In some respects, Blanche’s eventual fall from grace is implied from the beginning of the play, in scene 1 she says “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and then ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.” Williams’ use of the word ‘streetcar’ to invoke the image of a journey symbolic of Blanche’s journey, combined with desire and death – Blanche’s hope “. . . to get back on her feet” - leads unwittingly to her demise. The very name ‘Elysian Fields’ – resting place of the blessed dead in Greek mythology, a reference that Blanche as an educated person would know - leads her to anticipate that it might provide some refuge for her. Instead, there is a sense of the end being beyond Blanche’s control; clinging to the past, Blanche is forced because of circumstances to interact with the modern, urban age but is powerless to control the force with which this new, materialistic world is impacting on the once cherished lifestyle of Southern refinement and culture that she was used to. The scene creates a sense of foreboding that all may not be as it seems and that Elysian Fields may be the end of the line for Blanche.
The audience’s sympathy is aroused as Williams’ imbues the opening scene with incongruity and a touch of irony – Blanche’s confusion is apparent. Elysian Fields is clearly a run down area of New Orleans, but the light in the early evening and the “peculiarly tender blue, almost turquoise” sky as Blanche arrives while emphasizing the decay of the area also lends it an air of romanticism. The piano music typifies the lively spirit of the Quarter; there is an air of charm about the place. Against this backdrop, Blanche appears vulnerable; “. . . daintily dressed in white. . .” she is in contrast to her surroundings and appears out of place. Williams states in his directions that “There is something about her uncertain manner . . . that suggests a moth.” ‘Moth’ symbolic of the human soul, supports this sense of fragility and innocence, further emphasised by Blanche’s “delicate beauty that must avoid a strong light.”
In the early scenes of the play, however, doubt begins to creep in as to Blanche’s purported innocence – shown, for example, in the nuances in which her drinking habits are described; to Stella “No, one’s my limit” and to Stanley “No, I – rarely touch it.” The reasons for her drinking habit are not clear; but as the play unfolds it becomes obvious that Blanche drinks to forget, to blot out the ever present reminders of the past (symbolised in the play by the Polka music) and to lessen the guilt she feels for her husband’s death and her promiscuity. Drinking allows her to create in her own mind a world full of romance and glamour, a world full of admirers. Similarly, Blanche’s habit of taking long baths throughout the play, often as Stella explains to Stanley “. . . to quiet her nerves” is used by Williams to symbolise Blanche’s attempt to cleanse herself of her guilt – in the same way that she drinks to try and forget the past, she bathes to wash away her guilt, to present herself as fresh and clean, free of the implications of her husband’s death and her less than virtuous lifestyle.
Blanche’s form of speech and her habit of quoting poetry both to Stella in scene 1 and then to Mitch in scene 3 with references to Hawthorne, Whitman and Poe, can make her appear pretentious but it also allows the audience a glimpse of the refined, decadent life of the old South, of the cultured background she once experienced but which is now fading beyond her grasp. Her action of touching her handkerchief to her forehead, while talking of Belle Reve is defensive and although she is uncertain of the true causes for the loss, she is aware that in the past her family have behaved recklessly which led to the family estate being mortgaged
Blanche’s vanity as she attempts to cling to the beauty of her youth, to a past, golden age becomes obvious when she says to Stella “You see I still have that awful vanity about my looks even now that my looks are slipping.” She needs reassurance not only from Stella but also from Stanley when in scene 2, Blanche remarks “Oh, in my youth I excited some admiration . . . Would you think it possible that I was once considered to be – attractive?” She is afraid of growing older – shown when she tells Stella “. . . You’ve got to be soft and attractive. And I – I’m fading now!” This yearning for what once was is a tragic attempt on Blanche’s part to retain some semblance of the old glamour of her life – it helps to block the harsh realities of the more modern world. Through all these flaws, Williams shows Blanche to be human, believable and in doing so allows the audience to feel a degree of empathy towards her.
There is also something irresponsible about Blanche, an innate wildness that even she may not be aware of – this makes her risk the very thing she wants – protection – when she kisses the young man in scene 5 and when she flirts with Mitch in scene 6 she risks losing the stability she yearns for. She is ignorant of the effect her behaviour has. For instance in scene 2, she reassures Stella after the row with Stanley that she “. . . handled it nicely.” Blanche is unaware that flirting with Stanley makes him suspicious about her past. Similarly with Mitch, having played the coy school teacher, it stings him more when Stanley reveals her past. She ruthlessly deceives Mitch in an effort to attain security and safety. What Blanche seems to lack in all of this is passion. Stella is passionate about Stanley and while Blanche recognises “brutal desire . . .when the devil is in you . . .” she doesn’t grasp the true extent of that balanced with love. The extent of Stella’s passion is demonstrated when she doesn’t believe Blanche about the rape. It’s possible that Blanche is simply too self-absorbed to experience that depth of love. It’s this same self-absorption that may explain her inability to fully understand the recklessness of her nature, partly because she is unsure of her own motives. Again these inconsistencies of character present Blanche as less predictable but more human.
It seems that Blanche deceives those around her, but also herself. The use of the Chinese lantern over the lightbulb helps conceal Blanche’s age. But Williams’ uses the light to reveal more about Blanche’s character – her interpretation of the truth – Blanche states that she doesn’t want realism, she wants “magic.” She admits she doesn’t tell the truth; she tells “. . . what ought to be truth.” Towards the end of scene 11 when Stanley tears the paper lantern from the lightbulb, Williams indicates Blanche represents the lantern. Stanley tears the lantern, tears Blanche; suddenly the truth is finally revealed. The audience sees this so that the conflicting images of Blanche allow the audience to be sympathetic to Blanche while realizing that she is a flawed human being. Stanley and all that he represents, emerges victorious.
Donald Pease in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, p840 states “. . . Flight forces the presence of the past on his characters as the presence of what they attempted to flee.” Blanche is forced to leave Laurel and seeks refuge with Stella and Stanley only to be confronted with the realities of her promiscuity when Stanley exposes her for what she is. Blanche’s fragile inner life is destroyed – the traditional world is forced to make way for the modern one. The tragedy lies in a character unable to reconcile the two. Whether Blanche survives by eventually coming to terms with this new age is unclear; what is clear is that Blanche is certainly a literary tragic figure.
York Notes on Tennessee Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire"
Tennessee Williams: A Tribute
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
This is a very well presented essay. There is evidence of sharp insight into the play, especially the contradictions and evasiveness of Blanche's inner/outer lives and her fragile self pride and delusion. Quotations and text references are well chosen and effectively used. Paragraph and sentence structure are excellent, with very few grammatical mistakes and excellent lexical resource. The argument is closely developed throughout, leading to an effective conclusion, but this could have been improved by measuring the findings against the Aristotelian definitions of tragedy introduced in the first paragraph. Nevertheless, this is a very good essay. 5 stars