Tennessee Williams’s Female Characters: Problems of Gender and Sexuality

Bachelor Thesis, 2017

35 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Cognitive and Gender-Specific Approach to Characterization in Drama

3. Homosexuality in 20th Century American Literature
3.1 Gay Writing
3.2 Queer Reading of Tennessee Williams’s Drama
3.2.1 Williams’s Female Characters
3.2.2 Explicitness and Themes

4. Gender and Sexuality: Characterizing Blanche DuBois and Laura Wingfield
4.1 Gay Themes
4.2 Character Constellation
4.3 GenderRoles

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

Bünyamin Yuvarlak

Professors Sven-Knut Strasen & Peter Wenzel

Tennessee Williams’s Female Characters: Problems of Gender and Sexuality

07 September 2017


Among other studies, Tennessee Williams’s work has commonly been researched from a gay study perspective by literary scholars and queer theorists. The motive for that was mostly Williams’s own homosexuality and the stigma that surrounded the issue around the time he published his most famous pieces. He has written plays which explicitly involve the topic of homosexuality, as the eminent Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but most of his work does not embrace homosexuality precisely.

Nevertheless, on the grounds that literary studies is fairly limitless, for literature provides many different fields for analyses, it is possible to look involve literary pieces into the field of gay studies, even though it initially does not specify the matter.

The arguably most interesting element in Tennessee Williams’s drama are his characters, many of whom seem to share similar characteristics as struggling individuals. Analyzing the fictional characters with regard to gay writing could help find a possible pattern, draw conclusions about the influence of Williams’s personality, and thus, support the assumption that homosexuality is integrated in his plays.

Gender is also fundamental for an approach based on sexuality. Taking that into consideration, below, the focus will be on Williams’s female characters, especially on the protagonists Laura Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie and Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire. These women are not necessarily gay themselves; in the plays, there is no clear evidence about them being sexually or romantically attracted to the same sex. Instead, sexuality is a broad concept with more meanings attached to it, which will further be discussed in the third chapter. The goal of the paper therefore is to identify features relating to homosexual identity, based on a characterization of the previously mentioned literary figures. In the process, an often occurring term will be gay experience, which relates to the representation of life, behavior, struggles and desires of a homosexual person.

The analysis starts with an overview of characterization in drama in the first chapter. It will provide information about aspects that are relevant to an approach which gender and sexuality build the background for; a “cognitive stylistic” method adapted from an essay by Jonathan Culpeper (2009), and the role of gender in characterization, with Marion Gymnich’s essay The Gender(ing) of Fictional Characters (2010) being the basis for it. The introductory chapter ends with a brief display of how Williams’s personal life may influence his female characters.

Next, the second chapter deals with gay writing in 20th century American literature. It gives an insight on what it meant for queer American writers to address homosexuality in their work and the impact it had on queer readers and the general public, which, in contrast to homosexual people, was and is still constructed to heteronormative standards.

This will then be put into the context of Tennessee Williams as a gay writer and the resulting influence on Streetcar and Menagerie; two plays which, due to the fact that they do not hold openly homosexual protagonists, are generally not considered pieces of gay writing. Crucial to this point is the integration of Williams’s sexual identity. Then, a discussion about the level of explicitness ofhomosexual expression in the respective plays closes the chapter.

The final chapter is an in-depth analysis of character with the influence of the above mentioned relevant methods of characterization and features of gay writing in 20th century American literature. The main focus will be on the main characters of A Streetcar Named Desire and The GlassMenagerie, Blanche DuBois and Laura Wingfield, while other characters of the same plays will also be taken into consideration. The results shall support the idea that Tennessee Williams conveys expression of male homosexuality by means of female characters in his drama. This character-based analysis focuses mainly on themes, character constellations and the impact of gender roles.

Finally, the last chapter forms a conclusion about Williams’s view of gender and sexuality from his use of female characters in his work. The summary attempts to answer the question whether the two of his most famous literary creations are legitimate objectives within the field of gay studies.


In their book An Introduction to the Study of Plays and Drama (2009), Sybille Baumbach and Ansgar Nünning give, attention to dramatic communication, action, and space and time among other categories. However, they argue that characters “are the most elementary constituents of drama” (100). Thus, the Active individuals serve as the most fruitful part of drama with regard to drawing conclusions about the author’s intentions. Given the fact that the following examination depends on fictional characters and their relation to a real person, it is important to remark that they are merely invented objects and are not to be mistaken with actual human beings (100). Therefore, caution is required for the analysis of characters because they do not necessarily have to reflect their creator’s life or personality.

