How Events of The Past Lead to Isolation In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Mrs Dalloway’
In both the play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and the novel ‘Mrs Dalloway,’ the protagonists are primarily isolated within society by the consequences of their pasts. While Williams and Woolf use the past to evoke both nostalgia for a better time and regret over the tragic elements of the past for their characters, and both these interpretations of the past isolate the characters in the present, Woolf juxtaposes the fates of Clarissa and Septimus (one caught in memories of a happy youth at Bourton, the other in wartime trauma) to criticize British post-war society’s divisions. For his part, Williams focuses on portraying Blanche as the bastion of Southern upper-class behavior, defeated by the violent new world order represented by Stanley Kowalksi.
The events of the past intrude on the present lives of the main characters from ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Mrs Dalloway’ in various ways, both metaphorical and literal, and in the case of ‘Streetcar’ Williams uses the literal elements of the performance such as music and costume to convey this fact. The musical motif of the Varsouviana polka that Williams uses is a link to the past which the audience and Blanche can hear, but no other characters can, which demonstrates how she has been transported to the past, away from the people around her, and how the past isolates her. This music is heard whenever Blanche feels remorse or panic over Allen’s death, as when Stanley asks about her husband in Scene 1 or her confessions to Mitch in Scene Six. Williams invokes the motif increasingly often towards the end, and the denouement in Scene Eleven of her complete isolation from society is accompanied by the Varsouviana, ‘filtered into weird distortion, accompanied by the cries and noises of the jungle’. This association with jungle animals may portray her memories as a source of danger rather than comfort, or as distorted by her current circumstances (although the memory carries danger already, as it culminates in a gunshot).
The costume that Blanche wears in Scene Ten, a ‘somewhat soiled and crumpled white satin evening gown’, is another literal example of her delusional retreat to the past, as in this scene she appears to lose connection with reality altogether, talking to ‘a group of spectral admirers.’ The choice of an evening gown similar to her first appearance in the play expresses her unwillingness to realize her impoverished circumstances or adapt (since the color white, often associated with virginity, also conveys the pretense of purity that she maintains). The description of the costume as ‘soiled and crumpled’ on the other hand serves as a visual metaphor of how her façade has been dismantled or tainted by this point in the play. An evening gown would have also seemed fairly antiquated for 1940s everyday wear, as the war had necessitated more practical fashions that required less fabric, and it would have been especially incongruous in a less affluent area like New Orleans.
Williams positions the characters of Stanley and Stella in opposition to Blanche in their relationship to time. Stanley appears to reject his own past in some ways: Blanche calls him Polack throughout the play as a method of reminding him of his socially inferior position as an immigrant, and in Scene Eight he warns her not to call him that and declares himself to be ‘a one hundred percent American’ as though denying any ties to his family heritage. Stella also seems to be more concerned with the future than the past; her marriage is described by Stanley as him pulling her ‘down off them columns’ evoking the glamour of the grand Antebellum mansions, as Williams implicitly juxtaposes that glamour with his colloquial use of ‘them’ for ‘those’ demonstrating his different background, and she does not appear to miss that lifestyle (the description of ‘pulled’ may sound violent, but Williams portrays violence as an integral part of their relationship that Stella is sometimes ‘thrilled’ by). As a result, Stella and Stanley end the play together, if unhappy, and Blanche leaves alone. The contrast of Blanche with Stella and Stanley conveys Williams’ view of America’s future in the 1940s, when class was becoming increasingly irrelevant as the G.I. Bill allowed working-class veterans like Stanley education or financial freedom. Blanche’s identifiers – her Southern Belle persona, position as a fired teacher, marriage to a dead husband – are all rooted in the past and so everything her character must become obsolete too. Williams posits Stanley, and the uncivilized ‘animal joy’ of his life, as the symbolic future of America by virtue of his success in displacing Blanche at the end.
