Table of Contents
2. Analysis of Blanche DuBois
2.1 Characterization of Blanche DuBois
2.2 Blanche’s desire to be loved
3.1 Characterization of Stella Kowalski
3.1 Stella’s relationship with Stanley
5. Works Cited
For years, historians of US women followed the lead of Betty Friedan, who assessed the postwar popular culture as detrimental to women. In her bestselling book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), Friedan argued that journalists, magazine editors, advertisers, educators, and social scientists promoted a stifling, domestic ideal that held that women could find fulfilment only from marriage, motherhood and family. (Meyerowitz 390)
With the end of World War II and the return of the American soldiers, a social change became noticeable in the United States: the women’s role experienced a step backwards. After its development in World War II where “women entered the labor force in unprecedented numbers […]” (382) in order to take care of their children and to ensure the family’s income while their husbands served in war, “the [recurring] stereotype invoke[d] women’s retreat to domesticity” (382). They were often expelled from their industrial jobs and expected to devote themselves exclusively to raising children and to serving as a homemaker (cf. 382). As Meyerowitz put it, “as the political and cultural climate took a conservative turn, women encountered a resurgence of gender ideals that limited them to home, marriage, and motherhood” (382). The affirmation of this female ideal by the media as well as by politics had a certain purpose. “In a search for postwar security […] middle-class Americans looked to masculine strength and the patriarchal home as protective forces in a dangerous world” (384). However, it is important to state that not all American women tolerated the propagation of this ideal and the oppression it entailed. Many of them were actively engaged in organizations that publicly rejected women’s retreat to domesticity (cf. 385). This development of femininity that evolved in two different directions “[has] parallels in the area of sexuality” (387). The two key words considering women’s sexuality in the postwar United States were “sexual containment” (387) as well as “sexual liberalism” (387). To promote the female ideal of the domestic homemaker, journalists “denounced women who had sexual relations outside of marriage, and claimed that women found positive sexual fulfilment only when they desired motherhood” (388). On the contrary, researches have shown that “sexual behaviour varied enormously” (388). Women who weren’t married and/or homosexual experienced the same sexual fulfilment as married women and men (cf. 388). In short, the role of women and their sexuality played an important role in post-war American society.Poets, such as Tennessee Williams, also placed sexuality, desire and the role of the postwar American woman at the centre of one of his plays A Streetcar Named. Williams himself “inhabits a central place within American theatre” (1). By bringing two completely contrasting worlds together, the worlds of Blanche DuBois and her younger sister Stella Kowalski, as well as placing the play in the multicultural New Orleans, Williams created the perfect setting to picture women and their sexuality in the postwar United States. According to O`Connor, A Streetcar Named Desire which premiered in 1947, “examines post-World War II America” (3). In fact, “among Williams’s works, none has earned more attention and admiration from critics and scholars […]” (5).
I will argue that A Streetcar Named Desire illustrates different aspects of femininity in the context of post-war America through the two main female characters Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski by demonstrating their dependence on men. In the analysis of how Williams illustrates these different aspects, I will examine their characterizations as well as their individual relationships with men in order to demonstrate Williams’ intention to portray them as women who are dependent on men.
2. Analysis of Blanche DuBois
2.1 Characterization of Blanche DuBois
To be able to analyse Blanche Dubois’s dependence on men, it is important to examine Williams’s characterization of her first. In order to depict Blanche’s inability to live a life on her own, Williams applied numerous character traits that increasingly highlight this inability throughout his play. The play begins with her arrival in New Orleans. She is visiting her younger sister, Stella Kowalski who lives in a two-room apartment which she shares with her husband Stanley. Blanche herself used to live in Laurel, Mississippi at the family’s plantation Belle Reve and used to work as a high school English teacher (cf. 26-27). Right from the beginning of the play, Blanche’s appearance as well as her behaviour is described as “incongruous to this setting” (Williams 8) as she is looking at the “two-storey corner building on a street […] which is named Elysian Fields” (5) in “shocked disbelief” (8). By picturing Blanche as “daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden destrict” (9), Williams highlights the heavy contrast of the two women’s lives. As Griffin puts it, “throughout the play [the] traditional symbol of the Old South, the plantation Belle Reve, will be contrasted with the harsh reality of the Kowalski dwelling” (47). Her snobbish behaviour (cf. 11) reveals her aristocratic ancestry (cf. 55) as well as her southern attitude which makes her think that she is better than others. This attitude is portrayed over the course of the play, for example by Blanche ordering Stella around to buy her coke (cf. 39) or labelling Stella’s husband, Stanley as “sub-human” (74).
