By Raluca Comanelea
This literary scholarship aims to trace the archetypal development of the female lead character in “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams: Blanche DuBois. This fascinating character assumes almost as many archetypal female roles throughout the play as the roles an actress might accept over the course of a long career. Blanche’s most important quality—her ability to seduce audiences into perceiving the multifaceted layers of her feminine character all at once—marks her entry into Williams’s theatre of excess. Her theatricality springs precisely from her fascinating ability to reconstruct her persona in the course of the play, enacting the many possibilities contained in the word woman. Excess becomes Blanche’s strategy for recreating possibilities and liberating conflicts. Blanche pours herself out with each page of the play so that every aspect of her identity is presented to the audience. Through the lens of desire and death, the many archetypal roles Blanche embodies are analyzed one by one, so that her womanly essence is revealed in all its intensity and excess. In a manner, Williams’s own aesthetic sensibilities as a playwright are heavily invested in the multi-faceted personas that Blanche DuBois brings to the stage.
Keywords: archetypes, death, desire, excess, female, role, theatricality, woman
The story of Blanche DuBois finds its most powerful connection to the opening lines of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” when, arriving in The French Quarter “daintily dressed” in a manner “incongruous with the setting” (Williams 471), Blanche affirms, with shocked disbelief at her surroundings, “they told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six-blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!” (Williams 471). This statement secures Blanche’s place in Tennessee Williams’s gallery of complex and powerful female characters, because it encompasses everything that she stands for in the course of the play: her past, defined by death; her present, mapped out by desire; and her future, bringing her to the Elysian Fields. During that sojourn from life to death to something beyond, Blanche DuBois’s archetypal development almost mirrors the complex ability of the theater to display elaborate personas and roles as necessary, with actors and actresses picking up roles that seem complete and fully realized to their audience.
Tennessee Williams infused Blanche with an important quality: the ability to seduce her audience into perceiving the multifaceted layers of her feminine character all at once. Bearing a slip of paper in her hand and uttering those famous first lines “with faintly hysterical humor” (Williams 471), Blanche marks her appearance in Tennessee William’s theatre of excess. This trait becomes Williams’s strategy for liberating possibilities, releasing conflicts, and disengaging powers (Saddik 151). Blanche literally pours herself out with each page of the play so that every aspect of her identity is presented to the audience. She reimagines all possibilities and releases all conflicts among characters. The ambiguity of the adjective “hysterical,” which characterizes Blanche’s initial shock at her surroundings, foreshadows the many roles that she assumes in changing her persona throughout the course of the play.
Perhaps the most intense interpretation of Blanche’s character and style comes from movie director Elia Kazan. In his Notebook on the film “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he refers to this impressive female character as “a heightened version, an artistic intensification of all women” (qtd. in Donahue 32). As representative of her category, Woman, she embodies all that is and can be contained by the word itself. She embodies the archetypes of the Little Girl, the Older Sister, the Martyred Daughter, the Mother, the Prostitute, the Married Woman, the Feminine Other, the Femme Fatale, the Grotesque Female, and the Female Artist.
With each adopted role, Blanche embodies excess and lives it successfully, marching to her own tune. But to live excessively means also to live dangerously. The perceived failures lived by this remarkable female character empower her to bounce back in the game of life. By the end of the play, Blanche holds the power. She is a winner in this game, as she steps into the unknown, smiling, hand-in-hand with the doctor, walking on without turning to face the current reality any longer, ready for journey, a reassuring sky above her, embracing a wide-open future. With Blanche, the world of drama, theatre, and film holds a brilliant exemplar of female power.
In full celebration of her excesses and immediate lived pleasures, Blanche heightens the decadent spirit that drinks up her lifestyle. In her introduction to Radical Decadence: Excess in Contemporary Feminist Textiles and Craft, “Decadence, Feminism, and Excess,” Julia Skelly defines radical decadence as a deliberate form of female excess and a concern with immediate pleasure, whether in terms of consumption or spectatorship (4). For Blanche, excess is a deliberate aesthetic chosen to heighten her artistic and imaginative senses and her displeasure with certain aspects of her lived reality. “Yes, yes, magic!” she fully affirms. “I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on!” (Williams 545). Mitch is left dumbstruck by her intense remark.
Ultimately, as Skelly points out in her concluding chapter, excess and decadence can be liberating, because both are inherently founded on a rejection of ideal femininity (107). Blanche acknowledges her risks in choosing this life. She refers to herself in her bath songs as a “captive maid” (Williams 483) and she recognizes in Stanley her “executioner” (Williams 526). But her refusal to be contained and silenced by her community means more to Blanche than her fear of transgression of any gendered norms of behavior. Consequences matter less to this female character. It is the immediate and intense passion of the moment that propels her excessive engine to recreate herself in different roles, absorb the beauty of art and poetry, and tune into the power of her own feminine magic. Her male spectators—Stan, Mitch, Allan, the young soldiers, Mr. Graves, the town mayor of Laurel—cannot keep up with such sensuous feminine engagement.
