Reality and Illusion in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire"

An Analysis of Frequent Symbols

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Symbolism in Literature

3 Symbols of Illusion and Realism in Streetcar
3.1 The Symbolism of Names
3.2 The Symbolism of Colours and Clothes
3.3 Symbolism of Music
3.4 Symbolism of Light
3.5 Symbolism of Rituals

4 Antinomies and Similarities of Stanley and Blanche

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams, is not only known for being a “talented, perceptive and influential American playwright” (Day 1987, vii), but also for his frequent use of symbols. “A Streetcar Named Desire[1] (1947), the work which will be dealt with in this paper, is a good example for of usage, since it contains a lot of different kinds of symbolism, for example concerning colours, names, music and many more.

Numerous works will be found, if anyone searches for essays about symbolism in Williams’ works. Moreover, it is common knowledge that Streetcar is a play which deals not only superficially with a woman going insane, but a play which “bring[s] into violent contrast a neurotic woman’s dream world and the animalistic realism of her brother-in-law” (back of the book in the Diesterweg edition). But since there does not seem to be any work which deals with the question of how exactly Williams drew this contrast by use of symbolism, it will be my aim in this paper to analyse this question. Consequently, I will try to point out the main symbols with which Williams underlined the contrast between realism and illusion, especially considering names, colours, clothes, light, music and certain rituals of the main characters.

In the second part of this paper, I will deal with the question to what degree the main characters Stanley and Blanche are strictly opposed to each other or may have something in common. I will also deal with the meaning of the ending concerning realism and illusion. Therefore, what will be discussed are the most striking antinomies and similes in the main characters’ attitudes. A general conclusion about the topic of symbolism in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar will be given in the end.

To introduce the reader to the topic and also to justify my choice of symbols, a definition of the notion of symbolism will be given right at the beginning of this paper. This will be done by including different approaches, so that a broader definition can be given. Furthermore, for this paper is based on symbolism in Streetcar by Tennessee Williams, it may also be very interesting for the reader to have a look at Williams’ attitude towards symbols which will be done at the end of the second chapter.

One last point to mention in this introduction is that due to space restrictions not all symbols concerning the topic of illusion and realism can be discussed in this paper. Nevertheless, it is my aim to present the most striking ones.

2 Symbolism in Literature

Symbols are not only an important instance of figurative meaning in literature, but also apparent in everyday life and a well-discussed topic in literary theories, but nevertheless the notion of symbolism does not seem to be defined easily.

Initially, the term symbolism as a technical term came into use especially with reference to poetry (cf. Styan 1981, 2). As Styan writes in his book on symbolism, surrealism and the absurd it was

the poet’s task (…) to find the right words to convey human feelings and ideas, and in poetic practise a verbal symbol is intended to evoke feelings and ideas greater than those the words usually stand for, suggesting a meaning beyond its immediate concrete reality (ibid., 2).

A similar definition is given by Murfin and Ray, who define a symbol as being something that “although it is of interest in its own right, stands for or suggests something larger and more complex” (Murfin/ Ray 1997, 391). They also deal with the fact that symbols can be understood best within a given culture and they name the five intertwined Olympic rings as one example of a cultural symbol.

In even more detail, Chadwick counters that a definition of symbolism as something that “instead of referring to something directly, refers to it indirectly through the medium of something else” (Chadwick 1971, 1) is too broad and has to be narrowed down “if it is to have any significance as a critical term” (ibid., 1). Therefore, one may not just substitute one object for another, but has to use concrete imagery to express abstract emotions. Furthermore, he claims that it is important that the used symbols are not revealed openly or even named, but just hinted at. He defines symbolism therefore as the art of expressing ideas and emotions not by describing them directly, nor by defining them through overt comparisons with concrete images, but by suggesting what these ideas and emotions are, by re-creating them in the mind of the reader through the use of unexplained symbols (ibid.)

It is also noticeable that a lot of symbols which are used in literature are created by the writers themselves and are based on personal perceptions. These ones can also be strong, as Styan points out, “if [their] meaning and function is carefully brought out and made intelligible” (Styan 1981, 3).

Tennessee Williams is a playwright, who often uses symbolism, whose plays even “regularly depend on visual symbolism” (Adler 1994, 141). In his plays, he also brings in such personal symbols and he does that exactly the way which Styan required. Williams himself justifies his frequent use of symbols by saying that their purpose is “to say a thing more directly and simply and beautifully than it could be said in words” (Williams 1978, 66). He defines them as “a puzzle which is still puzzling you” (ibid., 146), but underlines their importance for drama by pointing out that symbols are "nothing but the natural speech of drama [and] when used respectfully, (…) the purest language of plays” (ibid., 66). For him, symbols are so essential for his work that he stated the often quoted sentence saying that “art is made out of symbols the way your body is made out of vital tissue” (ibid., 45).

3 Symbols of Illusion and Realism in Streetcar

The first category of symbols to be analysed will be one which is evident right from the beginning of the play and which therefore also gives us an insight into the forthcoming events even if we do not yet know about them. This leads us to the meaning of names.

