Tennessee Williams uses the characters of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois to portray the conflict between classes, with Kowalski representing the honest toilers and brutish modernism, whilst Blanche represents the arguably archaic aristocratic blood that is persistently harried by the contemporary flock. The war that ensues between Blanche and Stanley appears to be a futile one for Blanche, as her views on life and her character itself are woefully outdated and decadent.
Themes – The Conflict between Classes
The very minute we are introduced to Stanley Kowalski, we are immediately made aware of his rearing. Stanley is of a more common background, descended from Polish immigrants, immigrants who came to America for work. Blanche, upon our first meeting with her, comes off as a sort of angelic aristocrat, floating above the squalor in her dreamy state. Immediately, there is a tension between Stanley and Blanche. Blanche, to Stanley, is stuffy and arrogant. Stanley, to Blanche, is abrasive, ape-like, and hostile. Stanley appears adamant in tearing down the facade of Blanche, a pursuit that eventually breaks her.
It is a decent claim to make that Williams is endeavouring to illustrate the very real feud between those of the lowest stock and those of the higher stock. Tennessee perhaps chooses wisely in painting both sides with their own ample amounts of vices. Blanche is shown to be deceitful, using her image and her upbringing to fool others into assuming she is dainty and gentle, despite being quite sordid deep down. Stanley, and his flaws, are more clear to the eye. We understand he is aggressive and abrasive as he makes very little effort to shroud that fact. However, his more sinister efforts convey a sense of deeper malevolence rather than just juvenile brutishness.
When Stanley inevitably wins against Blanche, breaking her mind and her spirit so much that she requires mental help, it is more of a dual loss. Blanche, the aristocracy, is filched of her noble facade and shown to be just as human as everyone else whilst Stanley is shown to be unnecessarily malicious and vindictive to another human being.
Williams might, therefore, be attempting to communicate that such conflict between classes, whilst a fact of life and therefore inevitable, will only lead to destruction on both sides. The lower classes will prove themselves to be the very things that they claim not to be, whilst the same will be dealt to the aristocracy.
Themes- The Tribalism of Society
Tied in with the idea of an inherent struggle between classes in society is the concept that such society lives and breathes off of tribalism. The greatest example of this within the play is seen via Stanley and his friends. Stanley is very much the chieftain of his own tribe, the tribe that presents an unwavering loyalty to the chief, a fact that is often tested yet remains strangely true. When Stanley sees Blanche, effectively a member of another tribe, he is immediately hostile and hesitant to affection.
We then see how Stanley attempts to divide and conquer, picking and tearing at each facet of Blanche’s character, humiliating her or presenting her with her own mirror. We are also assured of this tribal theme in the very first few scenes, wherein Stanley brings forth the meat. This perfectly explains and describes the concept of such tribalism, where one will have hunters and gatherers, Stanley being a hunter bringing back the food to the tribe so that the gatherers and the women (Stella) can cook and provide.
There is, arguably, a point to make when realising that Blanche does not have a tribe of her own. If one were to assume that Belle Reve is her tribe, we soon know that it does not exist anymore. This could’ve been done by William to depict how the relationship between tribes and society is changing, with the higher class and aristocracy dwindling, much like the character and mind of Blanche herself.
Symbols – The Music
For the relation to Stanley especially, one has to focus upon the more tribal examples. We see that, whenever Blanche experiences some form of stressful situation, the music begins to produce, especially those of the drums. This serves to ensconce the scene with this carnal instinct. Especially heard during the climactic rape scene, not only does the music heighten the tensions and the adrenaline, but it also represents the mind of Blanche herself.
It is debatable whether most of this music originates within her own mind, or at least some of it, and therefore examining the music gives us more of an insight into Blanche that it does anything else. Perhaps using this perspective will provide us with the idea that Blanche sees the world as one of tribals and primitives, showing her own skewed outlook on society.
