Blanche dwells in illusion; fantasy is her primary means of self-defense, both against outside threats and against her own demons. But her deceits carry no trace of malice, but rather they come from her weakness and inability to confront the truth head-on. She is a quixotic figure, seeing the world not as it is but as it ought to be. Fantasy has a liberating magic that protects her from the tragedies she has had to endure. Throughout the play, Blanche's dependence on illusion is contrasted with Stanley's steadfast realism, and in the end it is Stanley and his worldview that win. To survive, Stella must also resort to a kind of illusion, forcing herself to believe that Blanche's accusations against Stanley are false so that she can continue living with her husband.
Stella and Blanche come from a world that is rapidly dying. Belle Reve, their family's ancestral plantation, has been lost, and the two sisters are the last living members of their family and, symbolically, of their old world of cavaliers and cotton fields. Their strain of Old South was not conquered by the march of General Sherman's army, but by the steady march of time, and as Blanche's beauty fades with age so too do these vestiges of that civilization gone with the wind. Blanche attempts to stay back in the past but it is impossible, and Stella only survives by mixing her DuBois blood with the common stock of the Kowalskis; the old South can only live on in a diluted, bastardized form.
The only unforgivable crime, according to Blanche, is deliberate cruelty. This sin is Stanley's specialty. His final assault against Blanche is a merciless attack against an already-beaten foe. Blanche, on the other hand, is dishonest but she never lies out of malice. Her cruelty is unintentional; often, she lies in a vain or misguided effort to please. Throughout the play, we see the full range of cruelty, from Blanche's well-intentioned deceits to Stella self-deceiving treachery to Stanley's deliberate and unchecked malice. In Williams' plays, there are many ways to hurt someone. And some are worse than others.
Blanche often speaks of Stanley as ape-like and primitive. Stanley represents a very unrefined manhood, a Romantic idea of man untouched by civilization and its effeminizing influences. His appeal is clear: Stella cannot resist him, and even Blanche, though repulsed, is on some level drawn to him. Stanley's unrefined nature also includes a terrifying amorality. The service of his desire is central to who he is; he has no qualms about driving his sister-in-law to madness, or raping her. In Freudian terms, Stanley is pure id, while Blanche represents the super-ego and Stella the ego – but the balancing between the id and super-ego is not found only in Stella's mediation, but in the tension between these forces within Blanche herself. She finds Stanley's primitivism so threatening precisely because it is something she sees, and hides, within her.
Closely related to the theme above, desire is the central theme of the play. Blanche seeks to deny it, although we learn later in the play that desire is one of her driving motivations; her desires have caused her to be driven out of town. Physical desire, and not intellectual or spiritual intimacy, is the heart of Stella's and Stanley's relationship, but Williams makes it clear that this does not make their bond any weaker. Desire is also Blanche's undoing, because she cannot find a healthy way of dealing with her natural urges - she is always either trying to suppress them or pursuing them with abandon.
The companion theme to desire is loneliness, and between these two extremes, Blanche is lost. She desperately seeks companionship and protection in the arms of strangers. And she has never recovered from her tragic and consuming love for her first husband. Blanche is in need of a defender. But in New Orleans, she will find instead the predatory and merciless Stanley.
The fundamental tension of the play is this play between the romantic and the realistic, played out in parallel in the pairing of lust and death. Blanche takes the streetcars named Desire and Cemeteries, and like the French's "la petite mort," those cars and the themes they symbolize run together to Blanche's final destination. This dichotomy is present in nearly every element of the play, from the paired characterizations of Blanche the romantic and Stanley the realist, to how all of Blanche's previous sexual encounters are tangled up with death, to the actual names of the streetcars.
Average Overall Rating: 4.5
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Apart from her sister, Blanche is alone in the world. She loved once, and deeply, but since the death of her husband, the world has had no love in it for her. She longs for a deep connection with another human being. But her pathetic attempt to find love through sexual affairs with casual acquaintances has only made her situation worse. The attraction she feels toward very young men (the young man who come to the apartment for newspaper money, for example) is an attempt to reproduce the one magical, fulfilling thing Blanche had found in life—her love for her young husband. The more desperate Blanche becomes in her loneliness, the more deeply she digs herself into it.
Mitch is lonely too. He only has his mother and he is shortly to lose her. The brief moment of hope that he and Blanche share, when it seems as if they might find happiness together, is a poignant and tender moment in a world that will not sustain such romantic hopes for long. At least it will not do so for Blanche, and probably not for Mitch either, who also seems bound for failure and continued loneliness in life.
Blanche’s isolation and loneliness is contrasted with the hearty embrace that Stanley gives to life. He enters into male friendships with an easy camaraderie, and he effortlessly wins and retains Stella’s love. Unlike Blanche, he is well adapted to his environment. So are Steve and Eunice. They belong where they are; it is only Blanche who is rootless, unable to find her own niche.
Illusion and Reality
Blanche is sufficiently self-aware to know that she cannot survive in the world as it is. Reality is too harsh, so she must somehow create illusions that will allow her to maintain her delicate, fragile hold on life. “A woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion” (scene 2) she acknowledges to Stanley. And then when Mitch wants to switch the light on so that he can get a realistic look at her, she tells him that she does not want realism, she wants magic. This means that she seeks to manipulate reality until it appears to be what Blanche thinks it ought to be. She wants life to be lived in a permanent romantic glow, like the light that lit up the entire world when she first fell in love. But in this play, reality dominates. The realism of the setting, with its down-to-earth characters and the sounds of the busy life of this corner of New Orleans, suggests that Blanche’s illusions are not going to be sufficient. The fact that Blanche is probably aware of this too is what wins her the sympathy of the audience. Eventually, her thin hold on reality disappears altogether and she takes refuge in an illusory world in which she is about to go on a trip with her imaginary rich beau.
Passion, Sex and Death
The audience is given an early clue to the theme of sex and death when Blanche in scene 1 describes the directions she was given to reach her sister’s house. She was told to take a streetcar named Desire, and then take another called Cemeteries.
The theme is stated again in scene 9, when Blanche says that the opposite of death is desire. Blanche means love as well as sexual desire— the need for connection with another person. She does not admire the raw desire embodied by Stanley, even though it is sexual passion that makes Stella and Stanley (as well, in a lesser way, as Steve and Eunice) so fully alive in a way that Blanche is not. Stanley and Stella know how to keep the “colored lights” going, which is their term for rewarding sexual relations. Everything about Stanley suggests that sexual fulfillment is the center of his life. The playwright emphasizes this in the stage direction that accompanies Stanley’s first appearance: “Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes.” His sexuality is the “complete and satisfying center” of his life.
Blanche, on the other hand, finds that her desires are continually frustrated. She is associated with death—the death of her relatives at Belle Reve, and the death by suicide of her husband, which still haunts her. Reminders of death keep popping up to torment Blanche—the inscription on Mitch’s cigarette case, the Mexican woman who sells flowers for funerals. It was to stave off this death-impulse that Blanche indulged in promiscuous sex after her husband’s death. This was simply an attempt to keep life going, to stop her from withering inside, and to try to rekindle the transforming love and desire she had felt for her husband. But sensitive Blanche is no healthy animal like Stanley, which is why she is bound for failure and madness, while the final sight of Stanley is of him comforting Stella and reaching inside her blouse.