Blanche is introduced as an alcoholic right in the beginning of the play. As soon as Eunice has left the Kowalski’s apartment, Blanche “springs up and crosses to [a half opened closet] and removes a whisky bottle” (12). After “[tossing] it down” (12), “she carefully replaces the bottle and washes out the tumbler at the sink” (12) as if nothing ever happened. The speed of her drinking the whisky suggests that Blanche is used to alcohol. Ironically, when Stella arrives Blanche asks her about “some liquor” (13) as if she hasn’t already known where to find it. After a third drink, she demands Stella “to put the bottle away so [she] won’t be tempted” (17). One might think that Blanche’s drinking behaviour in this particular scene finds its justification in her exhaustion due to her long journey and the shock of her arrival at the Kowalski’s “horrible place” (13) but in fact, Blanche’s drinking is one of her coping mechanisms in order to forget her horrible past. This coping mechanism will occur constantly throughout the whole play although she more or less tries to hide it and keep up her facade, e.g. by telling Stanley in scene one she “rarely touch[es]” (26) liquor after she already drank three glasses.
Blanche’s drinking behaviour is not the only coping mechanism she developed throughout the years to overshadow her past. To understand the following coping mechanisms, it is important to first take a further look into Blanche’s past. At the age of sixteen, Blanche married a young man named Allan. After discovering him in a revealing situation with another man in bed and later confronting him with her discovery, Allan committed suicide. Ever since that day, Blanche feels guilty for Allan’s death because she “wasn’t able to give [him] the help he needed” (102). The polka they danced to in the night of Allan’s death haunts Blanche (cf. 103) and acts as a symbol of Blanche’s mental state. Whenever the polka is playing inside her head, Blanche is being confronted with something she is trying to escape from. Described as “rapid [and] feverish” (125) it foreshadows Blanche’s total loss of her sanity in the last two scenes. But not only the death of her young husband and with it the loss of her first and only love bothers Blanche constantly. Another loss influences her mental state heavily: the loss of her relatives and the family’s plantation Belle Reve. By telling Stella about it shortly after her arrival at the Kowalski’s apartment in scene one, the pain Blanche has experienced after Stella has left Belle Reve is revealed. Stella left the family’s plantation and Blanche on their own in order to “make [her] own living” (21). Blanche’s grudge against the absence of Stella in these hard times is obvious. She accuses Stella of blaming her for the loss of Belle Reve (cf. 23) while Stella were “in bed with [her] Polack” (23). Once again, Blanche felt left alone by a person she loves. According to Griffin, “the structure of the play is that of the journey or quest” (45): Blanche’s journey of losing her sanity.
Instead of dealing with her trauma, Blanche found refuge in her fantasies. It seems as if Blanche does not belong in the time A Streetcar Named Desire plays in. In her mind, she is still living the life of a wealthy, desired woman in the South or at least tries to convince herself that she has “old-fashioned ideals” (98). By permanently lying to herself (“I didn’t lie in my heart” (132)) and others, she reveals her deep feelings of guilt and her desire for a secure future. At first, it seems as if her lies are about keeping up appearances but as the play goes on, Williams exposes that Blanche is simply not able to deal with the trauma she experienced as she tells Mitch in scene eight: “I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! […] I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. […]” (130). The worse her mental state gets, the more intensively she seeks refuge in her fantasies. Her desire for a southern gentleman and thus the persistence of her old-fashioned American ideals culminates in scene ten with Blanche telling Stanley that she has received a telegram from her former admirer Shep Huntleigh, a wealthy Texan (cf. 137-139) who is inviting her “on a cruise of the Carribean on a yacht” (138). This interaction indicates that Blanche has already lost her grip on reality which foreshadows her referral to an asylum.
As mentioned earlier, Blanche is living in the past which also refers to her age. Worried about her appearance and her attractiveness to men because her “looks are slipping” (18), Blanche “fish[es] for […] compliment[s]” (37) and asks Stella to “sa[y] a word about [her] appearance”. Therefore she never wants to be seen in bright light (cf. 94) because “she wishes to shield her aging face from the truth of bright lights” (Griffin 70).
In conclusion, Blanche is a highly complex character whose personal traumas and problems act as one of the main themes of Williams’s play. The play starts with her arrival and ends with her departure which makes it impossible to replace her because Blanche’s character structures the play. By changing her behaviour with every person she interacts with and developing throughout the play, Blanche is portrayed as a multidimensional character that also happens to be a closed character. This means the play’s recipient has full access to Blanche’s inner and outer world. Moreover, Blanche is characterized explicit authorial as well as explicit figural in both ways: through self-commentary as well as by commentary trough others in praesentia and in absentia which suggest the complexity of her character.
