Streetcar Named Desire – Old South vs. New South
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A Streetcar Named Desire, a play by Tennessee Williams, takes place in New Orleans in the mid-1940s. It follows the lives of Stanley Kowalski, Stella Kowalski, and Blanche DuBois and the story about a woman coming to visit her sister, which ends up going just as bad as any family reunion has ever gone. From the moment Blanche got to Elysium Fields, her and Stanley, Stella’s husband, appear as polar opposites and are constantly at war with each other. They never can agree on anything, are always arguing and shouting at one another, and want the loyalty of Stella all for themselves. Their constant power struggle can only end with one character the victor and the other leaving defeated. One of the main themes about conflict is that Stanley and Blanche are in a battle to win Stella and neither of them will give her up. However, Stanley and Blanche represent something bigger than two conflicting characters. Blanche represents the old south, with dying traditions whilst Stanley represents the new south where chivalry no longer exists and it’s every man for themselves and just like in real life, the old south is overcome by the new south.
Blanche and Stanley come from two very different upbringings. Blanche comes from a very wealthy upbringing, being raised in a giant Southern plantation. Stanley grew up with the poor, immigrant family who had to work for everything they had. Blanche often uses the derogatory term ‘Pollack’ for describing Stanley to refer to him as common or inferior. She then contradicts herself when she says “We are French by extraction. Our first American ancestors were French Huguenots” (Williams 31). Blanche seems to think her ethnic origins make her better than others, and uses it as a point of pride. She often during the play is seen showing her self-proclaimed superiority towards all of the other characters.
In the film, Blanche is attracted to Mitch because she is actually attracted to more sensitive, gentleman qualities, whereas Stella is all about Stanley’s aggressive masculinity. Even when she goes on the date with Mitch, she is seen in the film laughing at him. When Mitch asks her angrily why she is laughing at him, she replies that ‘she does it to everyone”, meaning that she views everyone as inferior to her, and laughs at their primitive habits. This is the quality Stanley dislikes most about Blanche, and also represents the current social status struggle of the country at the time. Blanche tries to seduce people with her artificial sense of refinement by putting on a mask of elegance to make herself seem more desirable, while Stanley is more rooted in the real world, and attracts Stella with his masculinity and raw sexuality.
The scene where the character’s conflict becomes first evident is when Stanley confronts Blanche about losing the Belle Reve. He becomes suspicious when Blanche cannot produce any paperwork on how she in fact lost it. Stanley becomes upset, shouting at Stella “Well, what in the hell was it then, give away? To charity?” (Williams 16). He talks about a ‘Napoleonic Code’, in which a husband gets a part of whatever the wife owns and vice-versa. In a way, that estate was partly owned by Stanley himself. This is important when looking at the first instance of the societal differences of the two characters. It didn’t seem as if Blanche put up much of a fight when her childhood home was being repossessed. She didn’t even keep track of the papers regarding the loss of the estate.
This shows that her upbringing in wealth has caused her to become almost indifferent to losing monetary items. Stanley on the other hand, who grew up not having much, is enraged to find out something he didn’t even know he owned until a short time before that has been lost. He is seen in the movie literally tearing through Blanche’s belongings, searching for documentation on how Belle Reve was lost. Stanley keeps a close track of all his possessions, pinching every penny he can. Blanche never had to worry about wealth, so she doesn’t see the seriousness in the loss of monetary items as Stanley does. The ways of the old antebellum south regarding spending money carelessly on luxuries is out, and the new frugal way of saving money is in.
From the beginning, Stanley and Stella have had a strong romantic relationship that seemed almost impenetrable. It was only when Blanche arrived and started to critique Stanley and try to lure Stella away was when problems started to arise. Once she arrives, she disrupts the three things Stanley cares about most; his sexual relationship with his wife, his group of friends, and his role as head of the household. Stella and Stanley fight, but their way of making up for fighting is with sex. Stella justifies this to Blanche by saying “there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant” (Williams 103). Blanche had never seen such bestiality from a man, and was struck with fear by it. She fears for Stella, and believes that she needs to help her distraught sister escape. Stella symbolizes society at the time becoming less attracted to the proper gentleman type and more attracted to the rougher, manlier men.
Stanley and his group of friends are seen as a very close group of friends. They work in the same factory, are on the same bowling team, and were even in the same squadron in WWII. However since Blanche has arrived, Stanley’s poker nights with his friends have not gone the way he wants them to. In the film, he is seen as a control freak, complaining even when Mitch leaves early to go home to his sick mother. When Blanche repeatedly plays the radio in the bedroom and interrupts his poker game, Stanley goes berserk. Under the influence of alcohol, he chucks the radio out the window, and after Stella tries to end his poker game, actually abuses his wife. This is obviously an extreme overreaction by Stanley, but it is apparent how much Blanche has disrupted the social norm in the household. This symbolizes how the new south had soldiers come home from WWII, and how an entirely different style of warfare bonded men like no other event had in the history of the world, and something the new south had no idea to comprehend the fact.
When Blanche comes into the picture, Stella begins to stand up to Stanley like she had never before. Stanley sees himself as the provider for the family, while Stella’s role is to stay at home and take care of the cooking and cleaning. The play only shows a small window of what their relationship was like before Blanche arrived, but from what it shows it appears the couple is happy and content with their roles. In the film, the first time we see Stanley is when he is tossing a bag of meat up to his wife before heading off to go bowling with his friends. When Blanche arrives, he feels like his role as king of the household is in jeopardy. It is evident throughout the play Stella starts to demand more respect the longer Blanche is there. She even goes along with Blanche when she insults Stanley.
Stella starts ordering him around in Scene Eight and telling him to clean up the table after dinner and stop eating so messily. Stanley does not take this well, as his dominance is being called into question. He snaps in said scene, throwing his plate against the wall and says “”‘Pig—Polak—disgusting—vulgar—greasy!’—them kind of words have been on your [Stella’s] tongue and your sister’s too much around here! What do you two think you are? A pair of queens?” (Williams 69). This represents the new South’s stricter gender roles, where the man is the dominant head of the households and the women are caretakers of the home.
The tension between these two characters reaches a climax when Stanley rapes Blanche, asserting the ultimate form of power a human can to another. This is the ultimate form of symbolism, showing that the New South has once and for all taken over the Old South. From the beginning Stella and Stanley have had a strong, rigid relationship. One which no one could penetrate because of this structure Blanche underestimated Stanley and did not foresee the problems which eventually brought her downfall (123HelpMe). Williams uses these polar opposites the values of the different generations, and how Stella, representing society, has chosen a new way of life.
“Conflict Between Blanche And Stanley In A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams.” 123HelpMe.com. 20 Feb 2015 .
A Streetcar Named Desire. Dir. Elia Kazan. Perf. Marlon Brando. Warner Brothers, 1951. Film.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. Great Plays of the 20th Century. Ed. Llewellyn Sinclair. Springfield: Random House, 2000. 10-42. Print.