The play presents an analysis of the postwar American society and how the attitudes and institutions at the time restricted the lives of women. The author uses the dependence of Stella and Blanche on men to depict and evaluate how women were treated by men during the early twentieth-century transition from the traditional South to a New South. The following themes help to critique the play.
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Gender and Sexuality
Tennessee Williams’ play reflects on life in its time, but its themes are timeless. The theme of sexual desire, as suggested by the title, is preeminent in the play. The author explores the theme in a post-war American context. Rea (6) explains, “The sexual passion holding Stanley and Stella together is colored by Stanley’s belief that a man should be dominant, and by Stella’s willingness to be dominated.” Although much has changed since the 1940s, gender concerns such as these still exist, especially regarding what men expect of women. Literature scholars suggest that the playwright, a homosexual man, created Blanche to indulge in inventive transvestitism, depicting a debauched heterosexual woman because homosexuality was prohibited in America during that time. However, the author expresses his perspective of sexual desire and passion, demonstrating it as “an unstoppable force that will take its victim along a path to self-destruction as surely as a streetcar” (Rea 11).
The play sharply critiques how the attitudes and institutions of postwar America restricted the lives of women. He depicts women’s dependence on men through Stella and Blanche to expose the way women in the early twentieth century America lacked rights and freedom, especially in the South. Both Stella and Blanche depend on male companionship for their happiness, sustenance, and self-image. However, Blanche recognizes the suffering her sister Stella endures in her marriage to Stanley. Through this, Blanche knows her sister could be better off without him. However, the alternative proposed by Blanche still involves total dependence on men—asking for financial support from Shep Huntleigh. Nevertheless, Stella decides to continue living with Stanley, choosing to believe in a man and rely on love instead of her sister. This, however, is not William’s criticism of Stella. Instead, he demonstrates clearly that she sees a more secure future in Stanley than Blanche.
The theme of gender and sexuality in the play is also described by Costa (290), stating, “Stanley gives his wife the lowdown on her big sister who, after a disastrous marriage with a homosexual, has devoted her nights to casual sex.” Like most of the other women during that time, Blanche depends on men for protection, and this is seen throughout the play. For example, in her conversation with a medic at a mental hospital, she shows how she depends on other people’s kindness. In the past, she had sexual freedom but recognizes that the freedom isolates her from virtuous behavior that Southern women are expected to follow. She fears rejection, and the playwright shows this when Mitch discovers her past love affairs. “By rejecting Blanche and claiming that she is not the ideal woman he naively thought she was, Mitch draws attention to the discrepancy between how women really behaved and what type of behavior was publicly expected of them by society at large” (Comanelea 7).
Blanche knows she needs a man in her life to escape destitution, and once she sees the opportunity to marry Mitch, she pursues it. However, men have exploited Blanche’s sexuality over the years, especially during her teenage years, leaving her with an undesirable reputation. As a result, she has become an unattractive prospect for marriage, but Blanche’s only chance for survival is marriage due to her destitution. Stanley’s differences with Blanche cause him to gossip about her past promiscuous life, and when Mitch hears it, he rejects her. Although she is upset by the rejection, Blanche immediately turns her attention to another man—Shep Huntleigh— a millionaire who she believes might rescue her. Like most women in the South at that time, Blanche could not see beyond her need for men, thus this made her to lack the realistic idea of how to save herself. She fails to realize that by depending completely on men, she is on a path toward her downfall rather than her rescue because she has put her fate in other people’s hands.
Williams explores the theme of class conflict by portraying how the aristocratic families in the American South declined after losing their historical standing as America’s largest and most profitable agricultural base due to the new industrialization. During the First World War, the region started to experience a shortage of labor to work on the farms as many men from the South were drafted to the military and other defense-based industries. As a result, many landowners began relocating to urban areas because they had no labor who could work on their large tracts of land. Also, as industrialization increased between 1920 and 1950, the workforce structure changed further. More women, African Americans and immigrant laborers went to work in the new factories, which created more middle-class people. Women were also allowed to vote for the first time in 1920, which began the decline of the old tradition in the South, where men reigned over women. “In the context of this economic and cultural environment, Blanche represents the female aristocratic tradition of the Old South. Belle Reve, her family home, is typical of the plantations that were being sold off as the aristocracy bowed out to the new urbanization” (Rea 12).
Stanley alludes to the theme of social class differences when he remarks about his courtship with Stella that “When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns [Belle Reve]. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it” (Williams 121). Blanche’s family is superior because of their inherited wealth, but Stanley’s aggression triumphs over it by the end of the story. As she is taken to the mental hospital, Blanche still shows her old-fashioned manners telling the men not to get up for her. Blanche and Stella are ‘Southern Belles’, daughters of the traditional land-owning family. Their family is among the many southern families that got rich from slave labor. However, unlike Blanche, Stella is content to abandon her family’s riches to live with her husband Stanley despite his violence. Costa (299) explains that “These class issues still exist in modern society, albeit in different forms.” It is true that class conflict still exists today between people from different social classes like it is between Blanche and Stanley. These feelings help to drive on the play’s drama.
