A Streetcar Named Desire: Presentation of Blanche

Explore the Presentation of Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’:

Capturing the dichotomy between the dying culture of the ‘Old South’ and a growing, progressive America, seen through the “cosmopolitan city”[1] of New Orleans, the “flighty”[2] Blanche DuBois has captivated audiences for decades. Through her unattainable ambitions of her former glory, crippling insecurity, false sense of superiority as well as her loss of mental stability she demonstrates a poignant spiral from adored Southern Belle to mentally incapacitated, abused and “desperate”[3] victim highlighting sexual prejudices held against her such as her inferiority and promiscuity, as a woman, as well as her own prejudices against male characters throughout the play. Playwright Tennessee Williams presents Blanche as a typical 1940s privileged, upper class woman in this 1947 Southern Gothic with key uses of didascalie and plastic theatre in order for the audience to fully grasp the symbolical complexity of our antagonist.

The analysis of Blanche’s character is depicted through her fall from grace, as we learn from Blanche’s first conversation with her sister, Stella, despite being brought up as a ‘Southern Belle’, a common caricature of the wealthy and white privileged Southern female, to a once affluent American family, Blanche has now “lost”[4] their property, Belle Reeve, symbolic of the loss of her lifestyle, dreams and security. The use of the word “lost” is important as it is used by Stella and Stanley to place the blame on Blanche, as though she has carelessly misplaced it or forgotten it somewhere highlighting their infantilization of Blanche. The property has been in the family for generations, a souvenir of their “French by extraction”[5] heritage that she boasts about to Mitch in Scene 3 and makes him feel inadequate by her speaking French in Scene 6. This is reinforced through the French translation of ‘Belle Reeve’ meaning ‘beautiful dream’ as now that the DuBois sisters have lost their property, it has an enchanted and mystical element to it. The loss of Belle Reeve has been so emotionally traumatic for Blanche it is the first step in her mental deterioration as she references being “on the verge of lunacy” combined with her “shaking”, stuttering “the loss-the loss” and finally, William’s use of the recurring “blue piano” music to highlight moments of particular intensity. This use of didascalie is prevalent throughout the entire play as it allows the audience to grasp more symbolical messages that aren’t as clear to grasp simply through the actor’s dialogue. Finally the “crescendo of hysteria”[6] is reached when Blanche confesses the struggles she has been through by staying at the family home with “all that sickness and dying”[7]. Here we see a contrast between her and Stella, as Stella “left”[8] her elder sister Blanche to care for the family estate and their relatives, whilst she adapted to the modern world by marrying the “Polack”[9] Stanley Kowalski and changing her lifestyle in order to survive. This adaptability is mirrored in ‘Gone With the Wind’ through Scarlett O’Hara, the strong, female lead who adapts quickly after the Civil War decimates her lifestyle as a Southern Belle. Blanche’s delusion and second step in her mental instability is portrayed here she believes herself to be adaptable, telling Stella that she is going to be “sensible” and make herself “a new life”[10]. She is also tells Mitch of her ability to “adapt to circumstances”[11] whilst in reality she is only willing to use men to rescue her from this social downfall that has left her “incapable of dealing with the demands of life”[12].

This social fall  is depicted throughout centuries of canonical Greek, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy and is rooted by a fatal flaw or hamartia that leads to social or physical decay as seen through Blanche. Her desire to feel attractive and to control the men around her, as depicted in Scene 5 with the young man, develops into her hamartia since she puts up a facade of innocence and virtue, “I guess it is just that I have old-fashioned ideals![13]” that completely contrasts with her sexually promiscuous and predatory behaviour seen in Scene 5. Stanley mocks this in Scene 7 by sarcastically calling her a ‘lily’, typically a symbol of purity and femininity. In addition, Blanche’s dependence on alcohol from the very beginning of the play not only hints at mental instability but reinforces her constant lying that foreshadows her ‘fall’ as she frequently lies about the amount of alcohol she can drink in order to appear morally upright as she pretends to not know where the liquor is to Stella in Scene 1 and to Mitch in Scene 6. Symbolically demonstrating her inability to cope without a crutch. In reference to physical decay’ she frequently asks about her “fading looks”: “You haven’t said a word about my appearance!”[14] as she is now 27 and believes in the sexist notion that women are no longer desirable past 30.

