The truth of Blanche
Throughout A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is caught between the contradictions of her own character and the society surrounding her. She persistently fights to conceal the truth of her personality and past, failing to comprehend the changing conditions of post-WWII, post-New Deal America. In the midst of this societal conflict, Blanche retreats into her own illusion and self-deceit, and this is reflected physically through her avoidance of light. Her aversion to being seen clearly demonstrates her inability to face the truth of both her character and her lifestyle. The facade she draws around herself reflects the corruption of America’s history, the reality of the ‘epic fornications’ of the elite and the incongruity of this past to the future. Blanche is ultimately conscious of her flaws and actively works to conceal them: her promiscuity, hypocrisy and deteriorating mental state. The way her pretense disintegrates against Stanley’s brutal character is arguably an allegory for the emergence of a new America and the fading significance of the old.
Blanche is driven by a compulsion to disguise her declining beauty. She plays the part of the southern belle; a fading stereotype that adds to the tragic and pitiable aspects of her character. On her arrival to Elysian Fields, Blanche frantically asks Stella to ‘turn that over-light off!’ so that she won’t be looked at in the ‘merciless glare’. Her desperation demonstrates her self-consciousness and anxiety about her physical appearance but also reveals how she is afraid of direct scrutiny, therefore suggesting she has something to hide. The ‘merciless glare’ adds to the idea that Blanche is afraid of the repercussions for her actions, and links her physical deterioration to her declining morality. The exclamatory phrases add to her tone of panic and suggest her mental instability. Blanche’s ‘delicate beauty’ is fallible to ‘a strong light’, which shows the flaws in Blanche’s self-made illusion and demonstrates that despite her efforts to deceive herself, her reality is inescapable. Blanche also shows a wish to conceal herself through her ritualistic bathing and use of makeup. These repeated motifs of her obsession with her beautified image demonstrate Blanche’s false character whilst revealing her precarious mentality. Therefore, as the play progresses Blanche’s nervous actions become a visualization of her mental state, developing as the intensity of her affectations increases. Critic John Chapman commented that Blanche ‘shuns the reality of what she is and takes gallant and desperate refuge in a magical life she has invented for herself’. Indeed, Blanche’s actions to disguise and hide her appearance demonstrates a fear of involving herself in the real world, and instead she can only project a falsified image of herself. The darkness she finds so ‘comforting’ and the layers of makeup and clothing create physical barriers between herself and reality. In the last two scenes of the play, Blanche’s discourse is limited almost entirely to her appearance, bar her final confrontation with Stanley. Dressing up for Shep Huntleigh and parading in her gown and tiara, Blanche creates a romanticized projection of her past as the daughter of an elite and wealthy family. In this costume it’s clear Blanche longs to return to her simpler past, but its made clear to the audience by her ‘soiled and crumpled’ dress and ‘scuffed’ shoes that her retreat into her past is an artificial mask of her reality. Blanche’s obsession with disguising her appearance is shown by Williams to be an incapability to accept the truth of herself or the fact she has left the comfort of her privileged youth behind, and is now stranded in a world where she is no longer the epitome of others’ desire. As the play reaches its end, Blanche becomes increasingly less self-aware, and by the final scene she has lost all consciousness of reality, having lost herself in her own false image.
