Aristotle stated “the structure of the best tragedy should…be… complex” representing” incidents arousing pity and fear “. It’s understood that the focus of tragedy is human suffering and a tragedy must be accessible to audiences, creating a shared catharsis. Although Aristotle refers to classical tragedies, a domestic tragedy like “A Streetcar Named Desire” ensures a greater understanding as it is realistic. Blanche, as the protagonist, endures more suffering than Stella, following Aristotle’s theory that a tragic hero should evoke pity and fear.
This should reveal harmatia that they do not initially realise, which coupled with their sense of hubris leads to their downfall and peripetia. However, Blanche in the end falls into a dreamlike state meaning she doesn’t realise her flaw. Clearly, it’s Stella who experiences the fate of a tragic heroine because she realises her actions, experiencing anagnorisis, and although she is surrounded by people, she is, essentially, more alone than Blanche. “Streetcar” opened in 1947 causing a storm of controversy.
George Jean Nathan, who condemned the play’s “unpleasant “nature- “The Glands Menagerie”- was unsure how to interpret Blanche, whose deteriorating mentality challenges whether her demise was truly tragic, questioning if Williams created the “objective correlative” needed for a tragedy. Characteristics of Williams’ mother, believing she was aristocratic, and his sister’s schizophrenia, are evident in Blanche’s behavioural breakdown, suggesting the play explored William’s emotions and family.
One interpretation explores Blanche’s “psychological struggle to negotiate nostalgia with reality” leading her to depend on Stella, believing she could help her escape a condemned reputation. In the beginning, Blanche has already fallen through society due to the loss of Belle Reve, her husband’s suicide, her poorly disguised drinking problem and her indiscreet sexual behaviour making her a social vagabond; however this context only exacerbates Stella’s betrayal. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers…
Blanche walks on without turning” – This creates a sense of isolation as Blanche is rejected by everyone except strangers, illustrated through her lack of hesitation, calm tone and use of intensifiers like “always” exaggerate the irony that this reliance causes her decline. This indicates her detachment from an unsympathetic reality, where she is an outcast, to a life she wished to have people believe, illustrated by her “daintily dressed” appearance, suggesting her purity. However, Blanche’s inability to be “consistently sympathetic” lead critics to question her tragic qualities.
Characters are consistently subjected to Blanche’s manipulation as she attempts to build her new persona. Whereas Blanche’s relationships are built upon lies, elaborating her desire to be the innocent Southern girl, Stella remains realistic. Although both ladies have fallen from the affluent childhood of Belle Reve, Stella adapts to New Orleans, presenting her as a stronger character than Blanche. Like Williams’ mother, Stella is subject to an abusive relationship, illustrated when Stanley strikes Stella – “Drunk – drunk –animal thing you! ” evoking pity through the unjustified abuse, as Stella seems consistently innocent.
Modern audiences, aware of female discrimination and Stella’s pregnancy, would be disgusted. Stella reflects Williams himself, caught between two contrasting archetypes of humanity, his parents, illuminated in Blanche and Stanley, who both deceive Stella. It is a display of Darwinism, predicting “the aristocratic Old South will fall victim to the rise of the proletariat” (Jacob H. Adler). This explains why Stella needed to choose Stanley, as he provided financial security, considering her pregnancy, especially significant as Stella gave birth to a boy, “When… they say, “You’ve got a son! ” reinforcing the patriarchal dominance cast over Stella’s life, as well as Stanley’s rise in control, shown through his prediction of his child’s gender. Contrastingly, Blanche had no means to provide support for Stella or her son. Blanche’s financial decline, illuminating her vulnerability, links to Aristotle’s theory that the tragic heroine must fall, allowing the audience to relate to her. Her insecurities – “I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare! ” stereotypically reflects the insecurities women feel about their appearance and age.
The uses of imperatives and exclamatory sentences suggests Blanche’s obsession over her appearance, a flaw leading her to dismiss her true identity. Her inability to avoid drink and her compulsive lies, demonstrated in her frequent references to Shep Huntleigh’s letters, makes her a more authentic woman than Stella, who is described by Williams as the “gentle, mild and contented one”. Blanche’s loss of identity, dominated by her homosexual husband’s suicide, exacerbates her solitude – “The boy-the boy died. She sinks back down) I’m afraid I’m – going to be sick! ” The fragmented, repetitive speech Blanche uses illustrates her guilt and pain, whilst the physical act of “sinking” highlights the extent of her regret, giving a sense of foreboding for her downfall. Her guilt is also exacerbated by the implied physical act at the end which shocks the contemporary audience, who would not sympathise with homosexuals, evoking pity and reinforcing that “Streetcar” is a tragedy for Blanche. Although Stella’s social situation seems consistent throughout, she is also isolated.
