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A Streetcar Named Desire

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English Literature

A Streetcar Named Desire is Tennessee Williams’s most famous play, first performed in 1947. It is a southern gothic play set in New Orleans, and follows the relationship between Stella, her husband Stanley, and her recently reintroduced sister Blanche.

A Streetcar Named Desire summary

The narrative begins as Blanche DuBois, a teacher from Mississippi, arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister despite the fact the two have been estranged from each other. The reason for her arrival is nervousness impacting her ability to work as well as the loss of the sisters' ancestral home in the Old South, Belle Reve.

Conflict begins to arise between Blanche and her sister’s husband, Stanley, as she is critical of the couple’s living quarters and of his Polish heritage. On the other hand, Stanley immediately dislikes Blanche as he fears she has cheated him out of the family inheritance.

Further conflict begins during a drunken poker game (The Poker Night being the title of the only named scene in the play) in which Stanley hits his wife. It is implied that this violence occurs regularly, but it is not seriously addressed because of their animalistic sexual desires.

The next day Blanche tries to convince Stella to leave her husband, but her sister dismisses the idea. Stanley, however, overhears the conversation and is enraged. He begins to taunt Blanche about her past and she begins to look more and more upset.

Blanche is left alone during the day and meets a young paperboy whom she kisses, despite the fact that she is waiting for a man named Mitch to take her on a date. During her outing with Mitch, Blanche behaves strangely and uneasily, unnerved by Stanley’s threats. She reveals to Mitch the tragedy of her first love.

Time passes and it is finally Blanche’s birthday. While Stella prepares dinner for everyone, Stanley reveals elements of Blanche’s past to her, such as her numerous sexual relationships and the reason she lost her job (an affair with a student). Stanley has also told Mitch about Blanche, and for this reason he refuses to attend her birthday celebration. Stanley then gives Blanche a one-way ticket back to Laurel as a birthday present.

A Streetcar Named Desire birthday cake StudysmarterImage of a birthday cake, Pixabay.

Stella is shocked over such a cruel gift and looks like she might consider leaving Stanley. However, Stella's labour begins and interrupts their argument. When they have left Blanche alone, she starts to drink heavily but is interrupted by Mitch, who wants to confront the allegations about her. Mitch then tries to assault Blanche as the statements about her sexual habits are confirmed, but she shouts 'fire' in hopes of attracting attention.

Stanley returns home from the hospital and finds a very drunk Blanche. The pair confront each other until Blanche tries to escape from his presence by smashing a bottle, but he carries her to the bedroom and rapes her.

More time passes; Stella and her neighbour are waiting for Blanche to leave the bathroom. They discuss how Stella cannot accept Blanche' revelation about what Stanley did to her that night. As Blanche enters the room she seems fragile as she talks about her delusions and fantasies. A doctor and a nurse arrive to try and take Blanche to an institution but she struggles and fights back until she is finally subdued. As Blanche leaves, Stella cries with her newborn child in her arms.

A Streetcar Named Desire characters

Main characters

Although many of the characters have key parts in the production, these characters are most essential to the plot.

Blanche DuBois

Blanche DuBois is one of three central characters. Her relationship with the others sparks the narrative of the play. Although she appears well put together, she gradually begins to unravel and reveal insecurities and mental fragilities triggered by her life experiences. She and her sister are from the Old South but are forced to adapt to the New South’s way of life. The meaning of her name is rather ironic, as Blanche means 'white' and DuBois means 'from the wood', which suggests that she is innocent and pure when the reality is otherwise.

Stella Kowalski

Stella is Blanche’s younger sister. She is protective of her older sibling and tries to care for her while they live together. She is married to Stanley Kowalski and is deeply attracted to him, despite his violent nature. Throughout the play, she acts as a passive bystander and recipient of action due to her dependence on Stanley as a woman.

Stanley Kowalski

Stanley Kowalski is a descendent of a Polish immigrant and a follower of the American Dream. He is a simultaneously violent and sexual individual, which attracts his wife but also creates a rift in their relationship. He has a fixation on Stella’s heritage and her rich history and is disappointed to find out that any inheritance has been lost.

