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Understanding Streetcar Named Desire - English Literature

 

To what extent is the play about securing personal dignity?

 Using Examples -Explain the use of symbolism in Tennessee Williams’s play.

 Examine the characters from a psychological perspective.

 

 

Tennessee Williams’s play is essentially about perception versus reality. The securing of personal dignity in the microcosmic worlds of some of the characters is in essence no dignity at all since Blanche has to pay the price for the others’ inability to perceive her in her totality. Stanley for instance, cannot see that cause and effect are one. It can of course, be claimed that Stanley is also a product of his environment; he is, but the playwright is demonstrating what happens when individuals of Stanley’s consciousness interact with individuals of Blanche’s consciousness. Let us examine how this situation occurs by looking at Stanley:

 

Stanley represents a creature of the flesh. He is egotistic and macho. He is not intelligent except in a shrewd sort of way. He is lacking in any kind of spiritual dimension and that renders him devoid of empathy. Insight is lacking in him. He cannot see beneath people's veneers because he does not really care. He sees only what is overtly presented to him.  As with many individuals with these personality traits he is arrogant. Tennessee Williams possesses a great love of symbolism which we shall observe and explain as the play progresses. Stanley is symbolically represented by the blood-stained meat parcel he throws to his wife, Stella, at the beginning of the play.

 

On the other hand, Blanche is a very sensitive woman. She is deeply traumatised. She has several unresolved inner conflicts. She is in a lonely condition, sentenced to solitary confinement within her own skin. This is a theme which mattered very much to the playwright. The personal loneliness and destruction of the deeper, more delicate and sensitive  human being by those motivated by social trends, greed, ignorance, desire or bitterness is also found in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie.

 

At heart, Blanche is a romantic woman. She does not "tell lies”, she tells “what ought to be the truth.” She is a dreamer. She wants to be as she is in her dreams, unencumbered by the damage done to her psyche, by the experiential interactions she has encountered. Her sense of herself as a lady in the grand tradition is part of her psychological safety mechanism and her adherence to a bygone era of the ‘Beautiful South’.

 

In Elysian Fields desire rules. For Blanche therefore, and even for Stella, it represents death of the soul. Instead of elevating people, Stanley likes to drag them down to his own level. To his wife, Stella, he says:


You thought I was common. How right you was baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them coloured lights going…

 

He seems to feel that there is some twisted sexual gratification in ‘pulling people down off them columns' and appears to assume that Stella shares in that idea.

 

He is a Polish immigrant, proud of being accepted as an example of the New American. He likes the idea of the Promised Land; the American Dream, as opposed to the old order of the Southern aristocracy. Just as the New America degrades the Old, so does the New American degrade the values and mores that accompanied it. He takes pleasure in his contempt. Blanche is his antagonist.

 

In Classical Greek mythology, Elysian Fields is the place to where those favoured by the gods go after they die to enjoy a pleasant afterlife. Tennessee Williams gives the name to the shabby, seedy environment not just for physical ironic contrast but also for spiritual ironic contrast because rather than a pleasant afterlife, or indeed a pleasant current life, Tennessee Williams’s Elysian Fields is depicted as a dwelling place devoid of soul, a pointer to the death of the soul that awaits Blanche as she makes her way there:


They told me to take a streetcar named desire [a tram with DESIRE as its name] and then transfer to one called CEMETARIES and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.

 

Blanche, a lost and lonely lady in the beginnings of a nervous breakdown, arrives at Elysian Fields to see her sister. She is dainty, dressed in white, symbolic of her French name for white and symbolic of purity - of how she wants to be - of how she is at heart. William’s states,” Her appearance is incongruous to the setting “of the rough, seedy, coarseness of Elysian Fields.”  “There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes that suggest a moth.” Blanch flits from one thing to another in her acute nervous anxiety. Like a moth, she is drawn to the light and easily burned. She is delicate and fragile both by disposition and by the guilt that burdens her. She is internally traumatised. She did not know where to turn, and so, she flitted into Elysian Fields in need of help and protection.

