A Streetcar Named Desire: Social Conflict Analysis
Background and Themes
Tennessee Williams was one of the greatest and most well-known American playwrights of the twentieth century. In order to better understand A Streetcar Named Desire, it is important to know some facts about Tennessee Williams' personal life and background.
Growing up, Williams was not healthy; and because of that, he did not relate to other boys his age. His father was a drunk; he did not receive much love from his father (Baym, 2184). On the other hand, his mother loved him and protected him. Because of these factors, Williams had a well-developed "feminine side"; he later became an active homosexual (Baym, 2186).
Williams was very close to his sister. Unfortunately, Rose suffered mental problems and was taken away to a mental asylum. Much of the content within William's plays (most notably, A Streetcar Named Desire) was based off of his family and personal life (Baym, 2185). Williams suffered from alienation and loneliness.
Tennessee described desire as being "...rooted in a longing for companionship, [it is] a release from the loneliness that haunts every individual”.
Tennessee wrote numerous plays during his life; and of those the most well-known and recognized is his play entitled, A Streetcar Named Desire. This play was first performed in 1947 (Baym, 2185).
The late 1940’s were characterized by fear of government and of nuclear attacks. People felt alienated, they could no longer trust tradition, so they looked for new stability (Baym, 2084). For these reasons, the themes within A Streetcar Named Desire struck a chord with society.
A Streetcar Named Desire is more than entertainment. It includes numerous social conflict undertones which give it relevance, depth, and meaning. Williams wrote in a way so as to pull at the hearts of those in the audience.
Through the play, Tennessee Williams:
- Considers the effects of the conflict that occurs when society's perception of a person and the person's personal reality do not coincide.
- Considers the effects of the personal struggle that occurs when a person's reality does not coincide with their inner-fantasies.
- Sheds light on society’s victimization of females and considers the idea of female self-expression (which was still a new idea in William's time).
- Questions woman’s apparent lack of authority in a society dominated by men.
Brief Setting, Character, and Plot Overview
A Streetcar Named Desire has only one setting: a two story flat in New Orleans.
During the time period in which the play was set, New Orleans was transforming from the old "aristocratic" south to the new "industrialized" south.
The play had four main characters: Stella, Stanley, Blanche, and Mitch.
- Stella is Stanley's wife and Blanche's sister. Throughout the play, Stella is sympathetic towards Blanche. However, she never commits to act for Stella because that would require rebelling against Stanley's authority.
- Blanche is Stella's sister, the play describes her as, “… a demonic creature; the size of her feeling was too great for her to contain” (Tennessee Williams). The play centers around Blanche and her conflicts with identity and happiness. Blanche represented the "dying out" of the old south.
- Stanley is Stella's husband; a headstrong Polish man who believed that he was the “king” of his house and all that was in it. He represented the new south: a society dominated by men.
- Mitch, a friend of Stanley's, was more gentlemanly refined than Stanley. At one point in the play, he even considers marrying Blanche.
The plot unfolds as Blanche, with her poorly-disguised and unstable circumstances, vies with the headstrong and selfish Stanley for authority and acceptance.
Summary: The Antagonist Transforms into a Victim
In the beginning of the play...
When Blanche first arrives from Laurel Missouri, she immediately becomes the antagonist:
- She looks like a high bread women who wants to destroy her sisters marriage for her own personal gain.
- She seems to believed that she deserves special treatment.
- She seems illusive.
- Evidence points to the fact that she sold her family's estate, "Belle Reve", and squandered all the proceeds on fine clothes.
It is important to note that, in the beginning, we do not know Blanche's background. We do not know why she thinks the way she does. And most of all, we do not know that what seems to be true is, indeed, true.
As the play progresses...
Stanley develops his case against Blanche.
(Stanley speaking) “Open your eyes to this stuff! You think she got them out of a teacher’s pay?... Look at these feathers and furs” (Williams, A Streetcar…).
At the end of the play...
The "antagonist" turns into a victim. Stanley unemotionally sought Blanche’s destruction by gaining evidence of her past and using it against her. He was successful. In the end, Stanley went so far as to have Blanche sent off to a mental asylum.