The concept of time haunts the characters in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and the chimes of Big Ben (described as ‘first a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable’ to emphasize the irretrievable nature of time itself) act as a temporal motif to structure the novel. Woolf uses the phrase ‘The leaden circles dissolved in the air’ to describe the chimes four times, and these heavy, tangible symbols often interrupt Clarissa’s stream-of-consciousness narrative, and serve to remind the reader of the passing of time within the novel. At one point when Clarissa talks to her old lover, Peter, Woolf personifies Big Ben by writing that it ‘struck out between them’, as though time itself is separating them with its irreversible transformations. This appears even more dramatic within the structure of the events happening over the course of a single day, as a microcosm of life in London for these characters: one of Woolf’s frequent techniques was a focus on ‘moments of being’ and elevating the quotidian by writing about it, examining what she called ‘an ordinary mind on an ordinary day’ in the essay ‘Modern Fiction’. This use of time could be a modernist literary technique in deliberate contrast to Victorian linear storytelling, attempting to find emotion or meaning in a day of mundane events. On the other hand Woolf could have used this immediate, microcosmic approach to contrast the years of memory the characters travel through in their minds, and this conflict of internal and external time (external time also being represented by Big Ben) would thus emphasize the power of memory in the novel.
In ‘Streetcar’, Blanche’s fear of the passage of time is expressed through her attempts to appear younger than she actually is, as demonstrated by her avoiding harsh lights or ‘merciless glare’- the anthropomorphism of ‘merciless’ implying a cruel reaction to her age from society. It is also conveyed through her interest in younger men. She remembers her husband, her first love, as a ‘boy’, so the fact that she almost sabotages her new relationship with Mitch by kissing the ‘young, young, young’ boy from the Daily Star demonstrates how her compulsion to cling to the past isolates her from the reality of her present. Alternatively, her vanity and self-sabotage may be inherent to her personality: her speech about the ‘soft people’ having to ‘court the favour of hard ones’ implies that she is more vulnerable in some way than Stella, and perhaps less able to deal with the world’s harsh realities, like her husband’s death. Isolation, or association with younger vulnerable men, may in that case become more of a necessity in order to protect herself- and Williams portrays it as necessary in this context through the danger of Stanley, and the immoral activity like gambling or violence that goes unrestrained in New Orleans.
The isolation of the characters in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is represented in both structure and descriptions of the characters themselves. The stream-of-consciousness form of ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is characteristic of the isolated society it represents (as well as an example of Woolf’s modernism, a writing style that challenged previous conventions in the same way ‘Mrs Dalloway’ hints that post-war society was changing): characters consider every aspect of their day in depth through their inner thoughts, yet the actual dialogue between these characters covers only a fraction of this. Richard brings Clarissa flowers, for example, after considering internally how he loved her, yet ‘could not bring himself‘ to say it externally (the phrasing conveying his immutable nature). Woolf could be criticising the British upper-class specifically through this, however, and how what Clarissa terms a ‘gulf’ in marriages also applied to their separation from the rest of society; in structuring the novel mostly around Clarissa and Septimus, Woolf draws a comparison that Clarissa sees in the final chapter (saying she ‘felt somehow very like him- the young man who had killed himself’) but not before, as the social divisions enforced by the upper-class in the 20s would have prevented them from ever speaking.
There are moments however in both ‘Streetcar’ and ‘Mrs Dalloway’ where unspoken connections with strangers are more meaningful than moments with the most important people in the characters’ lives. The shared moments of ‘Mrs Dalloway’, where narratives overlap, are equally emblematic of the changing world: everyone in a crowd notices an aeroplane’s sky-writing or a car backfiring, and this new technology unites them all. This acts as a linking device in this novel- Clarissa and Septimus both hear the car and their narratives converge- and as a harbinger of the changing times, to which both Clarissa and Septimus react with fear (she thinks the car backfiring is a ‘pistol shot’ initially, and he freezes in the street thinking that the world has ‘raised its whip; where will it descend?’- his nonsensical image of the world’s whip conveying both his instability and his paranoia over being punished). Woolf may have linked these characters through new technology to demonstrate this shared fear of modernism in British post-war society, or alternatively to portray how isolated from the people around them they are, as they connect more naturally in their thoughts to a stranger on the street.
