What we’re getting at here in our discussion of "Tone" is Williams’s attitude toward his protagonist, Blanche DuBois. We admit that Blanche comes off as quite silly for a good chunk of the text (spraying Stanley with her perfume, flirting with the men at the poker table), but it’s actually more tear-jerking than laughable. She's unstable from early on, and totally terrified:
… I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I can’t be alone! Because—as you must have noticed—I’m – not very well… [Her voice drops and her look is frightened.] (1.141)
We feel bad for her—and probably embarrassed on her behalf. The rape in Scene Ten and the broken-down Blanche in Scene Eleven is what really drives the point home, and what convinces us that the play takes a sympathetic approach—not a ridiculing one—to this fading Southern belle:
You know what I shall die of? I shall die of eating an unwashed grape one day out on the ocean. I will die – with my hand in the hand of some nice-looking ship’s doctor, a very young one with a small blond mustache and a big silver watch. […] And I’ll be buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard – at noon – in the blaze of summer – and into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes! (11.69)
If you don't read this mini-monologue and think "Poor Blanche," then you should have your heart checked. It might be made out of ice.
Unfortunately, "Super Iconic Sex N' Madness Spectacular" isn't a viable genre. Dang.
A Streetcar Named Desire is actually realism of several different varieties. First you’ve got Magical Realism, which is a generally realistic setting with some odd fantasy thrown in. In this case, the fantasy enters the picture when the audience gets to see and hear some of Blanche’s imagined horrors: shadows on the wall, the eerie polka music overhead, the sounds of echoing voices. We can also call it Psychological Realism for these same reasons: at times it portrays reality as it exists in the mind, not as it exists objectively. Lastly there’s Social Realism, because of the play’s frank treatment of issues like immigration, class, gender roles, and power plays between women and men.
All that creepy shadows-on-the-wall voices-in-Blanche’s-head stuff that we talked about also explains the play’s categorization as Southern Gothic. Sure, the "supernatural" elements of the play turn out to be only in Blanche's imagination, but that’s the case in many horror movies. Oh, and Streetcar is a great portrait of social issues in New Orleans (ahem, the South) in the 1940s. But you knew that.
Lastly, because this is a play (a drama), it’s all expressed through dialogue and action—and okay, fine, through Williams’s indulgent stage directions. Family factors in big-time to all the dramatic goings-on, from Blanche and Stanley (brother and sister-in-law) to Stanley and Stella (husband and wife) to Stella and Blanche (sisters).
Let’s start with the literal meaning of the title. There is an actual streetcar named “Desire” that Blanche takes on her way to the Kowalskis’. She mentions it twice. First, in Scene One, she tells Eunice that “they told [her] to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!” (1.16). Later, she berates Stella for her obsession with Stanley and mentions the streetcar again. Take a look:
What you are talking about is brutal desire—just—Desire! The name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another…
Haven’t you ever ridden on that street-car?
It brought me here. (4.104-106)
Which brings us nicely into our discussion of the metaphorical meaning of the title. Blanche is literally brought to the Kowalski place by “Desire,” but she is also brought there by desire; her sexual escapades in Laurel ruined her reputation and drove her out of town.
Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen sex do destructive things in Williams’s play. In fact, go back to Blanche’s first reference to the streetcar that we opened this discussion with. Desire, then Cemeteries, then Elysian Fields. Sex, death, the afterlife. It’s like a linear progression. Sex leads to death, or at least some heavy-duty wreckage. Don’t believe us? Here are a few examples:
Blanche herself seems to recognize some sort of connection here with this line, one that is key to understanding the role that desire plays in Streetcar: “Death […], death was as close as you are. […] The opposite is desire” (9.69-71).
Blanche is somehow under the impression that sex is her escape from death. She turned to sex to comfort herself after her husband died, and after her relatives passed away one by one. Unfortunately, as we already know, Desire leads to Cemeteries leads to the Elysian Fields. Blanche has actually gotten herself into a vicious cycle. Something dies, so she turns to sex, which causes something else to die, which makes her turn to sex, and on and on...
