Tennessee Williams Essay, Research Paper
Tennessee Williams, an American playwright, has been known as the most prominent American southern dramatist. He won his first Pulitzer Prize with Streetcar Named Desire. In this play, Williams shows the need for belief in human value against the natural realistic world. He uses symbols to develop the characters and theme of illusion verses reality within Streetcar Named Desire. The two main characters are Blanche DuBois, an aristocrat southern belle, and Stanley Kowalski the “gaudy seed-bearer.” Blanche lives in the superficial world she has made for herself while Stanley lives in the harsh realistic world. The confrontation between Blanche and Stanley is shown throughout the play and is so severe that one must be destroyed.
Williams uses specific names to describe his characters. The name Blanche comes from a French word meaning white and her last name Dubois meaning woods. This corresponds with Blanches character because she uses the French language to charm Mitch and to seem more intelligent. White being the color of purity suggests that she is pure and innocent although it will soon be shown that this is an illusion that she has engrossed in. She has come from Belle Reve, also of French descent meaning a beautiful dream, which is the plantation where she and Stella grew up. She has lost the plantation and in a since she has lost the dream she once had. The arrival at Stella’s is her last hope to recapture this dream.
She is described as wearing white and having a moth like appearance. In literature a moth represents soul. So it is possible to see her entire voyage as the journey of her soul. She describes her voyage: “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian fields
(Williams 15). If one investigates Blanches past one can truly understand what this quotation symbolizes. Blanche left her home to join her sister, because her life was a miserable wreck in her former place of residence. She admits, at one point in the story, that “after the death of Allen (her husband) intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with”(Williams 118). She had sexual relations with anyone who would agree to it. This is the first step in her voyage – “Desire.” She said that she was forced into this situation because death was immanent and “The opposite (of death) is desire”(Williams 120). She escaped death in her use of desire. However, she could not escape “death “ for long. She was a teacher at a high school, and at one point she had intimacies with a seventeen-year-old student. The issue was not concealed for long. The revilement of this caused her to be fired and destroyed her image. She was basically banned from Laurel and sent on her next journey – “Cemeteries.” Her final destination was Elysian Fields. Elysian Fields are the mythical resting-places of the gods. This is the place of the living dead. Blanche came to Elysian Fields to forget her horrible past, searching in her soul to have a fresh start in life.
Blanche has essentially removed herself from the reality of her life. She has made up this illusionary world that she now lives in. The death of her husband has haunted her throughout her life and the loss of Belle Reve was in a sense a loss of her social status.
Since her arrival in Elysian Fields she has buried her past by her illusion of what should be. She has made up a good portion of her past for the majority of the play. She doesn’t neglect telling her past but she only offers part of her history in fear that this is her last hope of survival. Her encounters with Mitch give her hope and she uses her sense of
innocence to hold on to him. Stanley, the investigative realist, crushes her hope by revealing, to Mitch, the evidence he has found on her. During scene nine when Mitch confronts Blanche with the reality of her life she says “ I don’t realism. I want magic! … I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!” (Williams 117). This is certainly clear evidence that she is afraid of reality and goes “back to her own delusions about herself” (Falk 96).
Blanche is shown continuously taking long, hot baths. She says they help her calm her nerves. In the play she is seen saying “Here I am, all freshly bathed and scented, and feeling like a brand new human being!“ (Williams 37). Actually these bath scenes symbolize two things. First she subconsciously hopes to cleanse her sins away. The baths are a way to purify her from the past. She feels that because of her inability to help her husband she is the cause of his suicide. Secondly “… they make her squeal with pleasure like a child…” (Bedient 50). This suggests her desire to be young again. She lies to Mitch about her age and later says a woman must create little illusions. This then goes back to the illusionary world she has made for herself.
Although Blanche does not admit to drinking often, “No, I – rarely touch it.”(Williams 30) she does. This is a clear example of Blanche lying to herself and others because of her desire to be something other than what she really is. She pours it into her bottomless pit of emptiness. She uses the alcohol to drown out the horrifying sound of the music heard when her husband shoot himself.
Symbolism is shown in various ways. Williams uses astrological signs to emphasize the characteristics of his characters. Blanche, born under the Sign of Virgo, shows many
of its traits. Virgos are “intellectual, critical, fussy, shrewd, logical, methodical, practical, and has teaching ability. They can lack confidence and need constant reassurance“(signs in detail: Virgo). This coincides with Blanche because she use to be an English teacher but was fired. Furthermore, when first entering he apartment she acts in a very critical manner; “Oh, I’m not going to be hypocritical, I’m going to be honestly critical about it…Only Mr. Edgar Allen Poe! – Could do it justice… Why didn’t you tell me… that you had to live in these conditions” (Williams 20). Blanche is also a character that needs reassurance about her looks. She mentions to her sister, Stella, that she hasn’t put on an ounce in ten years and asks about her appearance. However, she then criticizes her sister by telling her to watch her hips and maybe do something about her hair, not knowing that she is pregnant. Blanche can be described as the ‘perfect’ Virgo if compared to its traditional traits.
