…….The action takes place between May and September in a shabby apartment building in the working-class district of New Orleans in the 1940s, shortly after the Second World War. The protagonist, Blanche Dubois, comes to New Orleans from Laurel, Miss., the site of the family homestead. Although no scenes are set in Laurel, the effect of the town and its Old South culture on DuBois is important.
…….Laurel is a real town in southeastern Mississippi. It has a a present population of about 18,000 and is the seat of Jones County. Laurel, which was named after the laurel shrubs growing abundantly in nearby forests, prospered early in the 20th Century as a lumbering center. Tennessee Williams, the author of A Streetcar Named Desire, was born in eastern Mississippi in the town of Columbus and was well aware of Mississippi customs and traditions.
Blanche DuBois: Neurotic central character from Laurel, Mississippi, who travels to New Orleans to visit her sister and her husband. She lives in a fantasy world of Old South chivalry but cannot control her carnal desires.
Stella Kowalski: Blanche’s down-to-earth sister who seems satisfied with her life as the wife of a New Orleans factory worker.
Stanley Kowalski: Stella’s churlish and outspoken husband and the bane of Blanche’s existence.
Mitch: Harold Mitchell, Stanley’s poker partner and best friend. He woos Blanche until he finds out about her seamy past.
Eunice Hubbell: Stanley and Blanche’s upstairs neighbor and landlady.
Steve Hubbell: Poker partner of Stanley and husband of Eunice.
Pablo Gonzales: Hispanic Poker partner of Stanley.
Allen Grey: Deceased husband of Blanche. His homosexual affair and suicide deeply scarred Blanche.
Teenage Newsboy: Collector for The Evening Star newspaper.
Shep Huntleigh: Imaginary beau of Blanche.
Doctor, Matron: Physician and nurse from a mental hospital.
…….A Streetcar Named Desire centers on a desolated woman named Blanche DuBois. Reared in Old South aristocratic traditions, she lived elegantly in the family homestead, married a man she adored, and pursued a career as an English teacher. But her life fell apart when she discovered that her husband, Allen Grey, was having a homosexual affair. Disgraced, he killed himself. Blanche sought comfort in the arms of other men, many men. After she had relations with one of her students, a 17-year-old, authorities learned of the encounter and fired her. Meanwhile, relatives died and she could not keep up the family home. Eventually, creditors seized it. The play begins when Blanche arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella, and her crude, outspoken husband, Stanley Kowalski. Though scarred by her past, Blanche still tries to lead the life of an elegant lady and does her best, even lying when necessary, to keep up appearances.
Theme 1 The reluctance or inability of people to accept the truth. Blanche lives in a cocoon of unreality to protect herself against her weaknesses and shortcomings, including her inability to repress sexual desire. To preserve her ego, she lies about her promiscuous behavior in Laurel; she shuns bright light, lest it reveal her physical imperfections; and she refuses to acknowledge her problem with alcohol. Stanley effectively penetrates her cocoon verbally with his crude insults and physically with his sexual coup de main near the end of the play. Stanley has his own problem: He lacks the insight to see what he really is—a coarse, domineering macho man ruled by primal instincts. Unlike Blanche, though, he is happy in his ignorance. For her part, Stella accepts the truth—partly. She acknowledges that Stanley is crude and that her apartment is cramped and shabby. But, in the end, she refuses to accept the truth about her sister’s past and about Stanley’s violation of Blanche. “I couldn’t believe [Blanche’s] story [about the rape] and go on living with Stanley,” Stella says.
Theme 2 The final destruction of the Old South, symbolized by Blanche and Belle Reve (the family property seized by creditors). This theme—not unlike that in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind—begins to unfold in the opening scene of the play. Two women, one white and one black, sit as equals on the steps of an apartment building while Blanche arrives on scene accoutered in the attitude and finery of a southern belle of yesteryear. She is an alien, a strange creature from another time, another place.
Theme 3 The despoliation of the sensitive and feminine by the feral and masculine. Blanche and her first husband, a homosexual, cannot survive in the world of Stanley and his kind. Stanley is a robust weed who grows in Blanche’s carefully cultivated garden of lilies.
