Self Deception and Contradiction in Thomas Lanier Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire
Thomas Lanier Williams, known as Tennessee Williams, the author of A Street Car Named Desire presents the contradiction and paradox that real human life might offer. It is a stage play with elements of tragedy and pathos that was published and staged in 1947. The theme of the story presents conflicts with which the central character, Blanche Dubois has to live. The theme is not dramatic or out of life as most of us live in our delusory world that may be far off the reality. While most of us cope up with our delusions and distinguish between real and fantasy, the others like Blanche Dubois turn a victim of overpowering delusion. And she knows it: “Blanche explains to Mitch that she fibs because she refuses to accept the hand fate has dealt her. Lying to herself and to others allows her to make life appear as it should be rather than as it is”.
The plot of the story is wonderfully crafted that goes on to highlight a number of emotional traits that are tested during the time of human tragedy. Most human beings are weak for their inescapable need to cry over the shoulder of some one close. At times this dependence takes severe form as in Stella’s dependence on Stanley for love and support; Mitch, otherwise a sober character, is also not without the need of companionship that he finds in Blanche, after the death of his mother. Blanche is also in need of support. Whether the support is offered by Stanley or not is an issue that needs analysis. Money matters, as it does for Blanche, while Stanley, a hard core down to earth worker proud in his masculinity must ensure he is not being cheated by Blanche. The drama depicts that while life moves on from past to present, the lingering past just cannot be done away with whether Stella tries to move on after leaving Belle Reve, or Blanche tries to find a man in her life after her husband commits suicide, or Stanley is apologetic about his rough actions. The past keeps haunting them in present. Death is shocking, and it is especially so if it involves some one close and near. It might often entail a sudden shift in one’s outlook and personality. Blanche’s husband’s death has a profound impact on her, even as those of the others in Dubois family. Mitch confronts the death of his only love as well as his dying mother who ultimately dies.
There are several other characteristic themes that merge in the single plot. One such theme is the loss of a world that meant status and class, and consequent downward spiral into the life of a blue collar ghetto. The impact of this social theme translates into loneliness, insecurity, and having to bear cruelty. Stella and Blanche the two sisters originally belong to a world that no longer exists for them. Their family’s ancestral plantation, Belle Reve, is lost. Their world is also lost along with it. The two sisters are the only living symbols of the old world. In the second scene, Blanche makes a comment about Stanley to Stella that says it all: “Oh, I guess he’s just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume, but maybe he’s what we need to mix with our blood now that we’ve lost Belle Reve”. They are left with two options: either face reality and come to terms with, or live in a make believe world of fantasy to which Blanche succumbs; Stella comes to terms with reality. The real world now is the harsh world of hardship, of cruelty, of blue collar culture and living symbolized by Stanley. Stanley represents raw masculinity that intrigues and repulses at the same time. He and his world are quite in contrast to the aristocratic world of Blanche Dubois of which she is no longer a heiress but persists with her illusions even as they stay together which allows the readers to contrast what might be the symbols of real and illusion. Let us see the paradox in Blanche’s life: Blanche’s illusory world offers her comfort as it is in fact her primary means of self-defense. Her deceptions do not spring from any malicious intents, rather they are an extreme reflections of her frailty to cope up with the misery of real life. She appears extremely reluctant to face the truth head-on. “For her, fantasy has a liberating magic that protects her from the tragedies she has had to endure. Unfortunately, this defense is frail and will be shattered by Stanley”. Blanche makes a dramatic entry into the scene looking for her sister’s house. She looks in disbelief at the apartment building as she checks the address. She appears to pity Stella, her sister having to live in such a rundown building. Blache, about 30, elegant and attractive, a little haggard and weak is in her white suit with pearl earrings and white gloves. She appears lost and out of place in the ghetto populated by blue collar workers. Blanche tells Eunice when he asked her whether she is lost, “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”. From here on the cocoon of unreality that Blanche lives in to protect herself against her weaknesses including her inability to repress her sexual desires become apparent. She refuses to acknowledge and lies about her promiscuous behavior in Laurel. “She shuns bright light, lest it reveal her physical imperfections; and she refuses to acknowledge her problem with alcohol. Stanley effectively penetrates her cocoon verbally with his crude insults and physically with his sexual coup de main near the end of the play”. As against Blanche, Stanley is rude, coarse, and domineering ruled by primal instincts. Her opinion of him might be seen as what she says about Stanley in course of conversation with Stella: “He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits. Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one!” He is a man who calls a spade, a bloody shovel. His manners are uncouth and lingo, working class. He is hell bent on destroying every fabric of façade that is a protective armor of Blanche Dubois. That’s what reality does to illusion. It recklessly tears asunder the envelope of falsehood. However, we do see Blanche not totally deceptive with herself. She does realize that they have no option but to mix their superior blood with working class, as she pities the fate of Stella’s child who will enjoy none of the privileges she and her sister did. Nonetheless, Blanche simply fails to come to terms of reality. It is in fact this failure that results in severe consequences for her. A time comes towards the end of the drama when she loses her mental proportions completely.