Perceived feminine excesses breed fear in Blanche’s community, as her persona liberates all possibilities. Blanche clearly becomes a disruptor of the community’s established order. Thus, Stanley wants to destroy Blanche. Mitch cannot handle her intense image alongside that of his mother. Allan commits suicide at the intensity of her remark on his sexual conduit. After getting their own hopes up, the young soldiers Blanche was dating quit her one by one because of the rumors. Mr. Graves, the school superintendent where Blanche teaches English, kicks her out before the term ends because of her sexual reputation. Ultimately, a “town ordinance [was] passed against her” (Williams 532), as she was told by the mayor of Laurel to get out of town. Her excessive outbursts in terms of consumption and spectatorship fight against any social control attempted at an ideal of feminine behavior.
In his Memoirs, Tennessee Williams speaks of Blanche as an “imperishable creature of the stage,” her truths echoing in the hearts of “so many known and unknown ladies” (Williams 231). Blanche’s part in theatre and movie opens all doors to experimentation. Through all the lies and pretense, the actress playing Blanche must make her spectators perceive her truth (Donahue 36). Faced with her own reality by Mitch, Blanche exclaims, “what a fantastic statement! Fantastic of him to say it, fantastic of you to repeat it!” (Williams 544). Blanche’s pretense is as real to her as the reality lived by the characters around her. Critics, directors, and reviewers alike find themselves in a continuous search for the message conveyed by this female character.
Tennessee Williams himself experienced struggle in painting a clear image of Blanche’s character. His early, unpublished manuscripts that shaped the final version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” remain testimony of the playwright’s experiments with a multifaceted Blanche DuBois, a feminine character with potent sexuality and intense predisposition to radical change. These early drafts underline the playwright’s struggle in understanding whether Blanche was in fact “the sexual predator or the spiritual victim” (Bak 127), or perhaps everything-in-between these two connotations. The culmination of Blanche’s powerful female character rests in between the lines of one of the plays that have shaped twentieth century popular culture.
The Second Sex affirms that there is “no feminine figure – virgin, mother, wife, sister, servant, lover, fierce virtue, smiling odalisque – capable of encapsulating the inconsistent yearnings of men” (Beauvoir 217). That is, until Blanche steps foot on the stage of American drama, encapsulating all images centered on the word woman. “How can I be?” she must constantly ask herself. This complex question allows her to investigate deeply her own nature. And this feminine nature, once released, erupts excessively, in all directions, exceeding all delineations that were once meant to contain it. Blanche is all the feminine ideals she imagines herself to be. In order for Blanche to make a powerful contribution to the world of theater and cinema, she must put on a spectacular show of female excess. Her female theatricality springs precisely from her fascinating ability to reconstruct her persona in the course of the play, enacting the many possibilities contained in the word woman.
The Little Girl
Blanche, the Little Girl, arrives unexpectedly in a poor neighborhood of New Orleans, the one running between the river and the L&N train tracks, so that she can be with her in-laws. She cries out to Stella, “I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I can’t be alone!” (Williams 477). Her need for protection is emblematic of this first role she recreates. Blanche, the girl, makes her entry dressed in white, “an appearance incongruous with the setting” (Williams 471), thus wearing a color that signifies a state of innocence; the reader quickly learns that Blanche is guided by the astrological sign of the Virgin, and enjoys singing in the tub.
Bathing acquires purification status, a return to a former state of innocence for the child in Blanche. The restorative properties of water bring Blanche back to her role of Little Girl. Once again, “she is young and pure in a beautiful world” (Corrigan 86). Blanche announces gaily, “Here I am, all freshly bathed and scented, and feeling like a brand new human being!” (Williams 486). The singing in the tub, characteristic of little children, shapes her dreamy states of mind. Songs such as “It’s only a paper moon” (Williams 530) and “From the land of the sky blue water” (Williams 483) fill out Blanche’s world of make-believe.
While Stan keeps busy exposing Blanche’s promiscuous past to Stella, stage directions announce, “in the bathroom the water goes on loud; little breathless cries and peals of laughter are heard as if a child were frolicking in the tub” (Williams 532). Thus, we have two Blanches juxtaposed here: the Little Girl and the Prostitute. Refusing to believe Stan’s accusations, Stella defends Blanche with the image of the Little Girl, “you didn’t know Blanche as a child. Nobody, nobody, was tender and trusting as she was” (Williams 540). As Stan insists on painting a different picture of Blanche, Stella continues, “she was always flighty” as a child (Williams 533). Blanche’s overall words, gestures, attire, and actions throughout the play retain the capricious, whimsical aura so characteristic of little children’s outlook on life.