Minor characters

Harold (Mitch) Mitchell

Mitch acts as a love interest for Blanche, as he is more sensitive and kind than Stanley’s other friends. After all, he is caring for his dying mother. Mitch is taken in by Blanche’s illusions and falls in love with her, but he experiences a change of heart when he learns of her past.

Steve & Eunice Hubbel

This pair are Stella and Stanley’s neighbours and act as a foreshadowed parallel to their relationship. Steve is as abusive to Eunice as Stanley is to Stella. Steve often plays poker with Stanley and his friends, while Eunice enjoys taking part in gossip.

Pablo Gonzales

Pablo is a poker friend of Stanley’s, Steve’s, and Mitch’s.

Young Man

Although a very minor part, the response Blanche has to the young man is significant. Her blatantly sexual desire for such a youthful character gives an insight into Blanche’s insecurity over her age and the reasons for her relationship with her student.

Allan Grey

Allan Grey was Blanche DuBois’s first love, whom she married as a teenager. However, during their marriage she found him in bed with another man and, when she aggressively confronted him about this (after some time) he fled the room and shot himself in the head. Throughout the production, Blanche’s thoughts are externalised as the music (The Varsouviana) the pair danced to before Allan died plays onstage and ends with a shot sound.

Shep Huntleigh

Shep Huntleigh is a millionaire that Blanche fantasises about. The two used to date each other at college. Blanche has seen him again recently in Miami, sparking her fantasy.

A Streetcar Named Desire Themes

A Streetcar Named Desire is a play that explores many themes surrounding humanity, such as desire, death, and gender, as well as the ways that humans suffer and cope with their suffering through delusions and dependency.

Illusion, fantasy and reality

An essential theme to the play is that of the illusions and fantasy each character projects and internalises, as well as the contrasting reality. Blanche is totally absorbed in her fantasies, which are so powerful that they absorb others (like Mitch). In order to preserve these self-delusions, she controls the lighting with a paper lantern to appear more youthful, and pretends to be a stereotypical Southern Belle.

Desire

Desire is a significant motivator for the characters in the play and even acts as a hamartia for some. It is their sexual desire in particular that causes this.

Hamartia is the tragic flaw of a character that ultimately causes their downfall.

Blanche's hamartia, for example, is the sexual desire that has stained her reputation. Stella's sexual desire also traps her in a toxic relationship because she is attracted to Stanley's violence and strength (even though it harms her). Allan Grey also suffers from his sexual desire because he cannot come to terms with his sexuality being exposed, pushing him to suicide.

Masculinity and femininity

Much of the conflict in the play occurs between the competing and cohabiting poles of Stanley and Blanche that encompass hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity. Tennessee Williams explores this theme by imposing stereotypes on each of the characters, such as Stanley’s aggression and Blanche’s vanity. However, Williams also highlights a limit to these stereotypes through Blanche’s swaying from the ideal of femininity by exploring her sexuality.

Dependency

For many of the characters, their dependency acts as a coping mechanism for different difficulties they face. Blanche in particular is affected by numerous mental health issues and fragilities. She deals with them through dependency: on fantasy, self-projecting illusions, and alcohol.

Similarly, other characters have dependencies on idealisms or other people. Stanley, for example, is dependent on the American Dream. Like many, he hopes for a life that is richer and happier because he is in the United States, a country idolised for its social mobility and freedom.

The American Dream is a concept that all Americans are truly equal and thus they can achieve any aspirations that they desire through hard work.

Stella is also dependent on her husband. Owing to the fact that America was a highly patriarchal society in the 1940s, without Stanley it would be near-impossible for her to sustain a comfortable life for her and her child. Stanley even gives her an allowance after their arguments as a sort of retribution pay.

A Streetcar Named Desire's influences

A Streetcar Named Desire was an incredibly successful play first performed on December the 3rd, 1947, under the direction of Elia Kazan (who also directed Williams' 1955 play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). It won several prestigious awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play in 1948.