Her fear of not being found attractive is also depicted by her fear of being seen in “strong light”[15] as it will expose the truth of her age and looks. She disguises this by arranging dates with Mitch at particularly darker times of the day, “you never want to go out till after six and then it’s some place that’s not lighted much.”[16] Interestingly, after Mitch rips the paper lantern and sees Blanche for who she really is, she becomes much more honest, admitting: “I misinterpret things..I don’t tell the truth..I tell what ought to be the truth.” Another example of the facade Blanche has built is her feigned “old fashioned” “ideals”[17] especially those related to sex and men, for example, her feigned unsurity around Mitch, “She pokes lightly at him” in Scene 6. After attempting to fake disgust at Stanley’s mention of The Flamingo he exposes this as another one of her lies, with joy and relish, she has created to give the illusion she is still a respectful, moral and upper class woman, as she was brought up to be. However, this illusion is easily dispelled by Stanley’s investigation as he uncovers that she was “turning a trick” and immorally prostituting herself, linking to her fall from grace. By creating this facade she reinforces her decaying mental state as she uses these lies to escape from reality, a common coping mechanism for those that have suffered immense trauma.

Another contributor of her mental breakdown in Scene 11 is Blanche’s dependence on men and “the kindness of strangers”. From Scene 4 to 11 we see her idolized view of Shep Huntleigh, a symbol of American wealth, success and refuge for Blanche. Despite her short relationship with him in college, “I wore his pin for a while”[18], she still believes that he will be able to rescue her and Stella from the poverty as well as domestic violence in New Orleans. This demonstrates her admiring perception of men, the most important factor in her demise, instilled in her through her upbringing to become the perfect, respectable, “pious and pure”[19], Southern wife as in the 1940s, “life without a husband meant a life of poverty”[20]. Even Stella herself exhibits these traits as she left Belle Reeve to improve her chances of a better life which she has through her marriage to Stanley. Unfortunately now that the lifestyle both sisters were expecting is no longer sustainable, Blanche is left ill-equipped to handle anything else and her only hope is found in the safety of men. This reinforces gender roles of the 1940s with women as passive beings needing to be rescued by the stronger “Rosenkavalier”[21] men. Similarly, she views Mitch as her opportunity to finally “breathe” but in order to marry him she believes she first has to “deceive him” by repressing her sexuality in order to appear marriage material demonstrating her perceptions of gender roles, what is expected of her and internalized misogyny. This showcases the link between a woman’s honour and the respect she receives with her sexual promiscuity, significant because after Mitch learns of her past he deems her “not clean enough”[22] and even attempts to sexually assault her sending Blanche into a “wild” rage which ends with her symbolically falling to her knees to demonstrate her further fall, in terms of her mental state. Her past use of her sexuality with the soldiers and men at the ‘Flamingo Hotel also demonstrate her “ search for a psychological sense of self”[23] through her sexual escapades. This is eventually found out and she is ashamed and embarrassed by her past, in comparison men and their sexual ability is depicted as something to be proud of and contributes to their confidence as seen in Stanley, “the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens”[24].To further demonstrate this use of men as salvation Blanche’s habit and incessant need for reassurance in order for her to feel validated is apparent throughout the entire play. When she first sees Stella she egotistically shows off her figure for her pregnant sister, “I want you to look at my figure! I haven’t put on one ounce in ten years”[25]. As well as “I was fishing for a compliment”[26] she blatantly tells Stanley and “tell her how well she’s looking” Stella tells Eunice[27]. This demonstrates her insecurity underneath her facade of confidence as well as narcissistic tendencies. This “awful vanity”[28] often appeared amongst Southern Belles as their luxurious lifestyles allowed them to focus on their looks in order to find a husband and retain respect in their communities, for example covering themselves with gloves and parasols in order to prevent a working-class tan. Blanche fits this stereotype perfectly with her “incongruous” appearance, “looking as if she were arriving to a summer tea or cocktail party.”[29] However, although Blanche’s social standing has drastically changed and now all of her belongings fit into one single “trunk”[30], she still holds those superior opinions about herself and her class calling Stanley “common”[31] and talking down to Eunice.