Pretend play, a typical trait of the children’s universe, is reenacted by Blanche throughout the drama. Whenever she needs to escape unpleasant circumstances, Blanche uses the telephone. She calls Western Union in attempts to have the operator connect her to a former high school beau, Shep Huntleigh, now a Texas oil millionaire. The telephone becomes “an avenue to a better world” (Martin 88), and a means for Blanche to come up with a plan of escape. Blanche, the Little Girl, also keeps a journal of phrases heard in the Quarter. When Steve yells “that rutting hunk” after Eunice, Blanche bursts in laughter, “Ha-ha! I’m compiling a notebook of quaint little words and phrases I’ve picked up here” (Williams 513). The need to dream big is always present in Blanche, the Girl. She announces, “How pretty the sky is! I ought to go there on a rocket that never comes down” (Williams 492), in the midst of more serious adult conversations. At night, she is on the lookout for constellations. While gazing up at the sky, reaching for the stars, Blanche dreamily confesses to Mitch, “I’m looking for the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, but these girls are not out tonight. Oh, yes, they are, there they are! […] All in a bunch going home from their little bridge party” (Williams 521). This story unfolds while she takes a last look at the sky before going indoors with Mitch.
Blanche emphasizes her Little Girl role and grants it power the many times she insists upon being called so: she refers to herself as a “single girl,” a “girl alone in the world” (Williams 522), or “a very young girl” (Williams 527). The way she rejoices in little things becomes emblematic of her image as a child: “Oh, those pretty, pretty little candles! Oh, don’t burn them, Stella […] I hope that his eyes are going to be like candles, like two blue candles lighted in a white cake” (Williams 538). Her dream world is as important as her present reality, if not more. In her desire to connect her dream world somehow, to build bridges with her current reality, Blanche becomes the living embodiment of the Little Girl archetype.
The Older Sister
In assuming the role of the Older Sister for Stella, Blanche carries it out gently. She addresses Stella in kind terms, denoting the proper care of an older sister: “baby, my baby sister” (Williams 504) or “you messy child, you, you’ve spilt something on that pretty white lace collar” (Williams 475-76). Blanche displays nurturing qualities in her relationship with her younger sister. When Stan hits Stella in a fit of rage, stage directions announce, “with her arms around Stella, Blanche guides her to the outside door and upstairs” (Williams 501). On their way upstairs to Eunice’s apartment, she further comforts her younger sister: “dear, dear little sister, don’t be afraid” (Williams 501). Blanche’s plan for escape from unpleasant realities includes Stella. She dreams that Shep Huntleigh, her Texas beau from high school, will “set us up in a -shop!” (Williams 507). The start of a new chapter in her life, however delusional it may be, includes her sister as well.
Tennessee Williams paints a well-defined picture of the two sisters, which surfaces by means of their dialogue. When Stella admires Blanche for the vivid energy with which she displays herself to the world, Blanche exclaims: “I’ve never had your beautiful self-control” (Williams 476). As Blanche usually does much of the talking and storytelling in their sister-relationship, Stella got in the habit of being quiet around Blanche, and she confesses this to Blanche. At the news of Stella’s pregnancy, the lines exchanged between the sisters quickly become bright-colored: “Stella, Stella for Star! How lovely to have a baby!” (Williams 491). It is with her sister that Blanche can experience the joy of pure, happy thoughts expressed freely: “I hope candles are going to glow in his life and I hope that his eyes are going to be like candles, like two blue candles lighted in a white cake!” (Williams 538). Without a directed attempt, Stella has the capacity to shine an honest light on Blanche’s character.
Blanche paints herself in her most truthful colors when she finds herself in her sister’s presence. “That’s why I’ve been — not so awf’ly good lately” (Williams 515), she confesses to Stella. She shares her deep desires with Stella, “I want to rest! I want to breathe quietly again! Yes — I want Mitch … very badly!” (Williams 517). Blanche believes it is her duty to warn Stella about her present marital situation with someone who is below her in social and cultural rank, “In this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching…. Don’t—don’t hang back with the brutes!” (Williams 511). Blanche does not hold back from exposing herself to Stella in all her womanly flaws. While writing a letter to Shep, Blanche confesses to Stella that she is laughing at herself “for being such a liar” (Williams 511-12). Discussing a possible relationship with Mitch, Blanche laughs with Stella again: “he thinks I’m sort of—prim and proper, you know!” (Williams 517). The sister-relationship shared between Blanche and Stella helps the audience perceive a Blanche who can be as gentle and nurturing with words as she can be crafty and deceitful.
The Martyred Daughter of the South
Belle Reve stands as the ultimate symbol for Blanche’s theatrical persona as a Martyred Daughter of the South. The remnants of her status as gentlewoman, as ideal Southern Belle have been buried with the “twenty acres of ground” (Williams 491), which include the family graveyard, a visual image that Blanche keeps alive in her thoughts. The valise she makes her appearance with in the French Quarter neighborhood, at the beginning of the play, stands as symbol for all that is left from the glamorous past lived on the family plantation. Opening that trunk and jerking out Blanche’s jewelry, fur pieces, and gold dresses, Stan exclaims to Stella: “Here’s your plantation, or what’s left of it, here! “(Williams 486).