 

Blanche has long turned to alcohol in order to try and suppress her guilt and anxiety. When admitted into the apartment by Eunice, Blanche does not waste much time in seeking out the liquor. It helps to keeps the stress down, like drugs, cigarettes, promiscuity or other addictions. Her internal anguish is not only manifested in her craving for alcohol but also by her anxiety-laden speech, her tone, her nervous laugh, her jittery movements, false gaiety and exaggerated exclamations such as “Stella oh Stella; Stella, Stella for star!” She speaks with “feverish vivacity:”


Now, then, let me look at you. But don’t you look at me Stella, no,no, no, not till I’ve bathed and rested! And turn that light off!.......Come back here now!


Oh my baby! Stella, Stella for star! I thought you would never come back to this horrible place! What am I saying……… Oh what a convenient location and such – ha ha….[scene one]

 

Blanche also makes several references to the state of her nerves:


No coke honey, not with my nerves tonight.


My nerves are in knots.          [Scene one]


I was exhausted by all I’d been through – my nerves broke.

 

And:….


 as you must have noticed, I’m not very well.  [ Scene three] 

 

Williams directs Blanche as “nervously tapping cigarette”, and “She touches her forehead shakily”. “She is shaking all over and panting for breath as she tries to laugh.” Further indications of Blanche’s psychological state are apparent by her fearful thoughts of abandonment:

 

To Stella:         


 I want to be near you, got to be with somebody.

 

How Stella can undermine Blanche’s obvious emotional distress is beyond comprehension. Blanche also feels a constant need for reassurance regarding her appearance:

 

I want you to look at my figure

You see I still have that awful vanity about my looks even now that my looks are slipping. 


[Scene one]

 

Although Stella expresses fleeting concern about her sister’s nervous state, she seems in the main, oblivious to the enormity of it, or rather chooses to feign oblivion in part, owing to her passion for her brutish husband.

Stella is not a spiteful individual. She is a character who feels a need to adapt to her man. She denies depth in herself in order to accommodate her husband’s mentality and his environment. She denies truth in order to secure her own survival at the expense of her sister’s desperate plight. 

 

 

 Blanche embodies an extraordinary contradiction.  On the one hand she recognises and expresses that:

 

Physical beauty is passing. A transitory possession

But beauty of the mind and richness of the spirit and tenderness of the heart.

I have all of these things

 

Indeed she has. On the other hand, we learn that Blanche also perceives herself in terms of her physical appearance and her desirability to men; her desire to be desirable. She has a split self: one part is her essence and the other is her social self – the one by which she has learned to survive – the one that has been socially constructed, resulting in her low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness. It is as if her soul has to die in order that she might live. Blanche really needs to be loved and in their search for love, insecure women often end up in diabolical situations that are anything but love. She wants to be appreciated, understood, cherished, and to reciprocate those qualities but despite her sensibility and better judgement, Blanche must play the game, especially in this kind of environment. Blanche believes that if she is not desired, she ceases to exist, not only in her own mind but also, she fears, in the minds of the men she meets, as if desirability provides identity. She complies with the whole charade of the desire game because she feels that desire is a preliminary to love when it is not. She has learned that that is how a great many people relate to each other, body to body, not soul to soul, so she forsakes her real self and complies.

 

Blanche is tender, intelligent and poetic. She is a school teacher with a literary heritage. When she was sixteen, she married the boy she idolised. Blanche did not know that her husband was homosexual until she caught him in bed with a man shortly after her marriage. Still in shock, after the discovery, Blanche and her husband went to a dance hall. On the crowded floor she said:


I know! I know! You disgust me!  [ Scene six] 

 

On hearing these words her young husband, ashamed, broke away from Blanche. He ran outside to the edge of the lake and blew the back of his head off by sticking a revolver in his mouth.

 

Blanche has never received any counselling. She relives the incident over and over again in her mind to the tune of the Varsouviana  which was playing in the dance hall at the time of the tragedy. She has become ‘emotionally stuck’, dissipated; utterly consumed by guilt. She opens her heart to Stanley’s card-playing chum, Mitch,  Blanche expresses that since that time:


The searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned of and never for one moment since has there been any light that’s stronger than this – kitchen – candle…[Scene six].

