MAJOR WORKS REVIEW
AP Lang Version
1. Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New Directions, 2004.
2. Novel Type: Play (Drama)
1. Point of View: Third Person (Play)
2. Relationship of POV to meaning: Because A Streetcar Named Desire is a play, the reader experiences the story solely through dialogue between the characters and stage directions. This third person point of view treats the reader as an observer from the outside and allows him/her to make inferences regarding events in the play and the thoughts of the characters.
3. Plot Structure
a. Exposition – Stella Kowalski is living peacefully with her husband Stanley Kowalski who works as a factory engineer in New Orleans.
b. Inciting Incident – Stella’s sister, Blanche DuBois, decides to visit her following the collapse of the DuBois family plantation and the loss of her job as a teacher in Laurel, Mississippi. Following her arrival, Blanche encounters Stella’s husband Stanley who becomes suspicious of Blanche’s motivations for visiting and of her past.
c. Events contributing to rising action – The conflict between Stanley and Blanche escalates when Stanley begins to believe that Blanche is cheating Stella out of her right to the DuBois family plantation. Blanche’s animosity toward Stanley grows when Stanley becomes drunk one night and physically abuses Stella. Follow these events, Stanley begins to investigate into Blanche’s past and discovers that she had multiple affairs in Laurel and also made sexual advancements toward one of her high school students. Stanley informs his friend Mitch about Blanche’s past and Mitch decides to stop courting Blanche.
d. Climax (Crisis/turning point) – Stanley gives Blanche a bus ticket out of New Orleans as a present for her birthday dinner. Stella goes into labor and Stanley takes her to the hospital. Mitch arrives at the apartment and ends his relationship with Blanche, citing her lies about her past as the reason. Stanley returns from the hospital, subdues Blanche, and then rapes her.
e. Events contributing to falling action – In the weeks following Stanley’s rape of Blanche, Stella prepares to send Blanche to a mental asylum. She says that she can’t continue to live with Stanley and their new baby if she believes Blanche’s account of the event.
f. Resolution – The doctor from the mental asylum arrives and Blanche is taken away after only a small struggle. Only Stella and Mitch seem to show any sympathy for Blanche.
g. Other Significant Structural Elements: Because A Streetcar Named Desire is a play, the written story is conveyed only through dialogue and stage directions. Williams uses vivid imagery that appeals to the senses in the stage directions to set up his scenes. He also utilizes music and clever remarks in his dialogue.
a. Name and significance of name – Blanche DuBois is the older sister of Stella Kowalski who visits her and her husband Stanley in New Orleans, Louisiana.
b. Characteristics and thematic significance – Blanche is an extremely disillusioned and self-conscious woman who is still conflicted about events in her past life. She continually lies to her sister Stella, Stella’s husband Stanley, and Stanley’s friend Mitch regarding what happened to her family’s plantation and her actions as a teacher in Laurel. These qualities and her inability to overcome the death of her first husband emphasize the tragedy of the play and an obsession about appearances.
c. Change or epiphany and thematic significance – While visiting her sister Stella and Stella’s husband Stanley in New Orleans, Blanche’s sanity slowly unravels as she is forced to face the issues of her past. Blanche completely loses her sanity after Stanley rapes her, thus completing her descent into madness and also her submission to Stanley’s dominance.
a. Name and significance of name – Stanley Kowalski is the husband of Stella Kowalski. He is of Polish background and was a former army engineer during WWII.
b. Characteristics and significance – Stanley is the epitome of masculinity and dominance. He is aggressive and sometimes abusive toward his wife Stella, notably after consuming alcohol. This “alpha-male” complex eventually leads him to rape Blanche. However, Stanley also has a soft side, especially regarding his relationship with Stella and their unborn child. Additionally, despite his Polish heritage, Stanley is a fiercely proud American.