Upon arrival in the Kowalski’s home, she immediately adopts the role of victim with Stella, “you left! I stayed and struggled! You came to New Orleans and looked out for yourself! I stayed at Belle Reve and tried to hold it together! … all the burden descended on my shoulders” (Williams 478). Blanche continues with her defense, while Stella blames her for the loss of Belle Reve plantation. It is Blanche, in embracing this role of Martyred Daughter, who insists on painting a picture in Stella’s mind of the terrible “blows” she received in her face and in her body: “All of those deaths! The long parade to the graveyard” (Williams 479). Her spiritual and physical wellbeing were affected to some extent. But the exaggeration in her words aims at diverting attention from a possible conversation on Belle Reve’s legal and financial matters: “You are the one that abandoned Belle Reve, not I! I stayed and fought for it, bled for it, almost died for it! (Williams 479), Blanche continues with a grave tone. Remembering the graveyard parade, she continues, “I saw! Saw! Saw! And now you sit there telling me with your eyes that I let the place go! … Sit there and stare at me, thinking I let the place go! I let the place go? Where were you? In bed with your—Polack!” (Williams 479-80). Stella simply stares at Blanche, but not with reproachful eyes: she “looks slowly down at her hands folded on the table” (Williams 479). Stella has not a chance for one line, as even Blanche becomes the victim in the Martyred Daughter role she embraces.
Her role as Martyred Daughter of the South ultimately brings her face-to-face with Desire: “The glories of Belle Reve have been founded on the epic fornications of its forebears” (Miller 214), leaving Blanche to suffer the blows, repeatedly. Death brought her face-to-face with Desire, when, following a family pattern, she has become “sexually profligate” (Blackwell 244) with the death of her parents. Male ancestral figures, “improvident grandfathers and fathers and uncles and brothers” (Williams 490), pushed Blanche to embrace desire, the only way out from death’s impediment. The role of Martyred Daughter offers Blanche a veil from the truth: Blanche herself is the “last one of the red-hot epic fornicators. It is she who has squandered money on clothes and jewels and luxury vacations to Miami, hoping to snare, if not a husband, at least a lover for the night” (Isaac 168). Her teacher’s salary couldn’t have kept up with the excessive, luxurious lifestyle she lived for so many years. Ultimately, in her choice to stay as devout companion to her dying parents, the dying Belle Reve estate, and the dying Southern tradition, Blanche is embracing her role as Martyred Daughter of the South.
From Stella, the reader discovers details about Blanche in her role of Wife. In Stella’s view, Blanche becomes the perfect embodiment of devotion. “She married a boy who wrote poetry…. He was extremely good-looking,” Stella confesses. “I think Blanche didn’t just love him but worshipped the ground he walked on! Adored him and thought him almost too fine to be human!” (Williams 533). Blanche enacts her role as wife to Allan with passionate attributes.
Blanche remembers herself in her role of Wife, but a role mixed with feelings of guilt. She confesses to Mitch the regrets she has accumulated since Allan’s suicide: “all I knew was I’d failed him in some mysterious way” (Williams 527). “The searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light” (Williams 528), Blanche further tells Mitch. This searchlight, which slipped through her fingers with Allan’s suicide, remains a living symbol for Blanche’s regret at the way she ultimately handled her role as Wife. The “I saw! I know! You disgust me” (Williams 528) phrase she whispers in Allan’s year on the dance floor, before his suicide, becomes reminiscent of her ultimate failure in her role of wife, one which contrasts deeply with the companionship love she has lived with Allan after their union, “all at once and much, much too completely” (Williams 527).
With Mitch, Blanche desires to become the Wife again. She, in her prospective role of married woman, desires to build a stable life in a community she feels respected and safe.” She confesses to Stella just how “very badly” she wants Mitch because she wants to rest and to “breathe quietly again” (Williams 517). If Mitch believed in her and accepted her as Wife, Blanche would truly become what she has pretended she is: a faithful woman for Mitch.
Blanche is celebrated as the Mother-Woman of the play. “She is the Phallic Mother” (46), critic Calvin Bedient boldly affirms in his essay “There Are Lives that Desire Does Not Sustain: A Streetcar Named Desire.” Her image as the Phallic Mother is gradually built by him, uncovering the subtle tensions that surface along the lines of the play between Blanche, in her role of Mother, and Stanley, her male antagonist. Stan experiences the pull of the archaic Mother (Bedient 55) with Blanche’s entry into his household. He sees her as the feminizing abjection he fears in himself, so “she must be put down” (Bedient 56). The term “abjection” is borrowed by Bedient from Kristeva’s exposition of the theory of the abject presented in “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.”
The abject is “that which disturbs identity, system, order causes abjection” (Kristeva 4). Blanche doesn’t respect borders, positions, or rules. She refers to the males playing poker in the kitchen as “little boys” and calls upon them in such terms throughout the play: “Hello! The Little Boys’ Room is busy right now” (Williams 497). She confronts and provokes Stanley whenever given the opportunity, “What’s in the back of that little boy’s mind of yours?” (Williams 489). In Kristeva’s view, the other sex, the feminine, is synonymous with a radical evil that is to be suppressed (70), a feared feminine that threatens Stanley’s established order. Stan’s confrontation with the feminine abjection, that is, Blanche as the Mother-Woman, is inevitable in the Kowalski’s household when Blanche becomes an uninvited guest at the dinner table.