The ending to A Streetcar Named Desire is all about cruel and tragic irony. Blanche is shipped off to a mental institution because she can’t deal with reality and retreats into illusion—yet Stella is doing the very same thing by ignoring her sister’s story about Stanley. (See Stella’s “Character Analysis” for lots more.)
Blanche, who always insisted that she “[doesn’t] tell the truth, [but rather] what ought to be truth,” has actually come clean about reality for the first time (by revealing that Stanley raped her). But no one believes her.
Blanche’s final and very famous line, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers,” is yet another example of tragic irony; what she considers “kindness” is only desire—the attention she gets from “strangers” is generally sexual in nature. (Again, lots more to say on this in her “Character Analysis.") It’s a fitting ending for a work that explores cruelty and tragedy to such a gut-wrenching degree.
What we know about the atmosphere of setting in Streetcar comes from Williams’s (intense!) stage directions. He tells us that us that the area is "poor" but "has a raffish charm." He says the sky is:
[...] a peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay. […] In this part of New Orleans, you are practically always just around the corner […] from a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers. […] New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races. (Stage Directions, Scene One)
Here’s a great image of this mood-setting coloring, by the way.
This introduction—and particularly its attention to social context – is important for the way we read Streetcar. Race relations weren’t "easy" everywhere in the 1940s, but it’s important to establish the atmosphere in this particular setting, especially since Blanche brings to the Kowalski apartment her prejudices, which prove to be out of time and place. Class distinctions don’t matter here, which is why Stella and Stanley seem to make a fine match despite their backgrounds.
As far as the actual physical set-up on the stage, it’s important that we can see the upstairs, the downstairs, the interior, and the exterior. The play’s action takes spectacular advantage of the flexibility this offers, whether it be Stanley listening in on his wife and her sister, Stella walking down the stairs to the waiting arms of her husband, or the way we get to watch two scenes at once—Blanche flirting with Mitch in the back-room while the men play poker in the front.
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
– “The Broken Tower” by Hart Crane
Williams was a great admirer of the poet Hart Crane, and one thing both writers had in common was their love of metaphor. Perhaps “The Broken Tower” acts as a sort of metaphor for the poetic mood and themes of love and loss that Williams wanted to bring out in Streetcar.
The start of the epigraph brings to mind Blanche’s journey into New Orleans, to her a “broken world.” It also captures the fleeting nature of love, which for Blanche was only “an instant in the wind” (remember the boy that died?). As for the epigraph’s ending, it’s cryptic, but it certainly seems that desperate choices are made throughout Streetcar, right? So why not lead in with a note of desperation? It’s certainly dramatic.
Williams’s style comes across best in his stage directions. He doesn’t hold back. He brilliantly strikes at the heart of his characters with such potent descriptions as this one of Stanley:
The gaudy seed-bearer, […] he sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he looks at them. (1.205)
Single lines carry enormous weight in helping us understand the characters we see on the stage. In other words, this prose packs a punch. (Much like Stanley—womp womp.)
Blanche makes a big deal out of never being seen in direct light. She uses a paper lantern like a shield to block out the strong light of the naked bulb in the Kowalski apartment. The obvious conclusion is that she’s getting older and doesn’t want anyone – particularly Mitch – to see that she’s no longer a girl of sixteen. Actually, Mitch says it best: "I don’t think I ever seen you in the light. That’s a fact! [..] You never want to go out in the afternoon. […] You never want to go out till after six and then it’s always some place that’s not lighted much. […] What it means is I’ve never had a real good look at you" (9.28-36).
Of course, if you want to get fancy, you might argue that Blanche is hiding more than just the fine lines around her mouth. We know that she’s ashamed of her behavior in Laurel and desperate to hide her past from Mitch. Is it possible that she’s manifesting this desire to hide in a physical way? Probably.