3. Other Significant Characters
a. Name and significance of name – Mitch is Stanley’s close friend who lives in New Orleans with his dying mother.
b. Characteristics – Despite his bulky appearance, Mitch is a very compassionate and kind man. He enjoys chivalry and is thought to be quiet because of his reserved nature. Mitch’s mother’s terminal condition has also left him extremely lonely.
c. Thematic or plot-oriented purpose – At his mother’s wish, Mitch is looking to settle down and hopefully start a stable life. After meeting Blanche, he slowly attempts to court her. However, Mitch’s ignorance regarding Blanche’s past life is what leads to the eventual conflict between them and is a contributing factor to Blanche’s mental breakdown.
a. Name and significance of name – Stella Kowalski is Stanley Kowalski’s husband and Blanche DuBois’ sister.
b. Characteristics – Ten years before the time the play begins Stella left the DuBois family plantation to live in New Orleans with her husband Stanley. She is submissive to Stanley, most notably when they sleep together the same night after Stanley abuses her. Additionally, Stella understands her sister quite well, despite the growing distance in their relationship.
c. Thematic or plot-oriented purpose – Stella essentially serves as the intermediary between Stanley and Blanche throughout the play. While she defends Blanche’s past in the beginning, her trust in Blanche gradually dissolves and following Stanley’s rape of Blanche Stella chooses to believe in Stanley’s innocence. Her submissive nature also serves to emphasize the masculine dominance of Stanley.
1. Place and symbolic significance – The play takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana. Williams attempts to demonstrate the city’s southern charm by using vivid imagery in his stage directions that describe the raffish nature of the area. Additionally, New Orleans is a very diverse city relative to the rest of the South; this is what allows the unique relationship that crosses classes between Stella and Stanley. Overall, the city represents the new kind of multicultural society that is developing in America at the time. However, New Orleans also symbolizes the harsh reality of such changes and of urban life.
2. Time period and contextual significance – The time period of the play is the late 1940s following the end of WWII. Racial segregation was prevalent throughout most of the American South during this time, so the racial mixing of New Orleans in the play is quite notable. What is also notable is the emergence of rapid urbanization and gender tensions right after the end of WWII.
3. Time span – approximately 5 months (May to September)
1. Main conflict
a. type of conflict – man vs. man
b. values embodied in conflict (expressed as opposition—something vs. something)
Blanche DuBois vs. Stanley Kowalski
c. thematic significance of conflict
After arriving in New Orleans, Blanche is immediately in conflict with Stanley who is suspicious of her account of what happened at Belle Reve and also her past in general. Throughout the course of the play, various aspects of Blanche’s true past are revealed, mainly due to Stanley’s investigation. Eventually Blanche is forced to face the harsh reality of the death of her first husband and her promiscuous actions in Laurel, completely breaking down. These conflicts along with Stanley’s rape of Blanche after her birthday dinner emphasize the themes of insanity, male dominance, and sexual desire.
2. Minor conflicts and thematic significance
Blanche DuBois vs. Her past (man vs. self): Blanche is continually conflicted with herself regarding events in her past, including the collapse of the DuBois family plantation, the suicide of her first lover, and her advances towards a high school student in Laurel. While visiting Stella in New Orleans she comes up with various lies to cover up the truth and protect her innocent appearance. However, Blanche is unable to keep up the act and at multiple points in the play suffers from mental breakdowns such as when she imagines the Varsouviana Polka from the night her lover died playing in her head.
Stella Kowalski vs. Stanley Kowalski (man vs. man): Despite being married, Stella and Stanley’s relationship is not completely stable. The conflict between the two begins with the arrival of Blanche. While Stella attempts to defend her sister’s account of what happened at Belle Reve, Stanley is convinced Blanche is lying. Their next conflict is when Stanley abuses Stella after becoming drunk during a poker night with his friends. This is resolved when Stella accepts a submissive position to Stanley and the two reconcile. Finally, the conflict between the two regarding Blanche is settled when Stella chooses to believe that Stanley did not rape Blanche after her birthday dinner, in spite of any doubts she may have had.
