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Examining Class History in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

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    The ambiguity and multi-dimensional conflicts of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire have consistently made it very easily for literary critics to attach whatever significance they like onto the play; it is a testament to Williams’ writing that many of these significances can be both individually and simultaneously valid interpretations of his intent. However, the lack of many explicit political concerns in the work, along with strains of postmodernist criticism (whose emergence coincided with Streetcar’s) which discouraged that realm of criticism, has meant that many forms of sociopolitical criticism have been left out in the cold. This is a mistake: given how the characters of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski explicitly represent different classes of society, (DuBois being the last vestiges of the Old South’s rapidly imploding plantation economy, and Kowalski being the dominant “blue-collar” worker of industrial society) their conflict should be considered representative of societal tension between the rapidly decaying agricultural laborer society and the modern industrial proletariat.

    Following the aristocratic Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory in France’s 1848 election–a surprise to many, given the election happening amidst the radical, populist revolutions of 1848–Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte made a notable distinction (one of the first of its kind) separating the agrarian communities that populated rural France with the traditional Marxist understanding of the urban working class, and in doing so provides a very useful tool for understanding Blanche and Stanley’s connections to each. Agricultural society has a method of production which, according to Marx, “…isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse.” (62) The crux of this argument is that the politics of agrarian society is entirely vertical–that an individual begins to understand themselves through their hierarchical positions, whether they be cultural (as in the plantation’s boss/laborer dynamic) or natural (as in the plantation’s relationship with nature as a means of sustaining itself). Their political influence “…finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.” (62)

    Du Bois, then, comes to represent this very similarly–her social relationships, especially romantic ones, consistently demonstrate her need to maintain some form of hierarchy–in her encounter with a young paperboy, she proves as much. Williams both climaxes her encounter with a young paperboy with the stage directions of, “Without waiting to accept, she crosses quickly to him and presses her lips to his…” (84) and then provides her a justification for similar affairs later on by assigning these actions to “…hunting for some protection, here and there, in the most unlikely places…” (118) She treats others as stepping stones for her own benefit, demonstrating the intense vertical social order of the plantation South.

    Stanley, on the other hand, is set up unambiguously as an industrial worker–his work as a mechanic, his camaraderie with his friends, and his apartment in a working-class New Orleans neighborhood all signify as much. His is the dominant class in society at the beginning of the play, while Blanche’s is archaic. This mirrors the state of the South in the 1940s.

    Though Anca Vlasopolos is critical of this historical and political interpretation in her “Authorizing History,” she summarizes the arguments rather efficiently. Discussing Jacob Adler and like-minded critics, she says, “…they propose that the course of history makes the main character’s displacement inevitable and that her violation and expulsion are ‘natural’…”(323) and that “…[audiences] perceive that historical discourse depends on power, not logic, for its formation.” (325) The power struggle is between not merely between Blanche and Stanley, but between the two different modes of society which they allegorize, or as Vlasopolos characterizes it, “…two versions of history struggling for authority.” (325)

    Stella has already chosen Stanley over Blanche before the play begins by leaving the struggling Belle Reve for New Orleans, just as Southern society had eschewed the plantation economy for modern industry before Streetcar’s 1940s setting. As a result, critics (like Vlasopolos) contest this interpretation by arguing that a more relevant conflict is one which is developing, or at least ‘up for grabs,’ throughout the novel, rather than one that is essentially predetermined. But Blanche and Stanley’s political symbolism is in the forefront of the conflict just as much as any other element is, and the ferocity with which they seek to destroy the other’s life means even they don’t feel it to be so predetermined. The strategies they employ go so far as to mirror Marx’s descriptions of two classes which they represent: Blanche seeks to impress her version of the story vertically, trying to establish herself as the only trustworthy source against the conspiring Stanley, as an upward authority figure which Mitch should rely solely upon. When Mitch cites the corroborating stories of three other people, Blanche shrugs it of with accusations of lying by exclaiming, “Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub! And such a filthy tub!” (Williams 118) Meanwhile, Stanley’s actions to destroy Blanche’s narrative could even be construed as symbolizing class consciousness: the job Mitch and him have, to re-quote Marx, ‘bring them into mutual intercourse’ with other laborers, and this is the means through which they find out Blanche has been lying and fabricating stories to them. It is not only tangentially interesting that Stanley and Blanche are microcosms of specific classes of the time period; it is what ends up determining their success and failure.

    Although he was known to enjoy vacationing in Castro’s Cuba, Williams was more than likely not a Marxist. In fact, his decision to make Stanley, the stand-in for industrial workers, the story’s main antagonist suggests this rather strongly. However, analyzing A Streetcar Named Desire shows the play to be deeply intertwines with class politics, including those fairly similar to what Marx had spent his life writing about. Williams recognized a difficult-to-articulate tension between the once-powerful plantation and the now-powerful factory. This recognition works its way into Streetcar from the first scene to the last, and the aforementioned tension is transformed into a conflict between two characters who, intentionally or not, signify the agrarian and industrial classes both explicitly, in their backstories, and implicitly, in the way they act–any interpretation of the play is incomplete without recognizing how omnipresent this class conflict has woven itself into it.

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    Examining Class History in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. (2022, Jan 04). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/examining-class-history-in-a-streetcar-named-desire/

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