Literary Shelf

Feminine Sensibility in Tennessee Williams'

A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams has dragged some hidden subjects into limelight. An arch observer, as any true artist must be, he selected from an enormous store of impressions of people and presented them through synthesis of his art. He often shocks his audience by his themes like lynching, political chicanery, rape, incest, nymphomania, homosexuality, promiscuity, drug addiction, alcoholism, castration, impotence and cannibalism. He wrote plays that clearly reflected his own tensions and those of the times in which he was living.

Elia Kazan observes that it is,

"a message from the dark interior. This little twisted pathetic, confused bit of light and culture put out a cry. It is snuffed out by the crude forces of violence and this cry in the play."[1]

"Desire" is a central word in Williams's work, but not necessarily meaning lust; it is the struggle to attain, through sex, some psychological and spiritual state that is always unattainable.

Stanely Kowalski's seduction of Blanche is not merely the victory of a strong man over a coy Southern belle, it is the representation of William's conviction that the meek shall not inherit the earth.

Blanche Dubois, is a woman struggling to escape the faults of her past and secure a new life for herself. Her many mistakes have turned her life upside down and created a host of problems for her to deal with. To help her deal with the extreme direness of her existence, Blanche often creates fantasies to make her life seem more stable than it actually is. She is a woman of illusions who attempts to hide the sordid details of her own past, including the suicide of her young husband, her attendant nymphomania, alcoholism from herself and from others. Throughout the play, Blanche subdues the demons of her past by deceiving herself and those around her into thinking that they don't exist. This method of coping with her problems make them even more disastrous when she is finally forced to face them. 

She wants to escape from her past and existing present, so she seeks shelter in her sister's home. In order to forget the realities, she moves to fantasy. She views the ugly side of the society, totally different from her old south and Stanley is the representative of it. She wants to fight for Stella's existence and boldly expresses her views against Stanley. She sinks deeper into her alienated life and becomes a symbol of an existentially alienated soul. Stanley represents violence, vulgarity, animality, cruelty, brutality, bestiality and crudeness. He represents masculine virility, rationality, body and desire. He destroys Blanche who represents who represents beauty, culture, refinement, sensibility, sensitivity, decline, death, spirit and imbalance.
Stanley and Blanche have come from two different worlds, with different ways of life, different attitudes and different background. Stanley loves bright coloured silks, coloured lights, naked bulb, cold shower, whereas Blanche loves whites and pastels, paper lantern, candle, hot baths, etc. The central problem in the world of Streetcar is an inability to communicate.
People like Stanley do not only exist in society, but they also get due amount of respect. But Blanche is thrown out because she is the weaker one. Now she is once again dependent on the kindness of strangers and will be taken for granted according to her desires.
Blanche loved and married a boy when she was just sixteen. She discovered that he was homosexual and showed her disgust. The boy stuck the revolver into his mouth, and fired. And this way Blanche became responsible for Allan's death. In order to relieve and compensate her guilt, alienation, tension and anxiety, she moves to young men like soldiers, a seventeen year old high school boy and a paperboy. In order to keep herself alive, she substitutes her alienation with sex. She is frustrated and in order to relieve herself, she takes hot baths.

"This is one way of explaining her turning to a seventeen-year-old boy for an affair in Laurel after her many intimacies with men at the Hotel Flamingo: in turning to a boy, she was attempting to return to her own youth when, with Allan, she made the discovery- love. All at once and much, much too completely."[2]

Her very schizophrenia is the result of aspiring to respectability and desire, an attempt to live in the world of animal passion and at the same time of gentlemen callers and the courteously well behaved. These two modes clash throughout the play, especially in Blanche's dialogues with Stanley, where heavy sexual suggestiveness is mixed with Blanche's language of high decorousness. Society cannot tolerate Blanche as a single woman. When she tries to establish social relations through sex, she becomes notorious as a prostitute and when she tries to achieve social respectability through marriage, nobody accepts her, which in turn creates more depression and more suppression.

In A Street Car Named Desire, Stanely Kowalski's seduction of Blanche is not merely the victory of a strong man over a coy Southern belle, it is the representation of William's conviction that the meek shall not inherit the earth

Blanche is a character whose duality becomes apparent as the play progresses. This duality is derived from a conflict between sexual longing and the spiritual side of her nature in a world that sees the two as separate, when in fact they are combined in every person.

Main theme of the play is related to Blanche who is lonely, insecure and unstable in sex relationship. The theme unfold Blanche's willingness for a new relationship. Blanche says:

"There is so much confusion in the world thank you for being so kind: I need kindness now."[3]

Blanche's confrontation with reality has come with Mitch. Blanche's reality is her sordid past, her crumbling present and her abysmal future with its dark pools of nothingness. Her last ditch effort to make a permanent relationship or marriage with Mitch comes to nought. When he realises that she has been footloose, he too wants a physical relationship with her, but Blanche does not want this intimacy. She wants marriage and he believes that her soiled character disqualifies her from being his wife. His righteousness, the fact that she cannot find a man to be her husband, is a glaring truth which hurts Blanche tremendously. She drinks to allay, to mollify this hurt.
Replete with allegory, symbolisim, poetic language, characterisation both rich and varied with, situations of dramatic significance, Street Car Named Desire won the hearts of American audiences.
Blanche is no ordinary American woman of her times. She is a highstrung neurotic, her mind tired and depressed, her slight physique bowed with her fast living. If we are to find excuses or explanations for her behaviour we have it in her own words:

"Death - I used to sit here and she used to sit over there and death was as close as you are..... We didn't dare even admit we had ever heard of it."[4]

The plot which unravels Blanche's downfall is simplistic. It is replete with her past revealed to us in patches which keeps the tempo apace. The present is Blanche's renewal of her love for her sister Stella. 