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The play’s characters are identified by their social backgrounds and their belief about social class. Blanche’s identity is based on being a cultured Southern belle from an upper social class with an appetite for finer things like poetry and art. However, her upper-class feelings cause her to clash with Stanley, who is a working-class man living in the Elysian Fields. On the other hand, Stella is happy to leave behind her upper social class to be with Stanley. According to Blanche, her sister’s decision is a big downgrade in social status, but to Stella, it is not a problem at all. Blanche continues to maintain her superiority over Stanley in terms of social class, and this stimulates him to destroy her by digging up dirt from her past and using it against her. He loathes Blanche and is committed to exposing her duplicity to save his friend Mitch from her deceptions. Another factor that pushes Stanley to destroy Blanche is his worry that she is trying to encourage Stella to despise him.
Violence and Cruelty
Cruelty and violence are evident in this play, and most of it is full of sexual passion. Stella tries to assure Blanche that she loves Stanley despite his occasional violence, explaining, “But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant” (Williams 72). This element of cruelty is also exhibited in the relationship of Steve and Eunice, suggesting that violence in marriage was common, and the female partner willingly accepted it. Blanche interprets Stella’s remark as an expression of sexual passion, stating, “What you are talking about is brutal desire—just Desire!—the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up to one old narrow street and down another” (Williams 73). This shows that violence in marriage was normal during the time that the play was set, and even Blanche, who is now opposed to domestic violence, had to go through it. However, this does not excuse Stanley’s behavior or suggest that women brought the violence to themselves.
Williams tries to demonstrate that when combined with desire and passion, a cycle of violence is difficult to break. According to Blanche, the only inexcusable crime is deliberate cruelty, which is Stanley’s specialty. His cruelty is evident throughout the play in the way he treats his wife Stela and sister-in-law Blanche. He mercilessly attacks Blanche, an already-beaten antagonist, by airing her dirty laundry in public. On the other hand, Blanche is deceitful, but she does not lie out of spite. Therefore, she is unintentionally cruel. She often lies in an unwise effort to please. There is plenty of cruelty throughout the play, from Stanley’s unimpeded and deliberate malice to Blanche’s objective treacheries. Williams’ plays demonstrate various ways a person can hurt someone, with some being worse than others.
Throughout the play, Stanley is portrayed to be cruel towards Blanche, but this is in part because she dislikes the way he treats her sister. Costa (314) refers to this scene, explaining, “Stanley orders the sisters to be quiet and turns off Blanche’s radio. She turns it on again, and Stanley throws it out of the window. Stella rushes at him, and he hits her.” This confirms Stanley’s violence towards her wife and how common domestic violence was during that time. The masculinity displayed by Stanley is connected to the indication of a barbaric, belligerent, physical force, as well as erotic lust. The play frequently emphasizes his brute strength, as he aggressively asserts his dominance with violence and loud actions. Even the way he dresses is forceful: he often wears clothes with bright and striking colors. Stanley’s manliness has a deep connection to the “sub-human:” he described by the author as a “richly feathered bird among hens” and a “gaudy seed-bearer.” Williams places much emphasis on Stanley’s body, showing him strip off his shirt frequently in disconcertment towards Blanche, preventing him from spending time in the bathroom. The violence and cruelty that Stanley asserts through his masculinity are physical and psychological. Physically, he roars at Stella like an animal and forces himself onto Blanche. Psychologically, Stanley investigates the sordid past of Blanche and exposes it to others, for example, Mitch, who, as a result, discards the prospects of marrying her. This, in part, affirms his position as the household’s head and the alpha male.
The play presents an interesting story of two sisters, Stella and Blanche, and Stella’s husband, Stanley, and connects it to the larger issue of men’s dominance and mistreatment of women and the women’s dependence on men in postwar America. The paper critiques the play by exploring some of the major themes such as class conflict, gender and sexuality, and violence and cruelty. These themes help to depict the reality of women in the early twentieth century and how much has changed today.
Comanelea, Raluca. “Shifting Shapes in Play and Performance: Blanche DuBois, from Witchy Female to Marginalized Other.” Rocky Mountain Review, vol. 74, no. 1, spring 2020, pp. 9+. Gale Literature Resource Center, Web.
Costa, Francisco. “There Was Something Different about the Boy”: Queer Subversion in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Interactions 23.1-2 (2014): 209-326. Gale Literature Resource Center, Web.
Rea, Robert. “Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire: A Global Perspective.” South: A Scholarly Journal, vol. 49, no. 2, spring 2017, pp. 187+. Gale Literature Resource Center, Web.
Williams, Tennessee. A streetcar named desire. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.