Symbolic devices in A Streetcar named Desire

Seminar Paper, 2001

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Symbolism

3. The names’ symbolic meaning
3.1. Blanche DuBois
3.2. Stella
3.3. Belle Reve
3.4. Desire, Cemeteries and Elysian Fields

4. The light as a symbol for truth and reality
4.1. Blanche’s aversion of light
4.2. Stanley’s affection for light

5. The use of color symbolism
5.1. Blanche’s symbolic colours
5.2. Stanley and his friends

6. Music as a symbol for emotions
6.1. The blue piano
6.2. The Varsouviana Polka

7. Animalistic images
7.1. Blanche’s connection to the moth
7.2. Stanley and his wild image

8. Conclusion

9. Works Cited

1. Introduction

A Streetcar named Desire was written in 1947 and was probably one of Tennessee Williams’ most successful plays. In all of his plays, he makes explicit use of symbols as a dramatic technique. He once said that symbolism is, “say(ing) a thing more directly and simply and beautifully than it could be said in words…sometimes it would take page after tedious page of exposition to put across and idea that can be said with an object or a gesture on the lighted page” (Jackson 26).

In this paper, some of the symbols used by Tennessee Williams shall be discussed. Since he makes excessive use of symbolism only the major ones shall be dealt with, but it shall be added that the distinction between major or minor importance lies in the perception of the author of this paper. The order of the symbols in this paper is not identical with the order of appearance in the play.

2. Symbolism

In literature, symbols are widely used by authors as a means of emphasising certain atmospheres and characteristic features of people and places.

A symbol is something that is itself and also stands for something else. All language is symbolic considering that letters form words which stand for particular objective realities. In a literary sense, a symbol combines a literal and sensuous quality with an abstract or suggestive aspect. A symbol is an image that evokes an objective, concrete reality and prompts that reality to suggest another level of meaning.

There are two broad types of symbols:

The first one includes those embodying universal suggestions of meaning, and the second one acquires its suggestiveness not from qualities inherent in itself but from the way in which it is used in a given work.

Symbols can therefore be regarded as visual complexes with two levels of meaning. The first level of meaning of a certain image is the pictura. The second level of meaning of a certain image is the subscriptio, which describes the reflection of the complex image of the pictura onto another complex image (Link 168).

3. The names’ symbolic meaning

3.1. Blanche DuBois

Blanche DuBois is the main character of the play and also the most thoroughly described one. The name Blanche is French and means white or fair (Langenscheidt 80). Her last name DuBois is of French origin as well and translates as made of wood (Langenscheidt 82).

Regarding the subscriptio of her first name a clear connection to her character becomes quite obvious. Since the colour white stands for purity, innocence and virtue, the subscriptio of Blanche‘s name reveals these qualities, which stand in contrast to her actual character traits. The name suggests that Blanche is a very innocent, and pure person, but throughout the play it becomes obvious that Blanche cannot call any of these traits her own. Only the illusory image, which she tries to create for herself, suggests these traits, but her true nature is not like that at all. She constantly tries to hide her embarrassing past from all of her new acquaintances, because she fears that they might not accept her anymore. In order to maintain her apparent social status among her new neighbours and friends, she builds this intertwined net of lies which creates a false image of herself. She, herself, believes in this imaginary world, and as soon as there is the slightest sign of its destruction, she seems to be lost, and her nervous condition worsens. Therefore all she cares about is to keep that image alive. Her first name is therefore quite ironic since it means the exact opposite of Blanche’s true nature and character.

Her last name, however, stands in contrast to her first name, regarding the meaning on the level of the subscriptio. Made of wood suggests something solid and hard, which is the exact opposite of her fragile nature and nervous condition

Wood can also be associated with forest or jungle, and regarding her past, the connection becomes clear. Blanche used to lead a rather excessive lifestyle. She had sex with random strangers and was known throughout her hometown Laurel for that. So her former life was more like a jungle or a forest, because it was hard to see through all this and detect the real Blanche. Like in a jungle, Blanche could not find a way out of this on her own. The term jungle appears in the play as well. In scene ten, when Stanley is about to rape Blanche, “the inhuman jungle voices rise up”(Williams 215). The jungle can be associated with wildness, brutality and inhuman behaviour.

As already mentioned above, wood represents something hard, or hard-working. The Du in front of that, however, suggests something aristocratic and noble. There seems to be a contradiction in these two terms which can be explained with the nature of her character. The way Blanche tries to create an aristocratic and sophisticated image of herself, but is in fact the complete opposite of that, the name displays this ambiguity.

There is another way to explore her last name, and it leads to the pronunciation of it. If one pronounces DuBois with the correct French accent, there is nothing uncommon about it, but since the play was written by an American, who most likely knew about the way most Americans would pronounce it, a very obvious connection to Blanche’s past appears. Being pronounced with an American accent, Dubois sounds more like “Do boys”, which accompanies the fact that she had had an affair with a student while she was a teacher. Her kissing the paper-boy in scene five underlines the sexual symbolic meaning of that last name as well.

Combined with her first name, her entire name would translate as “white wood”, which she explains to Mitch in scene three, “It’s a French name. It means woods and Blanche means white, so the two together mean white woods” (Williams 150).

Blanche DuBois cannot only be translated as white wood but also as white and made of wood, which makes it easier for the reader to detect that she seems pure and innocent on the outside, but is really quite tough and calculating when it comes down to her image and her future, especially concerning her search for a husband.

Overall, Blanche’s entire name is very symbolic because it reflects her true nature in a very clear way. Just like first and last name are being read out in an exact order, Blanche’s character is revealed in the same way. At first she seems to be innocent and pure, but later her past and her true nature can be discovered.

3.2. Stella

Stella is a latin term which simply means star (Pertsch 372).

Stars in general are considered to be the light which breaks through the darkness. Considering that light is the opposite of darkness, and darkness itself stands for not-knowing and intellectual dullness, the stars can be regarded as reality and knowledge shining through ignorance. Stars can also be a symbol for high ideals or goals set too high (Becker 289). Stella represents Blanche’s ideal concerning the fact that she is leading a content life.

The deeper significance of her name reveals her role in the play. The subscritptio of star is light, hope and stability. This is quite a good description of her role and her position in the play. Stella is the connection between Blanche and Stanley, the two major characters, because she contains character traits of both of them, and can therefore relate them better than anyone else can. Therefore she can be considered to be the stabilising element of the play. She is the negotiator between the two so very different characters.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Symbolic devices in A Streetcar named Desire
University of Bayreuth  (Language and Literature Sciences)
PS: American Drama Classics
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
510 KB
Symbolic, Streetcar, Desire, American, Drama, Classics
Quote paper
Kerstin Müller (Author), 2001, Symbolic devices in A Streetcar named Desire, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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