How important are illusions and fantasy as themes in 'A Streetcar Named Desire?'
By Daniela Mc Donough Page
How important are illusions and fantasy as themes in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire?’
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, by Tennessee Williams, explores many important themes and issues in the book. The main theme Williams investigates and explores to the audience, is illusion and fantasy. Each character in the book contributes to creating, adding to and destructing fantasies and illusions, and I feel it is a very important theme in the book, as it represents and symbolises other issues Williams explores with the audience.
The play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ revolves around the character Blanche Dubois; therefore, the main theme of the drama concerns her directly. In Blanche, the audience is shown the tragedy of an individual, caught between two worlds – the world of her past and the world of her present, unwilling to let go of the past and unable, because of her character, to come to any sort of terms with her present. The final result at the end of the play is the deterioration of her mind and character and her self-destruction.
Blanche dwells in illusion; fantasy is her primary means of self-defence against her weaknesses and shortcomings. The story begins with Blanche going to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella and her husband Stanley. Straight away, we are introduced to Blanche’s illusions and the battle between the illusions and the characters begins. We are introduced to Blanche, who immediately reveals to us her deceptive nature, as “she pours herself a half tumbler of whisky… she carefully replaces the bottle and washes out the tumbler at the sink”, yet she tells Stanley, regarding the drink: “I – rarely touch it.” Already, we see that Blanche is creating illusions about her alcohol and refuses to acknowledge her problem with it.
Blanche also creates an illusion about her image and appearance, and the symbol of a paper lantern used to cover the light, creates this illusion to the audience, and she even tells Stella “the soft people have got to – shimmer and glow – put a – paper lantern over the light” i.e. illusions need to be created to survive. Throughout the play, light is used as a symbol of the truth, so Blanche uses a paper lantern to hide from the light and from the truth – “ Turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare!”
However, as the play progresses, the audience realises the reality of Blanche’s life, and we get an idea of Blanche’s turbulent past, and we discover how her illusions were created.
What initially leads to her illusions is love. When she was young, "sixteen, I made the discovery - love. All at once and much, much too completely". She met Allan Grey, the perfect man - he had "a nervousness, a softness and tenderness which wasn't like a man's, although he wasn't the least bit effeminate" However, as we are eventually are shown, this illusion wouldn't last forever. Allan turns out to be gay, and Blanche soon realises that all along he had been trying to let her know and get "the help he needed but couldn't speak of! He was in the quicksands and clutching at me - but I wasn't holding him out, I was slipping in with him!" She was falling further into the illusion with each passing second with her love, because she couldn't really believe that he was with her and was for real. Allan was in fact an illusion himself, by trying to appear straight to everyone. At first, they would try to deny it but the illusion would soon be totally destroyed when Blanche let it slip while they were dancing that "I saw! I know! You disgust me..." Because of all this, Blanche falls into an illusion, and she truly believes that if she were loved again, she would be happy – “after the death of Allan-intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with. …You’ve got to have your existence admitted by someone, if you’re going to have someone’s protection.” However, the audience learns that these intimacies got out of control, and she was told to leave her town as a result. When Blanche arrives in New Orleans, she creates more illusions, trying to convince herself and everyone around her that she is on vacation. From this point on in the play, Blanche’s lies and illusions spiral out of control, and even she cannot keep control of what she has said: “Was this before or after the telegram came / What telegram? No! No” when Stanley is interrogating her about Shep Huntleigh’s contact with her.
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Throughout the play, Blanche seems constantly to be in the bathroom, which annoys Stanley greatly - “Hey, canary bird!… Get OUT of the BATHROOM!” and in scene seven, when Stanley is finally revealing to Stella and to the audience about Blanche’s past for the first time, Blanche is singing to herself while she is bathing. The lines to the words she sings are ironic and reveals her illusions, and it is ironic in the sense that to the reader, it seems that Blanche is singing in response to what Stanley is saying about her – “Just as phony as it can be- / But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!” To Blanche, bathing is a sign of escape for her, as no-one can see her dirty or tired when she is in the bathroom, so this creates another illusion to the audience about Blanche and her character.
Another symbol used as escape for Blanche is the character we are introduced to, known as Shep Huntleigh. The audience never actually get introduced to him, so we wonder whether he is just an illusion and fantasy she has created for herself. Blanche mentions Shep particularly in her times of desperation and near the end of the play, when Stanley is interrogating her, Blanche gets confused about him and this makes the audience question his existence.
Blanche also presents many other illusions about herself to the audience and to characters in the play, especially to Mitch. For example, upon first meeting him, Blanche pretends she cannot read properly, “ Oh, is there an inscription? I can’t make it out…(reading with feigned difficulty) and she also lies about her age: “I call her little in spite of the fact she’s somewhat older than I. Just slightly.” I think that Blanche constantly lies about herself, to cover up her insecurities and weaknesses, as I have said before, although at times, it is unclear whether or not Blanche believes that her lies are reality, because in the final chapter of the play, she still talks about a “gentleman I was expecting from Dallas… a Shep Huntleigh?”
