Tennessee Williams states in the introduction of A Streetcar Named Desire that, “… once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation”. Streetcar passionately embraces Williams’ words; conflict is what makes this play so human and transcendent. The characters are portrayed as complex individuals with unexpected reactions that in many cases arise from their troubled pasts. The characters’ behaviors, particularly Blanche’s, come from their fear to be lonely, and manifest themselves externally as the most definitive personality traits in each one of them.
Blanche projects her own failures into others along the play. For instance, her strong reaction when she sees Stella’s living conditions seem to have more to do with her loss of hope of a promising future for herself than with her disapproval of Stella’s lifestyle. Bert Cardullo in his essay “Drama of Intimacy and Tragedy of Incomprehension: A Streetcar Named Desire Reconsidered” argues that Stanley is only the means through which Blanche attempts to fights her own battle.
Blanche’s struggle, according to Cardullo, is about intimacy; she envies the intimacy Stanley and Stella share in their relationship. Cardullo also claims that Blanche mourns the intimacy she did not have with her young deceased husband, and blames herself for not being able to be compassionate to his cry for help. Although Blanche’s recriminations are against herself, she does not admit this until latter on in the play. In the fist scene Blanche perceives an accusatory look from Stella when she tells her what happened with Belle Reve, even though Stella does not blame Blanche in any way whatsoever. This scene again portrays Blanche as projecting her feelings of guilt into Stella.
Another behavior typical of Blanche’s misdirected attempt for intimacy is her compulsive flirtation, which is her way of relating to men. She craves to be protected and admired, but her desire is always unfulfilled; therefore, her flirtation never stops. This is clearly observed right from the moment she meets Stella’s husband. “Will Stanley like me, or will I just be a visiting in-law, Stella? I couldn’t stand that” Blanche says (23). Her worries make her act in a very seductive manner towards Stanley to gain his admiration. This flirtation does not even stop when Stella appears in the scene, Blanche sends her to the store to buy a Coke. Blanche’s hunger for compliments is directed as well to women. Two examples would be when she compares her body with Stella’s to receive a compliment, and during the last scene when she calms down after Stella and Eunice agree on how beautiful she looks.
Perhaps Blanche’s actions are also connected with her attempt to feel emotions similar to young lovers. In doing so, she is able to return emotionally to her adolescent love years with her young husband, perhaps fantasizing about a different ending. According to Cardullo, Blanche’s downfall begins at the moment her husband suddenly leaves her dancing alone in the Casino. Blanche’s efforts to relive teenage emotions are evidenced by, her intimate relationship with one of her young students in Laurel, and in the scene where she seduces and kisses a young man in her sister and Stanley’s home. Blanche wants to feel young, and she demonstrates this throughout the play by lying about her age and acting childishly. These behaviors contribute to her final destination in the asylum.
Blanche’s departure leaves Stella with a sense of guilt that may drastically change her relationship with Stanley. Even though Stella’s decision is to stay with Stanley, many are the times where Blanche tries to convince Stella that her husband is not right for her. Blanche’s desperation for escaping with Stella may be one of the few chances she has to recuperate her life, although Stella has no interest in doing so. Stanley claims Stella’s full attention by introducing facts about Blanche’s past that will eventually incriminate her; although he does not think about the negative repercussion this will have on his marriage. Stella is clear from the beginning that she will not leave Stanley, she even says to Blanche, “You take it for granted that I am in something that I want to get out of”, and explains to Blanche that the intimacy she shares with Stanley in bed puts everything else in second place (69).
Blanche does not recognize Stella’s feelings; indeed she interprets them as “brutal desire”. She does not identify herself with any moments of closeness or comfort in her life, and thus cannot sympathize with Stella. Quoting Cardullo, “Blanche DuBois [is] the victim of a life without intimacy at Belle Reve, lies about a past she is correct in believing no one will forgive.” Even though this scene implies that Stella’s decision of staying with Stanley is definitive, in the last scene, her emotional reaction shows she is filled with guilt and doubts. Indeed in the movie version of the play, Stella’s closing is, “We’re not going back in there, not this time, never going back, never”, talking to her baby. Stella appears to blame Stanley for causing Blanche’s departure.
Stanley’s character, despite his seemingly tough and explosive reactions, reveals nuances that make him appear more humane. Cardullo stresses that the audience’s may have an image of Stanley as a “repulsively barbaric, so completely the representative of the Savage State”, although one should consider there are deeper layers behind such image (10). Perhaps one of Stanley’s actions that highlight these complexities is the fact that he confesses the truth about Blanche to Mitch, regardless of the inevitability of Blanche staying in his home. Stanley’s faithfulness and devotion to his friend may have overshadowed his desire for privacy. Stanley’s action shows that he is sensitive to feeling remorse. “I’d have that on my conscience the rest of my life…” he says, “…if I knew all that stuff and let my best friend get caught” (103). He identifies with those feelings of “being caught”, thus he wants to protect Mitch from them. This seemingly conflicted sides of him, one of brutality and one of conscience sensitivity relationship, is also shown in the scene where Stanley hits his wife, and minutes later he exits from the shower brokenhearted crying her name for forgiveness.
