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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
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Blanche is an English teacher, but she's one of a kind. You'd never forget her if you took her course. Shortly before the play begins, Blanche has lost her job. She wasn't fired for poor teaching skills, however. The superintendent's letter said Blanche was "morally unfit for her position." That's probably a fair evaluation of a teacher who seduced one of the seventeen-year-old boys in her class. Also, Blanche's sexual exploits so outraged the citizens of Laurel, Mississippi, that they practically threw her out of town.

You don't know all these facts about Blanche until late in the play. At first, she seems to be just a high-strung, but refined, woman who has come to New Orleans to pay her sister a visit. But as the play unfolds, you see Blanche's past revealed bit by bit. At the end she is undone, fit only for an asylum. Nevertheless, you never see her humbled by defeat. She maintains ladylike dignity even after being raped. Perhaps she's not as crazy as she appears. In fact, there might be places where she would not be regarded insane at all.

As an ambiguous character Blanche may arouse both compassion and disapproval simultaneously. She is often regarded as a symbol of a decaying way of life engaged in a losing struggle against modern commercialism. She came to Elysian Fields seeking love and help, but she found hostility and rejection. She has been scarred by her husband's suicide and by the loss of her ancestral home. She's reached a stage of life when she can no longer depend on her good looks to attract a man. Is it any wonder that she flirts and prefers dimly lit places?

To compensate for loneliness and despair, she creates illusions, much like Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Also like Amanda, Blanche clings to the manners and speech of dying Southern gentility. Pretending is important to her. It makes her feel special. She says that deception is half of a lady's charm. She calls it "magic." Unfortunately, though, she is caught in a situation with Stanley Kowalski, who not only abhors her superior airs, but seems bent on destroying her for them. Why Stanley finds Blanche such a threat is worth thinking about.

Some people consider Blanche not a tragic victim but an immoral woman who deserves what she gets. Blanche tells so many lies that she herself can't remember them all. Some lies may be harmless, but others are destructive. For example, Mitch is crushed by her untruthfulness.

Because of her past-town whore, liar, sexual deviate-you may agree with critics who say that Blanche is an object of derision-too degenerate to be taken seriously. On the other hand, her past behavior can be explained and maybe even defended. If you appreciate what has happened to her in life, you can understand why she acts the way she does.

In the end you may see Blanche as an advocate of civilized values. She alone speaks up for the nobility of humanity, for its achievements in the arts, for progress made by civilization. Are you struck by the irony of having uplifting words come from the mouth of an ex-prostitute? It is odd perhaps, but remember that Blanche often confuses truth and illusion. Perhaps Williams may be implying that society's most illustrious accomplishments are illusions, too, and that the brutish Stanley more accurately represents our true nature.


You always know where you stand with Stanley. He speaks plainly, he never hides his feelings, and he hates affectations of any kind. Yet in some respects he is a mystery. Why is he so intent on destroying Blanche? What makes him so aggressive? What was he like as a young man? How did he get to meet and court Stella? How does a man as animal-like as Stanley succeed as a traveling representative of his company? In short, is there more to Stanley than meets the eye?

You can only speculate. But sparse as the evidence is, you know he's a sturdy man of Polish descent, who likes to drink, play poker, and bowl. His greatest pleasure is sex. He also has a violent streak. He strikes Stella, hurls a radio out the window, throws dishes, shouts, and in uncontrollable fury, he rapes Blanche. Yet, because of the actor Marlon Brando's original interpretation, Stanley is a brute with surprising appeal. Brando set the standard, making it difficult for later actors to reshape the role. Stanley can make you laugh at his earthy wit. His frankness is refreshing. There's no doubt about the power of his personality. He's always going to extremes, from his adoration of Stella to his self-centered pleasures.

Stanley's efforts to ruin Blanche reveal still other dimensions of his personality. Blanche not only interferes with his sex life, she attempts to lure Stella away from him. So his hatred of Blanche is quick and unrelenting. Perhaps you can respect Stanley for trying to defend his cave, but must he also destroy the intruder? Do you ravage a person merely for getting under your skin and cramping your style? Has Blanche really done anything to provoke Stanley's venom? Did she rob him of Belle Reve as he believes? Do Blanche's insults stir his hatred? What about Blanche's pretenses and perpetual lying?

Perhaps Stanley just can't tolerate the thought of being taken advantage of. If that's the case, he may mean no harm; he merely wants to protect his fragile ego and his way of life.

A further explanation of Stanley's malice toward Blanche may lie in the fact that they are a man and a woman. As a virile hunk of man Stanley is used to having his way with women. Blanche won't give him his way. But his discovery that she's been a whore is his ticket to tear away her pretenses, rape her, and bring her down to his level once and for all.


