Petter Avén's Reviews > A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
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's review
Sep 04, 2012

liked it

I had no particular impressions of this play prior to reading it. As with other works of literature that I know virtually nothing about, this made me somewhat cautious. However, my general liking for plays in the theater served to raise my expectations somewhat, even though “Streetcar” to my mind did not carry the same historically literary import as “Othello”. In one interesting aspect my reading experience of “Streetcar” turned out to be very similar to the one I had when reading “Othello”; knowing they were plays my mind kept switching between images of theater actors performing on stage and images of real people interacting. The real life interaction images came to me quite a bit easier with “Streetcar” because the language used by the characters there is in line with how people actually talk, whereas the language in “Othello” primarily promoted images of the stage play. I found “Streetcar” an easy read.

The most important features of “Streetcar” are carried by the characters. There are three main aspects to them; gender, class and identity, who have their roots in American history and culture. The most important characters’ past and heritage are explained as the story progresses, but it helps if the reader possesses some additional knowledge so he or she can see Stella, Blanche and Stanley as part of a bigger picture. That way the people of “Streetcar” become representatives of the change that American society has gone through in the play’s setting. After all, I cannot help but think that the characters in some regards are rather stereotypical, but this is not necessarily a bad thing in a play with a message.

Because the traits attributed as female in a sense decide the ones attributed as male, it is only fair to begin with an analysis of the women of “Streetcar”. Stella and Blanche are in many ways so different that it is very hard to believe that they are actually sisters, but they both possess traits that are defined as decidedly female. The culture they live in makes them economically dependent on the goodwill of men. Neither can afford to support herself, and this is very apparent both in the present day of the setting and in their past experiences. Their aristocratic upbringing on a plantation, like true Southern belles, did little to prepare them for an independent lifestyle. Stella consciously decided to leave that life behind and managed to find a reasonably stable life with Stanley, whom she loves, and she now shares his working class values. She accepts her role of housewife in accordance with the demands of society at that time. Blanche, on the other hand, has never been able to find a safe haven for herself. She was married briefly to a man named Allan Grey who committed suicide when his affair with another man was exposed. After this traumatizing experience Blanche was forced to rely on the support of one man after another, as a virtual prostitute. Her meager salary as a teacher could never suffice to support the kind of lifestyle she craves. Blanche clings desperately to the ideals of a bygone era because her identity is so firmly rooted there and she is unable to redefine herself.

Stella and Blanche both have very womanly characteristics, but ones that differ markedly. Stella is a stoic, open-minded and forgiving person. She loves and supports her husband Stanley in spite of his violent nature and readily accepts his apology when he asks for it, very much like a true Christian Madonna. Blanche is judgmental, delusional, excitable in the extreme, and set in traditional ideals which include an aristocratic lifestyle and the use of her female charms to win the support of men.
The men in Streetcar are working class Americans; stereotypically their jobs, prospects, identities, attitudes, interests, levels of education and refinement all place them there. Stanley is very much the alpha male among his friends. This is particularly marked by his dominating behavior, which often spills over in acts of violence when he drinks during poker nights. His marriage to formerly aristocratic Stella reinforces his position further. Stanley is of Polish ancestry, but he thinks of himself as an American and served in the US Army during the Second World War. Blanche’s pointing out his origin in a derogatory fashion therefore cuts deep.

The clash between classes, genders and identity is primarily fought between Blanche and Stanley, with Stella eventually being forced to take sides. It is difficult to imagine more different people living under the same roof, and it forces them to confront not only each other but themselves, too. Carried to Stanley and Stella’s home by a streetcar symbolically named Desire, Blanche’s stay proves to be a watershed in their lives; their desires are put to the test. Not surprisingly, it is Blanche who cracks first when her past finally catches up with her. Blanche’s constant lies and hysterical outbursts make the people around her lose patience and turn their backs on her. Mitch, the man who was her chance for a stable relationship, and then Stanley in turn confront Blanche by exposing her lies to her face, driving her over the edge. Blanche threatens Stanley with a broken bottle when they are both drunk, and she is subsequently raped. There is, if you look for it, symbolism in this brutality taking place the same night that Stanley becomes a father: The strong, working man of the present subjugates the hysterical, aristocratic woman of the past, and at the same time he continues his bloodline with a similarly aristocratic woman who has chosen his way of life. The primal Alpha male has triumphed over decadent refinement. The final seal on the struggle is put when Stella chooses not to believe Blanche’s account of what happened and agrees to have her sister institutionalized in a mental hospital. Stella loves Stanley too much, and their life and future together, to allow herself to believe Blanche. This distraught woman’s final words, directed to the doctor, gives a wealth of insight into her psyche: “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

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