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Comparing “The Scarlet Letter” and “A Streetcar Named Desire”

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We witness cases of alienation in the texts The Scarlet Letter and A Streetcar Named Desire, which are presented mainly in the female protagonists Hester Prynne and Blanche DuBois. However, although both characters experience isolation from their respective societies, it is my contention that the causes for their isolation are different. While Hester’s isolation is largely societal, Blanche experiences two different kinds of isolation. Blanche’s isolation is societal with regards to her expulsion from Laurel, whereas her isolation experienced in New Orleans is more self-inflicted. We see that the given quote applies to the two characters at different points of their respective texts, with the quote becoming increasingly relevant for Blanche but less relevant for Hester as the texts progress.

In the texts The Scarlet Letter and A Streetcar Named Desire, both Blanche and Hester experience isolation in Boston and Laurel respectively due to their sexual transgressions. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s alienation is presented through the harsh treatment she receives before she is even introduced in the novel. Through Hawthorne’s shifting narrative perspective in Chapter 3, readers are given an indication of the dislike felt towards Hester for her sin. Hawthorne presents readers with the perspective of the women in society to reveal the amount of hatred and subsequent isolation that Hester will experience once she is released from prison. Furthermore, the constant use of negative descriptions such as “malefactress” and “naughty baggage” (Chapter 2) by the women of Boston society provide further evidence to show the Hester’s exclusion from the Puritan community as she has been rejected, ironically, by the very group that is expected to be slightly less harsh towards her.

In this case, we see that the quote applies strongly to Hester as her “friends forsake her like a memory lost.” Thus, we see that due to Hester’s sexual transgression, the given quote is seen to relate strongly to Hester. Hester has been rejected and criticised by her community before she has even made an appearance before them or is given an opportunity to defend herself, revealing the severe extent to which she will face isolation, relating to the quote as “none care or know” about her. Similarly, in the case of Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is expelled from her hometown of Laurel and is alienated from her community due to her acts of sexual transgression. The extent of her alienation is presented to audiences through the Stanley’s revelation of her forced expulsion from Laurel in Scene VII of the play.

The juxtaposition between Blanche’s singing of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and Stanley’s accusations towards Blanche reveal Blanche’s real intentions behind visiting her sister in New Orleans. While Blanche sings of “a Barnum and Bailey world”, and “paper moons, just as phony as it can be”, her feelings of wanting people to believe in the illusion that she has created for herself and others is aptly represented in the song, where Blanche believes that “it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me”. In contrast to Blanche’s belief that Stella and Stanley have bought into the illusion that she is in New Orleans simply as a holiday, Stanley abruptly shatters this illusion by bringing to light the truth. The use of exclamations in Stanley’s speech reveals to audiences the severity of Blanche’s expulsion from her community, where her place was considered “Out-of-Bounds” and that “she never had no idea of returning to Laurel!” (Scene VII)

The reasons for this are also spelled out very clearly by Stanley, who presents the shocking fact that “they kicked her out of that high school before spring term ended”, that it was “A seventeen-year-old boy – she’d gotten mixed up with” and that “it was practickly a town ordinance passed against her!” Thus, through the juxtaposition in Blanche’s singing and Stanley’s revelation, emphasis is placed on the severe consequences of Blanche’s transgression and light is shed on not only the real reason behind Blanche’s arrival in New Orleans, but also the extent of her isolation from Laurel, relating to the given quote as Blanche has been forsaken “like a memory lost”. However, while the alienation experienced by Hester is societal, it can be argued that Blanche’s isolation is largely self-inflicted rather than societal. Due to the criticism Hester faces after her release from prison, she moves to an isolated area, where she is physically isolated from the rest of the Puritan community.

Even then, she still remains the subject of the community’s mockery and speculation. Hester’s isolation is revealed by Hawthorne through the description of her house, as well as the psychological burden she experiences from the speculation of the rest of the community. Hester is described to live in a “lonesome” cottage “not in close vicinity to any other habitation”, where its “comparative remoteness put it out of the sphere of that social activity” (Chapter 5). There is a parallel between the setting of Hester’s home and her isolation in the community. The location of Hester’s home symbolises the extent to which she is viewed as an outsider, relating to the poem as she has been forsaken in an area away from the rest of the community, and left alone to look after herself and her daughter. Despite Hester’s isolation, she still remains the under the “inquisitorial watch” of the community, and is “shut out from the sphere of human charities”.