We get another layer of meaning to this lights business when Blanche discusses her former husband, Allan. She describes falling in love as though "you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that’s how it struck the world for me" (6.120). When she caught him with another man, later confronted him, and discovered his suicide, she claims that "the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that’s stronger than this — kitchen — candle…" (6.120).
In short, what she’s saying is that being in love illuminated the world for her. When her husband died, the world was in darkness again. What does this have to do with the paper lantern? Plenty. What we see now is that shielding the harsh light isn’t just about blocking Blanche from the plain view of the world – it’s also about blocking the world from Blanche’s eyes. She doesn’t want to see it. She doesn’t want to deal with reality. Does that sound like a Major Point in Blanche’s character? Good, because it is. (Read her "Character Analysis" for more.)
Blanche also uses light imagery to describe the benefits of poetry, music, and art – in contrast to what she considers to be Stanley’s primitive nature. She tells Stella, "There has been some progress since then! Such things as art—as poetry and music—such kinds of new light have come into the world since then! […] In this dark march […] don’t — don’t hang back with the brutes!" (4.118). It’s fitting that things like art and poetry are described the same way as love for Blanche – as forms of light penetrating the darkness of the world. Remember, she’s an English teacher, and her idea of love is an incredibly romanticized, poetic, artful one.
The last prong of this light imagery has to do with Stanley. We couldn’t help but notice that he describes the sex with his wife as "having them colored lights going" (8.55). He uses this phrasing twice, actually, which should draw your attention. It’s important that while light was a form of love for Blanche, it’s innuendo for sex for Stanley. It’s also important that the lights are colored, which is in contrast to Blanche (whose name means "white"). See "Tools of Characterization" for more discussion of this color business.
Remember in "What’s Up With The Title?" when we talk all about the connection between desire and death in A Streetcar Named Desire? If not, you should check it out. Flowers are the perfect symbol of this odd pairing of lust and destruction. To start, take a look at the end of Scene Five, when Mitch brings Blanche roses. He’s using flowers to court Blanche – desire, right? Now look at Scene Nine, when the Mexican Woman comes around selling flores para los muertos, or "flowers for the dead." We just went from desire to death in three scenes using one symbol. As if that weren’t enough, we have this lovely exchange right here:
You are as fresh as a daisy.
One that’s been picked a few days. (3.33-4)
Stella means to suggest that Blanche is attractive (desire), but Blanche feels as though she’s past her prime (death).
First of all, if you read your stage directions carefully you'll notice that Williams uses music to establish the mood of many different scenes in Streetcar. It’s basically like watching a movie, where the music is fast-paced during a chase scene, tender in a love scene, etc. But we’re interested more in the specific songs that are used repeatedly as symbols in the play – starting with the "Varsouviana." Williams mentions the name of this polka in his stage directions, but Blanche, too, gives its name in Scene Nine. This is important, since those watching the play instead of reading it don’t have the benefit of Williams’s commentary. If he wanted the audience to know the tune, he had to place it in the dialogue of one of his characters.
Now what is this Varsouviana? Why haven’t we heard of it? Well, it’s a polka tune, so unless you’re into that you likely wouldn’t have encountered this song before. It sounds a bit like merry-go-round music, which you can imagine is eerie to hear in a Gothic-type drama on the stage. Or, if you don’t feel like imagining, watch this a man play it on the accordion on YouTube. Or listen to a 30-second clip on iTunes; there are a few.
Anyway you get the point. It sets the mood of Blanche being unstable and imagining creepy music that no one else can hear. It also helps when she explains that her husband killed himself while the Varsouviana Polka was playing. She can’t escape the guilt of feeling like she caused his suicide. She can’t escape her husband’s death, so she can’t escape the music, either.
What else have we got for music? How about the song "Paper Moon" that Blanche sings while she’s in the bathtub in Scene Seven? Just a random ditty? Take a look at the lyrics before you write it off. These lines – all sung by Blanche – are interwoven with Stanley and Stella’s argument:
(singing) "Say, it’s only a paper moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea—But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!
It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, Just as phony as it can be— But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!