3.1 The Symbolism of Names

Starting with the name of the female protagonist, we see that in the course of the play she herself gives an interpretation for it. Blanche DuBois, being French by extraction, tells Mitch that her last name “means wood and Blanche means white, so the two together mean white woods” (Williams 1975, 36). She even goes on and compares it to an orchard in the spring. But although her translation may be correct, her interpretation of her own name is actually the first symbol of illusion. Blanche likes the idea of her name having a romantic meaning, but as the real Blanche is already “past her spring” (Cohn 1971, 60), so is a forest whose colour is white, which suggests more likely decay or even death. The fact that the colour white is not only a translation of her name, but remains an important symbol throughout the whole play will be discussed in the next subsection.

In contrast to Blanche, Stanley’s name bears the meaning of a stone clearing (Campbell 2009). This meaning obviously stands in opposition to her last name, meaning wood and is symbolic for him being stronger than Blanche. In general, Stanley is not a “soft character” as Blanche describes herself, but a person who likes to be in power. As stones are very hard and cold objects, Stanley’s character is alike, which can be proven by the fact that he shows no mercy towards Blanche, but even seems to enjoy destroying her illusions one by one. It is also striking, as Cohn explains in her essay, that “the hard consonants of Stanley Kowalski contrast with the open vowels of Blanche DuBois” (Cohn 1971, 62). Even this unobtrusive phonological difference shows how diverse these two characters are.

But not only the names of characters in the play may contain a deeper meaning, because also the names of places are important symbols. Already in the very first sentence of the play the street on which Stella and Stanley are living is called “Elysian Fields”. This term derives from Greek Mythology and describes the resting place of the blessed after death (cf. Wolf 1975, 100). By comparing this meaning with the actual street in New Orleans and Blanche’s experiences on that street, one can see that Williams once again chose a name with a more ironical meaning. Although it would fit in Blanche’s picture of the dream world in which she wants to live, Elysian Fields in the end does not become a place of relief for her, but a hell.

Another very important symbol of illusion is the name of the plantation where Stella and Blanche grew up: Belle Reve. Translated to English it means beautiful dream, a name which could have an element of truth if one imagines Blanche and her family spending happy times at their home. But after getting to know what really happened and seeing that it was at Belle Reve that “Blanche has encountered death and the destruction of her dreams” (Holditch 1993, 150) one discovers that Williams’ choice of words is more ironical than at first sight. On top of that, he even symbolised Belle Reve’s status of not being perfect by introducing a spelling mistake in its name. For the French noun “rêve” being masculine, the adjective should be masculine too, namely “beau” and not “belle”, which is the feminine adjective. Thus, the name Belle Reve includes a mistake which symbolises Blanche’s inability to accept that her life has not gone the way she wanted and that her dream world, which she built up for herself, is not true at all. Furthermore, this mistake makes clear that Blanche, who did not notice it although she seems to be very proud of her French origin, lives just in her fantasy. In fact, she is neither French nor can she speak the language except from the translation of her name.

3.2 The Symbolism of Colours and Clothes

As already mentioned, the name Blanche means white. That this is not pure coincidence is shown by the fact that Blanche wears white clothes most of the time, in contrast to Stanley who wears mostly primary colours (cf. Cardullo 1993, 176). The colour white with which Blanche is associated and which she mostly wears suggests not only purity, but also innocence (cf. ibid.). The colour can thus be seen as a further symbol of illusion, since it is Blanche’s choice what to wear and so one can assume that it is her will to give other people the impression of being “innocent”, pure and virtuous. She had a difficult time in her hometown Laurel and in the end was even “a town character, (…) regarded as not just different but downright loco” (Williams 1975, 68). In the end she has been told she should “better move on to some fresh territory” (Williams 1975, 69), an advice which she finally heeded. This is why she is dressed completely in white on her first appearance in Elysian Fields; Blanche wants her “new territory” to see her as a the virtuous gentlewoman she always wanted to be, and also she tries to forget the past herself. At least in the beginning, Blanche still knows that she is not as pure as she tries to appear, but nevertheless she tries to keep up her image very urgently. This fact is symbolised in scene five very vividly. Here, Stella wants to pour Blanche a coke into her glass, but it foams over and spills right on Blanche’s white skirt. As a reaction, Blanche gives a “piercing cry” and then tries to blot out the spot, being very nervous. Later on, she answers Stella’s question of why she screamed like that by saying that she does not know. But for the reader of the play it becomes obvious that this whole incident is meant as a symbol of Blanche’s “spotted” past and also of her urgent attempts to keep her image clean.


[1] From now abbreviated with “Streetcar

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Reality and Illusion in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire"
An Analysis of Frequent Symbols
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik I)
Hauptseminar "American Drama"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
529 KB
Tennessee, Williams, Symbolism, Streetcar, Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche, Symbols, Tennessee Williams, Symbolismus, Stanley, Stella, Symbole, Farben, Illusion
Quote paper
Ilona Sontag (Author), 2009, Reality and Illusion in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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