Devices – Contrapuntal Music
Similar to the concept of music representing tribes or mental outlooks, the abundance of polka music is blatantly contrapuntal. Polka music tends to be rather upbeat and supportive of dance, which means that, when providing a soundtrack to a sad and/or concerning scene, it raises the eyebrows. We are forced, as an audience, to wonder why such generally jolly and happy music is being paired with such things as suicide. It is arguable that Williams intended to use such contrasting tones in order to mirror and emulate the mind of Blanche.
We grow to understand that Blanche is somewhat damaged mentally, with Stanley only exacerbating her situation, therefore the dissonance between tones may represent dissonance within her mind. She is obviously damaged and tainted and incredibly mournful but is also a fact that she’s secretly lusting and salacious. This confusing mix of emotion serves to etch out the form of Blanche’s character and communicate her own mental composition.
Though easily missed, the setting of New Orleans is linked deeply with the themes of the play itself. New Orleans is a city founded upon a great mishmash of cultures and identities. One can observe the Creole architecture, A unique elaboration of typically French designs moulded in a more American setting and way. One can also remark upon the cosmopolitan nature of such a city, hosting and homing workers from all around the globe, Stanley being one of them. One can then also remark upon the music in such a place, often being known as the birthplace of blues.
Already we see how New Orleans is a city composed of many different identities and nationalities, perhaps more so than any other. To then realise that the central pivot upon which the play swivels is this concept of aggression and hostility between classes, effectively between people of different backgrounds, one is forced to comment upon the relationship. For being such a city built upon the concept of intermingling and cosmopolitan values, the feud between Stanley and Blanche exists in quite an anomalous way.
We see that New Orleans has supported this combination, and aggregation, of virtues and identities into one whole body whilst Blanche and Stanley forever exist to fight with one another. It is this difference between the setting and the events which serves to, perhaps, yet again prove that Blanche and Stanley either exist detached from the world, both being archaic in their own ways, or that there is something deeper to this conflict, deeper than the war between background and upbringing.
Blanche DuBois, a schoolteacher from Laurel, Mississippi, arrives at the New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella Kowalski. Despite the fact that Blanche seems to have fallen out of close contact with Stella, she intends to stay at Stella’s apartment for an unspecified but likely lengthy period of time, given the large trunk she has with her. Blanche tells Stella that she lost Belle Reve, their ancestral home, following the death of all their remaining relatives. She also mentions that she has been given a leave of absence from her teaching position because of her bad nerves.
Though Blanche does not seem to have enough money to afford a hotel, she is disdainful of the cramped quarters of the Kowalskis’ two-room apartment and of the apartment’s location in a noisy, diverse, working-class neighbourhood. Blanche’s social condescension wins her the instant dislike of Stella’s husband, an auto-parts supply man of Polish descent named Stanley Kowalski. It is clear that Stella was happy to leave behind her the social pretensions of her background in exchange for the sexual gratification she gets from her husband; she even is pregnant with his baby. Stanley immediately distrusts Blanche to the extent that he suspects her of having cheated Stella out of her share of the family inheritance. In the process of defending herself to Stanley, Blanche reveals that Belle Reve was lost due to a foreclosed mortgage, a disclosure that signifies the dire nature of Blanche’s financial circumstances. Blanche’s heavy drinking, which she attempts to conceal from her sister and brother-in-law, is another sign that all is not well with Blanche.
The unhappiness that accompanies the animal magnetism of Stella and Stanley’s marriage reveals itself when Stanley hosts a drunken poker game with his male friends at the apartment. Blanche gets under Stanley’s skin, especially when she starts to win the affections of his close friend Mitch. After Mitch has been absent for a while, speaking with Blanche in the bedroom, Stanley erupts, storms into the bedroom, and throws the radio out of the window. When Stella yells at Stanley and defends Blanche, Stanley beats her. The men pull him off, the poker game breaks up, and Blanche and Stella escape to their upstairs neighbour Eunice’s apartment. A short while later, Stanley is remorseful and cries up to Stella to forgive him. To Blanche’s alarm, Stella returns to Stanley and embraces him passionately. Mitch meets Blanche outside of the Kowalski flat and comforts her in her distress.