Nevertheless, readers perceive characters as real people (Gymnich 509), hence, they assign personalities to them instead of treating them as mere linguistic constructions with no further meaning attached to them: “The readers draw upon a range of real-world and literary frames in the process of constructing a fictional character in the reading process. These frames include personality theories [...] as well as the reader’s knowledge about character types and character constellations in specific genres” (510). This indicates that characterization should not be realized in textual terms only, but social issues of the real world need to be considered as well. In consequence, not only linguistic, but also cognitive aspects play a significant role for the construction and comprehension of fictional characters (Culpeper 125).

Acknowledging cognitive research with relation to characterization and readers’ interpretation of characters due to their pre-existing knowledge of the real world and literature, schema theory, as suggested by Culpeper, becomes a matter of vital importance. As mentioned above, readers perceive fictional characters as if they were real people, which is a justifiable procedure. Despite stemming from imagination, the mere linguistic creations are assigned with human characteristics and thus represent real people. Mieke Bal argues that a character “has no real psyche, personality, ideology, or competence to act, but it does possess characteristics that make readers assume it does, and makes psychological and ideological descriptions possible” (113). Now, readers are aware about so-called social schemata which contribute to the social understanding of people in real life (Culpeper 128). Intentionally or not, readers are influenced by their knowledge in their social interpretation of character; they construe meaning expressed beyond the explicit information in the text (129). The perceptions naturally vary amongst the readers because the inferences being made depend on the individual’s experience of the real world. Besides, the process of reading and understanding a character’s personality and behavior is likely to be identical among people who belong to the same social group due to the same cultural experiences and values they share with each other (135).

Social cognition defines the act of “how people make sense of other people and themselves” (Fiske and Taylor 1). As suggested by Culpeper (134), social schemata are based on three different categories; personal, social role, and group membership.1 These classifications correlate with points made by Baumbach and Nünning (2009) about categories which build the basis for dramatic characterization. Important for this study is the contemplation of “similarities and differences between the characters with regard to appearance, attitudes, or actions” (Baumbach & Nünning 101), character constellation, which concerns relationships between the individuals in the play (102), and stock characters, which “draw on cultural conventions for their behaviour, personality, and manner of speech and are thus easily recognisable for the audiences of the same culture” (105). These groupings determine the idea readers are trying to get of characters, and need to be taken into consideration in the examination of gender, sexuality, identification, and society.

The focus here is on readers’ impressions, which is crucial to the approach of analyzing characters in reference to gay experience because homosexual readers may interpret Williams’s drama than heterosexual people. Regarding cognitive influences on characterization, Culpeper explains, “the main issue [is] not [...] what characters are but what they appear to be to readers” (127). In addition to what has already been mentioned above, readers implement their knowledge about the real world in their reading of fictional characters. It happens through combining the knowledge arisen from textual information with knowledge about literature and the real world (Gymnich 510-11).

The relation between textual information and the individual reader’s real-world experience could be defined by particular themes which the reader identifies and applies to his or her understanding of the text.

Recalling the idea of the group membership category, stock characters, and projection of real-world frames, the influence of gender in relation to characterization cannot be ignored. Cognitive research and gender stand in close relation to each other. According to Gymnich (506), gender is essential to the cognitive processing of people in real life as well as in literature. Due to their real-world observation of separating human beings by gender, readers naturally sort characters by either male or female. As Gymnich puts it, “they are likely to expect characters to act (more or less) in accordance with culturally dominant definitions of masculinity and femininity” (506). She further argues that the contrast between the two categories contribute to “character-related issues, including identity, emotions, attitudes, values and norms” (506). Consequently, gender is a critical element which needs to be recognized with respect to how female and also male characters affect the reading of Tennessee Williams’s drama from a gay perspective.


3.1 Gay Writing

Prior to an in-depth analysis of Williams’s plays and characters, it is important to be aware of gay writing, or gay literary studies, with attention being paid to 20th century American drama. An observation of gay writers, gay drama, and gay themes in respective literature of the Tennessee Williams era shall clarify the motive of studying Williams’s drama in view of gender and sexuality.

There are certain principles attached to the study of gay literature. These include for instance the “identification of authors involved with homosexuality [...], whether positively or negatively, biographically and through analysis of their works in an effort to expose the often hidden influences of their sexuality on their creative product” (Dynes 15). The textual signs referring to homosexuality in 20th century American drama are not explicit in many cases because of the homophobic political climate of that time. In fact, specific laws concerning censorship prohibited the publication of texts that openly dealt with homosexuality (13); Tennessee Williams was also among the playwrights who had to avoid addressing the topic in their work (14-15).

But rather than excluding it entirely, the notion of homosexuality was constructed through “vocal, gestural, and other semiotic codes” (Dolan 487). In this manner, neither the government nor the general public would be able to detect them, but gay readers were likely to identify these codes (487). This means that, based on the differences between their identities and life experiences, homosexual people could interpret certain texts differently than heterosexuals.