The name Stanley Kowalski is just that, Stanley Kowalski. It has no significance; it’s just an ordinary name. Williams uses this name because it stands as reality. Stanley is the brutal reality of the play. He wants nothing but truth and will destroy anything other than that. According to Harris “Stanley destroys Blanche when he forces her to face “the essential and inescapable reality of things”(85). Williams images are juxtaposed with Stanley’s “pitiless and probing realism” (Kernan 18) and his threatening “world of facts” (Corrigan 55) with Blanches fantasies.
Williams shows how Stanley relates to his astrological sign, which is Capricorn, otherwise known as the goat, throughout the play. On the positive side, his reasoning ability is outstanding. He is socially oriented; always with his poker pals either playing
poker, bowling or in the corner pub. He is willing to work hard for what he wants. He is a salesman and has to travel a lot. As with Capricorns, Stanley is very untrusting and often investigative. When he hears of Belle Reve being lost he wants to examine Blanches belongings and the bank papers. His interests are only in the Napoleonic Code (he loses money). He is a domineering person and animalistic in his ways. He wants what is his and has been referred to as the “gaudy seed-bearer.“
Stanley’s animalistic behavior is seen from the very start of the play. He is the “king” of his thrown. He strives for power and pride. What’s his is his and he makes sure of that. He is demanding and expects things be the way they ought to be in his mind. Stanley feels “sex equals domination” (Kazan 27). He relates sex with violence. This is seen when he becomes violent with Stella. He yells and hits her but when she leaves he calls for her like a lost child. They then reunite and have sexual relations. Because he feels Blanche has invaded his Kingdom the only way he knows how to reclaim it is by raping her. This sexual drive of his is not only apparent with women but also with his male friends though it is seen in a different way. He dominates his friends by winning. He is the captain of the bowling team and obsessed with poker games.
The symbolism of music plays a key part in the play. The music describes a sense of death and all of the bad things Blanche has encountered. It is heard when the reality of Blanches life is staring her in the face. In fact at one point it says of Blanche that “The music is in her mind.” The blue piano playing Varsouviana music represents Blanches past. It is heard when as she explains the death of her husband. The Varsouviana polka was playing when she told her husband what a disgrace he was and when he committed
suicide. Because she blames herself for her husband’s death the music symbolizes everything bad that has happened to her. The music is apparent when she is recounting the deaths of her family at Belle Reve. The music also symbolizes bad things to come. It is heard when Stanley gives her a bus ticket to go home (i.e. back to cemeteries) and when Mitch confronts her with her past. The scenes that the music is most apparent are ten and eleven. In scene ten the music is heard when Stanley is around the corner from the apartment. Because we hear the music before he is even in the apartment, Williams is setting up the scene to end in some kind of tragedy. The result will be the raping of Blanche by Stanley. In scene eleven the music is apparent just before and during the arrival of the doctor and the matron. It is heard fading away as Blanche is escorted to the mental institution. The music is the reality of Blanches life. A reality that she has used alcohol and bathing to try and rid of it.
Williams correlates the lighting with Blanche in the play. To Blanche the light represents reality, the exact thing she is trying to escape. She prefers to live in a dim, semi-dark illusionary world. Because of Blanches sensitivity to her aging looks she does not like to be seen in the bright light. An example of this is when Mitch and her are dating she only saw him at night. When Blanches notices the naked light bulb in Stanley and Stella’s room she buys a delicate Chinese lantern to soften the glare. The lantern becomes a symbol of her fragileness and can be easily destroyed, as can Blanche. When Mitch and, later, Stanley tear the lantern from the light bulb, it is as if they are attacking Blanche herself and destroying her world of illusion.
Williams also uses paper to symbolize Blanche. Like the piece of paper she carries,
Blanche has been fragmented, severed, torn from one world (Belle Reve) and slipped into another (Stanley’s New Orleans) (Kolin 456). Her life has been that of paper. Her trunk consists of poems from her dead husband and documents on Belle Reve. Before arriving at Stella’s, she sends her a telegram. She is seen putting a paper lantern over the light bulb, writing on tissue paper to Shep, and singing of paper moons. Ironically while she is singing of paper moons Stanley is preparing to give her walking papers out of Elysian Fields. To some, her life has been summed up by documents.
Williams uses many different actions in the play to characterize his characters. First the flirtatiousness of Blanche shows how she strives to be the center of attention. Her promiscuous nature with young men has been a means of forgiveness to her. She is seen flirting with Stanley, whom sees this as a threat. This action of hers causes him to look deeper into what she is really about. When the men are having a poker party she is seen dressing behind the curtain but with light shinning on her. The sudden eruptions of challenge during the poker parties show the need to prove their manliness, mainly Stanley’s manhood. The most prominent action in the play is the rape. The rape is the only way Stanley knows how to destroy Blanche He uses his dominance to proclaim what is his. By doing this he feels he has won. In the last scene when Blanche is being taken away the men are playing seven card stud and ironically Stanley is winning.
The play “A Streetcar Named Desire” is one that uses symbolism to help explain the true meaning of its characters. There were two main characters Stanley and Blanche whose perceptions of life were merely at conflict with one another. The various actions and the symbolic nature of Stanley and Blanche shows how their conflict could only be
resolved in one way, the elimination of one or the other. Williams was once quoted saying “ with out my symbols I might still be employed by the International Shoe Co. in St. Louis,” and that, “art is made out of symbols the way our body is made out of vital tissue,” any “play that is more of a dramatic poem than a play is bound to rest on metaphorical ways of expression.” (Adler 29).
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