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Tennessee Williams was once quoted as saying that “symbols are nothing but the natural speech of drama…the purest language of plays” (Adler 30). This is clearly evident in Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. As with any of his major characters, any analysis of Blanche DuBois much consist of a dissection of the play’s dialogue, supplemented by an understanding of the “language” of symbols in which Williams often speaks.
Before one can understand Blanche’s character one must understand the reason why she moves to New Orleans and joins her sister, Stella, and brother-in-law, Stanley. By analyzing the symbolism in the first scene, one can understand what prompted Blanche to move. Her appearance in the first scene “suggests a moth” (Williams 96). In literature a moth represents the soul. So it is possible to see her entire voyage as the journey of her soul (Quirino 63). Later in the same scene she describes her voyage: “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields” (Quirino 63). Taken literally this does not seem to add much to the story. However, if one investigates Blanche’s past one can truly understand what this quotation symbolizes. Blanche left her home to join her sister, because her life was a wreck. She admits, at one point in the story, that “after the death of Allan [her husband] intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with” (Williams 178).
This “desire” is the driving force, the vehicle of her voyage. It was this desire that caused her to lose her high school teaching position, and it is this desire that brings her to the next stop of her symbolic journey, “Cemeteries,” and finally to “Elysian Fields”. The inhabitants of this place are described in Book six of the Aenied:
“‘They are the souls,’ answered his [Aeneas'] father Anchises, ‘whose destiny it is a second time to live in the flesh and there by the waters of Lethe they drink the draught that sets them free from care and blots out their memory.’”(Quirino 61)
This is the place of the living dead. Blanche came to Elysian Fields to forget her horrible past, and to have a fresh start (Quirino 63). In fact Blanche admits in the fourth scene that she wants to “make (herself) a new life” (Williams 135).
By understanding the circumstances that brought Blanche to Elysian Fields it is easy to understand the motives behind many of her actions. One such action is Blanche’s obsessive bathing. This represents her need to purify herself from her past (Corrigan 53). However, it is important to note that Blanche’s description of her traveling came before she actually settles into Elysian Fields. The description therefore represents the new life Blanche hoped to find, not what she actually did find.
From the beginning we see that Blanche fits in neither with her new neighbors, nor with her physical surroundings. We can see that she did not fit in with the people of the community by comparing the manner in which women in the story handle their social life with men. In the third scene, her husband Stanley beats Stella, who is pregnant at the time. She immediately runs upstairs to her friend Eunice’s apartment. Soon Stanley runs outside and screams “Stell-lahhhhh” (Williams 133). She proceeds to come down, and they then spend the night together. The next morning Stella and Blanche discuss the past night’s events. Blanche asks “How could you come back in this place last night?” (Williams 134). Stella answers, “You’re making much too much fuss about this” and later says that this is something that “people do sometimes” (Williams 134). One sees that this is actually a common occurrence by the fact that the same exact thing happens to Eunice and her husband a few scenes later. Later in the story Mitch, Blanche’s boyfriend, yells at her and tries to rape her, but she successfully resists him. Afterwards, she tells Stanley that she would never forgive him because “deliberate cruelty is unforgivable” (Williams 184).
Blanche also does not fit into her physical surroundings. Tennessee Williams describes the place as having a “raffish charm” (Corrigan 50). This charm eludes Blanches, who describes it as a place that “Only Poe! Only Mr. Edgar Allen Poe!-could do it justice!” (Corrigan 50).
Blanche deceives everyone for a good portion of the play. Stanley, however, is continually trying to discover her true history. Blanche says, “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, Magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth.” (Williams 177). Stanley does not enjoy “magic”, he says that “Some men are took in by this Hollywood glamour stuff and some men are not” (Williams 114). This tension increases for the duration of the play, leading up to the rape scene.
The scene when Stanley rapes her is the beginning of the end for Blanche. It is only fitting that he destroys her with sex because sex “has always been her Achilles heel. It has always been his sword and shield” (Corrigan 57). After he has sex with her, she is taken to another asylum, a psychiatric hospital (Quirino 63). The cycle has started again. “Desire” has once again sent her off to “Cemeteries”.
While all of the symbols used in Williams’s portrayal of Miss Blanche Dubois serve to add to the effect of her downfall, they have had quite the opposite effect on A Streetcar Named Desire as a play. Later in his life, Williams said, “Art is made of symbols the way the body is made of vital tissue” (Quirino 61). Going by Williams’s own definition, one could safely say that Tennessee Williams was quite an artist, and that A Streetcar Named Desire is quite a work of art.
Adler, Thomas. A Streetcar Named Desire: The Moth and the Lantern. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Corrigan, Mary Ann. “Memory, Dream, and Myth in the Plays of Tennessee Williams.” Dialogue in American Drama. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.
Quirino, Leonard. “The Cards Indicate a Voyage on A Streetcar Named Desire.” Modern Critical Interpretations: A Streetcar Named Desire. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1988.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Viking Penguin, 1976.
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