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Themes Of Death And Desire In A Streetcar Named Desire Essay, Research Paper
” Desire, unreined, leads to death”
To took what extent to Tennessee Williams’s plays lend support to such a proposition?
Speaking to a reporter in 1963 Tennessee Williams said,
” Death is my best theme, don’t you think? The pain of dying is what worries me, not the act. After all, nobody gets out of life alive. “1
The themes of death and desire are central in the play A Streetcar Named to Desire. When the play was released in 1948 it caused a storm, its sexual content was controversial to say the least, but also it was, “virtually unique as a stage piece that is both personal and social and wholly a product of our life today.” 2 The play tells of the visit of the main character, Blanche, a supposedly typical to Southern Belle, to her long estranged sister Stella, who she finds living in modesty in New Orleans. Williams brutally rips away the skin of conventionality to reveal the true motivations of the characters, focusing on Blanches apparent fall to madness, and culminating in her eventual rape by her brother-in-law Stanley.
It is important to understand what Williams means when he talks of death to the reporter. For Williams the fact of being dead or the act of death is not important, but it is the pain that precedes it. This has metaphorical significance which resonates throughout the play. Though the characters do not physically die it is in their inevitable downfall that we see the symbolic pain of death. In all the characters it is clear that their unbridled desires, their Id force, lead to significant downfalls. This essay aims to intricately analyse the many ways Williams uses ideas and themes of desire to bring about “death” in A Streetcar Named Desire, in particular focusing on the central issue of the play, the demise of Blanche.
The first line that Blanche speaks is,
“They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then up transferor to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at- Elysian Feilds!3
The theme that dominates the play is here to be found in its title. At the time when Tennessee Williams was working on A Streetcar Named Desire in New Orleans in 1946 there actually were streetcars which listed as their destinations “desire” and “Cemeteries” and it is little surprise that these struck Williams as profound symbols. In an essay he wrote at the time he said, “their indiscourageable progress up and down Royal St struck me as having some symbolic bearing of a broad nature on the life in the
Vieux Carre’ and everywhere else for that matter” 4. Here the symbolism is obvious, the Streetcar which is representative of desire, carries its passengers inexorably on its rails to its destination. This Streetcar is linked with another one going to ” Cemeteries” as Sambrook points out this is a, “fortuitous reminder of the likely eventual outcome of a life driven by passion served to reinforce the theme of fatal desire.” here we cannot be mistaken that Williams is implying that unbridled desire will surely lead to “death”. The facts that Blanche journey has led her to the Elysian Fields, the resting place of the blessed after death, will unfold to reveal its irony, and perhaps cast allusions to Blanche’s deteriorating mental health.
So right from the outset Williams has given us an unmistakable hint as to the ideas and themes, which will be unravelled throughout the play. Though this is where the play begins, the story’s roots can be found 30 years previously. It is the acts and events before Blanche’s arrival that precipitate her downfall within the play, these take us to Belle Reve, the ancestral mansion outside Laurel, Mississippi, which was once the centre of a great plantation in the antebellum days. As Boxill pointed out though the “the indulgence of decadent habits, on the part of the men in the family, in succeeding generations had so reduced the estate, that nothing was left during the sisters adolescence, except the house itself and some 20 acres of land”.5
Here we see the theme of desire ingrained in the roots of the Dubios family history. The desire for ” decadent habits” had not been tempered by reason. This irrationality had led to a situation where the mansion itself was only just short of death.
We learn from Blanche later, much to the annoyance of Stanley, that the plantation has finally been lost to the bank. This place had been Blanches centre and home and due to the irresponsibility of her ancestors, she had been forced to watch it die. Blanche’s description of this “time of death” is unsurprisingly riddled with morbid language. It is no accident that at this time Blanche is forced to witness the deaths of family members and those who surround her , like ” the dying woman so swollen by disease that her body could not be fitted into a coffin, but had to be ‘burned like rubbish’.(Scene 1)” 6.The fact that Blanche blames the loss of the plantation on deaths such as these three, shows her inability to realise that it was really the “unreined desire” of her predecessors that caused the loss of the family home.
