Saturday, November 10, 2007

Kazan wrote, “Blanche is a woman of enormous emotional variety, imperious, self-assertive to fluttering helplessness, feverish gaiety to pathetic terr

How much can we sympathise with Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire?
(essay I wrote for English Literature AS last year, one of my favourites.)

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One of the considered titles originally for Streetcar was The Moth, and from the opening introduction to Blanche from the stage directions, “her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light”, an image of a fluttering, self-destructive moth is painted. During the course of the play, elements of her personality reveal her to be vulnerable, such as her alcoholism and history of dependence on men. But she is also a highly flawed character that the audience has difficulty siding with. These dual components to her personality are what make her so interesting, although at times, it can be hard to sympathise with her.

From the start, Blanche manages to annoy other characters as well as the audience with her actions and speech, for example in the insensitive way she criticizes Stella’s house to the way she speaks about Stanley, making her appear self-indulgent, especially as she continues to patronize her sister, “You messy child!” She further loses the approval of the audience through her how egocentric she is, always managing to turn the topic of conversation to herself, “I want you to look at my figure!” However, at the same time, her low self-esteem is clear in how she frequently fishes for a compliment, “Would it be possible to think I was once considered attractive?” showing that her fragility in her seeking of approval. This humanizes her character somewhat, and when she tells Stella, “you’re all I’ve got in the world,” her isolation and loneliness is felt.

Stanley, on the other hand, has plenty of friends and “acquaintances,” all of which he is able to use to his advantage, where he does. He is the antithesis of the Southern gentleman that Blanche is accustomed to. When he takes his shirt off in front of her, Blanche is clearly uncomfortable, and will continue to take offence to a lot of his behaviour through the rest of the play. The audience can partially sympathise with Blanche for this, but her actions make it difficult to take sides for either character, such as her constantly calling Stanley “unrefined”. Whereas Stella has made an adjustment to his behaviour, she knows that her sister won’t, “Try not to compare him with the men we went out with at him.” She is right, and it would be very different for Blanche to get used to this change.

When more is revealed about Blanche’s past, the audience are able to sympathise with her more. She had married young, but with tragic consequences, and it is clear that the events still haunt her, from her emotional exhaustion when discussing it. The sense of mystery surrounding Blanche’s peculiar arrival in New Orleans takes on a sinister taint, and Blanche’s reluctance to be in bright light calls attention to this mysterious nature. Bright light, whether from a naked bulb or the midday sun, reveals Blanche’s true age. She can claim to be a woman of twenty-five in semi-darkness, but the glare of sharp light reveals a woman who has seen more, suffered more, and aged more. In addition, probing questions and honest speech function as a metaphorical light that threatens to reveal Blanche’s past and her true nature.

Whilst we can sympathise somewhat with Blanche about the cultural differences between her and Stanley, she does nothing to make the situation easier. Stanley tells her not to call him a “Polack”, yet she continues to. This could be either conscious or done unconsciously, but either way, it leads the audience to feel Stanley’s frustration at Blanche. His anger at her is further shown in his short sentences, “Huh.” Stanley feels his privacy invaded and wishes for things to be back the way they were, “It’s gonna be all right again between you and me the way it was.” Furthermore, Blanche forever bathes and drinks, treating the house as her own, which riles Stanley, “soaking in the hot tub?” especially if we consider that Blanche does not earn an income, and Stanley is the sole provider. Some argue that whereas Stanley did destroy Blanche through the rape, she was also responsible for destroying Stella and Stanley’s home life during her stay.

However, the main thing done by Blanche to invoke hatred in Stanley is her constant trying to tell Stella that he is not good enough for her. This is felt strongly in Scene Four, where Stanley eavesdrops on Blanche describing him as “common” and “an animal”. Here, the audience hears this insults through Stanley’s ears, and the dislike towards Blanche is felt by us. Part of Blanche’s disparaging comments about Stanley are out of concern for her sister – she had in the previous scene witness her being attacked by him, but the patronizing and judgemental way in which Blanche speaks about Stanley, “But the only way to live with such a man is to go to bed with him!” makes it apparent that she is hurting Stella, and that she is unlikely to take her sister’s advice. In Scene Four, Williams uses dramatic irony to make us feel fear for Blanche, and when Stella hugs Stanley in Blanche’s full view, this also prefigures the end of the play, where Stella will choose her husband over her sister.