“The man who finds his true wife has found his mother” (53), Camille Paglia affirms in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. For Mitch, Blanche becomes one with his own mother. She offers him an alternative image of a sick and dying mother, one that is attractive, vibrant: “she won’t live long. Maybe just a few months. […] She wants me to be settled before she—” (Williams 527). Mitch needs a Mother figure before he needs a Wife figure in his life: “I gotta a sick mother. She doesn’t go to sleep until I come in at night” (Williams 493). He further confesses to Blanche, “I’ll be alone when she goes” (Williams 493). The fleeting summer that Mitch spends in the company of Blanche offers him a getaway from the sickness that took over his household. The intense filial attachment that Mitch harbors for his dying mother is acknowledged by his poker buddies. “Hurry back and we’ll fix you a sugar-tit” (Williams 493), Stan hollers at Mitch whenever the latter turns sensitive. The reader can only imagine the emotional depth of Mitch’s remark, after learning about Blanche’s promiscuous past: “You’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother” (Williams 547). In his eyes, Blanche was slowly replacing his dying mother, all the more reason that Mitch does not accept living with such a perverse image of his own mother in his mind.
Blanche is one of the first female characters in drama to be so overt about her sexual needs. Always acting on her impulses, embracing all her fleeting desires, Blanche becomes an excessive woman. Her immediate concerns with sensual pleasures gain her a licentious reputation. Thus, Blanche becomes the Prostitute over the course of the play.
However, Blanche stands ready to justify her theatrical persona as the Prostitute to her sister Stella: “I wasn’t so good the last two years or so. […] It was all storm-all storm, and I was—caught in the center” (Williams 515). Through Blanche’s eyes, her licentious behavior in the town of Laurel, where she was teaching, is a direct consequence of the blows and deaths she suffered through at Belle Reve. Blanche herself follows a family pattern, as she becomes the last of the epic fornicators that she mentions to Stanley, and the first one to be a woman, for that matter.
A Freudian perspective on the subject of female prostitution sheds a new light on Blanche’s underlying reasons for her actions. Happiness, which is the whole purpose of human life in Freud’s view, aims to eliminate pain and discomfort and to experience intense pleasures (15). Thus, Blanche embraces a personal task: that of avoiding pain at all costs. Furthermore, her many intimacies with strangers are indicative of her immediate desires for happiness. “Civilization is built up on renunciation of instinctual gratifications” (37), Freud continues, and Blanche refuses to comply. She defends her “claim to individual freedom against the will of the multitude” (35), that is, her community. However, she does try to repress her Prostitute role in the scene with the attractive paperboy: “Now, run along, now, quickly! It would be nice to keep you, but I’ve got to be good—and keep my hands off children” (Williams 520).
The only outlet for the liberty of instinct, which is not censored, according to Freud, is heterosexual love, but this is further circumscribed by the barriers of legitimacy and monogamy (45). And Blanche’s desire to become prim and proper for Mitch’s sake underlines a basic understanding of the nature of restrictions that are put in place for individual liberty by the claims of culture. Marriage will ensure legitimacy of her physical desires within the community she operates. However, her role as the Prostitute prevents her from breaking away from the past. Mitch breaks their compromise once Blanche’s past is exposed by Stan.
To Stanley Kowalski, this woman, whose promiscuous past was revealed to him from multiple sources, who gave free sexual favors to soldiers, and even seduced one of her high school students, has truly earned the treatment he shows her at the end. Critic June Schlueter believes that the rape provides the reader with an aesthetic whole. “However repugnant, it affirms Blanche’s reality of Stan as ‘grunting and hulking’” (76). Furthermore, the act of rape validates Stan’s perception of Blanche as prostitute. And for that one moment, “she sees herself through his eyes” (Harris 95). Until this moment, Blanche embraced her past deeds from one point of view only: the one she presented to Stella. Now, prostitution becomes real for Blanche, witnessed from Stan’s perspective.
Blanche deliberately chooses the Prostitute role because it suits her momentary desires. Critic Mark Winchell entertains the idea that Mitch, as Blanche’s husband, “would probably arrive home one afternoon to find his wife in the sack with some less hesitant newsboy” (138). It seems that Blanche cannot escape her instincts. The fulfillment of her immediate desires has always made up the essence of her womanly character.
The Feminine Other
Blanche’s turning into an Other must be understood within the context of her power struggle with Stan. What the reader witnesses here is the dynamics of Foucault’s repressive hypothesis at work in William’s play. Kleb’s essay, “Marginalia: Streetcar, Williams, and Foucault,” offers a critical perspective on the play that rests upon Foucault’s ideology. Blanche’s Feminine Other and Stanley’s the Same are central concepts in understanding this theoretical framework of reference (Kleb 29). The Feminine Other seeks to redefine and even control The Same. As soon as she arrives in Stan’s home, Blanche rearranges furniture and redecorates to please her own taste. She devises plans to escape with Stella and offends Stan multiple times, attempting to pull her sister away from him. “But I’ll think of something, I’ve got to think of—something! Don’t laugh at me Stella!” (Williams 508), Blanche keeps uttering while making definite plans for both to run away from Stan. The latter confesses to Stella, “Wasn’t we happy together? Wasn’t it all okay? Till she showed here. Hoity-toity, describing me as an ape” (Williams 541).
