Stella is decorating her apartment on an afternoon in mid-September. Stanley comes in, and Stella explains to him that it is Blanche’s birthday. Blanche is in the bathroom, taking yet another hot bath to calm her nerves. Stanley makes fun of Blanche’s habit of taking baths, but Stella admonishes him. She points out that she and Blanche grew up differently than he did, but he says he won’t stand for that excuse any longer. He tells Stella to sit down and listen—he has dirt on Blanche. Blanche’s unconcerned voice issues from the bathroom as she sings the sugary popular ballad “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
Stanley has learned the shady details of Blanche’s past from Shaw, a supply man he works with who regularly travels to Blanche and Stella’s hometown of Laurel, Mississippi. Gleefully, Stanley recounts how Blanche earned a notorious reputation after taking up residence at the seedy Flamingo Hotel. The hotel asked her to leave, presumably for immoral behavior unacceptable even by the standards of that establishment. She came to be regarded as crazy person by the townspeople, and her home was declared off-limits to soldiers at a nearby base. She was not given a leave of absence by her school—she was kicked out after a father reported his discovery that Blanche was having a relationship with a seventeen-year-old boy. Stanley surmises that Blanche, having lost her reputation, her place of residence, and her job, had no choice but to wash up in New Orleans. He is certain that she has no intention of returning to Laurel.
Stanley’s stories don’t fully convince Stella. She admits that Blanche has her problems, but explains them as the result of Blanche’s tragic young marriage to a homosexual man. Stanley asks Stella how many candles she’s putting in Blanche’s cake, and Stella says she’ll “stop at twenty-five.” She says that Mitch has been invited, but Stanley abashedly says not to expect Mitch to show up. Stanley says it was his duty to reveal the truth about Blanche to his army friend and bowling teammate. He has told Mitch the bad news about Blanche, and there’s no way Mitch will marry her now. Stella is horrified because both she and Blanche had been convinced Mitch and Blanche would marry.
Stanley tells Stella that he has bought Blanche a birthday present: a one-way bus ticket back to Laurel. He yells at Blanche to get out of the bathroom. When at last Blanche emerges, she is in high spirits, until she sees Stanley’s face as he passes by. He goes into the bathroom and slams the door. Blanche senses from Stella’s dazed responses to her chatter that something is wrong. She asks Stella what has happened, but Stella feebly lies and says that nothing has happened.
It is difficult to assess whether Stanley or Blanche herself is more to blame for Blanche’s ruin, which is sealed by the end of Scene Seven. To some extent, Blanche brought her fate upon herself by leading a promiscuous and almost deranged life, in spite of the genteel morality to which she pays lip service. But Blanche’s desire and her hypocrisy do not absolve Stanley of his vindictive pursuit of Blanche’s vulnerabilities. Stanley is shortsighted and unsympathetic, as we can see in his inability to understand why the story of Allan Grey, Blanche’s lost husband, moves Stella so deeply. To Stanley, the fact that Blanche’s husband committed suicide renders her a weak rather than sympathetic person.
Stanley’s behavior toward Blanche seems even crueler once he reveals that Blanche is not just flighty and sensitive but also mentally unsound. In addition to proving Blanche’s hypocrisy, the stories Stanley tells Stella about Blanche introduce the first outright -reference to Blanche’s mental state. Describing what he’s heard from Shaw, Stanley declares that in Laurel Blanche is seen as a crazy woman.
Blanche’s interminable baths function as a metaphor for her need to cleanse herself of her sordid past and reputation. She emerges from them refreshed and temporarily renewed. Stanley’s repeated objections to Blanche’s baths, ostensibly because he would like to urinate, function on a metaphorical level to show his rejection of Blanche’s make-believe purification, which allows her to pretend modesty and put on airs without acknowledging reality.
The lyrics of “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” the popular
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