Updated: Feb 26
I first read “A Streetcar Named Desire” when I was in high school. Tennessee Williams’ iconic play about the slow demise of a Southern belle named Blanche DuBois was one of my earliest encounters with the Southern gothic genre. His ability to depict the death of the Antebellum South through Blanche’s mental unraveling not only helped create the genre, but also aided in defining it.
The play is set in New Orleans, so after taking a trip to the Big Easy, I decided to revisit Williams’ masterpiece. The title alone immediately takes my mind to the Cajun city where streetcars dot its most popular streets. As a matter of fact, it was a streetcar (just like the ones you see today) named Desire that brought Blanche to New Orleans over seven decades ago.
Blanche: “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…”
Stella: “Haven’t you ever ridden on that street-car?”
Blanche: “It brought me here!”
Blanche moves to French Quarter to live with her younger sister, Stella, but readers are given very little reasoning as to why. Blanche is a mystery. She offers explanations but we get the sense that she is withholding information. Williams brilliantly lets us into the duality of Blanche’s personality upon meeting her. When she arrives to Stella’s house, as she is waiting to see her sister, we see her take a shot of whiskey before sitting to take her pose. Through this scene, readers recognize that Blanche is someone who only portrays what she wants others to believe, but that her reality is rather tumultuous.
The city of New Orleans is its own character, as the landscape and social climate are different from what we often encounter in this genre. NOLA was a city that was settled by several different countries, bringing a wide array of cultures that created a diversity that remained unmatched in the South. The very first scene of the play involves a white character and a black character casually hanging out on the front steps, giving readers the sense that this a normal scene in the French Quarter. Williams’ South is an entirely different picture from that of Faulkner’s.
One common theme throughout the Southern Gothic genre is classicism. When Blanche meets Stanley, her sister Stella’s low-class, Polish husband, she immediately expresses her disdain for his background and what he does for a living. Stella seems to have all but forgotten about their aristocratic roots, as she and Stan have an intense sexual attraction for one another that appears to blind her from his more repugnant attributes, such as his tendency to hit her when he’s drunk, and his womanizing, cheating ways. Immediately, readers are let in to the fact that Blanche and Stanley despise one another. Through every scene; however, no matter how dark, the sounds of old, bluesy pianos resonate, lightning up an otherwise depressing story.
Stanley grows suspicious of Blanche and the loss of her family plantation, Belle Reve. He believes she has stolen Stella’s share of the property, so he cites the Napoleonic Code, a French civil code established in 1804, which he explains:
“In the state of Louisiana we have Napoleonic Code
According to which what belongs to the wife
Belongs to the husband and vice versa.”
By this point, we have come to know Stanley as a selfish man. It doesn’t matter to him that Stella hasn’t received her portion of the estate. It matters to him that because of this, he has not received his portion of the estate. After a great deal of back and forth and Stan giving her the third degree, she presents him foreclosure papers, proving that Belle Reve was lost, not sold. In a rare, kind moment between the two, he confides in her that Stella is pregnant, much to Blanche’s dismay.
Blanche seems to be coming around to Stanley, but just as she is, she witnesses his callous, animalistic behavior towards Stella during a game of Poker with the boys. It is during this game that Blanche takes interest in one of his friends, Mitch. She takes kindly to him as she witnesses him trying to pull Stanley off of Stella as he beats her, admiring his gallant persona. Readers are completely put off by Stan’s disgusting treatment towards his wife, and it is at this point that we confirm his awful character, one that will remain unwavering for the entirety of the play.
Shortly after this scene, readers experience the most famous line of the play, one that was delivered in an iconic fashion by Marlon Brando in the 1951 film adaptation. Standing outside on the street in front of their apartment, he screams “STELLAHHHHHHHH”, wailing and crying as he begs her to forgive him. On the outside, we know this to be a classic sign of abuse. Hurting someone and then apologizing, blaming it on the alcohol, or blaming the victim for antagonizing them. Blanche desperately urges her sister to leave him, but Stella is so wrapped up in the abuse that she takes him back, shifting the entire vibe of the play from one of possible hope to that of complete and utter gloom.
While readers have come to feel some sympathy towards Blanche, her façade now begins to unravel. Through her blooming relationship with Mitch, we witness her deceptive nature, and it becomes obvious that she lives in a fantasy world. She dims the lights around her to hide her age and she wears extravagant dresses to hide her newfound poverty. She lives in make believe, an attribute that pushes Mitch, a fervent realist, away.
I feel for Blanche; however, when it comes to her sister. After witnessing Stan’s violent nature, Blanche wants nothing more than for Stella to leave him, but it appears that his violence actually heightens her sexual attraction for him. Stella makes excuses for him, but in revealing her desire for his animalistic side, she reveals her own illness. This scene strongly reminds me of “Big Little Lies”, and the violent sexual relationship between Celeste and Perry, but in Stella’s case, this violent behavior is normalized by those around her. In a later scene, we witness Eunice being beaten by her husband. Instead of going to the police, she goes to the bar to grab a drink, which Stella agrees is a more practical choice. How can Blanche help her sister when the women around her consider this to be acceptable behavior?
As an older sister, myself, I can empathize with Blanche’s desperation and need to save her sister from this horrible life she’s chosen, but as we soon find out, Blanche doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on, as she is completely devoid of reality. Readers discover that Blanche engaged in less than reputable behavior, and that her epic fornication played a role in the loss of Belle Reve. It appears that the aristocrats in her hometown put on heirs of gentility, but these heirs were just masking their carnal desires, which they acted upon in secret.
We also find out that Blanche lost her first husband to suicide after she discovered him in bed with another man. Her plight makes her a sympathetic character to most, but to Stanley, it further proves her mental instability. Throughout the entire play, we encounter Blanche’s fear of her own demise, but it isn’t until this discovery that readers truly begin to witness her downfall.
After losing Mitch, her last chance at love and stability, a devastated Blanche falls into hysterics. She begins playing dress up with her old clothes, flirting with imaginary men, telling stories of feasts and fancy parties, when Stanley walks into the apartment. A few quick scenes of the underbelly of NOLA pass through and the sounds of a distant piano grow grim. In a shocking moment for readers, Stanley rapes Blanche.
This horrible moment signifies Blanche’s complete demise, and as readers, we are saddened by her plight. While she does grow more hysterical and more delusional as the play goes on, it’s easy to understand that she was failed by her high-class family. Women of that time were highly dependent, so when her family began to spiral, she began looking for alternate, less reputable means of survival. Her goal throughout the play is to find a man who can take care of her, but Stanley ruins any chance of this happening, and to make matters worse, he assaults her, taking the last semblance of power she had. This last attack on her psyche causes her to snap, and the play ends with her being cared for by medical staff as she speaks in complete gibberish. True to the Southern Gothic genre, amidst a sprawling backdrop lies a morose tale of a fracturing family and the loss of a once beautiful mind.