Thursday, October 10, 2013


Given that I love theater so much, I knew I had to do a literature analysis on at least one play this year. So, without further ado, here is my second literature analysis, on Tennessee Williams' famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire.

All page numbers are from the New Directions Paperback edition.

Why This Book

I was expecting a "Why This Book" assignment, but since it wasn't assigned separately I'll just put it here. I chose A Streetcar Named Desire for two reasons: (1) it's a play so it takes less time to read than a novel, and I wanted a short read to allow me to catch up with other homework, and (2) it was referenced in John Lennon & Me, the play I was in last fall, and I wanted to get the reference.


After leaving her job in Laurel as a schoolteacher, Blanche DuBois goes to stay with her younger sister Stella and her husband Stanley. Blanche was married when she was very young, but her husband died shortly after their marriage. After Stella left to live with Stanley, the family planation in Laurel, called Belle Reve, was entrusted to Blanche. However, many of their friends and relatives had died recently, putting both an emotional and financial strain on Blanche, so she lost the plantation.

When Stella tells Stanley that Blanche has lost Belle Reve, Stanley is convinced that she sold it for money to spend on herself. Later, Stanley demands to see Belle Reve's papers. Blanche plays dumb and sort of flirts with Stanley, but eventually gives him the papers. Stanley also mentions that Stella is pregnant, at which Blanche is overjoyed.

The next evening, three of Stanley's friends come over for a poker night in the apartment. During the poker game, Mitch (the only single one of the group; he's a widower) runs into Blanche, and it's obvious they're attracted to each other.

Stanley is getting aggressive because he's losing the game and he's drunk. When Stella suggests that they finish their game soon because it's late, Stanley loses his temper and hits her. While the men restrain Stanley, Blanche takes Stella to stay with Eunice, their upstairs neighbor.

A little while later, Stanley has calmed down and realizes with horror what he's done. He goes outside and howls Stella's name up to Eunice's apartment. Finally, Stella comes down the stairs. Seeing Stanley's pain, she forgives him and kisses him. He picks her up and carries her into the apartment, and it's implied that they sleep together.

The next morning, Blanche tries to convince Stella that she's too good for Stanley and it's not safe for them to stay with him. She comes up with a harebrained scheme to contact her old beau Shep Huntleigh, who is now a millionaire, and ask him to help them out of the situation. However, Stella isn't convinced.

Later, Stanley asks Blanche if she knows someone named "Shaw." She says she doesn't, but is visibly distressed.

Blanche now has a relationship with Mitch, but she Blanche has been trying to conceal her age, because women over 30 have to "put out" and Blanche wants to play hard-to-get.

During one of their dates, Blanche tells Mitch about her dead husband, Allan. He was gay, but Blanche didn't know. Blanche was Allan's last hope at becoming or at least pretending to be straight, but shortly after they were married Blanche walked in on Allan having an affair with an older man. Mortified, Allan soon committed suicide.

A few months later, Blanche is still staying with Stella, even though she had promised she'd leave. Stanley is getting increasingly impatient, and tells Stella that he's heard some rumors about Blanche. According to the supply man (Shaw), Blanche had been sleeping around in Laurel, and even had an affair with a 17-year-old boy at her school, after which she was fired. Stanley didn't want Mitch to be another one of her victims, so he told him the rumors, too. Stella protests that Blanche and Mitch were going to get married, but Stanley says everything will be much better for them once Blanche is gone. Stanley gives Blanche a bus ticket back to Laurel as a "birthday present," and she flees the room, sobbing. Stella demands to know why Stanley was so cruel, but while he is explaining, Stella's water suddenly breaks. Stanley escorts her to the hospital.

Later, Mitch comes to see Blanche. He calls her out for being a phony, and finally Blanche confesses everything: after Allan's death, she sought protection and comfort from anyone, until finally her youth left her and she couldn't do it anymore. That's when she came to Laurel, and she thought she'd found what she needed in Mitch.

Mitch embraces Blanche, and implies that he wants to sleep with her; when Blanche says he should marry her, then, he says she isn't clean enough to bring near his mother. Enraged, Blanche yells at him to get out.

Several hours later, Stanley returns from the hospital. He explains that Stella will be in labor until morning, so they told him to go home and get some sleep. Blanche lies that she got a telegram from Shep Huntleigh inviting her on a cruise. She also tells Stanley about Mitch's visit, but lies again that he returned with roses to beg for forgiveness. Stanley calls her out for her lies.

The argument escalates, and finally Stanley declares that they've "had this date with each other from the beginning." He overpowers Blanche, carries her to the bed, and rapes her.

Several weeks later, Stella has arranged for Blanche to go to a sort of institution in the country to regain her health. Blanche told her what happened with Stanley, but at Eunice's advice, Stella doesn't believe her. A doctor is coming to pick Blanche up, but somehow Blanche is convinced that Shep Huntleigh is coming.