The next day, Blanche tries to convince Stella to leave Stanley for a better man whose social status equals Stella’s. Blanche suggests that she and Stella contact a millionaire named Shep Huntleigh for help escaping from New Orleans; when Stella laughs at her, Blanche reveals that she is completely broke. Stanley walks in as Blanche is making fun of him and secretly overhears Blanche and Stella’s conversation. Later, he threatens Blanche with hints that he has heard rumours of her disreputable past. She is visibly dismayed.
While Blanche is alone in the apartment one evening, waiting for Mitch to pick her up for a date, a teenage boy comes by to collect money for the newspaper. Blanche doesn’t have any money for him, but she hits on him and gives him a lustful kiss. Soon after the boy departs, Mitch arrives, and they go on their date. When Blanche returns, she is exhausted and clearly has been uneasy for the entire night about the rumours Stanley mentioned earlier. In a surprisingly sincere heart-to-heart discussion with Mitch, Blanche reveals the greatest tragedy of her past. Years ago, her young husband committed suicide after she discovered and chastised him for his homosexuality. Mitch describes his own loss of a former love, and he tells Blanche that they need each other.
When the next scene begins, about one month has passed. It is the afternoon of Blanche’s birthday. Stella is preparing a dinner for Blanche, Mitch, Stanley, and herself, when Stanley comes in to tell her that he has learned news of Blanche’s sordid past. He says that after losing the DuBois mansion, Blanche moved into a fleabag motel from which she was eventually evicted because of her numerous sexual liaisons. Also, she was fired from her job as a schoolteacher because the principal discovered that she was having an affair with a teenage student. Stella is horrified to learn that Stanley has told Mitch these stories about Blanche.
The birthday dinner comes and goes, but Mitch never arrives. Stanley indicates to Blanche that he is aware of her past. For a birthday present, he gives her a one-way bus ticket back to Laurel. Stanley’s cruelty so disturbs Stella that it appears the Kowalski household is about to break up, but the onset of Stella’s labour prevents the imminent fight.
Several hours later, Blanche, drunk, sits alone in the apartment. Mitch, also drunk, arrives and repeats all he’s learned from Stanley. Eventually Blanche confesses that the stories are true, but she also reveals the need for human affection she felt after her husband’s death. Mitch tells Blanche that he can never marry her, saying she isn’t fit to live in the same house as his mother. Having learned that Blanche is not the chaste lady she pretended to be, Mitch tries to have sex with Blanche, but she forces him to leave by yelling “Fire!” to attract the attention of passers-by outside.
Later, Stanley returns from the hospital to find Blanche even more drunk. She tells him that she will soon be leaving New Orleans with her former suitor Shep Huntleigh, who is now a millionaire. Stanley knows that Blanche’s story is entirely in her imagination, but he is so happy about his baby that he proposes they each celebrate their good fortune. Blanche spurns Stanley, and things grow contentious. When she tries to step past him, he refuses to move out of her way. Blanche becomes terrified to the point that she smashes a bottle on the table and threatens to smash Stanley in the face. Stanley grabs her arm and says that it’s time for the “date” they’ve had set up since Blanche’s arrival. Blanche resists, but Stanley uses his physical strength to overcome her, and he carries her to bed. The pulsing music indicates that Stanley rapes Blanche.
The next scene takes place weeks later, as Stella and her neighbour Eunice pack Blanche’s bags. Blanche is in the bath, and Stanley plays poker with his buddies in the front room. A doctor will arrive soon to take Blanche to an insane asylum, but Blanche believes she is leaving to join her millionaire. Stella confesses to Eunice that she simply cannot allow herself to believe Blanche’s assertion that Stanley raped her. When Blanche emerges from the bathroom, her deluded talk makes it clear that she has lost her grip on reality.
The doctor arrives with a nurse, and Blanche initially panics and struggles against them when they try to take her away. Stanley and his friends fight to subdue Blanche, while Eunice holds Stella back to keep her from interfering. Mitch begins to cry. Finally, the doctor approaches Blanche in a gentle manner and convinces her to leave with him. She allows him to lead her away and does not look back or say goodbye as she goes. Stella sobs with her child in her arms, and Stanley comforts her with loving words and caresses.
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