Interestingly, in a similar way that Stanley identifies with Mitch’s feelings when he shares the truth about Blanche, she identifies with Mitch about her feelings related to loss and death. Mitch and Blanche’s relationship represents hope and loss. It is the first time that Blanche feels genuinely appreciated by a man after Allan’s tragic death. She is able to feel compassion for Mitch’s suffering related to his mother’s sickness, as well as he understands Blanche’s loneliness. Mitch realizes that they need one another, and Blanche heart starts to open after their first real moment of intimacy. “He kisses her forehead and her eyes and finally her lips”, Williams indicates. Mitch provides Blanche with a sweetness, closeness and care she never experienced before, according to Cardullo, not even with Allan. Because of this, Mitch decision of not marrying Blanche can be considered what triggered her total decay. After Mitch learns about Blanche’s promiscuous past and decides to leave her, she begins to have delusions about Shep Huntleigh rescuing her from the “trap” in which she is. Blanche’s insanity is intensified by the realization that there is no escape from her loneliness; there is no one there to protect her; not even from herself.
The sexual encounter between Stanley and Blanche is perhaps the most puzzling scene of the play. Many reviews argue that Stanley’s sexual assault to Blanche is his final revenge to destroy her completely (Cardullo). Cardullo claims that this was not premeditated, and that Stanley acted out of a mixture of sexual attraction and some extra cups of alcohol. He also argues that Stanley’s real avenge is having expose Blanche’s lies into light (Cardullo). There are references from Stanley about the tiara Blanche is wearing when he comes back from the hospital that may give the audience clues to guess that he planned to confront Blanche.
He sarcastically responds to Blanche’s, “This old relic?… It is only rhinestones” saying, “Gosh, I thought it was Tiffany diamonds”. One may assume that the tiara represents Blanche; the fake diamonds, the lies. In fact, right after the lies are uncovered, Blanche experiences a hysteria attack that ends when “She sinks to her knees” defeated (130). Stanley’s confrontation triggered Blanche’s psychosis; the sexual implication seems to convey that Blanche’s emotions turned off, that she does not care about herself or has the strength to keep fighting. Another time Blanche falls on her knees is the moment that Mitch leaves her, also due to feeling of defeated. Blanche’s giving up may indicate that she accepts that there is no more hope of happiness for her, and gives up her last bit of sanity to Stanley.
Williams uses lighting throughout the play as a symbol of Blanche’s torment about her past, and the coping mechanisms she resorts to remove herself from her trauma. From the beginning of the play, is clear that Blanche refuses to be under a bright light. Williams particularly highlights the scenes between Blanche and Mitch using light as a symbol. When Blanche is on a date with Mitch, it is almost totally dark; they are sitting in front of the light of a candle. Blanche realizes that Mitch does not speak French, and utters the following, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” which literally means, ‘Do you want to sleep with me tonight?’ Furthermore, she says in French, ‘You don’t understand? What a pity’ (88). The Blanche that says that is the man-eater Blanche; the one who can only express herself in terms of the darkness of her past in a dark room.
One of Williams most striking scenes related to light is Mitch’s confrontation to Blanche, where lies are concealed in the dark, and the truth comes to light. Mitch complains about never have seen Blanche in the light, to which Blanch responds, “There is some obscure meaning in this but I fail to catch it” (116). The scene continues with Mitch forceful tearing the paper shade out of the light bulb to see Blanche “good and plain” (117). Blanche catches her breath terrified, perhaps anticipating that the direct light will penetrate the thick layer of lies she created to protect herself from rejection. The light bulb shade is too mentioned during the last scene to which Williams remarks, “She cries out as if the lantern was herself” when Stanley also tears the lantern off and gives it to Blanche (141).
The uncovering of lies and confrontations, had forced Blanche to loose her sanity, although there are some comments she makes that may indicate a deeper realizations about herself. In the last scene of the play there are several references to the cleanness of the grapes Eunice brought from the French market. Blanche is worried that the grapes may be dirty so she asks if they have been washed. Eunice responds that the grapes are from the French market, as if that was enough evidence of their cleanness. To that Blanche says, “That doesn’t mean they’ve been washed. Those cathedral bells- they’re the only clean thing in the Quarter”. Blanche seems to be metaphorically referring to the cleanness of her conscience. That she acts as a refined educated woman does not mean that she is clean. She even stresses that just the bells of the cathedral are clean, excluding everything else, even herself. Perhaps she thinks that only heavenly things are clean, and begins to speak about the day she dies. She wants to die from eating a dirty grape. Blanche may have the feeling that her unclean past will eventually kill her.
Blanche’s ultimate crave for intimacy conflicts with her fear of it; this ambivalence is reflected in the way she behaves throughout the play. She relates to everyone around her through her struggle creating chaos and drama. A Streetcar Named Desire, clearly reflects the “Tragedy of Incomprehension” not only between the characters, but within themselves (Cardullo).
A Streetcar Named Desire. Dir. Elia Kazan. Perf. Kim Hunter, Marlon Brando,
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Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Penguin Books, 1975.