Even as the overpowering reality ultimately triumphs whether in real life or in this drama as the author depicts, the significance of illusions has been effectively used in the narrative. As there can be no picture without contrast in colors so drama in life cannot be powerfully portrayed without a similar contrast. It is not that Blanche doesn’t distinguish the two worlds: real and illusion; She does but refuses to acknowledge real. To her the fact of her loss of her privileged life doesn’t negate the truths of her ancestry; of her blood and culture. However, her obsession with what she was slowly and gradually so overpowers her that she refuses to acknowledge what she is, and from here the psychological divide between normal and abnormal begins to get rather distinct.
Another powerful theme that exposes human frailties best is a combination of sex and death, both of which play a vital role in Blanche’s life. Death and Sex are a contrast. Death means the ultimate loss, the ultimate pain, and a psychologically shattering experience. Dubois estate symbolically represents a transition from life, luxury, pleasure and ultimate loss. So does the life of Blanche. Sex represents life, pleasure of living, and the ecstasy of primordial energy. It is a highly attractive force that draws Blanche powerfully. She, however miserably fails to tap this resource that quenches her thirst for life in the same way as she has lost the vital instincts to make the best of what life had to offer at the moment. She would not be liked to be known as someone having associations with a poverty ridden life and locality, as she would not like to be known as some one with an array of males to sleep with. She refuses to acknowledge these facts as she shuns light that might expose her skin texture. Scene one provides an allegorical illustration of her life: “Williams suggests that Blanche’s sexual history is in fact a cause of her downfall. When she first arrives at the Kowalskis’, Blanche says she rode a streetcar named Desire, then transferred to a streetcar named Cemeteries, which brought her to a street named Elysian Fields”. In Greek mythology the Elysian Fields are the land of the dead. And death truly horrifies her. She is horrified by ageing and losing her youthful charms. She adopts weird ways to keep ageing and death at a way: sexual associations with men younger than her. This is what she believes would offer her youthful bliss. Wild sex has led to horrible consequences for her: expulsion of Belle Reve, removal from Laurel and finally expulsion from society at large towards the end of the play.
Imageries and symbolisms have been successfully employed by the author that parallels narrative. The three phases of Blanche’s life may be seen through the following symbols: Street Car named Desire; Street Car named Cemeteries; and Street named Elysian Fields. The first ‘Street Car named Desire’ depicts an irresistible desire in Blanche to have a lover younger than her and to lead the life of an elegant aristocratic lady since she arrives in New Orleans as a loser in life. The next ‘Street Car named Cemeteries’ is what might be understood as a Blanche with a past as ugly as death in the form of disgrace that utterly destroys human character. Blanche’s new life was as dead as the one at Laurel. She was in a way heading toward a future that is the abode of dead. Street named Elysian Field is the paradise of dead that she sought in New Orleans, which in fact turned out to be her nemesis. Belle Reve in French means “beautiful dream”. This is what Blanche has a glimpse of. This is what see has been seeking all her life and this is what continues to elude her throughout her life. Blanche’s desperate search for purity might be seen in her white suit that she wears and her frequent bathing. Psychologically these acts represent a terrible urge to get over sin and guilt, and aspiration toward pristine beauty, purity, and glory. Her acts are the unconscious desires reflective of what she wants to hide as well as project. Right in the beginning, she tells her sister that she is not an alcoholic, while the fact is alcohol provides her a refuge where haunting guilt and memories can be got over at least temporarily.
The characters themselves have been treated symbolically. Stanley depicts the hard core world of reality, while Blanche represents the world of reality. It would be difficult for illusion and reality to co-exist, therefore, Stella, the docile sister of Blanche mediates between the two worlds. In the end Stanley rapes Blanche? In symbolic terms this is an ultimate assault of reality on illusion. This stage qualified by her world of pretense comes gradually as she mocks him constantly while he exposes her lies. He violates her as an ultimate revenge that shatters her world completely. The story reaches its climax at this point. The conflict between Stanley and Blanche had to climax to a point from where the conflict must appear meaningful, in the same way as there comes a time when illusory world must give away. Otherwise, it might be difficult to assess the actual role of the two. The conflict between the two opposites has meaning only when there is a consequence. In this case, Blanche has arrived at the dead end from which she cannot extricate herself. There can simply be no duplicity from here onward. As a consequence she loses her mind. Her final abode is the mental asylum. Meanwhile, Stella who has been doing the balancing act between the two sides chooses her husband Stanley. She refuses to believe Stanley could have raped her even as she commiserates with the fate of her sister.
Through the drama we notice an interesting symbolic message. It is that world goes at its own pace irrespective of human suffering, pain or pleasure. Stanley and his friends are shown playing their poker oblivious of something crucial happening around. In one of the scenes, Stanley even remarks that poker should not be played in a house with women. Stanley doesn’t want to be disturbed over anything while playing poker with his friends whether that is important or not. The game of poker represents the world outside that is going on at its own pace. In the last scene, Blanche is seen struggling against a doctor and nurse who are there to take her to mental asylum. Stella feels bad for her sister. Stanley and his friends are involved in their game of poker and Steve remarks “This game is a seven card stud”.