(Click the character infographic to download.)
Not going to lie—it's kind of hard to hate Stanley Kowalski when you envision him as uber-hunky Marlon Brando. That's like hating a character played by Marilyn Monroe—the sizzle factor is just too high. But try to forget everything you've seen and remember that although Stanley K. is magnetic, he's also a raging sleazebag.
Unlike Blanche, whose past we learn about to some extent, we really don't have much back-story on Stanley, so we're left to learn about him from his actions during the present instead of finding out how he's grown and changed over time. Quickly we gain a picture of him as aggressive, dominant, and very sexual.
He's a man of habit and structure, and his desires in life are quite simple: 1) he enjoys maintaining stereotypical gender roles in his home, with himself as the respected head of the household; 2) he likes spending time with his male friends; and 3) his sexual relationship with his wife is very important to him. For Stanley, Blanche's arrival overturns all three aspects of his structured life: she acts as a disruptive force in every way.
Let's start with the gender roles in the Kowalski household. Stanley sees himself as the provider and head of the household He sees Stella's role as a homemaker, who stays at home, cooks his meals, and generally takes care of him. As such, he also expects Stella to respect him.
We only get one window into the Kowalskis' relationship before Blanche shows up, so we have to assume that their first interaction in Scene One is a good example of their relationship. From Scene One, Stella and Stanley seem pretty happy with each other, and also content in their gender roles. You can see this when Stanley comes on stage, bellows, and hurls a pack of meat up to his wife (who is standing on the landing of their apartment). He's providing the day's dinner, and she laughs and his gruff antics, happy to make their meal and watch him go bowling with his friends.
Problems arise when Blanche shows up with her elitist notions and criticism of Stanley. Now instead of feeling like the "king" of the house, he worries that Stella's attitude toward him has changed. Stella starts ordering him around in Scene Eight and telling him to clean up the table after dinner and stop eating so messily. According to the structure of their usual relationship, Stella is trespassing into his territory—he's the dominant one; she shouldn't be ordering him around.
Not to mention, he feels that his wife is looking down on him. He states it quite clearly:
"Pig—Polak—disgusting—vulgar—greasy!—them kind of words have been on your [Stella's] tongue and your sister's too much around here! What do you two think you are? A pair of queens?" (8.14)
And when Stanley feels like he's being mistreated, he becomes aggressive, throwing things and breaking dishes.
This is obviously not a flexible guy who can handle having his routine changed, but you can still sort of get where he's coming from. Blanche doesn't respect him as the head of the house, and she's trying to turn his wife against him. She acts like a tyrant queen instead of a thankful guest with nowhere else to stay. She's a bit of a house guest from hell. She considers his home a dump, she criticizes him personally and calls him an ape, insinuates that he is completely uncultured, is racist and classist against him, acts like he doesn't love his wife, drinks a ton of his alcohol and lies about it, hogs the bathroom, and tries to get his wife to leave him repeatedly.
Another structured, routine aspect of Stanley's life is the time he spends with his male friends. He's used to having poker nights and going bowling with his buddies. But when Blanche shows up, she interferes with this aspect of his life as well. She tries to get his friends' attention while they're playing poker, and flirts with Mitch. She turns on her music when Stanley just wants to focus on his hand of cards. All of this drives him nuts until he tosses the radio out the window and hits his wife.
Stanley sees his sexual relationship with his wife to be one of the most important aspects of their marriage. Although Stella and Stanley fight, their physical relationship is the way that they make up and forgive each other. Stella herself realizes that their sex life helps them smooth out their marriage; she says to Blanche:
"[...] there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant." (4.103)
So essentially, Stanley's way of showing his wife that he loves her tends to happen through knockin' boots.
Not surprisingly, since they have a two-room apartment (we're talking a kitchen and a bedroom), when Blanche shows up, Stanley and Stella's sex life suffers, and their mechanism for maintaining the peace in their relationship is disrupted. After fighting with Stella about Blanche, Stanley talks about how he wants their relationship to simply go back to normal:
Stell, it's gonna be all right after she [Blanche] goes and after you've had the baby. It's gonna be all right again between you and me the way it was. You remember that way that it was? Them nights we had together? God, honey, it's gonna be sweet when we can make noise in the night the way that we used to and get the colored lights going with nobody's sister behind the curtains to hear us! (8.55)
Basically, Stanley sees his marriage as suffering because with the sister-in-law in town, he can't relate to his wife the way he normally does.
We know that sex is important to Stanley in his marriage, but even outside of his marriage, he basically relates to seemingly all women on a sexual level. Williams gives us some good descriptions of Stanley in his stage directions. For example:
Since earliest manhood the center of [Stanley's] life has been pleasure with women [...] He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them. (1.205)
Stanley's strong sexuality is a parallel to Blanche's. Both have a hard time relating to the opposite sex in anything but a sexual way, even when it's inappropriate to do so. From the moment Blanche steps into his house, Stanley and Blanche have some serious sexual tension going on—he's taking off his shirt, she's flirting with him. It's all just bad news.
It's especially bad news when we realize that Stanley uses his sexuality and aggression to assert his dominance in his household, and Blanche seeks comfort when she's feeling bad through sexual interactions (think of her “depend[ing] on the kindness of [male] strangers” (11.123). As a result, we get an explosive situation in which Stanley ends up raping Blanche.
Yes, indeed. Stanley has a softer side. The complete turn-around he pulls in Scene Three from a raging, abusive drunk to a tender, loving husband certainly leaves our heads spinning. “My baby doll’s left me!” he cries, and “breaks into sobs” (3.189). When he and Stella reunite at the bottom of the stairs, it’s a touching and incredibly tender moment. As Stella tells Blanche the next day:
“He was as good as a lamb when I came back, and he’s really very, very ashamed of himself.” (4.16)
This duality makes Stanley a tough nut to crack. We can't stand him for hitting his wife, then we feel bad for him when Blanche treats him like an ape, and then we hate him when he rapes Blanche.
What’s so interesting is the opposite way these characteristics are interpreted by the two sisters. Blanche makes her opinion pretty clear in a long passage in Scene Four which we distill here for you:
He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits! […] There’s even something — sub-human — something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something — ape-like about him […] Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! […] Maybe he’ll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you! (4.118)
Wow, Blanche isn't shy about telling us what she thinks. Stella, on the other hand, finds him to be, well, kind of hot. Or, as she says of his violent foreplay, "I was—sort of—thrilled by it” (4.22).
Adding to this already messy situation is the social commentary Williams makes through his antagonist. Many critics have pointed out that Stanley is part of a new America, one comprised of immigrants of all races with equal opportunity for all. Blanche, however, is clinging to a dying social system of “aristocrats” and “working class” that is no longer applicable in the 1940s.
Modern readers especially tend to side with the more liberal idea that merit—and not ancestry—makes us who we are. Blanche loses points for being prejudiced, and Stanley garners some favor for being the classic “pulled up by his bootstraps” hard-working American.