Blanche DuBois comes from a formerly wealthy Southern family that owned a plantation called Belle Reve. Raised as a refined lady, Blanche does not cope well with life's harsh realities and feels she needs a man to protect her. Blanche is also a person who uses desire and illusion to suppress the reality of death and loss. When Blanche was young, she married a man who committed suicide when Blanche rejected him for being homosexual. Since then Blanche has had affairs with several men, including a 17-year-old boy, in an attempt to escape the trauma caused by the death of her husband. When Blanche arrives at the apartment of her sister Stella and husband Stanley Kowalski in New Orleans, she is a desperate woman about 30 years old. She has lost the family estate, Belle Reve, and has been kicked out of her hometown because of her sexual promiscuity. Ashamed of her past, Blanche tries to hide it. She keeps up the Southern belle act to protect herself from the harsh world and to get a man to marry her. However Blanche's ladylike affectations clash with Stanley's crude manners, and they come to hate each other. Blanche tries to get Stella to leave her brutish husband. Eventually Stanley reveals the truth about Blanche to Stella and Mitch, the man Blanche is dating. Mitch refuses to marry her, crushing her hopes. Stanley confronts Blanche about being a liar and rapes her. As a result Blanche becomes mentally unstable.
Stanley Kowalski lives with his wife Stella in a small apartment in New Orleans. He is in his late 20s and works as a traveling salesman. Stanley is a crude, domineering man who is physically imposing. He sees himself as the ruler of his family. As a result he feels he has the right to order his wife around and expects to be obeyed. When Stanley feels this power structure is threatened, he can become violent, throwing things and beating Stella. Even so Stanley has a strong sexual and emotional bond with his wife. After he strikes her, Stanley feels remorse and wants Stella to forgive him by sleeping with him. When Blanche comes to stay with him and Stella, Stanley immediately clashes with her. She is everything he is not and vice versa. Blanche has refined manners, loves romantic ideals, lies about herself, and manipulates through flirtation. Stanley has crude manners, loves down-to-earth ideas, is bluntly honest, and manipulates through physical intimidation. Stanley hates Blanche's superior attitude toward him and sees her as a threat to his family order. As a result he uncovers the truth about Blanche's sexual history in Laurel and uses it against her, then rapes her.
Stella Kowalski is Stanley's wife and Blanche DuBois's younger sister. Stella is more practical and adaptable than Blanche. When the DuBois plantation is having financial problems, Stella leaves and starts a new life in New Orleans. In contrast Blanche remains at Belle Reve and tries hopelessly to save it. Like Blanche, Stella was raised to be a refined lady. However Stella is willing to cast aside her upper-class affectations and marry Stanley, a crude, working-class man. Stella acts as a mediator between Blanche and Stanley. She loves them both. Because of this Stella tries to support her sister while remaining a good wife to Stanley. However she realizes in the end that she is unable to satisfy either one of them. As a result she refuses to believe Blanche's story about being raped by Stanley. If Stella did believe it, she would not be able to live with her husband. Instead Stella betrays her sister when she helps Stanley get rid of Blanche by sending her to a mental institution.
Mitch is Stanley Kowalski's good friend. Mitch served in the army with Stanley and works for the same company. In his late 20s, Mitch is single and lives with his sick mother. He has an innate kindness and gentleness. He believes Blanche's Southern belle act and falls in love with her. For her part Blanche likes Mitch and wants to marry him so he will protect her. Mitch becomes suspicious of Blanche because she seems to be trying to hide her age. When Stanley tells Mitch the truth about Blanche's sexual history in Laurel, Mitch becomes disillusioned and bitter and refuses to marry Blanche. Nevertheless, although Mitch probably does not know about Stanley raping Blanche, he does realize that Stanley mistreats her when she is mentally fragile, and he tries to prevent Stanley from forcing Blanche to leave. However Mitch's attempt proves futile, and he remains a broken man dominated by Stanley.