On the other hand though, when Mitch finally confronts Blanche of her lies and deceptions, she tells a heart-wrenching speech, which is sincere and possibly the only time in the play when Blanche lets down her protective guard and tells us how she really feels – “I’ll tell you what 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!” This is Blanche trying to explain both to Mitch and the audience why she tells lies and has her illusions, and people in the audience can relate to this, as many people do lie about themselves and create fantasies, as they are often much better than having to face the realities of our own lives. I feel that this was an aim of Williams in creating so many fantasies and illusions in the play, and are as a result, an important theme in the play itself. Blanche genuinely believes that creating illusions about herself and her life are essential for survival in the world, and she tells Stella, “Make a little-temporary magic just in order to pay for – one night’s shelter!”
The fantasies and illusions surrounding Blanche could also be interpreted as the fact that Blanche represents the disappearance of a past American lifestyle (Old America) at the time, typified by Belle Reve, which contrasts Stanley, who represents New America. The play was written in 1947, post World War Two, when women started demanding equal rights in society. However, in the play, Stanley plays the role of the character that strips away Blanche’s illusions and reveals her past to the audience. In the play, Stanley does not have many illusions, yet Blanche has many, which could represent that New America was becoming a reality in 1947 America, whereas Old America was slowly fading, slipping away and becoming a mere fantasy. An example of this contrast between the two, is the clothes worn by Blanche, which contrasts those worn by people around her, and the fact that Blanche seems so out of place in The Quarter, which shows that the two types of America clash with each other – “It brought me here. -Were I’m not wanted and where I’m ashamed to be…”
Throughout the play, Stanley is represented as the dominant male in the household (“I am the king around here, so don’t forget it”. Stanley is represented as dominate, and the fact that he is controlling throughout the play (strips away Blanche’s illusions, orders her to leave by buying her a bus ticket etc) reflects the male dominated society of the time (1947). The illusions and fantasies are important in the play, as they allow Williams to reflect societies’ view. For example, men are shown to be better than women, because Stanley rips apart Blanche’s dreams, (“Mardi Gras outfit”) so women’s opinions are repressed, as they were at the time of when the play was written. Examples of this in the play, is that Stanley won’t allow Stella to bowl with him: she just watches him. The women are also not allowed to join in the game of cards the men are playing, because Stanley says in response to Blanche when she asks “Could I kibitz?” he says “You could not. Why don’t you women go up and sit with Eunice?” as though Stanley is putting the women in their place, as many men did at that time, in 1947.
Stanley effectively destroys Blanche’s cocoon verbally with his crude insults and physically with his sexual coup de main near the end of the play. However, Stanley also has his owns problems: he lacks the insight to see what he really is-a coarse, domineering macho man ruled by primal instincts unlike Blanche though, Stanley is happy in his ignorance.
Stella acknowledges that Stanley is crude, “ try not to-well-compare him with men that we went out with at home… he’s a different species”, and that her apartment is cramped and shabby. But in the end, she refuses to accept the truth about her sister’s past and about Stanley’s violation of Blanche, “I couldn’t believe (Blanche’s) story (about the rape) and go on living with Stanley,” says Stella. Stella also says “Life has got to go on. No matter what happens, you’ve got to keep going.” Here, it almost seems as though Stella is realising what is reality and what is not, and she knows that she shouldn’t know. This also suggests to the audience that Stella and Stanley’s marriage is an illusion, yet they have each other to reinforce their illusions. In the early part of scene four, after Stanley and Stella have made up about the beating, Blanche comes to see if Stella is okay. Even after saying, “I want to go away”, when Blanche tries to convince her that staying with Stanley is the wrong thing to do, Stella keeps changing the subject and making excuses for Stanley’s craziness – “you and Eunice had breakfast?” and “He’s taking the radio to get fixed.” Ironically, Blanche tells Stella “to pull yourself together and face the facts” and tells Stella to get out while she can. But, the illusion that what Stella and Stanley have, is pure love is too strong.
In conclusion, I think that fantasy and illusions are important themes in the play “A Streetcar Named Desire”, because they represent Blanche’s character, and the fact that at the time, Old America was slipping away, and was being taken over by Stanley, a new generation of “Polaks”, who are “one hundred per cent American, born and raised.” Fantasy and illusions are important in representing this, as they shown that some ideas of Old America and the whole lifestyle is now merely a fantasy to the new generation of New America. The fantasies and illusions also represent the male dominated society of the time in 1947, because Stanley is a dominant male in the book, and plays the role of ripping apart and shattering Blanche’s dreams, illusions and fantasies, within the play. This male dominated society and world is also represented in the stage directions of the play, as suggests to the audience that what is happening in the play, echoes reality and what is happening in the outside world too. This is best shown in scene ten, when Stanley rapes Blanche – “A prostitute has rolled a drunkard. He pursues her along the walk, overtakes her and there is a struggle… the NEGRO WOMAN appears and…roots excitedly through…a bag which the prostitute has dropped.”
However, there are other important themes in the play, which also have to be considered, because illusions and fantasy are not the only issues Williams deals with and raises in the play; there are the issues of death and loss dealt with; the issue of Old and New America conflicting with each other; the idea of a society of men dominating women; violence; opposing backgrounds; loneliness, alcoholism and sexuality, but most of these issues are all dealt with, represented by and can link to illusion and fantasy, so the theme is an extremely important one, within the play “A Streetcar Named Desire”.