In this context it is interesting to note Londre’s assertion that the name Belle Reve is grammatically incorrect. The word reve which means dream, should be preceded by beau and not belle.”The logical assumption is that the plantation was originally named Belle Rive (Beautiful shore), and that over the generations the name has been corrupted as the family’s fortune dwindled. What had been a solid shore is now but an effervescent dream of lost splendour.”7
Aside from the death of family members there is another significant death, which affects Blanche, before the time of the play. At the age of 16, Blanche had married a young poet called Allan, only to be shocked by the discovery of his homosexuality. Upon discovering this Blanche says she is “disgusted” and Allan promptly commits suicide. With this we see Allan’s desire for personal and social acceptance go unfulfilled, and it is this desire which leads to his death by his own hand. The subsequent shock and guilt on the part of Blanche, ” partly account for her mental instability, her promiscuity and her alcoholism, the three contributory factors in her tragedy”.8
The reference to promiscuity brings about another important form of “desire” that Blanche had developed prior to the time of the play. After the death of her husband Blanche’s sexual desires started to take the form of nymphomania, she entertained sailors at the Flamingo, and developed a penchant for adolescent boys. This desire in the form of “the 17 year-old boy- she’d gotten mixed up with!” caused her to lose her job teaching. As Stanley found, her promiscuity was well known in her local area, and this has caused her great deal of damage.
In attempting to analyse why Blanche is attracted to adolescent boys Roxanna Stewart notes, “It seemed obvious to me that their innocence and purity are cleansing to her.” This would appear to make sense when taking into account Blanches ritual bathing throughout the play, which is symbolic of the cleansing of her guilt, both of her promiscuity and the death of her husband. However Stewart continues, “when I mentioned it to Mr Williams he said,’ No, in her mind she has become Allan. She acts out her fantasy of how Alan would have approached a young boy.’”9
Either way, at this point it is important to stress how past events in Blanche’s life, which are symbols of ‘desire leading to death’, have caused Blanche to develop desires of her own, which are not tempered by reason. It is these desires, present at the beginning of the play, which lead to issues such as loneliness and isolation, illusions and contradiction, which will now be looked at, and that precipitate her ultimate demise.
When Blanche enters the play she appears to be the epitome of prim and properness, to the audience she is the typical Southern gentlewoman. Williams wastes little time in destroying this facade, to reveal a woman riddled with conflicting desires. From the outset it is clear that she desires to be seen as someone from a higher class. This is shown by the repugnance she feels for her modest surroundings. It is also evident in her class snobbery, the way she dismisses the friendly help from Eunice, “what I meant was I’d like to be left alone.” (scene 1). This is also seen when she calls Stanley a “Polack!”, “he tells her off in a jingoistic speech their New York audiences in 1947 applauded.”10 This is the conception of the conflict between Stanley and Blanche, which acts as a catalyst to her, fall. Her heightened sense of social self is also evident in the way she covets her possessions i.e. her clothes and jewellery. Most important though, is the way her heightened demeanour and the way she talks down to others, leads to her loneliness and isolation. The seriousness of this issue for Blanche is evident in Scene 1, when she says, “I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I cannot be alone!”
Another paradox that Blanche brings is her raw sexual desires. These are firmly in contrast with this image she wishes to present as Southern gentlewoman. In the first scene, there is a neat confrontation between Blanche’s conflicting desires as she, “regards Stanley’s half-naked torso with awe as he changes his T-shirt in front of her. It is because she is torn between attraction and repulsion that she thinks she is going to be sick.”11 Regarding her sexual desires, we know of her exploits in the time before the play, but it is important to see how their nature causes her pain in the play. Her sexual desires are uncontrollable, an Id force which is in complete contradiction with her view of herself, as a respectable Southern gentlewoman. In Scene 5, Blanche plays the part of the victim.
“men don’t- don’t even admit your existence unless they are making love to you. And you’ve got to have your existence admitted by someone, if you’re going to have someone’s protection.”