Blanche, the Feminine Other, is the intruder, the marginal figure, and the unannounced guest who seeks control of the Same, Kowalski’s household: “Don’t—don’t hang back with the brutes!” (Williams 511), claims she. Since Blanche is perceived as a “sign for sexual maladjustment” (Kleb 30), her illegitimate sexuality must be confined, either to the brothel or the mental hospital. The exclusion and confinement of the Other into one of the 3 modern institutions: clinic, prison, or asylum, represents the bread of Foucault’s repressive hypothesis.
The Feminine Other reveals a Blanche who is dangerous and threatening to any established order, a Blanche “in its most threatening and entrancing (to the male) aspects: enchantress, witch, and faery queen” (Kleb 36). Williams offers subtle hints that further frame Blanche within this primordial Feminine Other. Blanche’s astrological planet is the moon; she is to be seen only at night. “You never want to go out till after six and then it’s always some place that’s not lighted” (Williams 544), affirms Mitch; she is “light as a feather” (Williams 524); Blanche refers to herself as a “witch of woman” who is “casting a spell” (Williams 488); she admits to Stella that she might “swoop down on Dallas” (Williams 512) to unexpectedly visit Shep Huntleigh, her former beau; and Stan wonders at times: “what is this sister of yours, a deep-sea diver who brings up sunken treasures?” (Williams 485). Meanwhile, Stan is the Same, the “absolute monarch” (Kleb 37). He brings up the Napoleonic Code in the discussion about Belle Reve’s loss at the hands of Blanche. And he reminds the sisters that he is “the king around here, so don’t forget it” (Williams 537).
The immediate punishment inflicted on Blanche, in her role as the Feminine Other, comes in the form of confinement, in her case, the mental institution. But the Feminine Other has changed Stan’s world of Sameness. The possibility of her truth being real—her rape confession to Stella—represents the “relocation of The Other in man’s own nature, within the same” (Kleb 41). Stella sees Stan differently now, through her sister’s eyes. Blanche has implanted her seed of truth in Kowalski’s household and moves on, embracing the calling of her last desires.
The Femme Fatale
In a letter about the play’s conception, Williams addresses Elia Kazan, director of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” confessing that Stanley sees Blanche as a “calculating bitch with round heels” and not as a desperate creature backed into a last corner of resort (95-96). Thus, Blanche becomes the embodiment of the Femme Fatale archetype. The Femme Fatale’s attributes are meant to highlight the temptation that is aroused in men when in her presence: she wears glamorous gowns, heels, gloves, and shiny jewelry or delicate flower accessories; she is manipulative and employs her sexual charms as a tool; and she is involved in murder or suicide. Blanche plays the Femme Fatale in the course of the play.
Blanche arrives in the French Quarter “daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice,
necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat” (Williams 471). Throughout the play, Blanche’s shows a preference for “feathers and furs,” for “fox-pieces,” for “solid-gold dresses” (Williams 485), for red or white evening gowns. She wears shiny jewelry, “bracelets of solid gold” and “ropes of pearls” (Williams 486), “silver slippers with brilliant sets in their heels” (Williams 548), “and artificial violets” (Williams 556) pinned to her attire.
In her Femme Fatale role, Blanche uses her sexuality successfully. She laughs at Stanley, calls him a “little boy,” playfully sprays him with her atomizer (Williams 489), invites him to button her dress, asks for a drag on his cig (Williams 487), and belittles him by calling him a “Polack” (Williams 539). She even confesses to Stella, “I laughed and treated it all as a joke, called him a little boy and laughed—and flirted! Yes—I was flirting with your husband, Stella!” (Williams 491). Blanche’s only weapon is her sexuality, which is meant to be used “to save her from being held responsible for the loss of Belle Reve” (Griffin 57). The minute she realizes that Mitch could offer her social position and stability through marriage, she begins using her sexuality further: “she takes off the blouse and stands in her pink silk brassiere and white skirt in the light thru the portieres” (Williams 496). When Stan realizes that Mitch’s gaze has switched from the cards on the table to her alluring image in the shadow of the portieres, he “jumps up and jerks roughly at curtains to close them” (Williams 497), as if jealous of Mitch’s eye gazing. Blanche announces airily that “The Little Boys’ Room is busy right now” (Williams 497). In her Femme Fatale role, Blanche places herself in a strategic position in Stan’s home. Her flirting and provocative behavior secures her a potential husband, Mitch, but also Stan’s understanding of the financial considerations behind the loss of Belle Reve plantation—until Stan overhears her remarks to Stella, calling him “common,” “an animal,” “sub-human,” “ape,” and “a brute” (Williams 510-11). From now on, she becomes a dangerous enemy for Stan.