Theme 4 Unbridled sexual desire leads to isolating darkness and eventually death. Williams establishes this theme at the beginning of the play, when Blanche takes a streetcar named Desire (sex), transfers to one named Cemeteries (Death), and gets off at a street named named Elysian Fields (the Afterlife). He maintains the theme during the play with references to Blanche’s first husband, a homosexual who committed suicide after she caught him with another man, and with Blanche’s literal and figurative retreat into the shadows after having many sordid affairs. She shuns bright lights; she dates Mitch only in the evening.
Theme 5 All that glitters is not gold. This Shakespearean motif manifests itself in Blanche’s inability to grasp how Stanley and Stella can succeed at marriage without the finer things of life.
Streetcar named Desire: Blanche’s desire. Although Blanche arrives in New Orleans as a somewhat broken woman, she keeps alive her desire to be with a man and to lead a life as an elegant, respectable woman.
Streetcar named Cemeteries: Old, disgraced Blanche, the one that Blanche left behind—dead, so to speak—in her hometown of Laurel, Miss., to begin anew in New Orleans. This streetcar can also suggest that life is over for the new Blanche as well, for she is damaged property edging toward madness.
Street named Elysian Fields: The new life Blanche is seeking. In Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields (also calledElysium and the Elysian Plain) made up a paradise reserved for worthy mortals after they died. Because Blanche’s old self “died” in Laurel, Miss., she traveled to New Orleans to seek her Elysium.
Belle Reve: Name of Blanche’s family home in Mississippi. It represents the “beautiful dream” (the meaning of Belle Rêvein French) that Blanche seeks but never experiences.
Blanche’s white suit: False purity and innocence with which Blanche masks her carnal desire and cloaks her past.
Blanche’s frequent bathing: Her attempt to wash away her past life.
Alcohol: Another way Blanche washes away bad memories.
Bright light: Penetrating gaze of truth that sees the real Blanche with all her imperfections. When she greets Stella the first time in the apartment, she says, “And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare!” Blanche avoids bright lights throughout the play.
Blanche: Blanche means white in French, and—in keeping with her name—she wears a white dress and gloves in the opening scene of the play to hide her real self in the purity that white suggests.
Stella: Stella means star or like a star in Latin, although she lives in a shabby apartment building in a lower-class section of New Orleans. It could be argued that she is the star of her husband’s life and the star that led Blanche to New Orleans.
Stanley: Old English name meaning stone field. Thus, it is possible he represents a cemetery for Blanche. Stanislauswas the name of a king of Poland. Clearly, Stanley is the king of his household.
The small Kowalski apartment: The size and plainness of the life to which Blanche, who formerly lived in a splendid mansion, must adjust.
Allen Grey: Gray area of Blanche’s life, between the bright light that she avoids and the darkness she seeks. She loved Allen Grey, but he betrayed her. In New Orleans, she remembers the good and the bad of her relationship with him.
Paper: Imagery centering on paper represents impermanence, unreality, or artificiality. For example, the paper legal documents Blanche brings with her to New Orleans attest to the loss of the family homestead, Belle Reve. The youth collecting for the local paper, The Evening Star, represents the ephemerality of sexual gratification. Apparently, he reminds Blanche of Allen Grey. On a whim, she suddenly kisses the youth but then dismisses him, mindful of the disgrace she brought upon herself with her liaison with a student. The song Blanche sings while bathing, “Paper Moon,” symbolizes the fantasy world of love.
Ghoul-haunted ghostland of Weir: Line from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1847 poem “Ulalume,” in which the speaker of the poem is attempting to cope with the loss of his love. While looking out a window, Blanche speaks this line, indicating that she is still coping with the loss of Allen Grey.
Napoleonic code: Laws established by Napoleon on which Louisiana based its civil law. Stanley cites this law, telling Blanche it means that what belongs to a wife belongs to a husband. Therefore, Stella as part-owner of Belle Reve was entitled to part of the property. If Blanche mismanaged it or used proceeds from it improperly, then she mismanaged or misused property Stanley owned, under the Napoleonic code.
The blind are leading the blind: Paraphrase of a verse in Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament of the Bible. Verse 14 of Chapter 15 says that if one person leads another blind person, both will fall into a pit. Blanche speaks this line when Stella leads her away from the poker game. This is a
And if God choose, / I shall but love thee better after death!” Line is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43. This line is an inscription on Mitch’s lighter, read by Blanche. The significance is that Blanche still thinks about her deceased husband, Allen.
