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A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (who was not from Tennessee, by the way). Another reread. And also again for teaching it in my American Literature class. I finished it awhile ago, but wanted to get through the discussion with my students before I posted. I don’t have a group of adults locally to talk about this literature with all the time, so my students make up my book club discussions. Which means we get awfully distracted.

Quick summary: Blanche Dubois goes to visit her little sister, Stella who has been away for ten years and married to the very attractive, brutal and virile Stanley Kowalski. Blanche and Stella are from Belle Reve a dying symbol of the old Southern aristocracy and Blanche has left there under mysterious circumstances. She arrives to find her sister married to a ‘common’ man and living in what she considers next door to squalor. Blanche is a bit off (batty) and says how she feels about Stella’s husband and home without much tact. But she doesn’t willingly reveal why she left Belle Reve. Stanley, upset at his home life being disrupted, searches for the truth of  Blanche and finds that she is not as ‘proper’ as she would make out. Stella is pregnant during this time (by the way) and on the night that she is at the hospital, Stanley and Blanche get into a huge fight where Blanche’s fragile mental state is pretty much broken and Stanley, equating masculinity with power and sex, rapes her. When Stella comes home, she believes her husband over her sister and they ship Blanche off to the looney bin.

There’s a lot more to it (like Mitch who I really like), but that’s the basics.

I feel like I read this for the first time back in college. And that I’d seen the movie first? I think. I honestly can’t piece enough together about it to remember the details. I do know that Stanley Kowalski is always Marlon Brando in my mind, Vivien Leigh is Blanche and so on. I’ve never tried the other movie versions of it. It feels wrong somehow. 🙂 But I do remember that when I read it way back then and discussed with a friend of mine, I hadn’t realized that Stanley had raped Blanche. Yes, I was that unaware/naive/whatever in college. Maybe it was because said friend had such a crush on Stanley/Marlon that I didn’t think he was capable of anything like that. I don’t know. I just remember being really put off by that reveal. I preferred Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but that was just the movie with Paul Newman.

This time around, I really found myself enjoying the characters and feeling their motivations made sense. And believe you me, understanding Stanley Kowalski’s motivations is disturbing when you’re a Southern white female and an English teacher (all things that Blanche is). I get how frustrating it would be to have this superior-acting woman come into my own home and insult everything I’d worked so hard to accomplish. Then my heart breaks for Blanche, who still grieves for the loss of her first love and desperately needs someone to take care of her because she hasn’t been raised to know how to take care of herself (still not easy for a woman in the 1940s). But she annoys the crap out of me too because she lies so easily and verbally insults her sister’s life. And poor Stella who loves both her husband and sister and is stuck in the middle. But she goes back to Stanley after he is violent (more than once) and is excited by his aggression and lets her sister be taken to the mental ward.

Tennessee Williams is a master at creating characters both interesting and frustrating.

The symbols with light and music (all in the stage directions) are awesome and can only be really affecting by seeing the play. The streetcar itself, “Desire” that connects to another called “Cemetery,” it could be heavy-handed symbolism, but I like how it’s mentioned so casually that you have to slow down and pause and think. Do the desires of our characters lead them to the graveyard? Is Blanche heading that way? In truth, I think her being taken care of at a mental ward is the best place for her. As long as she’s not subject to shock therapy and some of the horrible stuff that went on back then, I believe that she could live out her days safe and happy. She has people to take care of her and she’s not subject to reality (which is what was killing her). Had she and Stella been able to escape New Orleans and Stanley, what could they have done? What actual skills do they have to support themselves? What other way could the story have played out?

I also love the thematic nature of Blanche representing the Old South and how it was dying. As a Southerner (sort of), there is something sad about how Blanche is like a delicate flower dying in the oppressive heat and humidity that is New Orleans and Stanley’s brutal reality. And yet, would Blanche have gone the way she did if the Old South hadn’t been so polite and avoided subjects like sexual desire, but talked openly and honestly about them? I’d like to think that there could be a balance between the polite and honest societies the two main characters represent.

We watched part of the 1951 movie in class because plays really do need to be heard and seen. My favorite part was the moment that the camera rests on our Stanley for a good torso and face shot and in class, I could hear the intake of breath from a few of my female students. Yes, ladies, Marlon Brando was a sexy man back then.

They also needed to see the “Stella!” scene because it was iconic. They knew the reference (apparently it shows up in Over the Hedge), but not the original. They are now better informed. 🙂 We also watched the movie to look at the difference in the endings (the play vs. the movie). As much as it is nice that the movie ending has Stella making a very positive choice not to go back to Stanley, I wonder if she stayed away. In truth, the play ending makes more sense. Stella is caught with Stanley and perversely content there. It’s so realistic that it hurts when you know women today are out there in probably similar situations.


SOTM: The Planets Op. 32: II. Venus, the Bringer of Peace by Holst


© ecnewman, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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