SYMBOLS AND MOTIFS (3-5)
Literal Symbol Figurative Meaning Relationship to Theme
The Varsouviana Polka is the music that was playing when Blanche’s first husband Allen decided to commit suicide because he was homosexual. Blanche imagines this music playing in her head several times near the end of the play as she remembers the night it happened. The Varsouviana Polka represents Blanche’s grief over Allen’s death and also the guilt she feels over not being able to stop him. Because of the history behind the Varsouviana Polka, it also serves to symbolize Blanche’s loss of innocence and her first encounter with the harsh realities of life. The fact that she hears the music during the latter stages of the play emphasizes the relationship the music has with the themes of insanity and tragedy.
Throughout the course of the play Blanche goes out of her way to avoid being exposed to any bright light. Upon arriving at Stella’s apartment she even places a paper lantern over the light bulb to dim the light. Her fear of the light indicates that the light represents the cruel reality of her past. It is also said that Blanche avoids being exposed to light in order to hide the aging that has affected her over time. In this manner, the bright light is reminiscent of her youthful days whereas dim light symbolizes the maturity she has developed. This change in lighting relates to the theme of the harsh effects of reality.
State of drunkenness
Numerous characters in the play, most notably Stanley and Blanche tend to frequently consume alcohol. For Blanche, the alcohol is a form of escapism that helps her to forget about the tragic events of her past. For Stanley, alcohol is more of a way to celebrate and socialize with his friends at poker nights. However, alcohol has negative effects on both characters. Stanley ends up beating Stella and Blanche falls further into a state of mental despair. In this regard, alcohol emphasizes a lack of self-control and destructive tendencies. Blanche consumes alcohol as a way to forget the pain of experiences in the past, most notably her first husband’s suicide. Unfortunately, the alcohol only deepens her mental instability and consolidates her fall from grace. This relates to the theme of a harsh reality. On the other hand, Stanley is able to recover from the consequences of his alcohol consumption and continues with his previous behavior. This pattern supports the idea of a perpetual male dominance.
SIGNIFICANCE OF TITLE
Desire is the name of the streetcar that Blanche takes into town to visit Stella and her husband Stanley. However, that is only the literal meaning behind the title of the play. It can be interpreted that desire is the cause of all conflicts in the story. Blanche’s desire to forget about the suicide of her first husband is what leads to her sexual promiscuity and eventual mental breakdown. Stella’s desire is what persuades her to stay with Stanley despite his domestic violence. Mitch’s desire to ease his dying mother’s worries is what leads him to attempt to court Blanche. Stanley’s sexual desire and alpha-male tendencies are what lead him to rape Blanche. As you can see, the entire plot of the play revolves around the characters’ inherent desires and the actions that result from those desires.
Williams’ purpose in writing A Streetcar Named Desire is to portray the changes in southern society during the late 1940s and 1950s. He does this by creating characters that embody the working class of the time and who face real issues. Williams focuses on the psychology of these characters and tackles themes such as male dominance, sexuality, race and class, mortality, etc. He primarily contrasts the character of Stanley, an aggressive, masculine factory engineer, with the character of Blanche, an aging and disillusioned widow, in order to emphasize the reality of the rise of a new tough and urban southern society that is overtaking the customs of the Old South.
1. Historical – A Streetcar Named Desire was first performed in 1947, a period of time directly following the end of WWII and the recovery of the United States. The South was still severely racially segregated and only a few cosmopolitan cities such as New Orleans saw much cultural mixing. Williams based the play on this time period as can be seen with the characters of Stanley and Mitch who both served in the war. He wanted to portray the development of a new Southern society and did so by setting his play in New Orleans in the late 1940s.
2. Biographical – Many aspects of A Streetcar Named Desire are based on experiences Tennessee Williams had in his life. For instance, Stanley Kowalski was based on Williams’ violent and alcoholic father, the theme of insanity was based on his mother’s hysteria and also his own mental instability, and the references to homosexuality in the play were based on Williams’ own life as a homosexual.
3. Literary/Philosophical Time Period: Southern Gothic