A Streetcar Named Desire: Blanche, Stanley, and the Civil War
“What you are talking about is brutal desire—just—Desire! The name of that rattle-trap street-car that…brought me here” (4.
70). The words of Blanche duBois, main character of Tennessee Williams’ groundbreaking play A Streetcar Named Desire, accurately sum up one of the play’s main themes: that humans are all governed by desires. The play examines this aspect of human nature by portraying the escalating conflict between Blanche, an old-fashioned “southern belle” who is slowly descending into madness, and Stanley, her crass, working-class brother-in-law. While both characters are driven by passionate desire—sexual and otherwise—each has completely different tactics at pursuing what they want. By casting Blanche and Stanley as two people both governed by intense desire, but who go about fulfilling their desires in completely opposite ways, Williams brings to light their striking differences in characters, thus foreshadowing the battle inevitable between two such opposing forces and symbolically portraying the fall of the antebellum South. By turning Blanche and Stanley’s mutual desire for Stella’s support and sympathies into another battlefield between them, Williams highlights the differing strategies both characters use to fulfill their most passionate desires.
Firstly, Blanche tries to appeal to Stella’s higher reasoning, not realizing that Stella no longer subscribes to the old Southern value system that esteems social class so highly: “You can’t just suppose that any part of a gentleman’s in his nature! Not one particle, no! Oh, if he was just—ordinary! Just plain—but good and wholesome, but no. There’s something downright—bestial—about him!” (5.76). By insulting Stanley, calling him a low-class brute, Blanche hopes to make Stella realize that Stella is too good for him and should get out of what Blanche perceives as an abusive relationship. However, Blanche cannot comprehend that Stanley’s animalistic nature is a large part of what attracted her to him in the first place—even when Stella tells her how she was “thrilled” when Stanley broke all of the light bulbs on their wedding night. The bestial sexual attraction between Stella and Stanley is evidenced even more strongly when they reunite after their physical altercation.
The stage directions read, “They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans….Her eyes go blind with tenderness as she catches his head and raises him level with her. He snatches the screen door open and lifts her off her feet and bears her into the dark flat” (3.61).
Clearly, the sexual passion in Stanley and Stella’s relationship is one of the strongest attractive forces in their marriage—strong enough, even, to overcome physical abuse. The two opposing forces of Stanley and Blanche, both trying to draw Stella to their side of the battle, are constantly at odds throughout the play. However, Stanley’s raw sexuality ultimately triumphs over Blanche’s wheedling and misguided attempts at reasoning. After the conversation where Blanche calls Stanley a brute, Stella rejects Blanche’s persuasions outright: “Stella has embraced [Stanley] with both arms, fiercely, and full in the view of Blanche. He laughs and clasps her head to him.
Over her head he grins through the curtains at Blanche” (5.78). Due to both his animal strength and Blanche’s ill-advised attempts at dissuading Stella from staying with him, Stanley ultimately wins the battle over Stella. Not only does this symbolize his personal triumph over Blanche, but also that of the male-dominated, modern world of the North over that of the chivalrous, archaic old South. In addition, Stanley’s intense masculine power and sexuality contrast sharply with Blanche’s affectedly feminine vulnerability and flirtation, adding another dimension to their characterization as opposing forces. During a conversation with her sister, Blanche speaks volumes about her perspective on the ideally feminine woman, saying, “When people are soft—soft people have got to shimmer and glow—they’ve got to put on soft colors, the colors of butterfly wings, and put a—paper lantern over the light” (5.
79). Going along with the motif of light and darkness as a symbol of, respectively, truth and deception, Blanche states that in order to be appreciated, a woman must both be soft and vulnerable and draw attention to that softness with her efforts to accentuate her appearance and to conceal her flaws. Therefore, Blanche often deems it necessary to play games with those around her, using flirtation as a method of embellishing her femininity. For example, after her date with Mitch, Blanche coyly plays with him through gentle teasing and manipulation: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir? Vous ne comprenez pas? Ah, quelle domage!” (6.88).
Blanche here uses every weapon in her feminine arsenal of flirtation: she exudes sexuality from every pore by stating her desire to sleep with Mitch, but does so in a language she knows Mitch cannot understand, thus assuming an air of superiority and setting herself up as a prize worthy of chasing after. While Mitch is, for a while at least, taken in by Blanche’s demure posturing, it only serves to make Stanley hate her even more. Shortly after Stanley comes home from the hospital, as the mood gets increasingly more desperate, Blanche tries many of the tricks she used somewhat successfully on the past with Mitch on Stanley: “Having great wealth sometimes makes people lonely! A cultivated woman, a woman of intelligence and breeding, can enrich a man’s life—immeasurably!” (10.126). Again, she tries to set herself up in a position of power by emphasizing her superiority over Stanley.
However, instead of being taken in by her act, Stanley reacts by debunking all of her lies and asserting his masculine power over her in the most utterly dominating way possible: by raping her. The stage directions read, “He springs toward her, overturning the table….She moans. The bottle top falls. She sinks to her knees.