Particular themes, which heavily rely on the appearance, behavior, and attitudes of the characters, contribute to the expression of a gay person’s feelings in the text. Some of them are “coming out, [...] interaction with mainstream society, conflict between homosexual and heterosexual desires, and ‘arcadia’” (Dynes 15). The term Arcadia refers to an ideal alternative world in literature which only exists in the mind of an author or his or her characters. With regard to gay themes, Arcadia expresses the longing for an environment where it is safe to be gay without having to face prejudice and discrimination (Kellogg 4), or as Dynes puts it, “the attempt to find special places of refuge where gay and lesbian persons can flourish undisturbed” (15). Moreover, Fone argues that this imaginative world “is used to imply that gay love and sensibility is present in the text, which does not make explicit statements about homosexuality” (13).

Considering the fact that Williams’s female characters, for instance Blanche or Laura, do not rest upon homosexuality in terms of sexual intercourse with partners of the same sex, it is important to highlight the meaning of sexuality in general as well as in literature to avoid confusion regarding their gender identity and relation to homosexuality. According to many, sexuality has to do with more than solely the romantic or erotic attraction to someone else. In fact, sexual partners may only be of secondary interest because there are other relevant factors that are responsible for the identification as either homosexual or heterosexual. Kinsey et al. suggest, there even is a “homosexual personality” which refers to particular interests and characteristics, which differs a homosexual person from a heterosexual (592), implying that sexual preference is not the main defining element, but rather just one of various features. Michael Cobb questions the concept of sexuality by recognizing its ambivalence:

Is sexuality about the rubbing and touching of erogenous zones of the body? Or is it about something more? [...] Does sexuality have something to do with desire? Love? Would desire or love for a commodity count as sexuality? [...] Are there specific words, plots, temporalities, anxieties, pleasures, or losses that would count as sex? (17)

Stuart Kellogg goes along with Cobb’s realization by claiming that the definition of sexuality goes beyond the sexual act and adds that it is pervasive in casual interaction between people (2). Hence, characterization is a useful method to search for elements indicating notions of homosexuality on the basis of character constellations.

These findings are crucial to the following approach inasmuch as it involves the consideration of Tennessee Williams’s personality, more precisely, how his personal life and his sexuality are reflected in his work by scrutinizing his female characters. Especially the above signified themes (Dynes 1994), supposed to represent homosexual desire, play a major role respectively.

3.2 Queer Reading ofTennessee Williams’s Drama

In her study of the development of A Streetcar Named Desire, Vivienne Dickson discovers that, despite a large amount of different drafts and manuscripts prior to the final version of his plays, Tennessee Williams usually kept his original ideas (57). Drawn upon this observation, Jacqueline O’Connor states, “Williams, while working within that consistent framework, tests out a variety of meanings and experiments with a wide range of possible audience expectations and responses” (40), suggesting that Tennessee Williams’s work leaves room for various interpretations. Williams himself says that he does not mind if readers interpret his original intentions differently (Davis 1986: 40). This alludes to the topic of reading his plays from a gay perspective, meaning that even though the playwright may not have intended to let his sexuality affect his creations, it might still be implicit.

3.2.1 Williams’s Female Characters

As previously highlighted, drawing conclusions from a writer’s personal life predicated upon the creation of his or her fictional characters is generally inappropriate because they are constructed linguistic bodies not to be confused with a real person. So in general, one can only make assumptions about possible connections between the writer’s personal life and his or her creative product. But Williams himself admits that “[a]ll [his] creative work is autobiographical” (Gruen 116), especially Menagerie consisting of many details of his personal life:

The Glass Menagerie is ‘semi-autobiographical - that is, it is based on the conditions of my life in St. Louis. [...] It [the apartment] was a rented, furnished apartment, all over-stuffed furniture, and the only nice room in it was my sister’s room. That room was painted white and she had put up a lot of shelves and filled them with little glass animals. [...] She was the member of the family with whom I was most in sympathy and, looking back, her glass menagerie had a meaning forme. [...]’ (Van Gelder 10)

In addition to that, “Donald Spoto and Lyle Leverich reveal in their biographies that Wiliams’ father was frequently drunk and violent. Regarded in this light, the absence of the father in The Glass Menagerie (1944) is understandable and significant” (Sinfield 189). The father in Menagerie is presented in a negative manner due to his run-off from his family; Tom, whom Williams admits to identify with (Terkel 80), refers to his father as “a bastard” and adds that “he’sbeen absent going on sixteen years” {Menagerie 88).

The specific relation between Williams and his characters is what distinguishes the creation of them: “I live with my characters. They are more real than I am. They are more I than I am. My work is the only way of realizing myself’ (Fayard 208). In response to a comment on his female characters being of the same nature, Williams denies that they are thoroughly alike, but asserts that they indeed share similarities (209). His statement leads to the assumption that due to the fact that his characters from different plays share identical characteristics he may realize his inner self in each one of them.

