A Streetcar Named Desire
author: Tennessee Williams
type of work: Play
time and place written: Late 1940s, New Orleans
date of first publication: 1947
setting (time): 1940s
setting (place): New Orleans, Louisiana
protagonist: Blanche DuBois
major conflict: Blanche DuBois, an aging Southern debutante, arrives at her sister’s home in New Orleans hoping to start a new life after losing her ancestral mansion, her job, and her reputation in her hometown of Laurel, Mississippi. Blanche’s brother-in-law, a macho working-class guy named Stanley Kowalski, is so filled with class resentment that he seeks to destroy Blanche’s character in New Orleans as well. His cruelty, combined with Blanche’s fragile, insecure personality, leaves her mentally detached from reality by the play’s end.
themes: Fantasy’s inability to overcome reality; the relationship between sex and death; dependence on men
Blanche DuBois, a schoolteacher from Laurel, Mississippi, arrives at the New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella Kowalski. Despite the fact that Blanche seems to have fallen out of close contact with Stella, she intends to stay at Stella’s apartment for an unspecified but likely lengthy period of time, given the large trunk she has with her. Blanche tells Stella that she lost Belle Reve, their ancestral home, following the death of all their remaining relatives. She also mentions that she has been given a leave of absence from her teaching position because of her bad nerves.
Though Blanche does not seem to have enough money to afford a hotel, she is disdainful of the cramped quarters of the Kowalskis’ two-room apartment and of the apartment’s location in a noisy, diverse, working-class neighborhood. Blanche’s social condescension wins her the instant dislike of Stella’s husband, an auto-parts supply man of Polish descent named Stanley Kowalski. It is clear that Stella was happy to leave behind her the social pretensions of her background in exchange for the sexual gratification she gets from her husband; she even is pregnant with his baby. Stanley immediately distrusts Blanche to the extent that he suspects her of having cheated Stella out of her share of the family inheritance. In the process of defending herself to Stanley, Blanche reveals that Belle Reve was lost due to a foreclosed mortgage, a disclosure that signifies the dire nature of Blanche’s financial circumstances. Blanche’s heavy drinking, which she attempts to conceal from her sister and brother-in-law, is another sign that all is not well with Blanche.
The unhappiness that accompanies the animal magnetism of Stella and Stanley’s marriage reveals itself when Stanley hosts a drunken poker game with his male friends at the apartment. Blanche gets under Stanley’s skin, especially when she starts to win the affections of his close friend Mitch. After Mitch has been absent for a while, speaking with Blanche in the bedroom, Stanley erupts, storms into the bedroom, and throws the radio out of the window. When Stella yells at Stanley and defends Blanche, Stanley beats her. The men pull him off, the poker game breaks up, and Blanche and Stella escape to their upstairs neighbor Eunice’s apartment. A short while later, Stanley is remorseful and cries up to Stella to forgive him. To Blanche’s alarm, Stella returns to Stanley and embraces him passionately. Mitch meets Blanche outside of the Kowalski flat and comforts her in her distress.
The next day, Blanche tries to convince Stella to leave Stanley for a better man whose social status equals Stella’s. Blanche suggests that she and Stella contact a millionaire named Shep Huntleigh for help escaping from New Orleans; when Stella laughs at her, Blanche reveals that she is completely broke. Stanley walks in as Blanche is making fun of him and secretly overhears Blanche and Stella’s conversation. Later, he threatens Blanche with hints that he has heard rumors of her disreputable past. She is visibly dismayed.
While Blanche is alone in the apartment one evening, waiting for Mitch to pick her up for a date, a teenage boy comes by to collect money for the newspaper. Blanche doesn’t have any money for him, but she hits on him and gives him a lustful kiss. Soon after the boy departs, Mitch arrives, and they go on their date. When Blanche returns, she is exhausted and clearly has been uneasy for the entire night about the rumors Stanley mentioned earlier. In a surprisingly sincere heart-to-heart discussion with Mitch, Blanche reveals the greatest tragedy of her past. Years ago, her young husband committed suicide after she discovered and chastised him for his homosexuality. Mitch describes his own loss of a former love, and he tells Blanche that they need each other.
When the next scene begins, about one month has passed. It is the afternoon of Blanche’s birthday. Stella is preparing a dinner for Blanche, Mitch, Stanley, and herself, when Stanley comes in to tell her that he has learned news of Blanche’s sordid past. He says that after losing the DuBois mansion, Blanche moved into a fleabag motel from which she was eventually evicted because of her numerous sexual liaisons. Also, she was fired from her job as a schoolteacher because the principal discovered that she was having an affair with a teenage student. Stella is horrified to learn that Stanley has told Mitch these stories about Blanche.