 

We see the significance of light and moths being attracted to light. She wants to move into the light but she cannot because the painful memory burns her every time she tries. Therefore, she lives in perpetual darkness. The shade she insists on keeping over the lamp is not just to conceal what she feels is her ageing appearance [she is only thirty!] but fear of light, perhaps fear of judgement by God but more likely, fear of understanding herself and of looking at the situation too deeply by confronting and neutralising the guilt she feels. There are indications that Tennessee Williams was a believer in God.  His Blanche has never been reconciled with God, and thus herself, by gaining the understanding that it was not her fault – that she is forgiven and above all, must forgive herself. Until this happens, she is unable to relinquish the past. Occasionally, Blanche does receive a glimmer of her need for reconciliation:


Sometimes – there’s God – so quickly .[Scene six]

 

She suppresses the glimmer due to her alienation from it. She does not understand it because of her fragmentation; consequently she goes on adding dimensions to her dissolution. Her flirtatiousness, her past promiscuity and her affected mannerisms are manifestations of her unresolved trauma. The flirtatiousness/seduction of younger males is her unconscious attempt to recapture her youthful years and the boy husband. Her dominance over her sister, Stella, is nothing unusual for an older sister but in Blanche’s case, it is an attempt to assert some kind of order and control into her life.

 

Blanche’s continuous bathing is her attempt to purge herself, to wash away her sins. The alternating red and white garments she wears are symbolic of her essence of self [her soul] versus the creature of desire which ostensibly, she has become - symbolic of her internal conflict. The blue garments associated with the Madonna in the last scene are symbolic of peace and Blanche’s need for maternal love, guidance and protection. Emotional trauma has rendered Blanch childlike. The individual with unresolved traumatic experiences cannot grow properly. She is blocked. Paternal protection is what Blanche is really seeking from men but sadly, paternal care is rarely found for the Blanche’s of this world. Always, the sexual element has to come into play. And of course, her hunger for love delivered as flirtatiousness adds to the inevitability of that. Nobody can see that her behaviour is a symptom of her emotional distress rather than conscious behaviour in itself.

 

The audience also learns that in addition, Blanche has suffered multiple bereavements. Stella left Belle Vue after their mother died. The girls are motherless and fatherless. Blanche however, had to contend with nursing their ailing relatives.  She has horrendous memories. Stella did not have to contend with the blood-stained sheets of one of their aunts “who was so swollen that she couldn’t fit into a coffin and had to be burned like rubbish.” Stella only made appearances at the actual funerals because she could not bear to be away from Stanley.

 

Regarding the question of personal dignity, what has Blanche actually done that can be perceived as encroaching on the dignity of Stella and Stanley Kowalski? It is true that Blanche is a continuous irritation to her sister and brother-in-law with her determination to impose her character on the apartment. She is domineering towards Stella and seemingly, has no regard for Stella’s feelings when she displays contempt for her husband and her environment. It is because Blanche knows that Stella could have done better which is obvious by the things she says. Stanley overheard Blanch refer to him as, “an ape-like cave man”. When Blanche mentions the biblical quotation that Stella should not have “cast her pearls amongst swine” Stanley thinks it is with reference to him, and of course he is meant to think it. She should have kept her thoughts to herself; that was her mistake. Blanche uses private jokes at Mitch’s expense: in scene six for example, she propositions Mitch in French, secure in the knowledge that he will not understand her.

 

Stanley subscribes to the ‘I, Me, Mine’ mentality. Blanche has consumed his alcohol, she uses his bath and her presence inhibits the potential frequency of passionate sessions between him and his wife. Furthermore, and very importantly, Stanley half realises that Blanche’s earlier tirade against him is threatening because Stella might soon agree with her sister! He therefore, believes that he must fight for his ‘dignity’, his domain, his possessions [Stella being the main possession] by ridding Blanche from his household. The disintegration and rape of Blanche is consequently a victory in his mind.

 

Stanley is territorial. He is the leader of the gang in his little domain.  Stella and his poker playing companions are foolishly subservient to his spiritually lacking consciousness. He cannot help it perhaps, since that is the sphere of his consciousness. He has probably been brutalised by his environment but simultaneously, understanding such brutishness does not mean we have to like it. It is futile to make excuses for his arrogance in his ignorance.

 

Stanley cannot see Blanche; all he can see is her behaviour which is psychosomatic of her appalling mental state. Stella and Mitch have forsaken their dignity, not simply because they are intellectually incapable of transcending social perceptions of Blanche but also because Stella is quite prepared to betray her sister in her desire to retain her husband. 