Blanche’s avoidance of light can also be read as part of her act as an innocent and pure character. Blanche believes she is undesirable as she is, and so presents a false image of a respectable and prim woman. She tells Stella she wants to ‘deceive [Mitch] long enough to make him – want [her]…’, demonstrating her anxiety and obsession over how men respond to her. Blanche gains her confidence from the attention she receives from men, as shown by Stella pressuring Stanley to compliment her appearance. In keeping with her imitation of a prudish unmarried woman, Blanche tells Mitch to ‘unhand’ her on account of her ‘old fashioned ideals’. Again, Blanche is attempting to ally herself with the southern belle of her past, who would not have any aspect of sexual freedom and would only have sexual relations with a husband, which is the opposite of Blanche’s promiscuity. Blanche’s reality of her incessant sexuality separates her further from her affected role and demonstrates her deceitful character. Her promiscuity is revealed later in the play, but already in scene 3 Williams hints at her real attitudes to sex. In the stage directions, Blanche stands ‘in her pink silk brassiere and white skirt in the light’ of the poker game next door until Stella warns her, and she moves away. By breaking her convention and standing fully visible in the light, this moment suggests at Blanche’s need to be desired. Later in the play, Blanche conflates images of love and light when she describes Allan’s death as causing ‘the searchlight which has been turned on the world’ to turn off again. This gives the symbol a secondary meaning of representing love and sexual freedom, contrasted by the discretion and loneliness of the dark Blanche appears to confine herself to. The symbol is also picked up by Stanley, who euphemistically describes sleeping with Stella as ‘having them colored lights going’. This draws a parallel between Stanley and Blanche, and indeed they share a constant sexuality and both thrive on relationships with the opposite sex. Critic Shirley Galloway suggests that Blanche’s desires ‘draw her to Stanley like a moth to a light’. Throughout the play scenes with Blanche and Stanley are portrayed as sexually charged, and parallels are drawn between their passionate and assertive personalities. Later in the play, Blanche reflects Stanley’s violence, when she ‘slams [a] mirror down with such violence that the glass cracks’. This illustrates Blanche’s obsession over her looks and how their decline links to her disintegrating sanity, but also demonstrates how she is determined to be perceived as beautiful in the same way Stanley is determined to be viewed as entitled and rightfully American. In Scene 7, he smashes a cup and rants, ‘what i am is one hundred percent American […] so don’t ever call me a Polack’. Similarly to Blanche, Stanley is angry over how he is viewed by the rest of society. Although the images they posit are polar opposites, Stanley and Blanche’s discontent with how they are viewed reflects the fractioned American society and the jarring divide between the insignificant elite and the dominated working class. Within the relationship between Blanche and Stanley, Williams also conflates the opposing images of sexuality and mortality, with the contrast of the ‘desire’ streetcar and Elysian Fields reflected throughout the play. Indeed, the sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche results inevitably in the metaphorical ‘death’ of Blanche as she is taken away to a mental asylum once she succumbs to her insanity after she is raped by Stanley.
Finally, Blanche and her demise represent the death of ‘old America’. Blanche is incongruous to Stanley and Stella’s home, and the tensions that ensue are reflective of the conflict within America at the time. Blanche and her old-fashioned and dated attitudes harken back to antebellum era America, which is dramatically contrasted with Stanley’s character. The contrast between the characters demonstrates the change from the remnants of colonial America to modernity in the aftermath of the Second World War. Frequently, Williams explores this contrast through the imagery of light. In the poker game, the kitchen is lit with a ‘lurid nocturnal brilliance’ and the men within are dressed in block primary colours, evoking images of modernity and progression. The bedroom, where Stella and Blanche are, is ‘relatively dim’ in comparison, lit only by the streetlight and the light spilling in from the kitchen. This contrast demonstrates the waning significance of the America Blanche represents and instead promotes the idea of a new America, prompted by the enfranchisement of the working class in the wake of war and the New Deal. This would be noticeable visually for the audience, as the image of modernity would appear literally more vivid and significant. While Blanche’s snobbery brings out her sister’s privileged attitudes, her eventual submission to Stanley and her mental disintegration demonstrates the lack past’s lack of power. Descriptions of Blanche as a ‘moth’ adds to this image; she will be destroyed by modernity and change. Blanche attempts to the counter the electric symbol of modernity by romanticizing the past, favoring candles over harsh light and trying to physically block out a lamp with her Chinese paper lantern. By softening the light, Blanche can create an illusion of the past in order to soothe her fear of reality and modernity. The dimmed light allows for a self-inflicted blindness where she can reimagine the society she is ostracized by, and also try revert to being a young and beautiful woman. In Scene 7, Blanche appears conscious of her own delusion when she remarks, ‘candles aren’t safe […] wind blows them out and after that happens, electric light bulbs go on and you see plainly’.This demonstrates that Blanche feels threatened by the new world she finds herself in because she can’t accept who she has become within it. Blanche has also realized her childhood and ancestry are irrecuperable, and perhaps this explains the breakdown of her character into childlike actions and speech by the end of the play. Williams stated that the play is about the ‘ravishment of the tender […] by the savage and brutal forces of modern society’, and with this it is easy to see Blanche as a representation of the tender past, overwhelmed by the vigor of modernity, represented by Stanley. This fundamental conflict drives the play and turns Blanche into a tragic character, embodying the death of an era and representing the changing society Williams witnessed around him.
Blanche repeatedly attempts to edit herself, by playing the part of a sexually innocent and yet desirable young woman who is unaffected by aging. However, she is inevitably trapped by the reality of herself and is ultimately overtaken by modernity. Williams describes her avoiding light to show her vulnerability and to demonstrate her inability to accept herself for who she is. Too ‘delicate’ for a strong light, Blanche’s facade is broken down by the future Stanley represents, and her demise at the end of the play is a reflection of the death of an outdated past.
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