A Streetcar Named Desire | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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Course Hero, "A Streetcar Named Desire Study Guide," October 13, 2016, accessed November 19, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Streetcar-Named-Desire/.

A Streetcar Named Desire | Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

A Streetcar Named Desire is set in New Orleans on a street called Elysian Fields. This area is rundown but still has charm, with weathered houses decorated with quaint gables. Stanley Kowalski and his wife Stella live in the downstairs apartment of a two-story building. As the play opens, a white woman named Eunice and a black woman talk on the steps of the building. Piano music is heard from a nearby bar. Stanley Kowalski and his friend Mitch walk up wearing work clothes. Stanley yells to Stella, who comes out on the first-floor landing. He tosses her a package of meat and says he's going bowling. Stella wants to tag along to watch him. Stanley and Mitch leave together, and Stella follows soon after.

Blanche Du Bois, dressed daintily in a white suit, enters carrying a valise. She appears to be looking for the Kowalski home, but seems stunned to find it in such a borderline neighborhood. Blanche tells Eunice she is looking for Stella. Eunice invites Blanche to wait for Stella in the Kowalski apartment as the black woman goes to inform Stella of her sister's arrival. The apartment consists of two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom, plus a bathroom. Blanche and Eunice enter. Eunice asks a few general questions, but Blanche wants to be left alone. Realizing this Eunice leaves to get Stella. Blanche finds a whiskey bottle, pours a drink, and gulps it down. She then washes out the glass, so no one will know that she has been drinking alcohol.

Soon Stella enters. Blanche hugs her with frantic joy. The sisters each have a drink of whiskey, and Blanche openly criticizes the lower-class conditions in which her sister is living. Blanche explains that she got a leave of absence from her teaching position at a high school because she needs to rest her nerves. She worries about staying with Stella and her husband in such a small apartment because it lacks privacy. Stella isn't concerned about this issue, but does seem concerned about how Blanche will fit in with Stanley, a working-class Polish American, and his friends. Stella admits that Stanley doesn't know about Blanche's visit, which surprises Blanche. Then Stella describes how much she misses her husband, who often travels for work. Blanche explains how she struggled to keep their family home, a Mississippi plantation called Belle Reve, but lost it. Blanche seems bitter about Stella abandoning Belle Reve for New Orleans, thereby leaving Blanche with the burden of trying to hang on to it. A series of family deaths drained the meager family funds, forcing Blanche to "let the place go."

Stanley, Mitch, and Steve arrive and make arrangements for a poker game at Stanley's apartment. Stanley is a sturdy, muscular man, who exudes sexual confidence and asserts his dominant role in his family. He is surprised to meet Blanche; however he accepts her staying with his family. Stanley's crude, blunt manners contrast sharply with Blanche's ladylike demeanor. Stanley mentions that Stella told him about Blanche's marriage. Blanche admits she married when young, but the boy died. She then feels sick.

Analysis

In Scene 1 Tennessee Williams immediately highlights the play's major themes, beginning with the class differences. He describes the New Orleans neighborhood of Elysian Fields as a working-class area with weathered houses near the railroad tracks. The Kowalski apartment is small and messy. In contrast to this environment, Blanche DuBois arrives dressed as a refined, upper-class lady. She is shocked by her sister's shabby neighborhood and tiny apartment, but when she expresses her concerns to her sister, Stella becomes defensive, stating, "It's not that bad at all!" Williams also introduces a major symbol, Belle Reve, a plantation with a big, white-columned house where Stella and Blanche were raised. It contrasts sharply with the working-class neighborhood of Elysian Fields. For Blanche, Belle Reve symbolizes her family's longstanding, upper-class traditions, which she values deeply.

Stella also seems concerned about how her sister will fit in with her working-class husband and his friends. Stella advises her "not to ... compare him with men we went out with at home," but Blanche does exactly that, joking condescendingly about Stanley's lowbrow Polish background. When Stanley arrives the class differences between him and Blanche are immediately apparent when he makes a crude joke and realizes Blanche is not amused.

Williams also introduces the theme of desire, destruction, and death. Blanche's first line in the play links a streetcar named Desire, a streetcar named Cemeteries, and the neighborhood called Elysian Fields. In Greek mythology Elysian Fields is the final resting place of heroic souls. Therefore, with Blanche's dialogue, Williams traces her progression in the play from desire to destruction and death.

Blanche's first expression of desire in the play is also immediately paired with destruction and death. She states how much she wanted to hang on to Belle Reve, but a series of family deaths sapped her funds. Blanche says, "Death is expensive, Miss Stella!" Later Blanche admits marrying a young man who died. Here desire is coupled with death, her family estate, and her marriage.

Williams also introduces the theme of truth versus illusion, which are strongly influenced by Blanche's relationship to desire, destruction, and death. In Blanche's speech about Belle Reve, she describes how funerals provide a pretty illusion that covers up the harshness of death. Blanche comes the closest to telling the truth about herself when she tells Stella, "I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I can't be alone." Her dual fears of the harshness of reality and of being alone drive Blanche to cling to her illusions. This sometimes leads her to be dishonest. For example, she is determined to do whatever she must to create the illusion that she is a respectable Southern belle with traditional moral values—no sexual promiscuity or drinking alcohol for her.

As a result, when she is alone, Blanche sneaks a drink and hides the evidence by washing out the glass. Later Blanche pretends that she doesn't even know where the liquor is located and claims one drink is her limit. In truth she often has more. Stanley immediately sees through Blanche's façade. When she tells Stanley that she rarely touches drink, Stanley pointedly responds, "Some people rarely touch it, but it touches them often," indicating that he doesn't believe her. Thus, from the very beginning of the play, Stanley reveals an ability to cut through Blanche's lies to get at the truth of her situation.

Scene 1 also provides the first glimpses of Stella and Stanley's marriage, and the first demonstration in the play of the important themes of sexuality and of women's dependence on men. Stanley's first gesture in the play is to toss a package of meat to Stella, emphasizing his role as a provider. But Stella's dependence on Stanley is also based on their sexual chemistry. In fact Stella's life seems to revolve around Stanley and their hot-blooded sexual passion. She admits, "I can hardly stand it when he is away for a night." Stanley is a person who blatantly expresses his sexual desire for her and Stella likes it. Their frank sexuality flusters Blanche with her cultivated manners and shadowy secrets.

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