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A-level English - A Streetcar Named Desire: Analysis

Analysis from Study Guides

Major Themes


(Source: shmoop)

A major theme explored symbolically in Streetcar is the decline of the aristocratic family traditionally associated with the American South. These families had lost their historical importance as the agricultural base of the Southern states were unable to compete with the new industrialization. A labor shortage of agricultural workers developed in the South during the First World War because so many of the area's men had to be employed either in the military or in defense-based industries. Many landowners, faced with large areas of land and no one to work on it, moved to urban areas. With the increasing industrialization which followed in the 1920s through the 1940s, the structure of the work force changed further: more women, immigrants, and black laborers entered the workforce and a growing urban middle class was created. Women gained the right to vote in 1920 and the old Southern tradition of an agrarian family aristocracy ruled by men began to come to an end.

Desire and Fate

The dominating theme of the play is its arresting and memorable title. There really was a streetcar in New Orleans that carried the word "Desire" as its destination and another with "Cemeteries". When Tennessee Williams was living in New Orleans in 1946, and was working on this play, he was so struck by the names of these two streetcars that he mentioned them in an essay he wrote at the time: "Their indiscourageable progress up and down Royal Street struck me as having some symbolic bearing of a broad nature on the life in the Vieux Carré - and everywhere else for that matter".

A streetcar running directly to its destination on a predetermined course could easily be seen as a symbol of fate. For Williams, however, the streetcar’s destination, ‘Desire’, spoke more than an undefined force of fate. This force clearly drives Blanche, her sexual passion and desire overwhelms her at moments in the play, we see her clearly driven by forces more powerful than her. She acknowledges  Stanley ’s masculinity and animal passion from the onset of her visit. She openly flirts with him and teases (not necessarily in a sexual way always, but she often seeks a reaction or attention) him as the play develops.

Fantasy and Delusio


(Source: shmoop)

In Scene One, Blanche takes a streetcar named Desire through Cemeteries to reach Elysian Fields, where Stella and Stanley live. Though the place names are real, the journey allegorically foreshadows Blanche’s mental descent throughout the play. Blanche’s desires have led her down paths of sexual promiscuity and alcoholism, and by coming to stay with the Kowalskis, she has reached the end of the line. Blanche’s desire to escape causes her to lose touch with the world around her. By the end of the play, Blanche can no longer distinguish between fantasy and real life.

Masculinity and Physicality


(Source: shmoop)

Masculinity, particularly in Stanley, is linked to the idea of a brute, aggressive, animal force as well as carnal lust. His brute strength is emphasized frequently throughout, and he asserts dominance aggressively through loud actions and violence. Even his clothing is forceful: he dresses in bright, lurid colors. Stanley’s masculinity is deeply connected to the “sub-human.” Williams describes him as a “richly feathered bird among hens” and a “gaudy seed-bearer.”

Social Conflict Analysis

A Streetcar Named Desire is more than entertainment. It includes numerous social conflict undertones which give it relevance, depth, and meaning. Williams wrote in a way so as to pull at the hearts of those in the audience.

Through the play, Tennessee Williams:

  • Considers the effects of the conflict that occurs when society's perception of a person and the person's personal reality do not coincide.
  • Considers the effects of the personal struggle that occurs when a person's reality does not coincide with their inner-fantasies.
  • Sheds light on society’s victimization of females and considers the idea of female self-expression (which was still a new idea in William's time).
  • Questions woman’s apparent lack of authority in a society dominated by men.

Tracking the Symbolism

Symbolism is the use of an object, a person, a place, or an experience that represents something else, usually something abstract. A symbol may have more than one meaning, or its meaning may change from the beginning to the end of a literary work.

Light Bulb

The "naked" light bulb symbolizes truth and reality. The light bulb also symbolizes an epiphany. An epiphany is an "a-ha!" moment, the moment when some new idea or concept occurs to a person.

Paper Lantern

The paper lantern symbolizes something flimsy that is used to disguise reality, create illusion, and hide the truth. However the paper lantern cannot last, it can only temporarily create a romantic glow and keep the truth in shadow. The paper lantern is used by Blanche to disguise her fading beauty and indecent past.

White Clothing

 

White symbolizes purity and innocence.

Package of Meat

The package of meat that Stanley throws at Stella and her eager catching of the the meat is a symbol of their sexual relationship. Stanley is the provider (hunter & gatherer) and Stella waits happily at home for his return. The meat represents Stanley's almost barbaric manliness.

Bathing

Blanche's constant bathing shows her need to cleanse herself (metaphorically) of the impurities and disappointments in her past (the Hotel Flamingo, her own sinful behavior with her young husband). The bathing helps relax Blanceh's nerves and allows her mind to imagine that she is in better (and more pampered) circumstances. Bathing also makes Blanche feel young and girlish, laughin, singing, and splashing in the tub like a child.

Polka Music

 

The polka music that Blanche hears whenever her young husband is discussed reminds Blanche of the frenzied manner in which she lost her husband. This music haunts Blanche and is one of the realities that she desires to escape.

