Last Stop: Blanche’s Breakdown

A Streetcar Named Desire is an intricate web of complex themes and conflicted characters. Set in the pivotal years immediately following World War II, Tennessee Williams infuses Blanche and Stanley with the symbols of opposing class and differing attitudes towards sex and love, then steps back as the power struggle between them ensues. Yet there are no clear cut lines of good vs. evil, no character is neither completely good nor bad, because the main characters, (especially Blanche), are so torn by conflicting and contradictory desires and needs. As such, the play has no clear victor, everyone loses something, and this fact is what gives the play its tragic cast. In a larger sense, Blanche and Stanley, individual characters as well as symbols for opposing classes, historical periods, and ways of life, struggle and find a new balance of power, not because of ideological rights and wrongs, but as a matter of historical inevitability. Interestingly, Williams finalizes the resolution of this struggle on the most base level possible. In Scene Ten, Stanley subdues Blanche, and all that she stands for, in the same way men have been subduing women for centuries. Yet, though shocking, this is not out of keeping with the themes of the play for, in all matters of power, force is its ultimate manifestation. And Blanche is not completely unwilling, she has her own desires that draw her to Stanley, like a moth to the light, a light she avoids, even hates, yet yearns for.

A first reader of Scene Ten of the play might conclude that sex between Stanley and Blanche seems out of place. It might not ring true given the preceding circumstances. There is not much overt sexual tension or desire between them up to that point. However, after re-reading and reflection, I realize their coming together in this way is more a function of power relations than of sexual attraction. This is certainly true in Stanley's case. In Scene Two, Stanley's primary interest in Blanche is in whether he and Stella are entitled to any money from Stella's family home. When he finds there is no inheritance, Stanley shows quite plainly throughout the following scenes that he has no use for Blanche: He doesn't like her personally and they have nothing in common. But as the play proceeds, it is obvious that Stanley does perceive Blanche as being something of a threat. She is a disruption to his and Stella's relationship in the physical sense since all three are living in close quarters, but what's worse, she is a part of what Stanley considers Stella's past, and Blanche's influence revives old prejudices and ways of thinking in Stella that threaten Stanley's dominance.

However, as Scene Ten begins, Stanley is on the verge of regaining his dominant stance. He has discovered details of Blanche's past that discredit her in Stella's eyes as well as putting an end to a potential marriage between Blanche and his friend. His victory over her influence is sealed when he gives her a bus ticket back to Mississippi and insists that she use it. He is also only hours away from becoming a father, a physical manifestation of his virility and manhood. His confidence in himself is palpable as the scene unfolds in the way he plays along with Blanche, pretending to believe her story about an invitation from an old beau. Then, tiring of the game, he savagely unmasks her story as lies and fabrications. Only as Blanche becomes more frantic and desperate does the idea of subduing Blanche sexually seem to enter his mind. His line: «Come to think of it-maybe you wouldn't be bad to-interfere with...» indicates the turn of his thoughts, but his last line, «...We've had this date with each other from the beginning!» has the ring of a revelation. They are too different and their conflict has been too intense for it not to be resolved by some definite act of triumph. Stanley expreses his victory in a way that satisfies his male ego as well as being an appropriate response to Blanche's own subconscious desires. Only an overt act of domination like this could satisfy someone of Stanley's temperament.

Blanche is by far the most complex character of the play. She is a bundle of contradictions, a blend of fact and fiction that the audience must decipher. An intelligent and sensitive woman who values literature and the creativity of the human imagination, she is also emotionally traumatized and repressed. Thus, her own imagination becomes a haven from her pain. One senses that her perception of her real self as opposed to her ideal self has been increasingly blurred over the years until it is sometimes difficult for her to tell the difference. It is a challenge to find the psychological key to Blanche's character but Williams implies the roots of her trauma lie in her early marriage. Nothing is definitely spelled out about this period in her life, but certain clues in her speech imply she was haunted by her inability to help or understand her young, troubled husband and that she has tortured herself for it ever since. Her drive to lose herself in the «kindness of strangers» might also be understood from this period in that her sense of confidence in her own feminine attraction was shaken by the knowledge of her husband's homosexuality and she is driven to affirm her power to attract men over and over. Yet, beneath all this, Williams wants us to understand that Blanche's desire to find a companion, to find fulfillment in love, is a universal one. She is not successful because of her refusal or inability to face reality, in her circumstances and in herself. She has a hard time confronting her contradictory desires and thus is never able to sort them out and deal with them. She wants a cultured man but is often subconsciously attracted to strong, basic male characters, no doubt a reflexive response since her marriage with a cultured, sensitive man ended in disaster.

So although Blanche dislikes Stanley as a person, she is drawn to him as a type of man who is resoundingly heterosexual and who is strong enough to protect her from an increasingly harsh world. This seems to be the dynamic behind her brief relationship with Mitch, but in jungle parlance Stanley is the strongest male in the pack and subconsciously Blanche recognizes this. When Blanche tells the operator in Scene Ten that she is caught in a trap, part of her realizes she has set herself up via her desires. Stanley is the embodiment of what she needs, yet detests, and, because of her sister, can never have. After Stanley has stripped her of her pretensions in this scene, she becomes desperate, unable to retreat to her fantasies and so this deeper layer of her desires is revealed. Yet, Blanche does not know how to face these feelings and she senses to give into them could be disastrous for her. As Stanley advances towards her, she tells him, «I warn you, don't, I'm in danger!» but Stanley has made sure that this time there is no where for her to hide. In her final acquiescence, she silently acknowledges that her own desires have also led to this date.

It is interesting that neither Blanche nor Stanley seriously seem to consider Stella as Scene Ten reaches a climax. They both recognize that somehow they are drawn together and also repelled by forces that are directly between them and that have little to do with Stella. Things come to a head so quickly that it is as if tensions have been broiling beneath the surface to such an extent that they erupt immediately Stella is out of the picture. As the last scene testifies, Stanley emerges the survivor from the encounter while Blanche is even more emotionally and mentally crippled than before. Yet, Stanley and by extension Stella, are not clear victors. Like Blanche, Stanley is also revealed to be capable of deceit, he does not admit the truth of what happened between him and Blanche to his friends, to Stella, and maybe not even to himself. Stella makes a conscious decision to believe Stanley instead of her sister because to do otherwise would be both emotionally and economically difficult with a new baby so she, too, is engaging in a measure of self-deception. Williams seems to be saying that although Stanley and the immigrant class he represents conquer Blanche, symbol of a dying aristocracy, the new proletariat is cruder, less intelligent, and more cruel. Stanley survives because of sheer physical vitality, not because of any innate superiority.

There are tragic implications on many levels. Blanche cannot grow and survive in a world she is unsuited to, yet Stanley and Stella are only able to do so at the expense of part of their better natures with Blanche as a sacrifice. Unfortunately, it is a tragic consequence of human existence that new generations and new waves of history only thrive over the graves of those that have gone before, and ironically, each succeeding generation deceives itself into believing that it represents the pinnacle of human development: Surely another form of self-deception, this on a mass scale. One can be left with the feeling that self-deception is a part of the human survival mechanism, and desire only a function of reproduction. Yet, it is not so. Individual human destiny is much stronger than the force of history if only individuals grapple with who they are and the forces pressuring them, and have the courage to meet the mass wave head on. Perhaps no one in this play does so, but the desire is there and we can learn from their failure.

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Mann Erudite – Essays on Literary Works