If you didn't know that Blanche and Stella were sisters, could you guess that they were related? Both have a refinement that the other residents of Elysian Fields lack. They grew up together at Belle Reve. After the sisters reached adulthood Stella left for New Orleans, where she met and married Stanley.

What Stella might have become without Stanley is anybody's guess. She might have turned out like Blanche, trying futilely to maintain appearances and lying her way through life. Perhaps she would still be tied to the shabby gentility of the Old South because who but Stanley would have "pulled [her] down off them columns" on the plantation?

Stella is an unlikely mate for her brutal husband. She's a gentle woman of about twenty-five, level-headed and affectionate. Sex and bowling are the only interests she shares with him. When he plays poker, she goes to the movies. She accepts his tantrums, his abuses, and his coarse manners, perhaps the price she pays for having Stanley as a husband and a sex partner.

Stella seems to have the patience of a saint. When Blanche insults her, Stella often listens unperturbed, as though she is insensitive. But wouldn't you expect Stella to be hurt by Blanche's patronizing judgments? Why doesn't Stella fight back more often? Does she decline to defend herself because she has no ground for a defense, or could there be something else holding her back? Is Blanche's criticism too close to the painful truth? As Blanche berates her little sister, an unconscious hostility may be building inside Stella, something that may have begun years ago when the sisters were young. At the end of the play, when Stella commits Blanche to an asylum, you might regard Stella's action as her ultimate expression of antagonism toward her older sister.

Of course Stella may send Blanche away for her own good. She may prefer to believe that Blanche is insane rather than face the truth about Stanley. In effect, Stella chooses to sacrifice her sister rather than to destroy her marriage. Actually, it's uncertain whether Stella knows that Stanley raped Blanche. If she knows and closes her eyes to the fact, however, she is probably behaving true to form. Stella has learned a useful lesson from her older sister-how to deceive oneself to avoid coping with painful reality.


When Blanche meets Mitch, she is ready to turn her life around. Ordinarily, Blanche might have her eye out for a rich and courtly gentleman like the legendary Shep Huntleigh. Now she settles for Mitch, a good-hearted and honest fellow, but also a rather dull and self-conscious one.

Why is Blanche drawn to him? Obviously, it's not his awkward manner or stumbling speech that attracts her. Nor is it his short supply of intellect, money, wit, or looks. She is struck by his courtesy. He is the first person to treat her like a lady since her arrival in New Orleans. Second, he is an unmarried man. And his sense of propriety, in contrast to the other men in Stanley's poker-playing crowd of slobs, makes him stand out like a prince. He also happens to be lonely and is looking for someone to love.

Mitch is enthralled by Blanche the moment he sees her. She is clearly more refined, charming and intelligent than the women he's used to. He knows that his mother would approve. That's important to him. You rarely hear Mitch speak without mentioning his mother.

Blanche would be a good substitute for his mother. Blanche dominates Mitch, too, practically leading him around on a leash. He won't even kiss her without permission.

When you consider their personalities, what are the prospects for a successful match between Blanche and Mitch? Stanley's revelations about Blanche's past put an end to the relationship. You don't see Mitch when he hears the truth about Blanche, but you can imagine his grief and shock.


The Hubbells own the building where the Kowalskis rent the first-floor apartment. Eunice and her husband live upstairs. Eunice pries into the daily lives of Stella and Stanley. You might call her nosy, or to be kind, neighborly. She probably deserves kindness because, like a big sister, she helps Stella in times of distress. For example, she gives refuge to Stella whenever Stanley goes on a rampage. The sounds that come from the Hubbells' apartment add to the jungle-like ambience of Elysian Fields and reveal that fighting and lovemaking are not restricted to the street floor of the building.

Eunice's comment to Stella about the rape of Blanche illustrates how Eunice, whose instincts are generally tender, has come to terms with the unspeakable vulgarity around her: "Don't ever believe it. Life has got to go on. No matter what happens, you've got to keep on going."


Steve is one of Stanley's poker and drinking cronies. Like Stanley, he is crass and inelegant. He fights with his wife Eunice, throws dishes at her, and later, comes crawling back to her apologetically.


Pablo is the fourth member of Stanley's card-playing gang. Like the others, he is slovenly in mind and body.


When he comes to collect for the newspaper he gets a kiss from Blanche instead of his fee. Blanche's encounter with the boy calls to mind two other boys in her experience: her young husband and the student in her English class whom she seduced.


They come to accompany Blanche to the asylum. The nurse, or matron, is just about to stuff Blanche into a straitjacket when the doctor, recognizing that a gentle hand is needed, steps in. Blanche rewards the doctor with thanks.

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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

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