The tragedy is that she remains passive and submissive to Stanley and Blanche, yet she loses them both. Critics dramatise Blanche’s involvement in Stella’s life as “dangerous. She is destructive” compared with references to her life with Stanley beforehand, “And wasn’t we happy together!… Till she showed up” – illustrating how Blanche has disrupted Stella’s life. For one who abhorred physical conflict, the tension between Stanley and Blanche has an adverse affect on Stella, causing her to resort to physical and verbal assault equivalent to radical American feminists – “You’re not going bowling. She catches hold of his shirt)” Igniting the tragedy further, the pressure damages Stella; she has little choice but Stanley to maintain her financial security- as contextually women were expected to be the “perfect American housewife” – rejecting the last of her family, which is highly traumatic, whilst also knowing that Stanley has raped Blanche, causing a breakdown of trust. “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley” – this illustrates John S.
Bak’s opinion that “Blanche and Stanley are two opposing animals of the same species, striving for the survival of their kind, with Stella as the prize”. The tension between them makes it difficult to co-exist and Stella’s loyalty proves to be her tragic flaw, causing her own emotional suffering through her passivity, leading the audience to sympathise with her efforts to remain the family foundation, even though Stanley’s priority remains sexual and exploitational. Blanche’s tragedy is that she doesn’t seems to realise what’s happening, illustrating the complete deterioration of her mind into psychosis.
This is evident in her behaviour towards the end “A distant revolver shot is heard… It always stops after that. The Polka tune music dies out” illustrating her guilt as audiences understands she is remembering her husband’s death. Her short, fragmented phrase and deliberate ignorance of Mitch illuminates Blanche’s convergence into her own mind, as she becomes increasingly unaware of reality. Like her husband, Blanche indulges in sexual promiscuity, leading to the death of her identity.
The link between sex and death is evident at the start when Blanche takes the streetcar named desire and then the streetcar named cemeteries, which brought her to Elysian Fields, the land of the dead, according to Greek mythology. She seems unable to connect with men in a non-sexual way, even seeking sexual approval from Stanley through her provocative actions. Her dependency on men acts as a catalyst to her demise, above all her rape, signifying Stanley’s animalistic dominance and the breakdown of her facade, spiralling into her traumatic retreat from reality.
Blanche insists on suppressing her identity to the end, adopting her pure, innocent act. In scene eleven, Blanche taking a bath represents her efforts to cleanse herself of her sins, whilst also wearing “artificial violets”, symbolising young love, however as they are artificial, Williams suggests Blanche’s solitude and inability to find love, which was her one objective, thus provoking sympathy, reinforcing why “Streetcar” is Blanche’s tragedy. Nevertheless, Blanche’s psychosis suggests she cannot comprehend reality anymore, hence why she entrusts the doctor so quickly – “holding tight to his arm”, retreating further into her facade.
Stella, although retreating into her “obedient housewife” facade, is aware of her actions, increasing the traumatic guilt she experiences. This choice between her abusive husband and mentally ill sister evokes sympathy for Stella from the audience. The inability for the two to co-exist rebounds on Stella whose loyalty to both heightens the pressure on Stanley to restore order “He’s got things the way he wants them around there and he does not want them upset by a phony, corrupt, sick, destructive woman. – Cole and Chinoy. Blanche threatens his heritage and masculinity, but as her mentality deteriorates, her encounters with Stanley become more volatile, threatening the safety of Stella’s family. Through isolating Blanche, Stella is isolated from her family and aristocratic heritage. This intensifies Stella’s tragedy when Blanche “walks on without turning” which makes her sobbing heart-breaking and heightens her solitude.
Exacerbating this regret, Stanley’s priority concern remains sexual -“He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse” – This act is demeaning considering Stella’s vulnerability, a direct link to Stanley’s control over Blanche when she was at her most vulnerable, which disgusts the audience, encouraging pity for Stella. For these reasons, Blanche is not as consistently sympathetic or innocent in her actions as Stella, making her unfit as a tragic heroine. Despite the fact Stella is a character that is increasingly overlooked, she consistently becomes more tragic, in contrast to Blanche’s fluctuating character.
Although Aristotle’s theories of tragedy are outdated for this modern genre, the play still harbours the extremities of rape, pregnancy, addiction and brutality making it hard for it to be considered anything but a tragedy, especially since the events occurred in such a short time frame. The tension between Stanley and Blanche, two opposites of humanity, determined to win Stella over, is exacerbated by her need for both characters, thus proving that Stella is the true victim of “A Streetcar named Desire”.