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Tennessee Williams’ domestic drama ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ focuses extensively on the tragic figure of Blanche Dubois whose fatal flaw is her unwillingness to confront the realities of her life having been dismissed from her post as an English teacher for forming an illicit relationship with a student and has little choice but to spend a protracted stay with her sister, Stella Kowalski and her brother-in-law, Stanley, in the rather down-at-heel neighbourhood of Elysian Fields in New Orleans. Subsequently, Blanche weaves a web of lies that eventually even deceives herself and catalyses her downfall.
From the outset of the play, Williams presents apparent contradictions in Blanche’s character in the underlying tensions between her reality and the fragile fantasy world she constructs. Initially, Blanche successfully acts out her fantasy in which she plays the part of a demure lady dressed in “white suit with a fluffy bodice” causing her to appear “incongruous to the setting,” keeping up the façade of a genteel Southern Belle. Her clothing, it seems, is emblematic of her former wealth and the fact that she was raised on a former slave plantation called “Belle Reve” (signifying “Beautiful Dream”); and it seems that through the way that she dresses Blanche continues to cling to the dream of her past - being reluctant to accept her reality of destitution. However, at Stanley’s poker night, we soon see from Williams’ stage directions that Blanche momentarily slips back into the role of a cheap seductress that she had to play before arriving at Elysian Fields when she “takes off [her] blouse and stands in her pink silk brassiere and white skirt in the light through the portieres” so that the men present could see her silhouette. Williams further hints at Blanche’s past life of promiscuity when she flirts with a paper boy in a vignette before her first date with Mitch, one of Stanley’s friends. Blanche remarks “You make my mouth water” with deliberate sexual ambiguity, and then goes on to kiss him without waiting for him to consent – mirroring her involvement with a seventeen-year-old student that caused her to lose her job; the reality she is trying so hard to evade.
Blanche’s predatory behaviour towards the young man is juxtaposed against Mitch’s romantic arrival, carrying “roses” for her, and she slips back into her fantastical role as a respectable lady with “old-fashioned ideals.” Blanche addresses him as the chivalrous hero of a Richard Strass opera, calling him her “Rosenkavalier,” creating a narrative in which Mitch is a heroic figure saving her from her position of destitution. Later in the evening, Blanche proclaims “Je suis la Dame aux Camellias! Vous etes Armand!” Williams’ use of intertextuality is an allusion to a work of literature by Dumas, in which a courtesan is saved from moral degradation by a lover, paralleling her situation with Mitch. She even goes on to proposition: “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir?” meaning “Would you like to sleep with me this evening?” Blanche profits from the fact that Mitch does not understand this, because he is oblivious to Blanche’s promiscuous past, since she projects the false image of herself as a demure lady. Blanche even admits to Stella prior to the date that she actively aims to “deceive him enough to make him – want me,” conveying her duplicitous nature and tendency to hide reality for her own benefit.
Furthermore, Williams employs a light motif throughout the play to represent the tension between fantasy and reality. The fragility of Blanche’s reality is reflected in the “paper lantern” she uses to cover the “naked light bulb” to prevent “a strong light” exposing her age and fading beauty as it is all she has to trade off of as a former Southern Belle. In the play, light also functions metaphorically to symbolise Blanche’s need to hide the truth and in contrast, Stanley’s quest to shine a bright light on Blanche’s dark past. Stanley is successful and acquaints Mitch with the sordid details of Blanche’s past, causing him to confront Blanche and tear down the paper lantern making Blanche cry out “as if the lantern was herself.” The fragility of the paper lantern is emblematic of Blanche’s vulnerable state now that any prospect of forming a future with Mitch that is destroyed by the light Stanley has shed on Blanche’s lies and world of fantasy.
The final scenes of the drama could be interpreted as showing the triumph of Stanley, embodying realism, and the demise of Blanche and her fantasy, since within the penultimate scene there is a climactic showdown between Stanley and Blanche culminating in her rape. Stanley’s final confrontation with Blanche begins as he returns from the hospital where Stella is due to give birth to find Blanche dressed in “a somewhat soiled and crumpled white satin evening gown.” We see that Blanche has effectively retreated to the fantasy world of her past but the “soiled” and “crumpled” nature of her clothes is used by Williams symbolically to reflect the underlying tarnished nature of her reputation that she can no longer hide. Initially, Stanley plays along with Blanche’s fantasy that a millionaire is going to whisk her away before cruelly turning on her and confronting her with reality as he sees it by stripping away her pretensions of superiority when he harshly tells to “Take a look at [herself] in that worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for fifty cents from some rag-picker!” Stanley then completes his humiliation of Blanche as a degraded woman by subjugating in the play’s tragic climax which leads Blanche to retreat to her fantasy world for good.
In the final scene, Blanche becomes a tragic and isolated figure who is a shadow of her former self, still clinging on to the delusion that an old beau is coming to rescue her from her predicament. The audience can infer that Stella has effectively abandoned her by choosing not to believe her accusation of rape against Stanley when she confides in Eunice: “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley.” Stella has therefore made the transition from her old life in the privileged South to the new and more meritocratic America that Stanley, a self-made man, represents. Blanche, on the other hand, tragically still holds to the delusion that she will be rescued from her life of degradation and her past life of social privilege will be restored when she says to the doctor who leads her away to the asylum that she has “always depended on the kindness of strangers.”