Blanche Dubois

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(Source: cheongshimapliterature.blogspot.com)

Blanche DuBois - Stella’s older sister, who was a high school English teacher in Laurel, Mississippi, until she was forced to leave her post. Blanche is a loquacious and fragile woman around the age of thirty. After losing Belle Reve, the DuBois family home, Blanche arrives in New Orleans at the Kowalski apartment and eventually reveals that she is completely destitute. Though she has strong sexual urges and has had many lovers, she puts on the airs of a woman who has never known indignity. She avoids reality, preferring to live in her own imagination. As the play progresses, Blanche’s instability grows along with her misfortune. Stanley sees through Blanche and finds out the details of her past, destroying her relationship with his friend Mitch. Stanley also destroys what’s left of Blanche by raping her and then having her committed to an insane asylum.

In-depth analysis of Blanche DuBois

Stanley Kowalski

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(Source: images.wallpaperscraft.com)

Stanley Kowalski -  The husband of Stella. Stanley is the epitome of vital force. He is loyal to his friends, passionate to his wife, and heartlessly cruel to Blanche. With his Polish ancestry, he represents the new, heterogeneous America. He sees himself as a social leveler, and wishes to destroy Blanche’s social pretensions. Around thirty years of age, Stanley, who fought in World War II, now works as an auto-parts salesman. Practicality is his forte, and he has no patience for Blanche’s distortions of the truth. He lacks ideals and imagination. By the play’s end, he is a disturbing degenerate: he beats his wife and rapes his sister-in-law. Horrifyingly, he shows no remorse. Yet, Blanche is an outcast from society, while Stanley is the proud family man.

In-depth analysis of Stanley Kowalski

Stella Kowalkski

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(Source: pbs.twimg.com)

Stella Kowalski -  Blanche’s younger sister, about twenty-five years old and of a mild disposition that visibly sets her apart from her more vulgar neighbors. Stella possesses the same timeworn aristocratic heritage as Blanche, but she jumped the sinking ship in her late teens and left Mississippi for New Orleans. There, Stella married lower-class Stanley, with whom she shares a robust sexual relationship. Stella’s union with Stanley is both animal and spiritual, violent but renewing. After Blanche’s arrival, Stella is torn between her sister and her husband. Eventually, she stands by Stanley, perhaps in part because she gives birth to his child near the play’s end. While she loves and pities Blanche, she cannot bring herself to believe Blanche’s accusations that Stanley dislikes Blanche, and she eventually dismisses Blanche’s claim that Stanley raped her. Stella’s denial of reality at the play’s end shows that she has more in common with her sister than she thinks.

Mitch

Image result for mitch streetcar named desire
(Source: actoroscar.blogspot.com)

Harold “Mitch” Mitchell -  Stanley’s army friend, coworker, and poker buddy, who courts Blanche until he finds out that she lied to him about her sordid past. Mitch, like Stanley, is around thirty years of age. Though he is clumsy, sweaty, and has unrefined interests like muscle building, Mitch is more sensitive and more gentlemanly than Stanley and his other friends, perhaps because he lives with his mother, who is slowly dying. Blanche and Mitch are an unlikely match: Mitch doesn’t fit the bill of the chivalric hero, the man Blanche dreams will come to rescue her. Nevertheless, they bond over their lost loves, and when the doctor takes Blanche away against her will, Mitch is the only person present besides Stella who despairs over the tragedy.

In-depth analysis of Mitch

Critical Essays

Williams did not rely on realism alone to portray reality. In A Streetcar Named Desire as in other plays, he effectively uses dramatic devices to convey and enrich meanings. Most of the action of the play takes place in the Kowalskis’ apartment, but there is also action in the street. This action—the Mexican woman with “flores para los muertos” and the struggle of the drunk and the prostitute—provides not only local color but also a commentary on the main action. When Blanche first arrives at the apartment, a screeching cat is heard, a minor bit of stage business that helps create a sense of Blanche’s tension. The background music, too, is carefully contrived. The “Blue Piano” and the “Varsouviana” fade in and out according to what is going on in the minds of the characters, particularly Blanche. Blanche’s rape is accompanied by “hot trumpet and drums.”

A Streetcar Named Desire - Psychoanalytic Perspectives (Journal Article)

Abstract: Tennessee Williams expressed in A Streetcar Named Desire aspects of his own psychic conflict that erupted after he reached sudden success with the play's predecessor The Glass Menagerie. Interpretations are suggested about those psychic conflicts and their emotional and behavioral manifestations through an analysis of both the play and the author's life history. In particular, the playwright's childhood experiences within a troubled family, his painful relationships with a rejecting, abusive father and an unhappy, controlling mother, and his helpless witnessing of the suffering inflicted upon his beloved sister are linked to the contrasting themes, characters, and action in both dramas.

Silvio, Joseph R. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis; New York Vol. 30, Iss. 1,  (Spring 2002): 135.​