 

Mitch tells Blanche that she is not fit to bring into the house of his mother after Stanley tells him about her ‘promiscuous’ past. Her past would not be considered promiscuous nowadays but during the era in which the play was written it was considered shocking. In any case, her numerous sexual affairs were simply safety mechanisms, comforts, to try and keep her depression at bay. Emotionally disturbed people often want a lot of sex. Mitch is dominated by both his mother and Stanley. Blanche opened up her heart to Mitch when she told him about her young husband's suicide. She told him that ever since that time, "the searchlight which had been turned on the world had been turned off and never for one moment since has there been any light that's stronger than this kitchen candle." Such heartfelt words are wasted on Mitch. He is not worth the affection or effort that Blanche lavishes on him. He even tries to rape her after Stanley exposes her past. Stanley rules, so both Stella and Mitch deny Blanche in order to keep in his favour. It is ‘true’ that if we see things through Stanley’s eyes, Blanche has intruded on the Kowalski's privacy. But dignity, what dignity does Stanley possess? And what kind of dignity is it that selfishly seeks to protect its own private sphere, preventing compassionate understanding of another human being with debilitating unresolved traumas? Blanche’s desperate ‘intrusion’ on the Kowalski’s domain is nothing compared with the indignities suffered by her. She has been completely stripped of her dignity - her very soul. She was given a cruel birthday party; her personal belongings were rummaged in Stanley’s hope that he could find something relating to the Napoleonic Code; her past was cruelly exposed, she was then rejected and abused by Mitch. She has been ridiculed, misunderstood, negated, raped and finally, betrayed by her own sister and certified to a mental asylum !

 

Note that Stanley is not considered mad: He raped Blanche while his pregnant wife was in labour. He is a control freak. He is coarse and brutal. He likes to drag people down ‘off them columns’. He takes sadistic delight in Blanche’s fear and he deliberately delves into Blanche’s past to get her out of his apartment and destroy any hope she ever had. Considering his personality traits it is likely that he would have had many more sexual encounters than Blanche in his life, yet he decides to use her sexual comforts against her in a sexist and devious manner. He humiliates her on her birthday and presents her with a bus ticket back to the place she ran away from and finally, colludes with his wife to get Blanch certified. As soon as Blanche has been led away, he and Stella settle down to more sex.

 

 

There is some dreadful fear on the part of the playwright. He knows that the abuser of power is psychologically sicker than the victim but the victim is the one who suffers and who often has to adopt coping behaviours in order to survive or, who breaks down when a safety mechanism can no longer be found. Tennessee Williams conveys that we have to see others in their entirety rather than simply in terms of our own selective perception. Ignorance and preoccupation with self-survival prevents us from knowing others in their totality. Williams also perceives how traumatic experiences in those with acute sensibility renders them more vulnerable to additional stresses perpetrated by those who do not possess it. The play also looks at social adaption. If the afflicted individual cannot resolve his or her past traumas or cannot ‘adjust’ to certain social settings in which she finds herself she is considered ‘maladjusted’. It is a social evaluation. There is no indication in the play that Blanche has become psychotic. In modern times, it is only if the afflicted individual is dangerous or develops prolonged psychotic behaviour that he or she would be sectioned.

 

Stella shares a childhood with Blanch. She has memories of Belle Reve and should understand her sister’s cultural heritage. She should also understand how shocked Blanche, as a child-bride, must have been when she discovered her husband in bed with a man, especially during the 1950s, let alone how traumatised she must have been witnessing his suicide. Stella, however, has conveniently ‘forgotten’ all of that and has successfully adjusted to Stanley’s environment. Stella does not cling to images of grandeur in the beautiful south. She is quite happy to read comics while her husband engages with his poker playing cronies. She will go to any lengths to keep her marriage even though she must realise that her sister is telling the truth about being raped by Stanley.

 

To borrow a phrase from Thomas Hardy, it is a classic case of; the coarse appropriating the finer.  It is a very depressing play. Blanche has been totally eclipsed for the sake of a primitive brute and his misguided wife. Sadly, the playwright does not leave us with any indication that Blanche will ever recover. Trams or streetcars run on metal tracks and cannot change direction. What a pity it was that Blanche, desperately in need of love and counsel, sealed her fate by boarding “that rattle-trap streetcar”  named  Desire.

 

Dominic Fairfax

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