When the doctor and the nurse arrive, Blanche is shocked and tries to escape back into the house. The nurse captures her, and finally the doctor convinces Blanche to come with them. Stella sobs when Blanche leaves, and Stanley comforts her.

Author's purpose

In the back of the book, there is an essay titled "The World I Live In" in which the author, Tennessee Williams, interviews himself. The essay clarified Williams' purpose for me, specifically this paragraph:
I don't believe in "original sin." I don't believe in "guilt." I don't believe in villians or heroes—only right or wrong ways that individuals have taken, not by choice but by necessity or by certain still-uncomprehended influences in themselves, their circumstances, and their antecedents.
In the play, almost all the characters betray one another: instead of staying faithful in his marriage to Blanche, Allan has an affair (or, possibly, continues an existing affair) with another man; Blanche loses Belle Reve, which was entrusted to her by her sister; Stanley rapes Blanche while Stella is away at the hospital; Stella chooses to send Blanche away to a mental institution so she can stay with Stanley, instead of leaving Stanley to take care of Blanche. But were any of these treacheries really the respective character's "fault"? Each of these actions was either completely unavoidable (Allan's marriage with Blanche was doomed from the start, because it's impossible for anyone to force themselves to change their sexuality; likewise, there was absolutely no way Blanche could take care of Belle Reve by herself through her grief) or a betrayal of one character in order to stay loyal to another (even Stanley's infidelity, the most "inexcusable" of the list, was simply a rather excessive continuation of his existing hostility towards Blanche in hopes of restoring his formerly happy life with Stella).

Tennessee Williams' purpose in writing A Streetcar Named Desire is to show that not every "wrong" choice constitutes a "villain": he presents a tragedy in which each character is flawed, leading to a series of betrayals, but none of them are evil. Really, they're all victims.


One theme of A Streetcar Named Desire is outlined in the author's purpose above: sometimes betrayals are unavoidable, and therefore are not entirely evil actions. Another theme is that lust is the most powerful human emotion, stronger than anger (Stella forgives Stanley for hitting her because of her physical attraction to him), loyalty (Stanley rapes his wife's sister [WHILE HIS WIFE IS IN LABOR OH MY GOD] without considering how it would hurt her), and the desire to fit in with society (Allan's marriage to Blanche ensured him an orthodox, heterosexual appearance to society, but his affair destroyed his marriage and eventually led to his suicide).


The tone of A Streetcar Named Desire slips between raw and sincere, and surreal and dreamlike. (Note: since the play uses [square brackets] for stage directions, I'm using {curly brackets} for insertions, deletions, etc.)

After the inciting incident of Blanche arriving at Stella and Stanley's apartment, Stanley is the one that really moves the plot forward. He's impulsive, short-tempered, and is the main source of the play's raw, unrestrained emotion, as seen in this excerpt from Scene Eight (p. 131):

STELLA: Your face and your fingers are disgustingly greasy. Go and wash up and then help me clear the table.

[He hurls a plate to the floor.]

STANLEY: That's how I'll clear the table! [He seizes her arm] Don't ever talk that way to me! "Pig--Polack--Disgusting--vulgar--greasy!"--them kind of words have been on your tongue and your sister's too much around here! What do you two think you are? A pair of queens? Remember what Huey Long said--"Every man is a King!" And I am the king around here, so don't forget it! [He hurls a cup and saucer to the floor] My place is cleared!

Many of Blanche's scenes have elements of surrealism as Blanche's repeated hallucinations, including the Varsouviana, a passing locomotive, and shadows on the walls, are shown to the audience, as seen in this excerpt from Scene Six (pp. 114-115):

BLANCHE: {My husband} was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl. {...} He came to me for help. I didn't know that. I didn't find out anything till after our marriage when we'd run away and come back and all I knew was I'd failed him in some mysterious way and wasn't able to give the help he needed but couldn't speak of! He was in the quicksands and clutching at me--but I wasn't holding him out, I was slipping in with him! I didn't know that. I didn't know anything except I loved him unendurably but without being able to help him or help myself. Then I found out. In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty--which wasn't empty, but had two people in it... the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years...

[A locomotive is heard approaching outside. She claps her hands to her ears and crouches over.... As the noise recedes she straightens slowly and continues speaking.]

Afterwards we pretended that nothing had been discovered. Yes, the three of us drove out to Moon Lake Casino, very drunk and laughing all the way.

[Polka music sounds, in a minor key faint with distance.]

We danced the Varsouviana! Suddenly in the middle of the dance the boy I had married broke away from me and ran out of the casino. A few moments later--a shot!

[The Polka stops abruptly.]

