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SYMBOLISM, IMAGERY, and IRONY IN THE PLAY
The play is rich in symbols, vivid imagery, and irony. The symbols, images, and ironies often serve as a flashback, reinforcing what has already happened, or as foreshadowing, hinting of things to come. The key symbols, images, and irony are discussed below.
It is significant that the first names of the Dubois family members and the places they are associated with have ironic meanings. The name Elysian Fields, the area of the French Quarter where the Kowalskis live, is intentionally ironic. The name denotes a place of ideal happiness or the abode of the blessed after death. The existence of the Kowalskis and the Hubbells, characterized by coarseness, violence, and sex, is far from the typical image of Elysian Fields.
Both family and given names also have ironic meanings. Dubois means "from the woods". Stella means 'star', and Blanche means 'white'. Stella is, therefore, the star from the woods. Indeed, she has come out of her "woods", her small-town, aristocratic background, but she is no star. Instead, she is quite the opposite, giving up her personality to become the woman Stanley wants her to be; she is his puppet, servicing his needs. Blanche's name means the white one from the woods. Blanche is not pure and innocent even though she pretends to be and dresses in white as a symbol of how she views herself; by the end of the play, the truth about Blanche is known, and the image of her to others in the play is black rather than white. Like Stella, Blanche has physically left the woods of Laurel behind, but she is emotionally and permanently tied to them. Her unwillingness to give up the past and live in the present is one of the main reasons that she slips into insanity at the end of the play. Blanche's symbol of her aristocratic past is the old family mansion, "Belle Reve", which means beautiful dream. Unfortunately, Blanche looses all of her dreams in the play, just as she lost the mansion. Finally, Laurel, the name of the Dubois hometown, stands for victory. But for Stella and Blanche, there was no victory in Laurel.
It is important to note that the names of the men have no imagery or symbolism attached to them, because they are mundane and mediocre, existing only at a limited physical level.
Negative animal imagery is used to describe the men throughout the play. Mitch's clumsy attempt to waltz with Blanche is likened to a bear's movement. He has none of the refinements that Blanche wants or expects in a man. Stanley is even worse. In fact, the essence of Stanley is downright animalistic. Williams says of him that "animal joy....is implicit in all his movements and attitudes." His delight in sexual pleasure and his love of possessing things, like his wife, his home, his liquor, and his car, is similar to the bearing of the leader of a pack of animals. The verbs used reinforce this animal imagery; Stanley "prowled", "sprang", "crept stealthily", and "lunged" towards his goals. In fact, Stanley is portrayed as an animal hunting his prey, as he seeks to destroy Blanche. His bestial instinct is just below the surface throughout the play.
The men in the play spend a lot of time entertaining themselves. Pastimes like poker and bowling are supplemented by alcohol and the use of abusive language. The games are strong sexual symbols of phallic power; in the lower class of working people portrayed in the play, it is a man's world. Bowling and poker are very much a part of it, and the men intentionally exclude the women. When Blanche asks if she can play cards, she is told "no" unequivocally. When Stella goes bowling with Stanley, she goes to watch him play not to participate.
Williams attaches special meaning to the poker games. At the first poker game, Stanley is losing; as a result he is at his worst, behaving violently. At the second game, the tables have turned and he is winning. The difference in the two poker games indicates the threat that Blanche presents to his marriage. Under her influence, Stella argues with Stanley during the first game of poker; his authority is being questioned, and he responds by striking her. By the second game, Stanley is winning and in control, both of poker and of Blanche. Stanley has had his revenge; he has physically taken his sister-in-law, and now he is seeing her sent away forever. He is the triumphant victor in the game of life. Ironically, the game of poker being played as Blanche departs is seven-card stud.
All the men in the play exist at a physical level. They are loud, boisterous, and vulgar. Appropriately, they all wear dark, loud colors. Stanley's bowling jacket is indicated to be a bright color, either vivid green or red. In contrast, the women, especially Blanche, wear pastel shades and muted colors, especially white.
With intentional irony, Williams always clothes his morally fallen characters in white, the color of purity. For Blanche, whose name means white in French, the whiteness is in contrast to her lost innocence and purity. When Blanche spills coke on her white dress during the play, it is indicative that her past is spotted. She tries to blot out the coke stain, just as she tries to blot out the truth of her past.