The use of contrast as a literary device at the start of A streetcar Named Desire
The theme of contrast is key to A Streetcar Named Desire as it is so obviously displayed in every aspect of the play. Most importantly, Blanche is in a stark contrast with Stanley – a contrast which ends up being very problematic – and there is also the uncomfortable contrast between Blanche’s shining expectations and the reality she is faced with. The dualism with which we are first faced is that of the surroundings Blanche Dubois finds herself in. The scene Williams first describes is exceedingly romantic: “The sky… is a peculiarly tender blue, almost turquoise” and “the infatuated fluency of brown fingers”. This alliteration heightens the poetic nature of his writing at this point, thereby increasing the image of an idyllic environment. The quirky and up-beat atmosphere of New Orleans (which would undoubtedly have been uncomfortable to Blanche, being such a contrast to the surroundings she is used to) is highlighted by Williams’s description of the music; the forward thinking manner of the place is shown through the way acceptance between black and white people is portrayed, for example the “banana and coffee” show a willingness to adopt things foreign and exotic. Williams also creates a sense of vibrancy and vitality, partly due to the addition of various background characters – a vendor, a sailor, and another man. All of this is used to suggest the idea of a new, superior South. However, there is a darker reality underlying this description. The street name of Elysian Fields ironically alludes to some kind of heaven on earth, a utopia and fresh start for Blanche; instead, it ends up being more like hell for her. This sense of deluded hope is furthered by the description of Blanche herself right at the beginning as she arrives in “white clothes” as if at a “summer tea or cocktail party”, showing how she is expecting so much but in reality is totally out of place with her surroundings. Moreover, the charm of the surroundings is tinged by a sense of decay – “the houses are… weathered grey” – which is a theme running throughout the play. It is almost as though Williams has chosen to make this idea of decay particularly subtle at first in order to slowly reveal it during the rest of Streetcar, creating a sense of crumbling into deterioration.
This contrast in environment (or perhaps more contrast in the perceptions of environment) is extended into Stella’s home. Although a neighbor claims “when it’s clean it’s real sweet” and Stella says “it’s not that bad at all!”, Blanche continues to see it in a negative light. One of the first pieces of description that Williams gives of the house is of the “light blue” blinds, creating an immediately depressing backdrop to the rest of the house. The description of the house focuses on specifics such as “a folding bed” and “narrow door”, creating a sense of impermanence and an environment Blanche is not used to. These aspects add together to suggest that she is not welcome in this place, and does not fit in. Williams also creates an element of exposure as he describes the light, which acts to reveal the truth by revealing all it shines upon. Blanche continually hides from this light repeatedly – “Turn that over-light off! Turn that off!” – suggesting her fear of being exposed. This is continued by the fact that there is no door between Blanche’s and Stella’s room – “will it be decent” – which further extends the idea that Blanche is on show and cannot hide.
Although perhaps something that is more evident as the play goes on, the contrast between certain characters in A Streetcar Named Desire is particularly striking. From the beginning Blanche is displayed as a character that is not at ease with who she is. Williams describes first her as “uncertain” and “incongruous to this setting”, immediately creating the impression that she does not belong and forcing her into the role of an outsider. But she is not only uncomfortable because of her surroundings; this is something inherent to her, as Williams describes her “delicate beauty” that “must avoid a strong light”. This shows how fragile and vulnerable a character she truly is. This idea is emphasized by Bella’s actions when she enters Stella’s house, as she sits “stiffly” with her shoulders “slightly hunched”, suggesting a protective and defensive stance. It is strange how much she feels the need to protect herself when she is only visiting her sister, and suggests she truly has something to hide. The cat screeching at this point perhaps represents how afraid she really is, as though the cat is doing what she feels unable to do but instead does internally. Blanche’s attitude to alcohol is again faintly disturbing and shows a lack of control of herself. Throughout, alcohol is used to suggest cleansing, and so perhaps Blanche’s unstable relationship with alcohol shows how desperate she is to cleanse herself but also how she feels she must hide this. When she first notices the alcohol she “springs up”, showing how eager she suddenly is; this is in stark contrast to her previous withdrawn position. Indeed, all of her actions at this point show a certain unpredictability and recklessness, as when she “tosses it down”. Blanche is not in denial of her need for control as she states to herself “I’ve got to keep control of myself”. However, Blanche’s weak grasp on herself is only exaggerated further when Stella enters the scene, as William’s describes her “feverish vivacity” and “spasmodic embrace”.
