Themes in A Streetcar Names Desire
As with all great dramatists, Tennessee Williams was deeply interested in human nature, “the mystery of life”, “the beauty and meaning in the confusion of living”, in his own words. Themes in his play, A Streetcar Named Desire took shape in the furnace of his own life experiences, hence the general opinion that Williams’ “best plays are based on his own life” (Leavitt-13). This leads to a different topic of diverse autobiographical material that flowed into his themes, and in the process something else that was lift out. But it is true that his chief interest remained all along in the harrowed soul struggling to find its way out of tormenting situations. These characters find safe refuge in illusions. This is perhaps the simplest way of putting a complex question.
In his plays the setting is usually the contemporary society with its tension-filled homes and families troubled by anxieties and caught in difficult times. The playwright uses different themes which can be seen to be mutually related, since in isolation no single theme appears adequate, For instance in the play A Streetcar Named Desire the major theme can be said to be the loneliness of a dreamy, sentimental girl who seeks love but receives brutal violence and rejection. Out of this grow other thematic nodes such as the illusions which the main character creates the near-total break-down of proper communication between characters, plenty of misunderstanding, a pathetic withdrawal into one’s own private worlds which is filled with illusions that somehow offer safe haven to the character’s frightened soul, a tormented self’s desperate desire for freedom, and so on. He creates a different level of existence for his characters who are in quest for self-fulfillment.
In A Streetcar Named Desire Tennessee Williams creates a character Blanche Du Bois who is highly complex, given to creating illusion about her and wanting others to believe the lies she tells with astonishing flair and confidence. Love and security which she is after, recede from her. She is unable to measure up to reality in which she finds herself. The drama is actually a clash between this harsh reality and her own illusory existence. Like Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie Blanche cuts a pathetic and lonely figure in the midst of a family that is crowded in a small flat. Stanley her sister’s husband, understands her problems with ruthless accuracy and makes it his mission to expose her publicly, making it difficult for her to defend herself and live in peace. He pursues her so thoroughly that her life blows apart and she is carried away to the mental hospital. The play traces the painful decline of the heroine through various stages of inner crises revealing in the process mental landscapes that create deep sympathy for her in the heart of the audience. There is a parallel in this between her and Laura.
In spite of their living together, characters do not find it easy to relate to one another, their personal isolation is marked by a fatal tendency to create a make-believe world of their own. The sense of emptiness drives them to do this, which precipitates problems. “Blanche is alone in this world. She loved once, and deeply, but since the death of her young husband, the world has had no love in it for her. She longs for a deep connection with another human being. But her pathetic attempt to find love through sexual affairs with casual acquaintances has only made her situation worse. The attraction she feels towards very young men (the man who comes to the apartment to collect newspaper bill, for example) is an attempt to reproduce the once magical, fulfilling thing. Blanche had found in her life her love for young husband. The more desperate Blanche becomes in her loneliness, the more deeply she digs herself into it.”
Tennessee Williams sees this personal emotional voyage of quest for self-fulfillment as entailing crisis in all those who get associated with such persons. Stanley and Stella have been living happily till Blanche’s arrival brings unforeseen problems. She upsets their life. So, in the opinion of the playwright the central character’s crisis cannot be de-linked with the crises of others. Stan is a powerful counter-character to Blanche. He gets into male friendships with easy camaraderie and effortlessly wins and retains Stella’s love.
Sexuality as a vital force is a strong element in Tennessee Williams plays. While the materialistic world of the 1930s and $40s shows all signs of degeneration and decline in the lives of middle class people, the individual is seen trying to make sense of life by falling upon sexual drive. This is repeatedly emphasized in plays and stories by the author. In the novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone Williams portrays Karen Stone, “a wealthy retired actress, lonely and depressed following the recent death of her husband, experiences much of the sense of being ‘adrift’, that he himself felt following the New York closing of Summer and Smoke. The novel traces the gradual decline of an aging woman sinking inexorably into self destruction and degeneration in a struggle against time, against decay of female virtues and decadence of age.
As in most of his plays, the two worlds-one of personal quest for vitality through sex, and the other the decadent, increasingly corrupt and noisy world of materialistic chase-are sharply brought against one another. The contrast is not only informative but also indicative of the formidable challenges the individual has to face in a world gone awry. The romantic spirit which we find in Tom, Blanche, Sandra Karen and other get destroyed finally. The playwright’s sympathy is with those fragile characters who succumb to the larger and brutal world, a society that does not know what it wants nor does it allow individuals to fulfill personal ambitions.
In A Streetcar Named Desire the audience is presented with an early clue to the theme of sex and death when Blanche in the first scene describes direction. She was told to take a streetcar named desire, and then take another called cemeteries. This theme is repeated again in Scene Nine when Blanche says that the opposite of death is desire, Blanche means love as well as sexual desire – the need for connection with another person. She does not like the raw passion embodied by Stanley. Everything about Stella and Stanley suggests that sexual fulfillment is the centre. His sexuality is the “complete and satisfying centre of his life.”
Blanche is viewed, on the other hand, as one whose desires are continually frustrated. She is associated with death, death of her relatives at Belle Reve, and death by suicide of her husband which continues to haunt her all along. Symbols of death keep recurring such as inscription on Mitch’s cigarette case and the Mexican Woman selling flowers for funeral. Blanche is full of vitality and life and that is why she keeps up her sexual life even after her husband’s death. That is one way to stave off death. There is an unmistakable overtone of martyrdom in Blanche’s progress through uncanny relations with her external world and the final defeat. She is overpowered and vanquished by those who fail to understand her and as in the case of many of Tennessee William’s protagonists, Blanche pays a heavy price for it.
In the end what is highlighted is her utter loneliness. Though she lives among people who love her, and there is no doubt that some of them have deep sympathy with her which manifests in their readiness to help her in her misery, but in spite of being surrounded by affectionate people there is nothing that can forestall her rapid decline into death-like end. This is precisely what interested Tennessee Williams who went on portraying character after character in his plays in their lonely pathetic welter of frustrated aspirations and wretched dreams. He does not blame anyone or anything. He just reveals the bafflement of the characters, and Blanche is the finest portrayal of it.