A lot of Blanche’s questionable behaviour loses the sympathy of the audience. When she throws herself at the young newspaper boy, Blanche reveals her hypocrisy—she is lustful underneath her genteel, morally upright façade that she creates, “The Hotel Flamingo is not the sort of establishment that I would dare be seen in!” Blanche condemns Stanley and Stella’s purely sexual relationship, but we see that her urges are every bit as strong as Stella’s, yet, as this involves somebody underage, less appropriate. Suddenly, compared with Blanche’s behaviour, Stella’s love life looks healthy and wholesome.

At the same time, however, something of Blanche’s hypocrisy makes her a figure of pity. She is creating the image in the hope of finding a suitor. She is a liar, and knows she is; but never in malice “I never lied inside my heart.” She lied to Mitch because she could never believe that he would truly love her for what she actually is, which makes her lies more tragic. She is obviously someone who is used to and needs sheltering and kindness and is not equipped to deal with ugliness and naked truths (such as the naked light bulbs), so her lies can be understood, if not justified.

And the component in Blanche’s personality is her refusal to face reality, “I don’t realism – I want fantasy!” Stanley is the opposite, practical and realistic. Stella finally sides with Stanley, just because of lack of courage but because the social constrictions of the time made her with baby so she was dependent on him. Blanche’s impracticalities in even taking notes – she uses an eyeliner and writes on paper are humorous, but also highlight how strongly fantasy features in her ideas. Someone once said, “Blanche is a lovely, damaged flower who is not equipped to deal with the harsh realities of life, namely Stanley Kowalski.” Stanley crushes all her delusions, but it can be argued that Blanche’s final dignified exit shows that he has not destroyed all of her self-respect, and for that, she can be seen as a heroine.

Tishler said, “The plot is simple. It moves from hope and frustration to destruction and despair.” This plot shape is similar to that of a tragedy, and Blanche is the tragic hero. At the end of Scene 6, there seems to be an opening for redemption, “Sometimes – there’s a God – so quickly!” but immediately in the next scene, Mitch has left Blanche. Stanley is the cause of this destruction. Blanche is left practically alone, and when she tries to justify her actions to Mitch, by explaining how much he meant to her, “a cleft in the rock” he still casts her aside, “You’re not clean enough to bring into the house with my mother.” By the end of Scene Nine, as she gives up hope, she begins to lose her grip on reality as well.

But of course the ultimate act of tragedy for Blanche is the rape. Throughout the course of the play, Stanley has destroyed many of the things she holds dear, including her relationship with Mitch, but the rape is the worst. In this scene, the plastic theatre is apparent to enhance the paranoia and emotional exhaustion felt by Blanche, such as the shadows of “lurid and menacing form.” This could emulate the fear that she has come to feel of Stanley. In this scene, jungle imageries are rife, accentuating Williams’ “survival of the fittest” theme of the play. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche simply isn’t “fit” enough, and will be devoured and destroyed by the Stanleys of the world.

Sympathy is felt for Blanche in the final scene through Mitch. He lashes out at Stanley angrily, betraying his uneasiness, and showing that he still cares for her. He is unable to concentrate on the game when he hears Blanche’s voice, although several weeks have passed since their previous meeting. He, like many of the audience, blames Stanley for interfering with a relationship that should have been left alone, but then he collapses in ineffectual sobs. Mitch fails by realizing too late the vulnerable beauty of Blanche and thus, he is left as lonely and alone as Blanche.

Blanche tells Stanley “deliberate cruelty is unforgivable.” Whilst Stanley has done some deliberately cruel things – giving Blanche the train ticket on her birthday, the rape, Blanche has not. She has found love in wrong places, lied to people, and made some bad decisions, but she has never been deliberately cruel. Blanche’s entire world was destroyed when her husband killed himself - something that she entirely blames on herself. She spends her life trying to expiate herself from this sin, yet, after arriving at Elysian Fields, her life is just made worse by Stanley. Blanche was someone who was “ahead of her time” in her strong passion, but, in her sexual encounters, never found true love, and was ultimately lead to insanity by her desire. For this reason, I feel a huge amount of sympathy for her.


Anonymous said...

great essay!

Emma said...

Thanks, I was v. pleased to get an A for it back then!

Sigh, I do miss English lit.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this Emma, I'm writing my dissertation for English on Streetcar and this helped so much!

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Anonymous said...

The way I see it, Stanley did not rape Blanche.

Emma said...

What was that when he chased her around and ravaged her then? Eh? I call that rape, tbh.

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