The fusion of Eros and Thanatos in A Streetcar Named Desire
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The fusion of Eros and Thanatos in A Streetcar Named Desire Death and desire have been linked closely together ever since Freud identified Eros (the instinct of life, love and sexuality) and Thanatos (the instinct of death and destruction) as two coinciding and conflicting drives within human being (Cranwell). In Tennesse Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) these fundamental drives of Eros and Thanatos dominate the story from the beginning to the end. This becomes particularly clear through the narrative of the protagonist of the play, Blanche DuBois, to whom the inextricable link between desire and death leads to tragedy. The presence of death in A Streetcar Named Desire is established from the beginning with the opening introduction to the street, where the following events are going to take place: Elysian Fields. In Greek mythology Elysian Fields were the abode of the blessed in the afterlife (Baym 2300), and this little detail gives a clear hint that death is a central theme in the play.
Soon after the exposure of Blanche’s travel pattern prior to her arrival quite precisely makes up the overall connection of death and desire in the story: “They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields” (Baym 2301) This description works as a metaphor for the life of Blanche DuBois, in whose experience desire has always led to destruction or death. This becomes clear later in the play, when Blanche reveals to Mitch, that she as a young woman was married to a man, who killed himself as a consequence of his forbidden homosexuality. Also another link between death and sexuality from Blanche’s past is eventually brought to light: In order to preserve herself and the sisters’ ancestral Southern plantation, Belle Reve, Blanche has been selling sex. But her efforts were in vain; she ended up losing as well the plantation as her dignity, and when she was also fired from her job as a high school teacher due to sexual relations with a seventeen year old student, she had nowhere else to go than to her sister’s place on Elysian Fields – the land of the dead.
These destructive sexual experiences have turned Blanche into a hysterical woman, who constantly needs to take hot bathes in order to control her nerves. Being unable to face her downfall Blanche builds up an illusion about her own unspoiled, virtuous past. This escapism is revealed in her struggle to avoid bright lights, which has resulted in Blanche covering the exposed light bulb in Stella and Stanley’s apartment with a Chinese paper lantern and her refusing to go on dates with Mitch in daylight. Only in darkness she is able to blur the truth to herself and others. However, the avoidance of light is at the same time also an obvious indication of Blanche’s so called tragic flaw in the story: Her vanity. This becomes clear from in the reunion with her sister Stella: “Now, then, let me look at you. But you don’t look at me, Stella, no, no, no, not till later, not till I’ve bathed and rested! And turn that over-light off!
Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare!” (Baym 2303) Blanche’s vanity reflects a fear of aging and losing her beauty, which – based on her description of the demises of her relatives – may also be linked to a fundamental fear of death: “Funerals are pretty compared to deaths. Funerals are quiet, but deaths – not always. Sometimes their breathing is hoarse, and sometimes it rattles, and sometimes they even cry out to you, “Don’t let me go!” (Baym 2307) Quite paradoxically, bearing her destructive sexual past in mind, Blanche seems to consider desire and death opposites of each other: “Death – I used to sit here and she used to sit over there and death was as close as you are (…) The opposite is desire.” (Baym 2350) In Blanche’s mind living out desire to its fullest has become the only way of escaping death – death of herself, the plantation and the lifestyle she knows.
As she reveals to Mitch in the end of the play, intimacies with strangers was all she seemed to be able to fill her empty heart with after the death of her young husband, Allan (Baym 2349). What Blanche obviously has not realized is that the unnatural, “messed up” relationship to her own desire has made it destructive and thereby inextricably linked it to death. Not until she hears the Mexican woman selling “Flowers for the dead”, her illusion starts to “crumble and fade” (Baym 2350) and gradually gets torn apart. First by Mitch, who tears away the paper lantern and exposes Blanche to the harsh light of reality. Then by Stanley who uncovers Blanche’s spotted past and reject her hopes of Mitch returning with roses or the millionaire Shep Huntleigh coming for her rescue, because as he puts it “There isn’t a goddam thing but imagination!” (Baym 2353)
After being stripped of her life-affirming and life-sustaining illusions, Blanche cannot do anything but stare ”blankly and silently into the face of her executioner and sees in his visage the immanent prospect of her own destruction.” (Crandell) When Stanley finally rapes Blanche out of pure animal lust, it shows how harsh reality has concurred Blanche’s dreams and illusions. The rape leads into Blanche’s final descent to insanity and spiritual death (Crandell). After that she inevitably loses all grip of reality and ends up being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The total downfall of Blanche DuBois is in this way predicted from her entrance in the story: Her desire is actually a desire to self-destruction, to death. Reading the play from this perspective the title A Streetcar Named Desire might be symbolizing the tragic destiny of Blanche DuBois: A woman whose driving desire has quite literary “run her over” and left her bloodstained and humiliated on the street of death.
Crandell, George, ‘Beyond Pity and Fear: Echoes of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays’. Southern Quarterly 48.2 (2011). Statsbiblioteket.dk. Web. 6 Nov. 2013
Cranwell, Caresse, ‘Thanatos-in-Eros: Evolutionary Ecology and Panentheism’. Sophia – International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics (2010). Statsbiblioteket.dk. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.
Williams, Tennesse, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, shorter eight edition, Gen. ed Nina Baym. USA: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. 2300-2361. Print