The birthday dinner comes and goes, but Mitch never arrives. Stanley indicates to Blanche that he is aware of her past. For a birthday present, he gives her a one-way bus ticket back to Laurel. Stanley’s cruelty so disturbs Stella that it appears the Kowalski household is about to break up, but the onset of Stella’s labor prevents the imminent fight.
Several hours later, Blanche, drunk, sits alone in the apartment. Mitch, also drunk, arrives and repeats all he’s learned from Stanley. Eventually Blanche confesses that the stories are true, but she also reveals the need for human affection she felt after her husband’s death. Mitch tells Blanche that he can never marry her, saying she isn’t fit to live in the same house as his mother. Having learned that Blanche is not the chaste lady she pretended to be, Mitch tries to have sex with Blanche, but she forces him to leave by yelling “Fire!” to attract the attention of passersby outside.
Later, Stanley returns from the hospital to find Blanche even more drunk. She tells him that she will soon be leaving New Orleans with her former suitor Shep Huntleigh, who is now a millionaire. Stanley knows that Blanche’s story is entirely in her imagination, but he is so happy about his baby that he proposes they each celebrate their good fortune. Blanche spurns Stanley, and things grow contentious. When she tries to step past him, he refuses to move out of her way. Blanche becomes terrified to the point that she smashes a bottle on the table and threatens to smash Stanley in the face. Stanley grabs her arm and says that it’s time for the “date” they’ve had set up since Blanche’s arrival. Blanche resists, but Stanley uses his physical strength to overcome her, and he carries her to bed. The pulsing music indicates that Stanley rapes Blanche.
The next scene takes place weeks later, as Stella and her neighbor Eunice pack Blanche’s bags. Blanche is in the bath, and Stanley plays poker with his buddies in the front room. A doctor will arrive soon to take Blanche to an insane asylum, but Blanche believes she is leaving to join her millionaire. Stella confesses to Eunice that she simply cannot allow herself to believe Blanche’s assertion that Stanley raped her. When Blanche emerges from the bathroom, her deluded talk makes it clear that she has lost her grip on reality.
The doctor arrives with a nurse, and Blanche initially panics and struggles against them when they try to take her away. Stanley and his friends fight to subdue Blanche, while Eunice holds Stella back to keep her from interfering. Mitch begins to cry. Finally, the doctor approaches Blanche in a gentle manner and convinces her to leave with him. She allows him to lead her away and does not look back or say goodbye as she goes. Stella sobs with her child in her arms, and Stanley comforts her with loving words and caresses.
Blanche DuBois Stella’s older sister, who was a high school English teacher in Laurel, Mississippi, until she was forced to leave her post. Blanche is a loquacious and fragile woman around the age of thirty. After losing Belle Reve, the DuBois family home, Blanche arrives in New Orleans at the Kowalski apartment and eventually reveals that she is completely destitute. Though she has strong sexual urges and has had many lovers, she puts on the airs of a woman who has never known indignity. She avoids reality, preferring to live in her own imagination. As the play progresses, Blanche’s instability grows along with her misfortune. Stanley sees through Blanche and finds out the details of her past, destroying her relationship with his friend Mitch. Stanley also destroys what’s left of Blanche by raping her and then having her committed to an insane asylum.
Stella Kowalski Blanche’s younger sister, about twenty-five years old and of a mild disposition that visibly sets her apart from her more vulgar neighbors. Stella possesses the same timeworn aristocratic heritage as Blanche, but she jumped the sinking ship in her late teens and left Mississippi for New Orleans. There, Stella married lower-class Stanley, with whom she shares a robust sexual relationship. Stella’s union with Stanley is both animal and spiritual, violent but renewing. After Blanche’s arrival, Stella is torn between her sister and her husband. Eventually, she stands by Stanley, perhaps in part because she gives birth to his child near the play’s end. While she loves and pities Blanche, she cannot bring herself to believe Blanche’s accusations that Stanley dislikes Blanche, and she eventually dismisses Blanche’s claim that Stanley raped her. Stella’s denial of reality at the play’s end shows that she has more in common with her sister than she thinks.
Stanley Kowalski The husband of Stella. Stanley is the epitome of vital force. He is loyal to his friends, passionate to his wife, and heartlessly cruel to Blanche. With his Polish ancestry, he represents the new, heterogeneous America. He sees himself as a social leveler, and wishes to destroy Blanche’s social pretensions. Around thirty years of age, Stanley, who fought in World War II, now works as an auto-parts salesman. Practicality is his forte, and he has no patience for Blanche’s distortions of the truth. He lacks ideals and imagination. By the play’s end, he is a disturbing degenerate: he beats his wife and rapes his sister-in-law. Horrifyingly, he shows no remorse. Yet, Blanche is an outcast from society, while Stanley is the proud family man.