Williams' plays often bring a 'darker, more violent side'1 to the theatre, and A Streetcar Named Desire is no exception. He analyses the simultaneous fragility and cruelty of mankind through his characters of Blanche, Stella, and Stanley, while also criticising the institutions that surround American society. The play is influential in its timelessness, especially considering that it has continued to be performed internationally (even in 2020 in the UK, with its cast of Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, and Vanessa Kirby in the lead roles).

Streetcar is also exemplary of the Southern Gothic genre. Williams explores the transition between the Old and New South through his symbolic characters, as Blanche represents the Old South, Stella the transition, and Stanley the New South. Williams uses the Southern Gothic genre to mourn a time with less of the commercialisation and materialisation that the New South symbolises for him. The genre is further explored by other significant writers like Harper Lee, Donna Tart and Toni Morrison.

A Streetcar Named Desire - Key takeaways

    • A Streetcar Named Desire is predominantly about the relationship between three characters- Stella, Blanche and Stanley. Stella and Blanche are both sisters whose family were from the Old South, while Stanley is from an immigrant family.
    • The play contains many themes such as desire, relationships between genders, sexuality, dependency, and the fragility of mankind.
    • There is only one title scene in the play, called The Poker Night.
    • Tennessee Williams's play, A Streetcar Named Desire, first premiered on Broadway on 3 December 1947 under the direction of Elia Kazan. It was incredibly successful, winning several awards, and was even cinematised.

1. Richard Gilman. 'Theatre; Williams shocked American theatre to maturity'. The New York Times, 1990.


A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans, however, we only really see the block of flats that the Kowalskis live in.

A Streetcar Named Desire follows the tale of two sisters, reunited, and the conflicts that follow, created by the introduction of one to the other’s spouse. But it is also about the beauty and the ugliness of mankind in its simultaneous fragility and violence.

A Streetcar Named Desire was first performed on 3 December 1947.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a tragedy. It follows the narrative of a character (Blanche) as she descends into a downward spiral.

The play contains many themes such as desire, relationships between genders, sexuality, dependency, and the fragility of mankind.

Final A Streetcar Named Desire Quiz

Question

When was A Streetcar Named Desire first performed?

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Answer

It was first performed in 1947.

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Question

What is the surname of the sisters and what does it mean?

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Answer

DuBois means from the woods in French.

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Question

What is the title of the only named scene in the play?

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Answer

The Poker Night.

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Question

What is the significant event during the Poker Night?

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Answer

Stanley hits Stella in front of everyone.

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Question

What gift does Stanley give to Blanche on her birthday?

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Answer

A train ticket back to Laurel.

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Question

What is happening to Stella while Stanley rapes Blanche?

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Answer

Stella is giving birth to Stanley’s child?

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Question

What happens at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire?

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Answer

Stella stays with Stanley while Blanche is hospitalized.

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Question

Who is Shep Huntleigh?

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Answer

Shep Huntleigh is a childhood sweetheart of Blanche’s, who she meets again before visiting her sister. She fantasises about a potential future with him.

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Question

Why did Blanche leave her job?

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Answer

Blanche had a relationship with a student.

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Who was Allan Grey and what happened to him?

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Answer

Allan Grey was Blanche’s husband. He killed himself when he was confronted by his wife over his affair with a man. 

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Question

What music plays onstage when Blanche thinks of Allan Grey?

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Answer

The Varsouviana plays (the music that played before he killed himself), followed by the shot of a gun.

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Question

Why are Steve and Eunice important in the narrative of the play?

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Answer

Their relationship acts as a foreshadowing for Stanley and Stella’s. By having two toxic and abusive relationships, it also makes it seem an everyman story for every relationship in America.

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Question

What acts as many of the characters’ hamartias?

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Answer

The hamartia for many of the characters is desire. Blanche, Allan Grey and Stella all suffer as a result of their sexual desire.

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Question

What is the hotel in Laurel that Blanche used to stay at?

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Answer

The Flamingo Hotel was the hotel Blanche used to stay at.

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Question

What motivates Stanley?

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Answer

Stanley  is particularly absorbed into the American Dream, and the hope of forming and sustaining a perfect family unit in the working class.

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