A Streetcar Named Desire | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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A Streetcar Named Desire | Themes


Desire, Destruction, and Death

Desire and destruction form a toxic cocktail that influences the motivations and actions of the play's four major characters. Blanche, Stanley, Stella, and Mitch are driven by a variety of desires, including the need for romance, sex, power, or self-protection. The word desire is in the play's title for a reason: the desires of these characters almost always lead to their destruction and to the destruction of those around them.

Death as well as desire and destruction are tangled together for Blanche because of two major tragedies in her life. She is haunted by the death of her young husband, whom she loved, and by the loss of her beloved family estate, Belle Reve. Blanche was shocked to discover her husband's true sexual desires (he was a homosexual), and her inability to accept him leads to his suicide. The loss of her family home Belle Reve after the death of several relatives causes her further pain.

As a result Blanche is pulled between conflicting desires. On the one hand, she longs to find romantic love and to marry a man who will protect her from life's harsh realities. On the other, her husband's death has driven her into a world of sexual promiscuity (particularly with younger men) and drinking that prevents her from a respectable marriage. But for Blanche sex is the opposite of death, and sex helps her avoid facing the loss of her husband and her home. Blanche fights to keep the two conflicting desires apart, often resorting to lies to prevent other people, and possibly herself, from seeing the truth. In the end the inability to do so leads to her destruction.

Stanley's greatest desire is to maintain his dominant position as the head of his family. He insists that his wife Stella play a submissive role, and he beats her if she resists. Their marriage is an ongoing cycle of sexual desire and violence. When Blanche threatens his domination of his family, Stanley decides to destroy her. He achieves his goal, exposing Blanche's past and dominating Blanche by raping her. Stella loves both Blanche and Stanley. She desires to keep the peace, but in the end Stella is forced to choose between her sister and her husband. With a new baby to care for, she sides with her husband. Stella's desire to maintain both relationships, therefore, ends in frustration and torment for her.

Mitch desires a nice wife. He falls for Blanche's Southern belle affectations and becomes infatuated with her. However, when Mitch finds out the truth about Blanche's past, he becomes disillusioned and bitter and their relationship is destroyed. He ends up a broken man, whose desires have been shattered.

Truth versus Illusion

Williams explores the theme of truth versus illusion mainly by contrasting Blanche and Stanley. Blanche has trouble looking at the unvarnished truth, finding the harsh realities of life too difficult to take. Because of this she lives in the dimly lit world of half-truths and illusion, hiding behind her refined Southern values and manners and using them to manipulate other people. Her appreciation of poetry and art further helps her block out reality rather than engage with it. However, when Stanley reveals the truth about her disreputable past and then brutally rapes her, Blanche's illusions collapse. As a result she becomes insane, barely able to discern the difference between truth versus illusion.

On the other hand, Stanley is a person who looks reality squarely in the face. He is a bluntly honest and crude man who despises lying. However Stanley has no ability to express compassion for others. Instead he uses the truth as a weapon to control and destroy Blanche.

Stella balances truth versus illusion. She sees her relationship with Stanley for what it is and accepts it. However she has trouble accepting what he reveals about Blanche's past because she loves her sister. For Stella compassion overrides truth, and she believes her sister's behavior is understandable considering the tragic outcome of Blanche's marriage. In the end, however, Stella chooses illusion over truth in order to preserve her marriage, refusing to believe that Stanley raped Blanche.

Repression and Dependence

Stella and Blanche live in a time when women were expected to be dependent on men, both financially and emotionally, and both women suffer as a result. In fact this dependence dictates the course of their lives. The death of her young husband and the loss of her family home have made Blanche especially vulnerable. Blanche is fixated on finding a man to protect her. Indeed Blanche sees this goal as necessary for her survival. When her last hope of marrying Mitch is destroyed, Blanche becomes hysterical, consumed by the panic of facing life without a man.

Stella's financial, emotional, and sexual dependence on her husband Stanley traps her in a life with a man whom she suspects has raped her sister. Her need to preserve her marriage is so powerful that Stella sends Blanche to a state mental hospital rather than face the truth that her husband raped her sister.

Class Differences

Characters in the play are defined by their social class and what they believe social class represents. Blanche bases her identity on being a refined Southern belle who appreciates the finer things in life, such as art and poetry. But Blanche's upper-class sensibilities clash with the Kowalskis' working-class life in Elysian Fields.

Blanche's sister Stella has chosen to leave her upper-class background behind to join Stanley. Blanche sees her sister's choice as a big step down in social status, although Stella seems content with her decision. In fact Blanche may look the part of a refined lady, but she hides the fact that her scandalous behavior in her hometown has damaged her social standing. Her assertion that she represents a superior social class is a defensive mask Blanche wears to hide her own loss of social status.

Blanche's insistence that she is superior to Stanley because he is low-class motivates him to destroy her. He overhears Blanche describe him to Stella as "sub-human—something not quite to the stage of humanity yet!" Soon after this Stanley begins to dig up dirt about Blanche to use against her. He sees himself as a type of public avenger out to expose her hypocrisy and save men like Mitch from her snares. Stanley also feels Blanche is encouraging Stella to look down on him. Stanley succeeds in ripping away Blanche's mask of superiority. However, in the process, he confirms Blanche's view of him as no better than an animal, which Williams emphasizes by using "inhuman jungle voices" and "lurid reflections" when Stanley rapes her.

Passion and Sexuality

The sexuality of characters in the play reflects the way they view the world. Blanche's sexual exploits, particularly with very young men, are a way for her to escape the reality of her husband's suicide and the role she played in it and to find comfort from the trauma she has experienced as a result. Her sexual history, which includes many encounters "with strangers," is also something she feels she must conceal in order to find a husband.

Stanley exudes a confident animal sexuality that binds him to his wife, Stella. But he also uses sexuality as a weapon, raping Blanche in order to dominate her. Stella's deep sexual bond with Stanley is double-edged. It is an expression of her passion for him. But the need to fulfill that sexual passion for Stanley is one of the factors that causes her to overlook Stanley's rape of her sister.

The play also explores the dangers of hiding one's true sexual nature in a sexually repressive culture. The way Blanche's young husband Allan dies is significant. During the time the play was written, homosexuality was often viewed as immoral, forcing many homosexuals to hide their true sexual identity for fear of social rejection and physical violence. Blanche's disgust at her husband's homosexual behavior, for example, causes his suicide. Later Blanche herself, like many women, faces a double standard regarding her sexuality. Women could either be "decent," meaning they didn't sleep around, or they could be condemned as "loose" if they did. Blanche in particular feels torn between these two categories, trying to present herself as "decent" to find a new husband, while hiding her sexually promiscuous behavior. When Mitch finds out the truth about Blanche's sex life, he rejects her primarily because she has lied to him but also as "not being clean enough" to marry and take home to his mother.

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