The protagonist Blanche is revealed to us piecemeal and this forms the plot. Interaction, both violent and emotional, is the other facet of plot and this takes place effectively between Blanche, Stella, Stanley and Mitch. To present his plot in a better light, Williams incorporates symbolism and theatrics.
Blanche's memories, inner life emotions, are a real factor. We cannot really understand her behaviour unless we see the effect of her past on her present behaviour. The setting, lighting, props, costumes, sound effects and music, alongwith the play's dominant symbols the bath and the light bulb, provide direct access to private lives of characters.
The lyrical quality of this play is important in the case of both characters and plot. Blanche underlines her manor born superiority by her cultural references. She says that the Latin Quarter reminds her of a horror story by Edgar Allan Poe. She recognises that the lines of Mitch's cigarette case belongs to a sonnet by Mr. Browning. She has obviously taught American literature, since she mentions Poe,  Hawthrone and Whitman. She calls the newspaper boy a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights and Mitch her Rosenkavalier, Armand and Samson.

With its lurid, pulpy, and melodramatic story, A Streetcar Named Desire has always been a tempting targets for critics. But in beautifully poetic language, the play raises certain timeless themes, including the search for love, the powerful and destructive force of sexuality, and the centrality of romance and imagination to give life meaning in a world of brute facts.

Blanche's speech is distinguished not merely by her cultural references. She alone uses correct grammar and varied syntax. Her vocabulary contains such Latinisms as 'heterogeneous', 'absconding', 'judicial' and 'recriminations'.

Tennessee Williams has visualised the protagonist Blanche in the light of a soft moth-like creature to such perfection that her destruction is inevitable. Stanley is her antithesis and he destroys her completely, physically and morally. We are left with immense compassion for the woman and understanding for Stanley; for, virility is explicit in every fibre of his being and to destroy Blanche is to prove himself.
William's Blanche and O'Neill's Anna are bound by social tenets and hence feign innocence inspite of having led a promiscuous life earlier. They seek acceptance within the established ethical code. Eva Figes's understanding of women also speaks of the conditions that mould the behaviour of women like Blanche and Anna. She feels that women have been largely man-made, and even today numerous psychological studies have revealed that women and girls are still more dependent on social approval than men.

Blanche appears on the stage before anyone has a chance to say anything about her. Yet, the very first words she utters begin the process of understanding her. She says, 

"They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries......and get off at- Elysian Fields!"[5]

Having lost the old family plantation, Belle Reve to the "epic fornications" of the male members of her family, she takes refuge in an early marriage to a boy of delicacy and refinement, a poet called Allan Grey. The love knot turns catastrophic with Blanche's sudden discovery and confrontation of Allan's homosexuality. This precipitates his suicide. Left alone, she seeks solace in fleeting contacts with strangers which give her the kind of reputation that ultimately results in her losing her job as a schoolteacher. Worn out, she now looks for refuge in her sister Stella's home. All through the play, we witness the struggle for supremacy between the uncouth yet sexually attractive Stanley and a sensitive yet promiscuous Blanche.
Blanche was deeply devoted to her husband but their relationship was stifled before it could bloom. The frustration thus resulting, coupled with the guilt for the part she played in Allan's death, lead to her present neurotic state. She had been responsible for humiliating and rejecting her husband at the Moon Lake Casino which prompted him to shoot himself. Her guilt now follows her like a ghost. She is unable to forgive herself for her failure to be compassionate. Her failure to offer her husband a sympathetic maternal sanction makes young Blanche stand condemned in her own eyes.

Blanche's sexuality is a product of her moth-like nature. Like a moth, she is a fragile, frivolous creature readily dazzled into destruction. Her sexual excesses are a kind of penance she inflicts upon herself to expiate the crime of cruelty she had committed towards her husband. She embraces, out of deep self-hatred, the very behaviour she abhors. By giving momentary solace to men, she seeks to give them the understanding she had once withdrawn from Allan.

Blanche hops from one love to another in search of intensity and excitement which a new love brings. A new conquest is always a boost to her vanity. Besides, it keeps her occupied leaving no time to ponder over the pitiful state of her emotional life.

Blanche's final tragic collapse comes when Stanley rapes her. Her spirit breaks and she accepts her fate. The play ends as Blanche is led away by a doctor who takes her to a mental asylum.


  1. Elia Kazan, Notebook for A Streetcar Named Desire, Directing the play, ed. Toby Cole & Helen Krich, Chinoy, New York: 1953,p.308
  2. Tennessee Williams', A Streetcar Named Desire, Eight Plays, Garden City, New York: Nelson Doubleday, 1979, p.158
  3. Tennessee Williams', A Streetcar Named Desire: Best American Plays, Third series Ed. by John Gassner,1945,p.40.
  4. Ibid. p. 86.
  5. Ibid. p.7.  


More by :  Pronita Mukherjee

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 3389      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.