He picks up her inert figure and carries her to the bed. The hot trumpet and drums from the Four Deuces sound loudly” (10.130). Stanley has completely overcome Blanche with his masculine power, violently delivering the crushing blow of defeat for which he had dreamed since practically the moment Blanche walked into his house. In addition, the motifs of both colors and costumes come into play once again in this scene: immediately before the rape takes place, Stanley is wearing the bright red pajamas that symbolize both his masculine sexual energy and the vivacity of the youthful, progressive North, while Blanche is costumed in a soiled white dress in a visual manifestation of the tarnished feminine virtues of chastity and purity and the distorted idealism of Southern society. Once again, the male-dominated, powerful new world of the North, symbolized by Stanley, has vanquished the old South world of demure women and chivalry that Blanche represents.
Finally, Stanley’s stolid, determined groundedness in the real world brings to light Blanche’s questionable tactics of spinning lies in order to garner sympathy for herself and get what she wants, casting them as opposing forces of deception and blunt truth. Blanche has lied about many things throughout the play, such as denying her alcoholism, spinning tall tales to hide her shameful past, and even lying about her age. Furthermore, during a conversation with Mitch after he stood her up on her birthday, Blanche says, “I don’t want realism, I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell truth, I tell what ought to be the truth.
And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! Don’t turn the light on!” (9.117). At this point, Blanche has spun herself into a web of lies so thick that, while she doesn’t believe them to be true, she believes them to be an improvement on reality—a viewpoint that is, perhaps, even more destructive. Lying is intertwined so tightly with her human nature that she has deluded herself into thinking that they are actually a noble, perhaps even beautiful, rather than destructive and base. Moreover, the final line of the passage reveals the true depth of her depravity: as light in the play is a motif for truth, by desperately pleading with Mitch to leave the light off, she is really begging him to fall into her net of lies and leave the truth about her true nature uncovered.
The real world has become so unbearable to Blanche that the only way she can cope is to surround herself with a constant charade—a facade that soon becomes too much for her to bear. On the other hand, Stanley is anything but deceitful. Quite the opposite, he is in fact honest to a fault, to the point that he constantly bludgeons Stella and Blanche with the truth as a form of deliberate cruelty. Firstly, he proves his honesty by readily admitting his low social standing: “When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt….
I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going!” (8.112). He easily admits that he is common, and lower-class than Stella herself. However, through his raw animal magnetism, he has transformed his low rank into an attractive force, convincing Stella that a relationship with someone beneath her is the right path for her. Also, Williams incorporates the white columns as a phallic symbol, lending further support to the notion that Stanley’s sexuality is the main attractive force between him and Stella.
The colored lights add another layer to this motif of Stanley’s sexuality, as bright colors such as those used in the poker game and Stanley’s bright red pajamas perpetually symbolize Stanley’s raw masculine energy, in stark contrast with the soft colors that Blanche herself says accentuate femininity. In addition, Stanley’s honesty and Blanche’s deceit come to a head shortly after he returns from the hospital. After a few minutes of conversation, Stanley exclaims, “I’ve been on to you from the start! Not once did you pull any wool over this boy’s eyes! You come in here and sprinkle the place with powder and spray perfume and cover the light bulb with a paper lantern, and lo and behold the place has turned into Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile! Sitting on your throne and swilling down my liquor! I say—Ha!—Ha! Do you hear me? Ha!—Ha!—Ha!” (10.128) Stanley could have very easily dealt with Blanche by constantly and gently disproving the lies she constantly spins. However, it is not enough for him to simply defeat Blanche; his goal is to utterly destroy her, once and for all both proving the power of male over female and symbolizing the Civil War victory of the North over the South.
Therefore, once he finds out the truth about Blanche’s past and current intentions, he uses the truth as a weapon, beating her down completely before he finally delivers the crushing blow by raping her. However, the play ultimately takes an ironic twist: in the end, Stanley lies about raping Blanche, while Blanche is the one to tell the truth; unfortunately, Stella chooses to believe her husband, and commits her sister to a mental institution. Therefore, the play’s ultimate message about truth and deception is an ambiguous one: while lies ultimately triumph over truth, it is Stanley, the symbol of the modern, powerful North, who is victorious once again—perhaps implying that the utter defeat of the South both was unfair and led to the irreversible loss of many of the virtues it represented, in an appeal to the audience to sympathize both with Blanche duBois and the lost culture that she represents. In sum, by casting Blanche and Stanley as two opposing forces, both governed by desire but both pursuing it in entirely different ways, Williams metaphorically dramatizes the triumph of the North over the old South. Blanche and Stanley clash time and time again throughout the course of the play, and the power changes hands between them on several different occasions.
However, it is ultimately Stanley who achieves victory, as he convinces Stella that her desire for him trumps her love for Blanche, brings to light Blanche’s corruption and deception through an obsessive search for the truth about her past, and ultimately crushes her by asserting his male dominance over her through sexual assault. Furthermore, as Blanche is a persistent symbol of the crumbling world of the South, and Stanley a symbol of the new, heterogeneously vibrant world of the North, his victory over her symbolizes the victory of the northern lifestyle over the southern. As Stanley said, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning” (10.130)—perhaps his victory over her was inevitable from the very start.