What makes Stanley right in Elia Kazan’s view is precisely his perception of Blanche in her role of Femme Fatale: “he’s got things the way he wants them … and does not want them upset by a phony, corrupt, sick … woman” (qtd. in Kolin 11). Blanche is destructive and dangerous and strikes fear in Stanley’s subconscious mind. She could potentially ruin his marriage and Stan is sharply aware of this, “not once did you pull any wool over this boy’s eyes!” (Williams 552). Her intention to wreck his home is made clear to Stella when she openly plans an escape for both with Shep Huntleigh, Blanche’s high school beau. Hence, Stanley cannot be blamed for protecting his marriage against this Femme Fatale, who seeks to undermine his position.
Her sexual encounters with strangers at the Flamingo Hotel and her countless dates with the soldiers from the camp show that Blanche uses her sexuality as a tool, with no attachment involved. These male strangers and soldiers are “sex objects for her … she uses them every bit as much as they, presumably, use her” (Morrow 64). When Mitch confronts Blanche with her promiscuous past at the Flamingo Hotel, she declares, “that’s where I brought my victims. Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers” (Williams 545-46). About her sexual encounters with soldiers from the camp close to Belle Reve, Blanche speaks freely as well. She even compares them to “daisies” being “picked by the paddy-wagon” (Williams 547). Excess becomes an important trait for Blanche in her role of Femme Fatale. She becomes a bad woman who defies her Southern community’s moral code of feminine behavior.
Blanche’s acts of excess—sex, alcohol, fashion, lies, and pretense—turned her into “one of the most mesmerizing of sexual personae” (Paglia 13). Camille Paglia proclaims the Femme Fatale as the primary image of a “daemonic archetype of woman” (13). At times, Blanche’s face brightens up at the news of violence. When Steve strikes Eunice and the sound of a man’s angry roar is heard, along with overturned furniture (Williams 512), Blanche asks (brightly): “Did he kill her?” (Williams 512). Her mistreatment of her husband Allan drives him to suicide. According to Dean Shackelford, Blanche becomes the “villain” in that she destroys the homosexual poet with her cruelty (198). “I saw! I know! You disgust me…” (Williams 528) are the last words whispered in the poet’s ear before he fires his revolver into his mouth.
Blanche, in her role of Femme Fatale, exits the play triumphantly. Her rape does not represent the tragic fall of a feminine character. In the struggle for power between the two sexes, Stan may seem to be triumphant, since the destructive Blanche is removed from his home. But Stanley has to go on with his life, involved in lies and resentment now, while Blanche abandons the toxic place to live her last desires and dreams in quietude. Blanche brings the ruin of a great friendship shared with Mitch, who shouts after Stan: “I’ll kill you” (Williams 563); she gets her sister, Stella, to see Stan in a new light by the end of the play. She calls him “drunk” and “animal thing” (Williams 500), and feels she cannot trust him completely, ever again. Blanche walks out with the doctor, holding his hand, smiling, “without turning” (Williams 564) to face Stan, Mitch, or Stella, even once.
The Grotesque Female
A central aspect of the grotesque in relationship to the feminine is the exaggeration of the female into a “fantastically consuming monster” (Saddik 13). William’s focus on excess and transformation with the character of Blanche DuBois turns her into a feminine character who is “sicker than necessary” (Saddik 12). The consuming Blanche, who cannot quench her appetite, becomes sick with excessive consumption: lemon cokes, alcohol, sex, sparkling jewelry, and glamorous dresses. Her excessive appetite turns Blanche into a grotesque figure, and the grotesque woman of western culture is linked to social and sexual deviances (Skelly 57). Pouring herself another drink, Blanche further adds to this Western paradigm: “The Tarantula Arms … Yes, a big spider! That’s where I brought my victims. Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers.” (Williams 545-46). The monstrous feminine embodies everything about woman that is “shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject” (Skelly 38). In comparing herself to a spider, Blanche’s male counterparts become victims of her deviant and devouring physical appetite.
The spider symbol associated with the feminine evokes “images of the non-linear, of the many directions in which something can go, the many sources for it” (Skelly 63). Blanche, in her Grotesque Female role, destabilizes the linear order, creates alternative centers, “bulging and bursting through the steams of the rational and the stable” (Saddik 10-11). Margin and center coexist; contradictions flow freely with the full support of Blanche’s theatrical persona. The grotesque body, indulgent and excessive, celebrates the physical pleasures of sexuality. Although Blanche keeps her promiscuous past hidden, once this is revealed, she celebrates desire as champion over death. When Mitch confronts her with the many sexual encounters of her past, Blanche calls death into question, affirming, “The opposite is desire. So do you wonder? How could you possibly wonder?” (Williams 547).
The grotesque is only recognizable in relation to a norm (Skelly 38), and exceeding that norm involves serious risk. Blanche risked and lost a stable social position at the side of Mitch. When confronted with the norm, that is, Blanche’s community, she belittles its power of confining individual liberties and of making cheap accusations of such intimate nature: Mitch tells her, “three people, Kiefaber, Stanley, and Shaw, swore to them!” To this accusation, Blanche responds, “Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub! And such a filthy tub!” (Williams 545). Her play with language brings about a certain comic nuance in the face of these severe accusations thrown at her.