Here Blanche is lamenting that she is a victim and has no choice. She’s trying to justify her actions in a way that might be found excusable by a member of her class. This is in sharp contrast though with other examples of her sexuality throughout the play. Stanley notes with surprise , her cheap seductive manner in Scene 2 and again in Scene3. There’s also the predatory way that she seduces the young paperboy. She says, “you make my mouth water.” before kissing him full on the lips. These are examples of her true and uncontrollable sexual desires, revelation of which caused her such anguish, and go in the face of her insistence of respectability to Mitch in Scene 6. It is also interesting to note that, “in Scene 4 ,when there sisters speak of sexual desire, Blanche uses the same image of the Streetcar for it,’ that Rattle trap Streetcar’, and Stella ripostes,’ haven’t you ever ridden on that street-car?’ they both know what they’re talking about.”12 This links the image of the Streetcar inexorably leading desire to death, with Blanche’s sexual needs.
It is these contradictory and conflicting desires which start to crack Blanches already fragile sanity. As a defence mechanism she creates illusions, and we see these illusions intensify until the end of the play when she descends into a make-believe world. “In order to blot out the ugliness of her life, she creates a fantasy world of adoring. respectful admirers of romantic songs and gay parties” 13 This is illustrated by her desire to contact her well-to-do ex-boyfriend Shep Huntleigh. Whether or not he actually exists is debatable but what is important is his representation of illusory escapism. This escapism is also shown through her descent into alcoholism. Again this causes her conflict, as alcohol dependency is not a virtue of respectable society.
The act, which is the climax of the play, that finally causes her descent to madness, is of her been raped by Stanley. As Corrigan points out,” the conflict between Blanche and Stanley is an externalisation of the conflict that goes on within Blanche, between illusion and reality.”14. The rape is the culmination and climax of contradictory desires represented in a physical act. It is what finally pushes Blanche beyond the realm of the sane. Though it is Blanche’s inbuilt and untempered desires that lead to her demise, it is Stanley who acts as the catalyst. A full discussion on how Williams represents ‘desire leading to death’ would not be complete without looking more closely at Stanley’s role.
To Blanche and the audience Stanley represents the epitome of ‘desire’ in human form. Though his uncontrollable Id force doesn’t lead to his own “death”, it certainly helps to hasten Blanches’. The stage directions in Scene1 give his physical description, stressing his animal sexuality and machismo.
” since earliest manhood, the centre of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking a of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens… his heartiness with men, his appreciation of rough humour, his love of good drink and food and games…. that bears his emblem of the gaudy seed bearer.” 15
Stanley is at one with his desires, he allows them to take him where they want, and doesn’t mind. He has none of the problems of confliction that affect Blanche. In his own world he is the ruler, and that is that. It’s no surprise that he comes into conflict with Blanche, for she threatens his relationship with Stella. It is inevitable, “given Stanley’s awareness of his masculinity and his contempt for women, that the hostility should be expressed through sexual domination.”16 Stanley’s desire is to dominate Blanche and he does this unswervingly by raping her, and thus breaking her. The difference between Stanley’s desire, when compared with Blanche’s, is that it suffers no conflict. For Blanche the rape is the ultimate conflict of desire. “Sex with her brother in law is the culminating event in a long period of sexual indulgence and self-degradation.”17
Her breakdown is the representation of ‘ the pain of death’ mentioned at the beginning of this essay. It has been brought about by the power of conflicting desire and finalised by the intervention of pure unswerving desire, represented by Stanley.
A streetcar named Desire is a bold and harrowing play. It is little surprise that Tennessee Williams should put such emphasis on themes such as death and madness. When young he nearly died of a childhood illness, this sense of mortality resulted in anxiety throughout the rest of his life. The mental illness of his younger sister also plagued him with worry and fear. It is certainly clear that in this play, Williams is interested in the results of ‘unbridled desire’. What is also equally clear is that these ‘desires’, untempered by reason, lead inexorably, like a streetcar running along its tracks, to death, both literal, yet more importantly, to metaphors and representations of the ‘pain of death’.
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