In ‘Streetcar’, Blanche’s last line of the play is ‘I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.’ On the surface this may appear to celebrate human connection and empathy, as even a stranger can be kind, but in the context of the play’s last scene it reminds the audience that she has no one left to rely on except strangers (or indeed ever had; the use of ‘always’ implies that her isolation might have arisen from her intrinsically self-destructive personality.) Blanche’s past experiences almost help her connect to Mitch as she tells him about her dead husband in Scene Six- he encapsulates their shared loneliness in the line ‘You need somebody. And I need somebody, too’. Yet in the end her hope for security or human connection is thwarted by her past strivings for such a connection, specifically her encounters with strangers. Williams portrays Blanche’s past sexual encounters as being fueled by a desire to ‘fill (her) empty head’ after Allen’s death, implying that she only sought distraction from bereavement; this may have been intended to endear her to an audience by conveying the tragedy of her situation through her determination to escape it, even by defying the social norms that she values. In the 1940s this sexually promiscuous behavior would have alienated her from polite society, especially as a woman (as the increased freedom enjoyed during the war had been reduced on the men’s return) and Williams could be proving the cruelty of this condemnation through her tragic fate.
She is also alienated by her own consciousness of her social class- unlike Stella she clings to her roots in the Antebellum South through Belle Reve, and the stage directions from her first entry demonstrate her status as outsider, through the ‘incongruous’ appearance more suited to a ‘cocktail party in the garden district’ than Elysian Fields (and the use of the classical reference that only the educated Blanche might understand undercuts what she derisively terms ‘this horrible place’ with morbidity, as a symbol of the afterlife.) She antagonizes Stanley by calling him ‘common’ and implores Stella not to ‘hang back with the brutes’ (referring to both his violence and lack of education or culture), further ostracizing herself from him for the sake of maintaining structures from her past, as another example of Williams’ portrayal of her as an outcast. This preservation of her social superiority despite context may also be an analogy of the American upper-class refusing to admit the changing times despite the growth of the middle class and of more affluent ethnic minorities in the 40s, and the decrease of landowners. Blanche’s very identity is outdated, but she isolates herself regardless.
Clarissa also has a strong awareness of her own social class in ‘Mrs Dalloway’, and class divisions are a recurring theme: she dislikes her poor cousin, Ellie Henderson, and the ‘degradingly poor’ Miss Kilman, who Clarissa thinks of as ‘heavy, ugly, commonplace’ (this triadic structure showing Clarissa’s snobbery being based not only on money but also on taste and beauty). Like Blanche, she separates herself from others through outdated sentiments about class. Woolf also criticizes the structure of post-war England through the contrast of Clarissa and Septimus in the novel: when she finally hears of Septimus at the end of the novel (when his suicide ironically interrupts a party he would have never been invited to while living) it is her ‘punishment’ to see the less fortunate ‘sink and disappear’, while she is ‘forced to stand here in her evening dress’. This directly contrasts her material wealth with the idea of a penniless war veteran dying without any meaningful legacy, although the use of ‘forced’ and Clarissa’s previous admiration of the ‘defiance’ of his death may imply envy from Clarissa and hint at a deeper connection between their characters. The upper classes keep their polite boundaries, but their existence in post-war England during the decline of Empire is already becoming a relic of the past and Clarissa has more in common with Septimus than with those at her party.
Woolf experiments with form and structure to capture these divergent lives, and how war could have such an impact on one but not the other, but connects them through their relationship with time. Williams isolates his protagonist through literal stage presences and implicit societal boundaries, both connecting to her past. Even the class divisions in both are outdated in time periods of change. Though they may additionally be isolated for other reasons, the characters in these works of literature are greatly influenced by their experiences and choices from the past.
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