2.2 Blanche’s desire to be loved
Desire is one of the play’s main themes for both women. Blanche’s internal conflicts and her harsh past are mainly reflected in her sexual behaviour. After the loss of Allan, Blanche turned to promiscuity to cope with the loneliness his death had left as well as to cope with the remaining guilt (cf. 131-134) because “intimacies with strangers was all [she] seemed able to fill [her] empty heart with […]” (131). As O’Connor puts it, “abandoned by her husband both before and after his death, intimacies with strangers provide scant comfort for Blanche; she herself a sexual outlaw, driven to find comfort outside of the marriage bed and therefore bringing upon her the kind of dangerous exposure that her husband faced” (37). Moreover, Griffin points out that Blanche turned to promiscuity because “she [was] trying to succeed with strangers where she had failed with [Allan]” (49). According to Meyerowitz, “psychologists and psychiatrists portrayed women who stayed from the marital norm as immature, maladjusted, and mentally ill” (388).
Blanche’s constant need to bathe herself (cf. 29, 49) is one of her compulsions thus she tries to “wash” away her revealing past. According to Griffin, “Blanche’s constant bathing suggests the traditional association of water with purification” (68). Furthermore, marriage seems to be the only possibility to ensure a secure future. O’Connor points out that regarding her past, Blanche “[could not] become anything other than a helpless girl who seeks protection” (37). Her last hope for protection seems to be Stanley’s friend, Mitch. Although Mitch does not come close to Blanche’s ideal of the perfect husband, she does not hesitate to ask Stella if he is married (cf. 50) while “look[ing] after him with a certain interest“ (50). While the men are playing poker, Blanche “takes off [her] blouse and stands in her pink silk brassière and white skirt in the light trough the portières” (51). This reveals another fact about Blanche’s relationship with men: the only way Blanche knows how to interact with men is sexually as she tells Stella: “[M]en don’t […] even admit your existence unless they are making love to you” (83). By trying to convince Mitch that she is a lady with “old-fashioned ideals” (98) as well as “prim and proper” (86), her intense despair becomes obvious. Besides Blanche’s behaviour towards Mitch in order to appear pure and virginal, she tells him about the translation of her name: “white woods” (cf. 55) which indicates that she assigns meaning to it. Also the sign she was born under “Virgo [the] virgin” (80) contrasts with her actual sexual behaviour. She “want[s] to deceive [Mitch] enough to make him […] want [her]” (86) in order to finally “rest” (86) and experience the safety of marriage. Mitch also wants to settle down before the death of his mother (cf. 101). In this case, Blanche is the perfect match because they both seem to need somebody (cf. 104). It seems as if Blanche had almost reached her goal when Stanley destroys her chance with Mitch. With the reveal of Blanche’s past and her lies, Mitch’s trust in Blanche is completely wrecked. He tells her that she is “not clean enough to bring in the house with [his] mother” (134), which leads to her losing her grip on reality. According to O’Connor, “the contrasting desire she expresses throughout the play, the demand for connection and privacy at once, demonstrate her need for protection and contact as well as the conflicting impulse to remain unfettered and therefore safe from injury” (35). By describing Blanche as someone who “suggests a moth” (Williams 9), he pictures her as someone fragile and sensitive right from the beginning. Her biggest fear came true: losing her possibility of a secure future as a married woman because of her promiscuous past, a vicious cycle which she will never be able to escape from.
Due to her inappropriate sexual behaviour and her experiences with her young husband Allan as well as constantly describing him as a “boy” (102), Blanche is drawn to much younger men who make her reliving her past (cf. Griffin 50). Her lust for young men is demonstrated by her interaction with the young postman (cf. 87). Although she kisses him without his permission (cf. 89), she tells him that she “[has] got to be good and keep [her] hands off children” (89). This behaviour was the reason for Blanche’s loss of her job as a high school English teacher because her sexual relationship with one of her student’s became known (cf. 110) which led to the complete loss of her independence. Inappropriately, she even flirts with her own brother-in-law Stanley (cf. 44) because, again, Blanche can only relate to men in a sexual way, a trait she shares with Stanley (cf. 25-26)
Although Blanche and Stella share a deep sisterly connection, Blanche envies the security of Stella’s marriage and the sexual freedom Stella is able to experience through it. According to O’Connor, “the marriage home and bed that Stanley and Stella share is the antithesis of Blanche’s experience of coupling: her sexual history, which began with a fatal love affair, leads to emotional and social expulsion” (36).
Blanche’s relationship with men finds its climax in scene ten. Stanley’s rape causes Blanche to completely lose her mental health. Although the rape appears to be a shocking and unexpected event, there has been some foreshadowing. For example Stanley going through Blanche’s trunk (40) which symbolizes her past as well as her sexuality. Blanche tells him not to touch it because of “[its] intimate nature” (41). This particular sentence implies the later happening tragedy. As Stanley puts it, they “had this date with each other from the beginning” (146).