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Tennessee Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire contains more within it's characters, situations, and story than appears on its surface. Joseph Krutch, author of Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Streetcar Named Desire wrote, “The authors perceptions remain subtle and delicate… The final impression left is, surprisingly enough not of sensationalism but of subtlety” (38.) As in many of Williams's plays deeper meanings are understood only through close examination of each scene. The reader must ask him or herself as they go whether or not something might lend more than what lies on the surface.
The tone is set immediately in scene one when Blanche begins by telling Eunice, “They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!” (15) Here you can clearly see that Tennessee is not meaning these places literally, rather they are symbolic of the stages Blanche will follow throughout the play. She first takes, “a street-car named desire” when she falls for her lost love -----, and afterwards, plagued by her own inadequacies Blanche escapes her harsh world by giving herself freely to other men; strangers. Even her behavior toward Stanley is littered with telltale slips, “—the part blanche talks in French to Stanley saying that she wants him or something.” After desire Blanche transfers “to (a streetcar) called Cemeteries.” One can see where the “Cemeteries” might lie in Blanches life. It seems that every time desire fails Blanche is somehow left unprotected, cold and alone. In scene five Blanches drink, “foams over and spills on her pretty white skirt,” (80) warning the reader of what lies ahead. Finally Blanche is to get off at “Elysian Fields,” which makes it very clear that an eventual loss on Blanches part is inevitable. Joseph Krutch writes, “Though there is in the play a certain haunting dream-like or rather nightmarish quality, the break with reality is never quite made, and nothing happens which might not be an actual event.” How true on not only Blanches part, but each of the characters. The play is so raw and in-your-face that it almost takes on qualities of a fantasy, especially at the time of its debut. But Tennessee was able to create a play that rather expertly walked the fine line between illusion and reality; a task not easily accomplished.
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John Gassner, in Contemporary Literary Criticism speaks beautifully of Tennessee’s genius when he says that Tennessee “transmits the base metal of reality into verbal poetry” (77) This “poetry” is evident in scene two as Blanche recoils at the disruption of the love letters she received from ?Alan? saying, “Everyone has something he won’t let others touch because of their—intimate nature.” (42) This passage speaks novels about the character of Blanche, Stanley, and Stella. Blanche of course is attempting to wipe the slate of all behaviors that might undermine her image of a lady. Blanche is telling Mitch this very thing in scene six when she says, “you know as well as I do that a single girl, a girl alone in the world, has got to keep a firm hold…” (87) Stanley is a little harder to read than Blanche but under close examination you can see that he too holds numerous things sacred. The simple fact that he doesn’t want to kiss Stella in front of Blanche might be an indicator that his relationship with Stella is that for him. The brutish Stanley breaks down bawling in scene three after striking Stella and cries up to Eunice, “My baby doll’s left me… I want my baby.” (59) Now clearly this is not the behavior one would normally associate with Stanley. Stella too requires love and attention. Her needs however are downplayed by Blanches role in the play. Blanche requires all of Stella's attention and all of Stanley’s as well, so much so that she really isn’t given much chance to sort through her own haphazard emotions. That is why Blanches leaving is such a big relief to Stella after all Stella admits that she, “couldn’t believe (Blanches) story and go on living with Stanley.”
Blanche describes Mitch in scene three as “superior to the other (men).” This is an interesting statement in that much can be extracted about the character of Blanche by examining her motivations for this remark. Blanche finds many of the characteristics that she despises most in men when she arrives in New Orleans and meets Stanley. Blanche continually attempts to convince Stella that Stanley is not worthy of her affections, even going so far as to say that her own sisters love is nothing but “ordinary…plain…and common”(71) As if ordinary and plain were two of the most undesirable traits imaginable. Blanche, unlike Stella has set her sights upon a prince; a perfect gentleman dressed suavely who will carry her away to his majestic home and fawn over her at ever waking moment, a gentleman who will never raise his voice and always offer a compliment. Blanches last futile attempt at sanity “Mr. Shep Huntleigh” (124) who is to take her on “a cruise of the Caribbean” (124) is a mirage of these very characteristics. Blanche describes him to Stanley as, “a perfect gentleman…having great wealth, who seeks a cultivated woman, a woman of intelligence and breeding.” (126) I think Ruby Cohn, author of The Garrulous Grotesques, might have been imaging these very lines while writing, “William’s symbolic imagery is more effective when its weakness is built into the fabric of the drama, the cultural yearning of Blanche functions to evoke our sympathy” (465) And Tennessee has accomplished this feat. Blanches character is clearly not one of purity, and this is drilled in as time after time the reader is assaulted with situations where Blanche reacts in a less than moral manner. And yet, we as readers still feel pity for Blanche; it is almost as if her faults make her more human, more sensitive, and less accountable for her actions.
The examples I listed above were just a chip of what genius Tennessee fed into A Streetcar Named Desire. His words were not chosen with reckless abandon, rather each word is like a box that contains in its recesses a novel devoted to the implicit content of each character. Joseph Krutch, who I mentioned above, captured what I am attempting so say when he wrote, “this whole new wave of playwrights was not to preach, to be provocatively allusive… human relations are terrifyingly ambiguous” (17-18) This is why, I believe Williams’ plays work so well with the addition of symbolism. The characters emotions are expressed much more clearly when the feelings are bound within the play as opposed to lain on the surface.