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The following are themes of A Streetcar Named Desire.
1. THE VICTORY OF THE APES
One of Blanche's impassioned speeches to Stella depicts Stanley as an ape. It's true, there is something apelike about him. You see his primitive qualities from the first moment of the play, when he comes home lugging a package of bloody meat.
Stay alert throughout the play for many allusions to the subhuman quality of life in Elysian Fields. Sometimes the place is described as a jungle. Shrieks and groans pierce the hot, humid air. Mitch is described as a bear, the women are called "hens." Stanley and Stella emit "low, animal moans."
Blanche is the only champion for civilization in the play. "Don't hang back with the brutes!" she tells Stella. What conclusion can be drawn from the fact that the brutes ultimately destroy her? Are Blanche's values useless in a savage world? --
Loneliness is a fearful plague. Look at what it's done to Blanche. Bereft after her husband's suicide, she became a prostitute to fill her emptiness. She molests young boys and has constructed a web of pretense to delude herself and others that she is charming and sociable. She invents tales about her gentleman friend Shep Huntleigh. Whether he's a real or an imaginary person isn't important. He is real enough to comfort Blanche and to keep hope alive that someday she'll be rescued from loneliness.
The pain of loneliness brings Blanche and Mitch together. No doubt Blanche prefers men of another stripe, but rather than remain a lonely spinster for the rest of her life, she's willing to put up with him. Mitch, too, hopes to find a woman to replace his mother, who will soon die.
3. INVENTING A BEAUTIFUL PAST
When most of us glance back to the past, we wear rose-colored glasses, and if the present is bleak, the past appears still rosier. In Streetcar, hardly a character is immune from visions of a beautiful past.
Blanche's manner and way of speaking suggest the sort of past she has lodged in her memory. You'd think she grew up in grandeur and gentility of the Old South, at least until you hear her tell Stella the history of Belle Reve's decline. Why does Stella recall the white-columned plantation with fondness? Would she have left the place at an early age if life there had been so attractive? The name Belle Reve (beautiful dream) indicates, perhaps, that both Blanche and Stella believe in an illusion.
4. REALITY VS ILLUSION
In symbolic terms, the conflict between Stanley and Blanche pits reality against illusion. What is reality? To Stanley reality is what you can touch and see. Stanley feels right at home in reality-that is, among real people, the kind who act natural and who say what they think and feel. Since a human is an animal, according to Stanley he ought to act like one. To put on airs, to deny one's instincts, to hide one's feelings-those are dishonest acts.
No wonder Blanche rejects reality in favor of illusion. Reality has treated her unkindly. Too much truthfulness destroyed her marriage. Taking refuge in dreams and illusions, therefore, she plays a perpetual game of let's pretend. She says what ought to be true, not what is true.
Stanley can't tolerate idealists like Blanche. What she calls "magic" Stanley calls "lies." Losing her way altogether at the end of the play, Blanche can no longer distinguish illusion from reality. So she goes to an asylum, the only place where that distinction doesn't make any difference.
5. SEXUAL VIOLENCE
The proverbial conflict between males and females has often been termed the "battle of the sexes." Sexual hostilities rage throughout the play. On one side you have Blanche, who is a veteran of considerable sexual give and take. She lures the newspaper boy into her arms, but thinks the better of it, and frees him after only one kiss. She wins Mitch's affection but claims "high ideals" to keep him at a distance. When Mitch discovers that he's been hoodwinked, he attempts to rape her. Blanche wards off the attack like a seasoned warrior.
Only Stanley is unconquerable. He sees right through Blanche's sexual pretenses. At the end of his war with Blanche, he rapes her, proving that in sexual combat, he is the winner and still champion.