Harold “Mitch” Mitchell Stanley’s army friend, coworker, and poker buddy, who courts Blanche until he finds out that she lied to him about her sordid past. Mitch, like Stanley, is around thirty years of age. Though he is clumsy, sweaty, and has unrefined interests like muscle building, Mitch is more sensitive and more gentlemanly than Stanley and his other friends, perhaps because he lives with his mother, who is slowly dying. Blanche and Mitch are an unlikely match: Mitch doesn’t fit the bill of the chivalric hero, the man Blanche dreams will come to rescue her. Nevertheless, they bond over their lost loves, and when the doctor takes Blanche away against her will, Mitch is the only person present besides Stella who despairs over the tragedy.
Eunice Stella’s friend, upstairs neighbor, and landlady. Eunice and her husband, Steve, represent the low-class, carnal life that Stella has chosen for herself. Like Stella, Eunice accepts her husband’s affections despite his physical abuse of her. At the end of the play, when Stella hesitates to stay with Stanley at Blanche’s expense, Eunice forbids Stella to question her decision and tells her she has no choice but to disbelieve Blanche.
Allan Grey The young man with poetic aspirations whom Blanche fell in love with and married as a teenager. One afternoon, she discovered Allan in bed with an older male friend. That evening at a ball, after she announced her disgust at his homosexuality, he ran outside and shot himself in the head. Allan’s death, which marked the end of Blanche’s sexual innocence, has haunted her ever since. Long dead by the time of the play’s action, Allan never appears onstage.
Shep Huntleigh A former suitor of Blanche’s whom she met again a year before her arrival in New Orleans while vacationing in Miami. Despite the fact that Shep is married, Blanche hopes he will provide the financial support for her and Stella to escape from Stanley. As Blanche’s mental stability deteriorates, her fantasy that Shep is coming to sweep her away becomes more and more real to her. Shep never appears onstage.
When the play begins, Blanche is already a fallen woman in society’s eyes. Her family fortune and estate are gone, she lost her young husband to suicide years earlier, and she is a social pariah due to her indiscrete sexual behavior. She also has a bad drinking problem, which she covers up poorly. Behind her veneer of social snobbery and sexual propriety, Blanche is an insecure, dislocated individual. She is an aging Southern belle who lives in a state of perpetual panic about her fading beauty. Her manner is dainty and frail, and she sports a wardrobe of showy but cheap evening clothes. Stanley quickly sees through Blanche’s act and seeks out information about her past.
In the Kowalski household, Blanche pretends to be a woman who has never known indignity. Her false propriety is not simply snobbery, however; it constitutes a calculated attempt to make herself appear attractive to new male suitors. Blanche depends on male sexual admiration for her sense of self-esteem, which means that she has often succumbed to passion. By marrying, Blanche hopes to escape poverty and the bad reputation that haunts her. But because the chivalric Southern gentleman savior and caretaker (represented by Shep Huntleigh) she hopes will rescue her is extinct, Blanche is left with no realistic possibility of future happiness. As Blanche sees it, Mitch is her only chance for contentment, even though he is far from her ideal.
Stanley’s relentless persecution of Blanche foils her pursuit of Mitch as well as her attempts to shield herself from the harsh truth of her situation. The play chronicles the subsequent crumbling of Blanche’s self-image and sanity. Stanley himself takes the final stabs at Blanche, destroying the remainder of her sexual and mental esteem by raping her and then committing her to an insane asylum. In the end, Blanche blindly allows herself to be led away by a kind doctor, ignoring her sister’s cries. This final image is the sad culmination of Blanche’s vanity and total dependence upon men for happiness.
Audience members may well see Stanley as an egalitarian hero at the play’s start. He is loyal to his friends and passionate to his wife. Stanley possesses an animalistic physical vigor that is evident in his love of work, of fighting, and of sex. His family is from Poland, and several times he expresses his outrage at being called “Polack” and other derogatory names. When Blanche calls him a “Polack,” he makes her look old-fashioned and ignorant by asserting that he was born in America, is an American, and can only be called “Polish.” Stanley represents the new, heterogeneous America to which Blanche doesn’t belong, because she is a relic from a defunct social hierarchy. He sees himself as a social leveler, as he tells Stella in Scene Eight.
Stanley’s intense hatred of Blanche is motivated in part by the aristocratic past Blanche represents. He also (rightly) sees her as untrustworthy and does not appreciate the way she attempts to fool him and his friends into thinking she is better than they are. Stanley’s animosity toward Blanche manifests itself in all of his actions toward her’his investigations of her past, his birthday gift to her, his sabotage of her relationship with Mitch.
In the end, Stanley’s down-to-earth character proves harmfully crude and brutish. His chief amusements are gambling, bowling, sex, and drinking, and he lacks ideals and imagination. His disturbing, degenerate nature, first hinted at when he beats his wife, is fully evident after he rapes his sister-in-law. Stanley shows no remorse for his brutal actions. The play ends with an image of Stanley as the ideal family man, comforting his wife as she holds their newborn child. The wrongfulness of this representation, given what we have learned about him in the play, ironically calls into question society’s decision to ostracize Blanche.