Unlike many plays, which have very minimal and to-the-point stage directions, A Streetcar Named Desire has stage directions which are rather poetic in their own right, as seen in this excerpt from Scene Three (pp. 66-67):

[...Stanley stumbles half-dressed out to the porch and down the wooden steps to the pavement before the building. There he throws back his head like a baying hound and bellows his wife's name: "Stella! Stella, sweetheart! Stella!"]


STANLEY [with heaven-splitting violence]:

[...The door upstairs opens again. Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe. Her eyes are glistening with tears and her hair loose about her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans. He falls to his knees on the steps and presses his face to her belly, curving a little with maternity. Her eyes go blind with tenderness as she catches his head and raises him level with her. He snatches the screen door open and lifts her off her feet and bears her into the dark flat.]

Literary Elements

01) monologue -- given that this is a play, there are several monologues (mostly delivered by Blanche), including Blanche's sort of self-conscious/self-referential monologue to Stella (concluding with "BLANCHE: ...Ha-a-ha! Precious lamb! You haven't said a word to me! STELLA: You haven't given me a chance to, honey!") [pp. 10-11], Blanche's rant over how Belle Reve was lost [pp. 21-22], Blanche's flashback to her husband Allan's death [pp. 114-115], and Stanley's harangue against Blanche [p.158].
02) flashback -- Blanche has a few flashbacks of her life before she left Belle Reve, including her husband's death [pp. 114-115] and her encounters with the men from the nearby army training camp [p. 149].
03) surrealism -- Blanche, in her fragile mental state, is plagued by hallucinations, which are shown onstage to the audience. Whenever she gets nervous, she hears the Varsouviana [pp. 115-116, 136, 139, 141, 148, 166, 171, 174], the polka song that was playing just before her husband's suicide. Sometimes she also hears and sees a locomotive passing outside [pp. 114, 160]. When she gets really nervous, she sees shadows creeping along the walls [pp. 158-159, 174].
04) imagery -- Blanche's short monologue in which she fantasizes about her death [p. 170] has lots of imagery: "BLANCHE: I can smell the sea air. [...] And when I die, I'm going to die on the sea. [...] And I'll be buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard—at noon—in the blaze of summer—and into an ocean as blue as... my first lover's eyes!"
05) foreshadowing -- during Blanche and Stanley's argument, the walls become transparent, and outside there is a struggle between a drunkard and a prostitute [p. 159]. This foreshadows Stanley attacking Blanche at the end of the scene.
06) allusion -- During her date with Mitch, Blanche references The Lady of the Camellias. She teases Mitch, in French: "Je suis la dame aux Camellias! Vous ĂȘtes-- Armand! [...] Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir? Vous ne comprenez pas? Ah, quelle domage!" ("I am the lady of the Camellias! You are-- Armand! [...] Will you sleep with me tonight? You do not understand? Oh, what a shame!") [p. 104] It is a French novel about a woman with tuberculosis who has many lovers, including a man named Armand (the narrator). When she is "available," she wears a white camellia, but when she is too sick, she wears a red camellia (it's a fitting reference because Blanche's name means "white," so she is "always available").
07) irony -- Blanche's character has many references to purity: her name means "white," which is a color that symbolizes purity; her zodiac sign is Virgo, the Virgin; and her death fantasy features her burial in a "clean white sack." It's ironic because she's had so many "intimacies with strangers" [using her wording from p. 146] that she's probably the least pure of all the characters in the show (or at least according to prevailing gender stereotypes; if Stanley was female, however...).
08) symbolism -- maybe this is obvious, but the "streetcar" represents desire (gasp!). In Scene Four, when Stella is explaining why she will stay with Stanley despite Blanche's objections, the streetcar also has a double meaning: "BLANCHE: What you are talking about is brutal desire—just—Desire!—the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another... STELLA: Haven't you ever ridden on that street-car? BLANCHE: It brought me here." [p. 81] Literally, Blanche rode on the streetcar to get to Stella's apartment; figuratively, desire brought Blanche to Stella's apartment because desire is what made Blanche lose her job.
09) nominal symbolism -- As noted above, "Blanche" means "white," an ironic reference to purity. Blanche and Stella's plantation is named "Belle Reve," which is French for "beautiful dream." In comparison to their lives during the events of the play, their old life at Belle Reve truly was a "beautiful dream."
10) doubling -- Stella/Stanley and Eunice/Steve are sort of doubles: they're both couples who live in the downstairs and upstairs halves of the same apartment building, respectively. Furthermore, Eunice and Steve's fight in Scene Five is eerily similar to Stella and Stanley's earlier fight in Scene Three: boy hits girl, girl runs away, boy asks for forgiveness, girl and boy go back home. The only difference is that in Scene Five we hear that Steve had cheated on Eunice, which was not a part of Stella and Stanley's fight in Scene Three; however, it's actually foreshadowing the events of Scene Ten with Stanley and Blanche.

No comments:

Post a Comment