by Renée Ruggeri
A Streetcar Named Desire is arguably Tennessee Williams’ most famous work because the play has some of literature’s most iconic characters. Countless interpretations of the main character, Blanche DuBois, have been made on stage and screen and in scholarly work. Some scoff at Blanche: critic John Mason Brown referred to her “pathetic pretensions to gentility even when she is known as a prostitute in the little town in which she was brought up” and “her love of the refined when her life is devoted to coarseness” (Berkman 34). Leonard Berkman pities her and view her as a “misunderstood” character (34), a tragic figure trying to start a new life for herself in New Orleans. No matter the interpretation, Blanche is doomed as soon as she steps off the Desire streetcar in New Orleans. The more she tries to embody the culture of the Old South, and enact the role of the lady, the more obvious her façade becomes, as it is impossible for her to hide her past in New Orleans. This conflicting identity leads her to spiral out of control, and while she ends up being institutionalized, it is Mitch’s verbal condemnation and ultimate rejection of her and Stanley’s subsequent rape that define her actual demise.
Judith Thompson argues that Blanche’s “fall” follows a common pattern, “which begins always with mythically elevated expectations, followed by inevitable disillusionment, and the physical corruption of the soul’s transcendent dreams” (26). Blanche and Stella’s home of Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi, represents the declining Old South. The rural estate’s literal French translation of “beautiful dream” indicates that gone are the days of plantations and ladies and gentlemen, which have essentially become a “mythical” society by the 1940s. Blanche’s being forced to leave Mississippi and going to New Orleans signals the arrival of this new era. In addition, her plan for reinvention as an innocent, desirable, and respectable lady is truly a “beautiful dream” because it is impossible to achieve in the presence of Stanley, a Polish immigrant to New Orleans who is representative of the New South and who is determined to expose Blanche for who she really is.
Blanche’s desire for this new start results in the delusions and “disillusionment” (Thompson 26) which controls both how she acts and how others perceive her. Stella constantly reassures Blanche about her looks out of love for her sister. However, as Berkman points out, “Stella, despite her genuine feeling for Blanche, must condescend to Blanche and must flatter her or lie to her in order to be able to get along with her” (37). Stella says to Stanley, “…tell her she’s looking wonderful. That’s important with Blanche. Her little weakness!” (Williams 31). Because her own sister will not be truthful with her, Blanche becomes delusional and believes that she is a desirable lady. Since she believes that men yearn for her, this affects how Blanche acts towards them. She flirts with and teases Stanley, Mitch, and the delivery boy because she is so desperate to be seen as attractive to the opposite sex, (something she never felt because her husband, Allan, was homosexual). And when Mitch expresses genuine interest in Blanche, he seems to be receptive to her attempts. Once Stanley digs up Blanche’s past lies and trysts and reveals them to Mitch, however, this is the beginning of her downfall, and results in Blanche’s “inevitable disillusionment” (Thompson 26) that she has still failed to find a man who truly respects her.
During the climatic encounter between Blanche and Mitch when she starts admitting to her past and to her “many intimacies with strangers” (Williams 146), Mitch is not interested in the fact that she is finally being truthful, but instead judges her for her lies even more. As Leonard Berkman argues, “there is tragic irony…in that Mitch’s response to Blanche’s initial tackling of truth encourages Blanche to make further truthful admissions that will only, in Mitch’s eyes, condemn her” (38). All hope is lost for marrying Mitch when he insults her by saying, “You’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother” (Williams 150), and then “demands his sexual due” (Berkman 38). Mitch becomes emblematic of every other roguish man Blanche has ever encountered who has only viewed her as a source of pleasure. In essence, he becomes a Stanley Kowalski.
And when the real Stanley returns home from the hospital, he essentially picks up right where Mitch left off, executing the final blow of Blanche’s physical overpowering. His animalistic brutality is fully exemplified as he “carries her to the bed” (Williams 162). Though Williams does not explicitly describe the graphic rape, we can infer its occurrence. We have seen Stanley’s propensity for violence throughout the entire play, and his desire to exert total control over others is hardly surprising. The rape is the culmination of Blanche’s failed attempt to redefine herself in New Orleans, and is the “physical corruption” component of the tragic character’s downfall, as described by Judith Thompson (26).
When Blanche is institutionalized, it is probably best for her, ironically, as she has no other options at this point. As the doctor subdues her, Blanche’s final words, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” (Williams 178), imply that these random acts of politeness are all Blanche can expect in any future quests for love. Her reputation was damaged too much in Mississippi, and because she was too caught up in her desire for “magic” (Williams 145), Blanche DuBois never stood a real chance of shedding the vulgar persona she developed in her desperation to be reassured she was attractive.
1. Streetcar Named Desire at Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway, c. 2012, Creative Commons,
2. Desire Streetcar, The Revenge of “A Streetcar Named Desire:” Where Y’At? The New
Orleans Course, WordPress, http://whereyat.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/streetcar.jpg
3. Google Map. 632 Elysian Fields Avenue, New Orleans, LA. Satellite and street view.
Berkman, Leonard. “The Tragic Fall of Blanche DuBois.” Modern Critical Interpretations:
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. Print.
Thompson, Judith J. Tennessee Williams’ Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2002. Print.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2004. Print.