Without your love,
It’s a honky-tonk parade!
Without your love,
It’s a melody played in a Penny arcade…
It’s only a paper moon, Just as phony as it can be— But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!
It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, Just as phony as it can be." (9.30-45)
We-lllll, what do we have here? A world filled with fantasy? Check. Blanche’s complete dependence on the love of other people? Check. The need for others to join her in self-delusion and artifice? Check, check, check.
Though all works of literature present the author’s point of view, they don’t all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature doesn't have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story... because it's a drama meant to be performed on the stage.
Mitch is the "object of desire" through which Blanche, our protagonist plot, hopes to find fulfillment. As she settles in at the Kowalski place, her budding romance is her chance for a better future.
It’s clear that Mitch returns Blanche’s feelings, which means the chance of marriage and escape from her past life is definitely possible.
The famous "Stelllahhhhhh!" scene may be hot for Stella, but it’s definitely frustrating for Blanche, who can’t understand her sister’s desire for the aggressive Stanley. Things really start to go wrong when Stanley mentions his friend who travels through Laurel, Blanche's hometown, and heard some bad stuff about Blanche. This threatens her "dream" of marrying Mitch.
Just when things were going well, right? Actually, things were never going well. Blanche’s entire relationship with Mitch was always founded upon lies and fantasy, which means we’ve known this moment was coming from the start.
The "destruction" here is not only a physical one, but mental as well. Stanley’s act of violence is basically the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and he sends Blanche over the edge. Think of Scene Eleven as the aftermath to this destruction—we see the devastating effects of the violence.
Yes, that’s right—the early interactions between Stella and her husband constitute the initial situation of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s important for us as the reader/audience to see the status quo of the Kowalski's relationship before Blanche shows up and alters it for the duration of the play.
The immediate physical incongruity of Blanche and her surroundings lets us know that she isn’t going to fit in well here in New Orleans. Her first conversation with Stella hints at secrets she’s trying to hide. And her first encounter with Stanley is wrought with tension, sexual and otherwise. All the news of the loss of Belle Reve doesn’t help, either.
Blanche and Stanley's relationship grows more and more difficult, with Blanche constantly insulting him, and Stanley becoming more angry and aggressive. Stanley also learns about Blanche's secret past, which he informs Stella and Mitch of.
These multiple, small complications are what modern writer and essayist John Barth calls "incremental perturbations"—the water gets muddier bit by bit as the play progresses, and every new complication adds a layer of intensity and emotional weight to the story.
Did you notice that Stanley says to Blanche, "We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!"? We know that 1) Stanley doesn’t like Blanche, 2) he takes out his anger physically, and 3) he’s practically defined by his sexual aggression. This scene seems the inevitable result of their increasingly antagonistic relationship.
In this play, the suspense stage can be found in Scene Ten with the Climax. The suspense builds as we watch Blanche interact with Stanley, make a frantic phone call, declare repeatedly that she’s "caught in a trap," and try to run away. Once the rape is over, we enter Scene Eleven without further suspense.
With the rape and the birth of Stella and Stanley's child over and done with, the play’s final scene has "falling action" written all over it. Blanche’s descent into madness is complete, and we’re now looking at the aftermath to the destruction that took place at the earlier climax.
Stella’s reaction to Blanche’s condition and story regarding her husband, and her decision to carry on her marriage in spite of it, constitute the play’s conclusion. This is summed up nicely in the image of her sitting on the porch with her baby in her arms, accepting comfort from her husband after her sister’s just been carted off to an institution.
Blanche arrives in New Orleans, reunites with sister, and meets Stanley. Conflict seems inevitable as we get a glimpse of Stanley’s violent streak, and of course the Mitch saga begins. Stella’s pregnancy is revealed as well.
Tension rises as Stanley grows more and more frustrated with Blanche’s presence. Her relationship with Mitch is threatened by rumors of her activities in Laurel, and Stanley rapes Blanche.
Stella decides to send Blanche to a mental institution. Stanley, predictably, plays some more poker.