Hester’s resulting depression is revealed through Hawthorne’s use of dark imagery, where “shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking on her door”, and that she “wandered without a clew in the dark labyrinth of mind” (Chapter 13). Through this use of dark imagery, readers are given an indication of the toll taken on Hester as a result of her psychological burdens. Hence, we see how Hester is “forsaken like a memory lost”, abandoned by her community and left alone to bear with her psychological burdens. Conversely, Blanche’s alienation in New Orleans can be considered mostly self-inflicted. Her visit to New Orleans should be thought of as a new beginning for her, yet she intentionally creates a distance between herself and the people surrounding her in New Orleans through her constant criticism and rejection of her surroundings, as well as her dressing and behaviour.

The juxtaposition between Blanche’s dressing throughout the play and the dressing of the men in New Orleans reveals Blanche’s similar incongruence to her setting. Even from the beginning of the play, Blanche is described to be dressed in “a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat” (Scene I), which contrast with the coloured shirts of “solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check, a light green” (Scene III). Even as the play progresses, Blanche makes no attempt to fit in with her surroundings and still dresses in a fashion that causes her to stand out from society. Furthermore, Blanche is critical of her surroundings, and refuses to accept the help offered to her by those around her. Blanche alludes Elysian Fields to the horrors of “Only Poe! Only Mr Edgar Allen Poe! – Could do it justice!” (Scene I) showing how she openly expresses her disgust of her surroundings.

In addition to this, Blanche is described of “wanting to get rid of” Eunice and “offending” Eunice in denying the latter’s hospitality. She does not directly address Eunice either, instead calling her “that woman upstairs” (Scene III). Hence we see that Blanche’s alienation is mostly her own doing, where the quote does not apply to her as it is untrue that “none cares or know”. Instead, Blanche distances herself from the people around her and drives them away with her lack of will to assimilate with the society of New Orleans. Eventually, however, we see that the relevance of the quote changes for both Hester and Blanche, with the quote losing its relevance with regards to Hester’s isolation, but increasing in relevance where Blanche’s alienation is concerned. By the end of The Scarlet Letter, Hester is able to transform the stigma of the scarlet letter and is able to assimilate with the Puritan society.

We see this transformation through the juxtaposition of the perceptions of the scarlet letter from the beginning of the novel and its end. The scarlet letter is described to have “ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too.” (Chapter 24) Through this, we see that the change in the perceptions of the scarlet letter mirror society’s attitude towards Hester Prynne, where Hester is transformed from a figure of hatred and rejection to one of sympathy and acceptance. Hence, we see that although the quote does apply to Hester, it increasingly loses its relevance as the novel progresses. In the case of Blanche Dubois, she transforms from one that people are wiling to help and accept to being entirely expelled from her community.

Blanche is eventually sent away by the very same people who welcomed her to Elysian Fields, and is left in a situation where her sister, who showed much care for her earlier in the play, has given up looking after her. Blanche has “no other place for her to go” (Scene XI), as Stella is no longer willing to look out for her. Thus, we see how the quote becomes increasingly applicable to Blanche. Although, initially, it is untrue that “none care or know” about Blanche, eventually, Blanche’s expulsion from New Orleans reflects how aptly the quote suits her at the end of the play; she is, indeed, “forsaken by a memory lost” by the people who once showed her care, and is also left in a situation where “none care or know” about her. She is subject to absolute alienation in her admission to the asylum, where she is physically cut off from mainstream society.

Hence, we see that in the texts The Scarlet Letter and A Streetcar Named Desire, we see that isolation is present predominantly in the female protagonists Hester Prynne and Blanche Dubois. While both experience alienation in their societies, the ways in which they experience the alienation are entirely different. Furthermore, we see how the isolation experienced by these two characters appears to relate to the given quote, yet, this relation does not apply for the entire texts. Instead, it can be seen that the relevance of the quote varies as the texts progress, with it gaining more meaning in A Streetcar Named Desire and losing its relevance in The Scarlet Letter.

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