Blanche, in her role of the Grotesque Female, is saved by her laughter. She exits with the doctor, hand-in-hand, one more time depending on the kindness of a stranger, to live her last dreamy wishes. Saddik affirms that “the comic element in the grotesque is that saving element, a creative vision in face of destructive forces” (136). In light of this spirit of “going on,” for which Williams is famous, he explores the regenerative power of the grotesque through Blanche’s character.
The Female Artist
In one of the letters sent to Maria St. Just, his confidante and critic, Tennessee Williams confessed, “when I think about her, Blanche seems like the youth of our hearts which has to be put away for worldly considerations: poetry, music, the early soft feelings that we can’t afford to live with under a naked light bulb which is now” (Williams 113-14). Blanche herself confesses towards the end of the play that, locked in her heart, she possesses “beauty of the mind and richness of the spirit and tenderness of the heart” (Williams 551). Her use of poetic language throughout the play, her appreciation of art, her play with reality and fantasy, her rebellious spirit and love of freedom celebrate Blanche in her role of Female Artist.
Blanche’s use of language “distorts the world, but recreates it, reshuffles the cards, perpetuates a pattern” (Marrow 65). Looking out the window at the L&N streetcar lines, she tells Stella that “out there I suppose is the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir” (Williams 474). Blanche wanders through words to fuel her artistic sense. She speaks her truths in poetry and songs. Expressing her distaste with the Kowalski apartment, Blanche exclaims that “only Poe! Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe!—could do it justice!” (Williams 474). In light of her chosen profession of teaching literature, Blanche appreciates music and art. Throughout the play, she recites sonnet lines by Browning; she hears a polka tune, the Varsouviana, constantly ringing in her ear. She appreciates radio tunes while bathing and constantly sings romantic songs in the tub.
Blanche pours her creative energy into her own persona, “attempting to re-create herself as an art object: a living embodiment of the ideal Southern Belle – young, lovely, genteel, flirtatious, and alluringly fragile” (Harris 90). She confesses to Stanley that a woman’s charms are fifty percent illusion and she admits to Stella that she is recreating her image for Mitch, “what I mean is—he thinks I’m sort of—prim and proper, you know. (She laughs out sharply). I want to deceive him enough to make him want me” (Williams 517). Throughout her dates with Mitch, Blanche allows her fantasy to sweep through: “we are going to pretend that we are sitting in a little artists’ café on the Left bank in Paris. (she lights a candle stub and pits it in a bottle). Je suis la Dame aux Camellias! Vous etes—Armand!” (Williams 523). The paperboy who is collecting for The Evening Star is a young prince for Blanche, “young man! Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights?” (Williams 519). And she steals a kiss from him before he departs.
Blanche’s desire to play with reality and fantasy further enhances her rebellious spirit, one that is misunderstood by other characters in the play. But this spirit of her is part of the artistic pursuit in life for Blanche, a pursuit that enrages Stan: “there isn’t a goddam thing but imagination! … And lies and conceit and tricks! … And look at yourself! Take a look at yourself in that worn-out Mardi Gras outfit … and with that crazy crown on!” (Williams 552). When she tells Mitch how the polka music dies out in her mind, the latter simply asks, “are you boxed out of your mind?” (Williams 543). Blanche’s artistic desire is to beautify her surroundings and that is why she insists on offering people what they need, all in the spirit of “magic,” which ought to be accepted in the face of a bleak reality.
Dan Isaac, in “No Past to Think in: Who Wins in A Streetcar Named Desire?” believes that Blanche is inspired with the vision and passion of a “biblical prophet,” showing concern for the future and the evolution of the human species (166). She tells Stella that “in this dark march towards whatever it is we’re approaching… Don’t—don’t hang back with the brutes!” (Williams 511). Her desire is to transmit value and ideals, “such things as art—as poetry and music—such kinds of new light have come into the world since then!” (Williams 511). Elia Kazan honored Blanche’s artistic sense, confessing, “her love of art and beauty is noble” (Kolin 10). Her poetic observations, “those cathedral bells- they’re the only clean thing in the Quarter” (Williams 558) heighten Blanche’s artistic sense throughout the play.
Blanche’s indulging in fantasy and illusion, her creative ways of interacting with the immediate environment bring out the Female Artist in her throughout the play. Transformation is part of Blanche’s artistic pursuit. She transforms herself over the course of the play and her sister’s marriage: by the end of the play, Stella and Stan’s relationship is forever altered. Her play with magic and illusions permanently touches the reality of other characters in the play. But Blanche never lied in her heart, never inside (Williams 546). She simply recreates the world to represent her own artistic sense. And this artistic sense of hers propels the engine of Blanche’s archetypal development in one body, one image—one that pushes for a demanding and intense role for any actor or actress seeking to interpret her character. In just such a fashion, Williams presents his slippery, evasive, and all-encompassing character in a play that might be said to emphasize many of those same simultaneously ethereal, engrossing, and sometimes even grossly materialistic marvels.
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