The audience is allowed to share Blanche's view and past struggles. She begins to look something like a heroine. Without fighting back, Blanche succumbs to Stanley's authority. The audience experiences sadness. For the most part, the other characters did not display much emotion. Stella was deeply saddened; however, Blanche was forgotten. However, her story lives on in the minds of the audience.
“The lucidity of William’s representation appears in the impartial view of the combat between two antagonists and in a resolution that does not sentimentalize the victimization as ascension to a more glorious world” (Vlasopolos, 325).
The Social Conflict Between Appearance and Reality
Blanche had freedom of expression, but only at the inward disdain of the others. Stanley was a very blunt, rough, and authoritative. He was not not used to Blanche's personality, he disliked her because he felt that she threatened his authority.
Stanley (more so than the other characters) realizes that Blanche's outward appearance and personality were merely facades which she created in order to protect herself. Stanley attacked Blanche's weakest link: her reality. He sought to destroy Blanche by exposing her to the world.
(Stanley speaking) “Some men are took in by this Hollywood glamour stuff and some men are not” (Williams, A Streetcar…).
(Stanley speaking) “There isn’t no millionaire! And Mitch did not come back with roses… There isn’t a [explicit] thing but imagination!” (Williams, A Streetcar…).
As the play progresses, Stanley's scheme works. Stella and Mitch slowly gravitate away from Blanche. They judge Blanche and her past at face value; they focus only on discovering her past mistakes and flaws. They see that Blanche was immoral in her past relations with men and looked no further. Their dislike and mistrust of her grows. They did not see the pain, loneliness, struggle, unhappiness, and rejection that Blanche experienced.
Stanley, Mitch, and Stella did not see Blanche as she really was because they were blinded by the differences they found with Blanche. The judged her quickly, only caring to look at one side of the evidence. They did not want to see Blanche as a good person, they did not want to feel sorry for her. Therefore, they made her look as bad as possible.
The Personal Conflict Between Reality and Fantasy
Blanche is illusive because she does not accept her circumstances; she does not accept her reality. Therefore, she lives in a fantasy. However, in order to do that she hides her true self. The audience is allowed to see that Blanche longs for true acceptance, yet never finds it. She lives in the mistakes of her past, and desires a brighter future.
“Both Blanche’s drinking and her endless hot baths suggest that she is attempting to wash away her past and emerge through a sort of watery purgatory” (Spampinato, 294).
Blanche has a flawed view of happiness...
Blanche firmly believes that only men bring happiness, and therefore, she never goes out on her own to find happiness.
“I cannot be alone! Because- as you must have noticed –I’m- I’m not very well….” (Williams, A Streetcar…).
She wants to return to the happiness she had before her husband committed suicide (which occurred as the result of Blanche accusing him for being homosexual). Therefore, Blanche puts forth much effort in attempt to attract the attention of young men; for example, she never appears in the light in order to hide her actual age.
“BLANCHE- ‘How do I look?’ STELLA- ‘Lovely, Blanche’” (Williams, A Streetcar…).
“And disgust and self-hate result in her life of destructive lust for young men. Thus her loving desire becomes brutal desire, unloving desire. It becomes that sheer lust which is a kind of real death” (Spampinato, 295).
Blanche tried to adapt her external circumstances to her inward fantasies, and that backfires on her.
“Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of Allan, intimacies with strangers were all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with… I think it was panic, just panic, that drove me from one to another, hunting for some protection” (Williams, A Streetcar…).
Like her sister Stella, Blanche believed that the only way to gain stability and happiness was through the attention, appreciation, and adoration of men. Blanche saw her possible marriage to Mitch (who was much more of a gentleman than Stanley) as the only guarantee for her survival. Blanche did not really love Mitch, who at first believed that Blanche was a legitimate woman. However, after hearing Stanley's accusations, he distanced himself from her.
Feminism: A Social Struggle
The culture of New Orleans commands Blanche to conform and submit; however, she refuses. She stands her ground, deciding not to give in to Stanley's authority. I noticed that, while Blanche did make a few mistakes in her past, Stanley was completely let off the hook for his savage behavior. For example, when Stanley beat Stella, Blanche’s reaction seemed to be the biggest problem. While Blanche punished herself for her mistakes, Stanley was only temporarily sorry for his own. While none stood in the way of Stanley's unfettered freedom of expression, Blanche was disdained for her impulsiveness and expressiveness.