The glaring contrast and fierce struggle between the two worlds of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois are the main themes of Williams’ play. These two worlds are so diametrically opposed that they can never meet. Thus, in order to bring these two together ‘ to have these two encounter each other ‘ Williams has created Stella. By simply having her married to Stanley and by having her be Blanche’s sister, Williams then creates the perfect opportunity of bringing these two opposing worlds together under one roof.
Stella DuBois Kowalski is, then, a vital part in the struggle between these two worlds, and she is also the bridge between these two worlds. Both Blanche and Stanley are guilty of trying to involve Stella in their quarrel. Both attempt to win Stella over as an ally. Stella is the battlefield for those two warring factions, and both try to use her to accomplish their own ends. But Stella also seems to be the only answer to peace, for she is the only bridge between these two apparent opposites. She comes from Blanche’s refined, educated, and sensitive world. She has, therefore, attained a mixture either consciously or unconsciously.
It is apparent that Stella is a battleground for the DuBois-Kowalski feud. Blanche continually tries to turn Stella away from Stanley, by belittling him every chance she has. She tries to prevent her sister from returning to her husband after Stella had been beaten by Stanley during the card game. Blanche does not try to hide her opinion of Stanley when she decides to tell Stella of her true feelings for her brother-in-law. She calls Stanley “common,” “bestial,” and “sub-human.” Stella seems to become the tangible symbol of victory between the two warring parties. Blanche does her best in trying to grasp this symbol for herself. Blanche’s influence is definitely weighty. The argument between Stanley and his wife in Scene 3 is directly caused by Blanche’s insistence on playing the radio. Stella shows strong signs of her sister’s influence. She even seems to repeat exactly what Blanche would say, “drunk ‘ drunk ‘ animal thing, you!” In another instance, she says, “Mr. Kowalski is too busy making a pig of himself to think of anything else!” These are words that most likely would come from Blanche’s own mouth and Stella would never have uttered them before Blanche’s arrival. Thus, Blanche has had some influence upon Stella.
But Blanche is not alone in her hopes to win over Stella, for Stanley is also guilty of trying to mold his wife’s mind. He is continually trying to convince Stella that they had a better life together before her sister’s arrival. He wants Stella to ask her sister to leave, and he continues his efforts in doing this. He does not need Stella’s consent to throw Blanche out of his house but he, nevertheless, strives to get his wife’s approval. Stella is reminded of the “colored lights” of their sex life together and of the happiness they once shared. He delights in telling Stella of her sister’s immorality, hoping that this too will turn his wife against Blanche. Stanley tells her that it will be all right once again between them as soon as Blanche leaves.
But Stella’s function is not just to be an object in this struggle, to be merely swayed from one side to the other. She also seems to be the only hope of a compromise between these two different backgrounds. As Blanche and Stanley represent two diametrically opposed worlds, so Stella represents a bridge between the two poles. For Stella shows that a meeting point of coexistence is possible between Blanche’s and Stanley’s separate worlds. Stella still has many qualities of Belle Reve. She has not allowed a gentle and refined nature to completely disappear simply because she has accepted Stanley and all he stands for. Nor has she allowed her upbringing to stand in the way of enjoying life with her raw and lusty husband. She has, rather, combined both worlds into one and has shown that these two apparent opposites are, if not compatible, at least co-existable. The problem between the play’s two main characters seems not to be the irreconcilable worlds which they represent, but the rigid inflexibility of Stanley and Blanche in their respective attitudes. Stella seems to indicate that such a reconciliation is possible. She is not a perfect blend; however, she does show that a mixture of the two viewpoints can be workable.
But one should not maintain the position that Stella is a strong character. She is far from this. Blanche appears to be the weaker of the two sisters but this is a false impression. If Stella were a strong character with a definite mind of her own, a three-way conflict and not a two-way conflict would appear in the play. Stella would have a definite standard of action and would pursue this throughout the course of the play. But her definite vacillation between the two opposite poles of Blanche and Stanley is only possible because of her weakness. This quality in her character enables her to become a pawn in the death struggle between the two major characters. This weakness alone makes her a battleground. Stella does not attain the blend of the two worlds because she wills it; they simply come together to form this blend without her assistance. She remains passive throughout the play.
Thus, the character of Stella fulfills two basic functions. She is deeply involved in the battle between her sister and her husband. She is torn between the two factions unmercifully. But she is also the only one who can attempt to bridge the gap between these two arch enemies and all that they represent. She certainly does have some thoughts independent of the dynamic forces in her home; however, on the whole, she maintains a passive role