Blanche also vocates her condescending opinions of her sister’s home and husband, Stanley. “This – can this be – her home”[32], “What are you doing in a place like this?”[33], “these conditions”[34] all force Stella to become “embarrassed”[35] and Eunice to speak “defensively”[36]. Unaware, or perhaps very aware, of the effect of her pompous attitude on those around her, she continues to make unnecessary and derogatory comments directed towards Stanley. Despite having no problem flirting or using men to get ahead, Blanche has strong opinions of Stanley and his friends that are not coherent with her behavior, “subhuman”[37], “like an animal” and “party of the apes” is how she brazenly describes them to Stella. Through this lengthy speech she offers her feelings of superiority highlighted through her nuanced vocabulary, reference to higher education available to her through her class and wealth, “I’ve seen in anthropological studies”[38] as well as portraying her sister as an enabler, “And you- you here- waiting for him!” However upper class she intends to sound, it is shadowed by her excited mood and hyperbolic language, reinforced by Tennessee’s use of exclamation marks, hyphenated phrases “as art-as”, “you-you-here” and rule of three “eats like one, moves like one, talks like one” and “swilling and gnawing and hulking” to demonstrate her hysteria. Historically related to a woman’s mental state hysteria comes from “hystera”, the Greek word for ‘womb’ and was a common medical diagnosis[39]. By showcasing this hysteria she therefore demonstrates her further mental instability as a fallen Southern Belle portraying her inability to relinquish her unattainable ambitions and her failure to adapt or reinvent her life.

The presentation of Blanche throughout the play is intertwined with her gradual mental deterioration from the loss of Belle Reeve to her final departure to the mental sanitorium in the final scene. Despite her fragile efforts to retain a refined, superior and desirable exterior Blanche is destroyed by male violence demonstrating her flaws for depending on men as well as her constant lying that result in her sister not believing her “story”[40]. Through William’s presentation, the effect Blanche has on any audience, as a beautiful, vain, “moth”[41] is undeniable. She transcends time, representing the fragile and weak as portrayed in Williams’s poem ‘Lament of the Moths’ trying to survive in the “heavy world” against the “invisible enemy”[42]. By “relying on the kindness of strangers”[43] Blanche demonstrates child-like tendencies that she has due to her upbringing, leaving her vulnerable and at the hands of those stronger, like Stanley, which has devastating consequences for her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Williams Tennessee “A Streetcar Named Desire” Modern Classics 1947 Scene 1

[2] Scene 7

[3] Scene 11

[4] Scene 1

[5] Scene 3

[6] SparkNotes “A Streetcar Named Desire”

[7] Scene 1

[8] Scene 1

[9] Scene 1

[10] Scene 4

[11] Scene 3

[12] Kathryn Lee Seidel ‘The Southern Belle in the American Novel” 1987

[13] Scene 6

[14] Scene 1

[15] Scene 1

[16] Scene 9

[17] Scene 9

[18] Scene 4

[19]Alexis Giardin Brown, ‘The Women Left Behind: Transformation of the Southern Belle 1840-1880’ 2012

[20] Martin Wagner

[21] Scene 5

[22] Scene 9

[23] Cash Peter, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ 2004

[24] Scene 1

[25] Scene 1

[26] Scene 2

[27] Scene 11

[28] Scene 1

[29] Scene 1

[30] Scene 2

[31] Scene 4

[32] Scene 1

[33] Scene 1

[34] Scene 1

[35] Scene 1

[36] Scene 1

[37] Scene 4

[38] Scene 4

[39] Wikipedia ‘Female Hysteria’

[40] Scene 11

[41] Scene 1

[42] Williams Tennessee ‘Lament for the Moths’

[43] Scene 11

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