After making clear that his primary interest in his plays is the establishment of his characters (Lewis 28), he reveals that it constitutes the essentiality of his plays: “[they] have been an effort to explore the beauty and meaning in the confusion of living” (28). Moreover, in the same interview in which he avers that the characters he has created are “troubled” people, he refers to himself as an “anxious, troubled person”, claiming that “[a] writer’s view of the world is always affected by his own state of being. [... ] I can’t write about anything I don’t feel” (Ross 38-39). Williams personally yearned for privacy, or as O’Connor puts it “the need to ‘be left alone’” (34). He wrote as an attempt to flee from reality, which he was not able to adapt himself to, affirming, “I discovered writing as an escape from a world of reality in which I felt acutely uncomfortable. It immediately became my place of retreat, my cave, my refuge. From what? From being called a sissy by the neighborhood kids, and Miss Nancy by my father” (Goodman 274). The result is the creation of fragile women whose lives are challenged by tough circumstances, as they, much like Williams himself, struggle to deal with the real world.

His interest to write about women is among other things accentuated by his decision to assign Tom with the role of the narrator “to keep him in the background of the play” (Terkel 80). So, even though Tom is said to mirror Williams’s personality, he chooses to focus on the female characters, Laura and Amanda. This derives from the fact that he finds women more interesting than men (Rader 344); he further explains that he does not “identify very easily” with his male characters (Gruen 117), but agrees to greater affection to women: “Women have always been my deepest emotional root; anyone who’s read my writings knows that” (Jennings 230). Drawing from this reflection, Williams’s own personal desires and emotions are expressed through his specific female characters, which induces the conflation between the male and the female psyche. Blanche and Laura, having difficulty dealing with their surroundings and themselves, both diverge from the norm and thus embody the need to remove themselves from reality. Thus, the playwright sympathizes not with individuals conforming to society’s norms, but with defective people who feel isolated from the rest (Stang 110). This presupposition is fundamental for the following analysis and will be picked up in the fourth chapter for a more detailed discussion.

The disparities between society and Williams’s constructed characters, and between the real world and an imaginative world, lay the foundation of a gay person’s life experiences. To put things into perspective, Williams had even moderately come out in an interview from 1970, claiming that “everybody has some elements of homosexuality in him” and that he was well experienced in that topic (Frost 146). In that statement, he also rejects conventional gender roles, agreeing with the fact that “no one is all man or all woman” (146). His prevalent interest in androgyny has an effect on the creation of his characters. Jones describes those as “unisexual” (546) for the reason that they do not act in accordance with the sex they are assigned to, but “could [...] easily have been portrayed as members of the opposite sex” (545). Williams’s ambivalent portrayal of sex through his characters raises questions about their sexuality. With regard to the women in his drama, Jones notes that they appear in the foreground and “attempt sexual dominance” (548). Such is a characteristic traditionally associated with men. But as the focus here is on sexuality, it would be misleading to assume that the female characters may portray heterosexual men. They are more likely to be perceived as imitations of homosexual men, which the characterization in the following chapter will demonstrate with more noteworthy instances of Williams expressing his views on gender and sexuality taken into consideration.

Based on Tennessee Williams projecting specific features of himself onto his characters, which Durant da Ponte describes as “frightened, timid, groping, highly sensitive, neurotic dreamers” with a “disoriented personality” (54), it is possible to make inferences about them exemplifying his homosexual identity. Accordingly, assumptions made about the relationship between Williams and his female characters serve to support the belief that the playwright integrates the gay experience in his drama.

3.2.2 Explicitness and Themes

To emphasize Dynes’s above quoted proposal in his Introduction to Gay Male Literature (15), for the attempt of analyzing any creative piece of work with regard to gay studies in literature, the author’s affiliation with homosexuality has to be taken into account, personally and in his or her literary catalogue. In reference to Tennessee Williams, not only do we know that the writer himself was queer, but he also either openly discussed (e.g. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) or indeterminately included the topic in other ofhis work.

For instance, the initial idea for a relationship between a man and a woman in his play Sweet Bird ofYouth was that of a same-sex couple (Murphy 186). Williams eventually did not follow through with the concept, but it portrays his interest in making use of the subject-matter of homosexuality, which might appear in a hidden manner in his work.


1 According to Culpeper (134), personal categories include interests, traits and goals; social role categories refer to kinship and relational roles amongst others, and group membership categories are about gender, race, class, etc.

Excerpt out of 35 pages


Tennessee Williams’s Female Characters: Problems of Gender and Sexuality
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Romanistik der RWTH Aachen)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Tennessee Williams, gender, sexuality, Homosexuality, modern american drama, gender studies, A streetcar named desire, The glass menagerie
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Bünyamin Yuvarlak (Author), 2017, Tennessee Williams’s Female Characters: Problems of Gender and Sexuality, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/998184


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