During Blanche and Stella's time period, men were considered to be "higher" than women. Women gained their value from their relationship with a man. In many cases, women were treated as property, not people.
“Some of Blanche’s difficulties can be traced to the narrow roles open to females during that period. Although she is an educated woman who has worked as a teacher, Blanche is nonetheless constrained by the expectations of Southern society. She knows that she needs men to lean on and to protect her” (Spampinato, 291).
Whatever women believed or said often went unnoticed because they had to live under the complete authority of men. Blanche was different; she was outspoken and non-conforming to the demands that southern society put upon women.
During the play, Stella repeatedly submits to Stanley’s authority; she does not question it because it was a social and traditional norm. Stella believes that her rightful place in life was to be Stanley’s possession. In return for her submission, Stanley either uses her body or beats it, depending on how he happens to be feeling at the time. Blanche pleaded with Stella to leave her abusive relationship with Stanley; however, she was unwilling to do so even when she was being physically harmed. Her identity was found through Stanley.
“Stanley’s always smashed things. Why, on our wedding night, soon as we came in here, he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing light bulbs with it… But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark, that sort of make everything else seem, unimportant” (Williams, A Streetcar…).
Blanche also wanted the admiration of men; however, she did not want a man like Stanley.
The conflict between Blanche and Stanley raises the question of the role of women in the realm of authority. For, as seen through the play, women cannot withstand the total authority of men.
I believe that Williams was affected by the harsh treatment of women in Southern society. He designed the play to show how the social structure of the South offered little protection for women. He exposed unfairness that often went unconsidered.
As her fantasies cave in around her, Blanche becomes increasingly isolated. “As her position in her sister’s household becomes increasingly defined as that of an intruder. Both Mitch and Stella end up accepting Stanley’s version of Blanche” (Vlasopolos, 335).
“Mitch’s attempted rape of Blanche therefore comes as a shock. The action suggests how male views of female behavior were so idealized that if a man discovered any deviation from accepted norms of virginity and chastity, his reaction would be extreme… By rejecting Blanche and claiming that she is not the ideal woman he naively thought she was, Mitch draws attention to the discrepancy between how women really behaved and what type of behavior was publicly expected of them by society at large” (Spampinato, 287-88).
Blanche was unable to make an alliance with power. She lost her foothold, giving Stanley the chance to completely dominate.
“Throughout the play, Blanche’s displacement isolates her. Her confidence is undermined by a setting in which she is unsure of the social conventions, the successful manipulation of which is indispensable for gaining and maintaining authority” (Vlasopolos, 327).
Because Stanley had everyone on his side, he was able to arrange for a doctor to come for Blanche and take her away to a mental ward.
In the end, Stanley comes out victor because he acts within his place in society. And because Blanche fails to conform to her rightful place in society, she is ostracized.
I believe that Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire for several reasons:
- To highlight the oppressiveness of society.
- To promote tolerance and open-mindedness.
- To challenge society’s perception of the individual.
- To challenge the institution of absolute male authority in Southern society.
- To listen and speak for those alienated, victimized, and forgotten by society.
- To show how societies view of the individual, tradition, and the victim is flawed.
- To target the tension that comes when a person’s facade is lifted for the world to see.
Through Blanche, Williams tells the story of a woman who searched for happiness and stability, only to be turned away repeatedly. Blanche could not live with her circumstances; therefore, she carries on an fantasy-based lifestyle. Blanche’s retreat into fantasy saves her from the harshness of reality. However, as the play progresses, Blanche's lifestyle backfires. And by the end, she was an outcast from society.
In my opinion, Williams believed that everyone, in some way, is hiding something from society.
Part of the reason A Streetcar Named Desire was so popular was that its embedded themes coincided with the social themes prevalent during its time of release. Most people noticed the plight of women; however, society as a whole did nothing.
Tennessee wanted social change!
Baym, Nina, eds. The Norton Anthology. Vol. E. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. Print.
Spampinato, Lynn. “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Drama For Students. Ed. David Galens. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Print.
Vlasopolos, Anca. “Authorizing History: Victimization in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’” Theatre Journal. New York: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. p. 322-38. Print.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. 1947
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