Streetcar Named Desire is a stage play with elements of tragedy and
pathos. After tryout productions performed in Boston, Philadelphia, and
New Haven, Conn., the play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New
York City on December 3, 1947, and closed on December 17, 1949, after 855
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.
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.
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.
Blanche’s down-to-earth sister who seems satisfied with her life as the
wife of a New Orleans factory worker.
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.
Stanley and Blanche’s upstairs neighbor and landlady.
Poker partner of Stanley and husband of Eunice.
Hispanic Poker partner of Stanley.
Allen Grey: Deceased
husband of Blanche. His homosexual affair and suicide deeply scarred Blanche.
Collector for The Evening Star newspaper.
Negro Woman Mexican Woman Shep Huntleigh: Imaginary
beau of Blanche.
Physician and nurse from a mental hospital.
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.
conversations are pruned of irrelevancy. Blanche’s educated speech and
literary allusions contrast with Stanley’s down-to-earth language and crude—but
often effective and amusing—imagery. The dialogue is rich in tropes, including
the commonplace cliches of Stanley and the literary allusions and quotations
Theme 1The 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 2The 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 3The 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.
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 5All 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.
climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel,
can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to
resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting
event in a series of events. The climax of A Streetcar Named Desire
occurs, according to both definitions, when Stanley rapes Blanche. This
brutal act marks the completion of her mental deterioration, pushing her
over the edge from sanity to madness.
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 called Elysium 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
Belle Reve: Name
of Blanche's family home in Mississippi. It represents the "beautiful dream"
(the meaning of Belle Rêve in French) that Blanche seeks but
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.
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.
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.
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.
English name meaning stone field. Thus, it is possible he represents
a cemetery for Blanche. Stanislaus was 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,
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.
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.
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.
Nights: Collection of stories from Arabia, India, Persia, and Egypt
entitled The One Thousand and One Nights (familiarly knows as the
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.
Blanche addresses Mitch this way when he brings her a bouquet of roses.
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,
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).
sarcastically refers to Blanche as "the queen of the Nile" in response
to her pretensions to elegance.
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
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.
. Study Questions and Essay
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?
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.
an essay focusing on how the roles of males and females in American society
changed between 1947, the year A Streetcar Named Desire was published
and performed, and the present.
is the most admirable character in the play?
on the significance of the following quotations from the play:
got to keep hold of myself.” (Blanche, after arriving in the Kowalski apartment)
should not be played in a house with women.” (Mitch, at the card game)
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?