Arabian Nights: Collection of stories from Arabia, India, Persia, and Egypt entitled The One Thousand and One Nights (familiarly knows as the Arabian Nights). A legendary queen, Scheherezade, tells these entertaining stories, including tales about Aladdin’s Lamp, Sindbad the Sailor, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Blanche tells the young collector for The Evening Star newspaper that he looks like a young prince “out of the Arabian Nights.” She kisses him, then tells him he must go because “I’ve got to be good—and keep my hands off children.” This scene tells the audience that wanton desire still haunts Blanche.
My Rosenkavelier: Blanche addresses Mitch this way when he brings her a bouquet of roses. Der Rosenkavelier (The Knight of the Roses) is the title of a 1911 opera by German romantic composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949).
Pleiades: While surveying the night sky, Blanche says she is “looking for the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters.” The Pleiades were seven daughters of the Titan Atlas and the ocean nymph Pleione. Their names were Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra, Maia, Merope, Sterope, and Taygete. They became a group of stars (constellation). Unlike the Pleiades, Blanche is alone. She has a sister, yes, but it becomes increasingly clear that Stella sides with Stanley against her.
Je suis la Dame aux Camellias! Vous êtes Armand! Line from La Dame aux camélias, a play by Alexandre Dumas the Younger (1824-1895), which he adapted from his 1848 novel of the same name. The speaker is a courtesan (prostitute catering to the nobility) who forsakes a character named Armand. Blanche speaks this line to Mitch, perhaps seeing the outcome of her relationship with Mitch. Notice that author Williams uses the English spelling, camellias, rather than the French camélias.
Huey Long: Politician elected governor of Louisiana in 1928 and U.S. senator in 1932. Although Long (1893-1935) enjoyed popularity among the people, he was dictatorial and manipulative. He was assassinated in 1935. Stanley, asserting himself against encroachment on his authority by Stella and Blanche, cites Huey Long (1893-1935) as saying, “Every man is king!”
Queen of the Nile: Cleopatra, seductive and cunning Queen of Egypt in the Macedonian dynasty. She was the seventh Cleopatra, having the full title of Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator (Goddess Who Loves Her Father). Stanley sarcastically refers to Blanche as “the queen of the Nile” in response to her pretensions to elegance.
Irony and Contrast
Elysian Fields: The street Elysian Fields is not what its name suggests, a paradise, but a shabby thoroughfare in a working-class district of New Orleans. By contrast, a street in Paris with the same name (but in French, Champs-élysées) is a magnificent boulevard. Blanche’s attempt to see the world through the eyes of a Parisian is part of the reason for her descent into unreality and insanity.
White and Black: Blanche is wearing white clothing and gloves, as well as pearl earrings, when she arrives in New Orleans to suggest that she has a pristine character. However, she prefers darkness and shadows to mask her physical perfections and, symbolically, her sinful behavior.
Old and New, Fantasy and Reality: Blanche comes from an old fairyland world to live in the real world of a modern metropolis.
Big and Small: In her old world, Blanche lived in a large house; in her new world, she lives in a tiny apartment. The size of the apartment suggests the diminution of Blanche’s fortunes and her sanity.
Speech: Blanche quotes poetry and speaks the elegant patois of aristocrats. Stanley speaks the sandpaper language of reality and brutality: coarse, crude, unvarnished.
1...To what extent is Blanche a victim of her own self-delusions and Old South attitudes? To what extent is she the victim of males who take advantage of her, deceive her, or abuse her?
2...Blanche quotes literature and occasionally speaks French; her language is elegant, educated. Stanley, on the other hand, uses coarse, sometimes brutal, language. Does their speech reflect their perceptions of reality? Explain your answer.
3...Write an essay focusing on how the roles of males and females in American society changed between 1947, the yearA Streetcar Named Desire was published and performed, and the present.
4...Who is the most admirable character in the play?
5...Comment on the significance of the following quotations from the play:
…….“I’ve got to keep hold of myself.” (Blanche, after arriving in the Kowalski apartment)
…….“Poker should not be played in a house with women.” (Mitch, at the card game)
6...What is the meaning of the scene at the beginning of the play in which Stanley throws a package of meat up to Stella? Is it simply intended to show that Stanley is a macho male who delivers what women want, sexually, or is there more to the scene?