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A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

What does Williams’s depiction of Blanche and Stanley’s lives say about desire?

As its title indicates, A Streetcar Named Desire explores the destinations to which desire leads. In following their respective desires, Blanche and Stanley end up in very different places. Blanche is the victim of a culture that has unhealthily repressed its connection to primal and natural urges. Blanche’s culture also forbids love to cross boundaries of class, race, and “normal” gender relationships. This means that, for Blanche, all but a narrow realm of sex is illicit, demonized, and taboo. The suppressed desire of Blanche and her forebears erupted from time to time in “epic fornications.” Blanche’s ancestors paid for their lust with their wealth, and Blanche pays with her sanity.

The interclass bond between Stanley and Stella, on the other hand, is animal and spiritual rather than intellectual or practical. Blanche cannot understand why her sister would enter into such a rough-and-tumble union, because Blanche has never reconciled her genteel identity with her own profound desire. The divide between her aristocratic sense of self and the “animal” urges that have at times controlled her is too great. Instead, Blanche invents a reality that conveniently ignores her own sexuality, her own vitality. She knows that a streetcar named Desire brought her to her present predicament, but intellectually she separates that desire from herself.

Williams advocates a moderate approach to the indulgence of desires. Desire is a fact of life and a driving force in the lives of Williams’s characters. Though Stanley, a rapist and wife beater, is no one’s prototype for the perfect man, Blanche’s denial of her desire, which leads her to hit on young boys, is equally dangerous.

2.

The plot of A Streetcar Named Desire is driven by the dueling personalities of Blanche and Stanley. What are the sources of their animosity toward one another?

The most obvious difference between Blanche and Stanley is one of social background. Whereas Blanche comes from an old Southern family and was raised to see herself as socially elite, Stanley comes from an immigrant family and is a proud member of the working class. They meet one another in the socially turbulent postwar period in New Orleans, one of America’s most diverse cities. Each represents values that are antagonistic to the other’s chance at success in the modern world.

Within the play, Stella’s loyalty serves as a symbol of that societal success. Blanche attempts to convince Stella to leave Stanley because she was born for better society and values, while Stanley keeps Stella in his grasp through his unpretentious, powerful sexual attraction. The basic differences in Blanche’s and Stanley’s social stations and relationship to Stella expand into larger issues that make compromise impossible.

Blanche and Stanley are polar opposites in several respects. Blanche clearly represents the world of fantasy. As she admits to Mitch, she wants to misrepresent things, and she wants things misrepresented to her. She lives for how things ought to be, not for how they are. She prefers magic and shadows to facing facts in bright light. Stanley, on the other hand, is a no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. He looks for joy in life, and where he finds it, he celebrates it. But, as he says, he expects people to lay their cards on the table. He has no patience for idle chit-chat, social compliments, fools, and frauds.

Blanche repeatedly refers to Stanley and his world as brutish, primitive, apelike, rough, and uncivilized. Stanley finds this sort of superiority offensive and says so, but there is something primal and brutish about Stanley. By contrast, Blanche represents civilization on the decline. She speaks vaguely of art, music, and poetry as proof of progress, but reveals little true knowledge. Blanche does not give Stanley credit for any higher feelings, but Stanley dislikes Blanche because of her unwillingness to reconcile herself to her own “lower” feelings.

3.

A Streetcar Named Desire can be described as an elegy, or poetic expression of mourning, for an Old South that died in the first part of the twentieth century. Expand on this description.

The story of the DuBois and Kowalski families depicts the evolving society of the South over the first half of the twentieth century. The DuBois clan, embodied in the play by Blanche, represents the genteel society of the Southern plantation owners that presided through the nineteenth century. Stanley Kowalski, the son of Polish immigrants, descends from new Southerners. He works in a factory and is therefore engaged in the industrialization of the South, which contributed to the demise of the agrarian society in which Blanche and Stella were raised. The play demonstrates that Stanley is well adapted for survival in the New South, represented by the diverse city of New Orleans, while Blanche is unable to survive in the new society.

Blanche and Stella are remnants of Southern aristocracy’s decadence. The family’s material resources have been swallowed up, and all that remain are its manners and pretensions. Blanche deludes herself and imagines she lives in a world in which manners and pretensions are still relevant. Stella, however, has turned her back on her ancestors and married someone who would have been considered below her station by her own people. Stanley is new blood, for a new South in transition. But Williams portrays Stanley as possessing a fare share of brutality, suggesting that the changing world in which Stanley fits so perfectly is not necessarily a kind one. The struggle for survival has replaced gentility, and Blanche is an inevitable loser in this struggle.

The events of the play’s conclusion represent the death of the Old South. Unable to cope or to find a way to support herself since the loss of Belle Reve, Blanche goes mad and departs from reality. Stella sustains herself through her marriage and sexual union with Stanley. Stella and Stanley’s newborn child, a mixture of immigrant American and Southern American heritage, represents the South’s future.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Describe the use of light in the play. What does its presence or absence indicate?

2. How does Williams use sound as a dramatic device?

3. How does Blanche’s fascination with teenage boys relate to her decline and fall?

4. Compare and contrast Mitch to the other men in the play.

5. Compare and contrast Blanche and Stella.

More Help

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How was Blanche's rape inevitable

by PoeticProclivity, September 03, 2012

I don't understand your view of how Blanche's rape, In which you stated, "Blanche's most visceral experiences are illusions and repressed memories that torment her, so that her rape seems an almost inevitable consequence of her psychological pain." How exactly, in anyway, is Blanche's rape inevitable? Did she appeal weak stimulating Stanley's carnal desire to conquer Blanche's threatening, bourgeoisie personality?

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105 out of 128 people found this helpful

fundamental gentlemanliness: I don't think it means what you think it means.

by ParisCoffee, March 06, 2014

Wait, wait. Mitch -doesn't rape someone- and that makes him a gentleman? C'mon. That's a pretty low bar for "gentleman" isn't it? That word has a specific meaning and it is for sure not "doesn't commit a horrible, violent crime even though he wants to."

I think the wording you're looking for there is something other than "fundamental gentlemanliness." There is a whole lot of daylight between simply not being a violent criminal and being a gentleman.

1 Comments

8 out of 9 people found this helpful

Stella?

by kdiepholzeghs, August 28, 2014

I am failing to see how Stella is not a major character -- and especially how Mitch is considered to be MORE major than her.

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