Study Guide

A Streetcar Named Desire Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Tennessee Williams

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Lights and the Paper Lantern

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.

Flowers

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:

STELLA
You are as fresh as a daisy.
BLANCHE
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).

Music

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:

BLANCHE
(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.

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