Both Stella and Stanley offer a strong contrast to Blanche, although perhaps it is most obvious in Stanley. Where Blanche feels the need to control her behavior, Stanley is open and domineering with his. Williams’s initial description of Stanley shows his rough, alpha-male like character through the “blue denim working clothes” and the “red-stained package from a butcher’s”. The second detail in particular suggests an aspect of brute force to Stanley’s character, so different to Blanche’s faint and fragile disposure. However, in some aspects Stanley and Blanche are actually very similar. Both consider themselves to be dominant, and establish this through belittling Stella. Whilst Blanche refers to her as “child” and inappropriately suggests that Stanley would be interested in her, Stanley does this by calling her “baby” and throwing his ‘meat’ at her, forcing her to take it. This sexual innuendo also shows the other trait that both characters share: they are both very sexual characters. Although in Stanley this is expressed through the way he treats Stella, whereas in Blanche it is shown in how she speaks of herself. Blanche boats of herself – “I want you to look at my figure” – and later tells Stanley “in my youth I excited some admiration”. This shows not only her obsession that she is aging and needs to find a man to make some kind of partner, but also is representative of her deliberate gloating in an attempt to lead Stanley into admiring her as well. She relies so much on the approval of others – and particularly men – that she is desperate for Stanley to think of her as beautiful and worth admiration.
Stella is also very clearly different from Stella. Whereas Blanche struggles to keep a grip on herself and slips into erratic speech, Stella is described as being very calm. She is sensible and rational where Blanche is not, as is shown through her shorter and more controlled speech – “You look just fine” and “Thanks”. Blanche seems to be incapable of such answers and must instead enter into a long outburst at the least provocation. However, this is perhaps done to prevent Stella from asking any questions which could possibly lead to the revelation of what has happened to Belle Reve. Williams also shows that whilst Blanche is trying desperately to cling onto some sort of gentility and superiority (as is shown through her abruptness to Eunice whom she considers inferior), Stella feels no shame in accepting a more relaxed and modern approach to life. This is partly shown through her modest and unconcerned style of talking – “Look’n see, honey.”
Williams frequently uses costume to enhance the differences between his characters, as was a common part of plastic theatre. The “work clothes” Stanley first appears in represent how stereotypically male he is, as the breadwinner of his family. Williams also uses the “bowling jacket” to emphasise his superiority as they symbolise a proficiency in sports typical of an alpha male character. Whilst Stanley’s work clothes show how at ease he is with himself, Blanche’s show the opposite. She is dressed in a “white suit with a fluffy bodice” as though dressed for “a summer tea or cocktail party”. This immediately shows her to be out of place and almost delusional about what she’s coming to, echoing the idea expressed through the street name “Elysian Fields” about her naïve expectations. Her “white clothes” show how Blanche wants to be considered innocent, when in reality she is not innocent at all – a technique often used by Williams. Again this is an indication of trying to hide her true character, as well as perhaps a deep desire to be innocent again and cleanse herself of her sins (most specifically, losing Belle Reve).
Throughout the first scene – and indeed the play – there is the theme of conflict between the old and new South. This was a theme relevant to Williams as he was writing at a time in which the beauty and grandeur of the old South were crumbling apart, whilst he himself moved to New Orleans (part of the ‘New South’) during the mid-20th century in order to find acceptance and the freedom to express who he truly was. Therefore, this is an idea running beneath the backdrop of the play, expressed through many different means. Williams shows this in Blanche and Stanley most obviously. Blanche’s constant focus on appearances – “I haven’t put on one pound in ten years, Stella” – represents the vanity of the old South. This is not merely limited to physical appearances, as Blanche seems equally concerned about Stella’s opinion on her intellect. We can infer this from Blanche’s bizarre outburst of “Only Poe! Only Mr.Edgar Allan Poe!”, which seems incredibly affected and deliberately constructed. Similarly, Williams suggests the pressure felt to conform to or retain the values of the South through Blanche’s obsessive need to hide the parts of herself she deems shameful, such as when she disguises the fact that she has already had a drink: “I know you must have some liquor on the place! Where could it be, I wonder?” Stanley on the other hand represents the New South, and is therefore the son of Polish immigrants, immediately conveying the sense that in this environment people of any nationality, race or sexuality can mix. Blanche’s inability to openly express who she is was an idea that Williams would have been able to relate to, as he could only open up about his feelings and experiences through the medium of writing; therefore, it is no surprise that Blanche so accurately matches his fears of exposure in the world. However, unlike Blanche, Williams is able to at last find some kind of acceptance and comfort in the New South which she is never able to do.
Duality is an idea most prevalent in the opening to A Streetcar Named Desire because it is so crucial to the play as a whole, as this allows The entire foundation of this play is based on the conflict between Blanche and the couple she goes to live with, and so this is instantly obvious to us from the beginning of the play. By creating a situation in which Blanche does not fit, and with people whom she does not fit in with, Williams is setting us up for the conflicts which arise during the play.
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