually, however, Blanche has to reveal herself to Mitch, and does when he “tears the paper lantern off the lightbulb. [Blanche] utters a frightened gasp” (144). That is Blanche facing her reality of aging after the illusion she had made to conceal it. Another symbol is bathing. Blanche explains why she takes baths when talking to Stanley, saying

BLANCHE: …I take hot baths for my nerves. Hydro-therapy, they call it (134). In reality, Blanche is just sitting in a bathtub of cold water for hours on end. At the beginning of the novel, baths are something Blanche does for herself, but by the end of the last scene, Blanche’s bathing has progressed to the need for Stella’s help and servant-like behavior for this habit. Bathing also works as a means of escape from reality for Stanley, who takes a hot shower after beating Stella, and “After a moment Stanley comes out of the bathroom dripping water and still in his clinging wet polka dot drawers” (65). Following this, Stanley screams for Stella over and over, until “Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe…They stare at each other. Then they come together with low animal moans” (67). In both cases, the act of bathing symbolizes a calming escape from the harsh reality that Blanche faces with her rising insanity and Stanley’s escape for the guilt of beating the woman whom he loves. Both Blanche and Stanley don’t have the option of bathing forever; it is just a short-term means of escape from reality for them, and after the bathtub is empty, they go back to real life.

The theme of fantasy as a way to escape inevitable reality is a theme present not only in A Streetcar Named Desire, but also in Tennessee Williams’ life. He had a simple and loving childhood, but when his family moved from Mississippi to Missouri, “he began to look inward, and to write” (PBS). Writing became a source of escape for Williams, and according to his brother, “Blanche is Tennessee, If he would tell you something it wouldn’t be necessarily true. And Blanche says in Streetcar, ‘I don’t tell what’s true, I tell what ought to be true.’ And so everything in Blanche was really like Tennessee” (Dakin Williams). Tennessee Williams was struggling with his reality of homosexuality at a time when it was altogether unacceptable.

The way in which Williams finally faced his reality is much like many of his characters choose to see theirs; he turned to alcohol. Finally, Tennessee’s brother Dakin turned him in to a hospital, where there was no option to live in writing, and he had to face his own reality. A Streetcar Named Desire has many literary elements that contribute to its theme of fantasy as an escape for inevitable reality. Blanche’s constant bathing and alcohol abuse, Stella’s refusal to admit her sister for insanity, and even Stanley’s maltreatment of his wife and sister-in-law contribute to this theme. However, the theme does not end at the final curtain call. As humans, the need to escape from reality is ever-present. It is often that running away is easier than facing a myriad of human experiences: heartbreak, mourning, mental illness, et cetera. Nowadays, the internet, alcohol, and writing are used as means of escape for hard times. But it is altogether inevitable for one to face his reality at some point; there is no option of infinite fantasy. All people experience this, and therefore the theme is applicable to all of humanity.

Works Cited

Elliot, Debbie. “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Present at the Creation. National Public Radio. 23 Sept. 2002. Http://www.npr.org. NPR, 23 Sept. 2002. Web. 10 Jan. 2013. “Tennessee Williams.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/tennessee-williams/about-tennessee-williams/737/>. Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. [New York]: New Directions, 1947. Print.

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