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Illusions and Reality in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Updated April 26, 2022
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Illusions and Reality in “A Streetcar Named Desire” essay

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Jim Lacsina

Instructor Adam Walsh

LI150-02

20 January 2019

Illusions and Reality

When one is stuck in more than one reality, an illusion is often inadequate to describe the situation. In a Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, it describes the constant battle between reality and illusions. Blanche, who is the main character, is in conflict between the two and struggled to construct her identity throughout the whole play. She is an aging beautiful woman from the South, who leaves her home to live with her sister Stella and her husband Stanley in their home in New Orleans. This is the place in which the theme collides: Blanche represents the illusions held within her fading beauty, and Stanley who represents the of one who lives under the light of an upcoming realistic middle-class life. In this play, Tennessee Williams uses the contrast between reality and illusion to describe Blanche’s downfall and the role that Stanley plays in order to further this.

The reality of an aging life can be difficult to accept for those stuck living in the past. Blanche was trained and influenced by the society in her childhood and this has affected her personality. Her life has been difficult and refuses to change it for herself. She would rather drown herself in illusions and fantasies, making up multiple facades of her identity, which she uses to face other characters. Blanche was raised to imitate the perfect Southern woman – the beautiful, occasionally shy, constantly flirting yet pure woman. However, the tough truth of the 20th century urban America is in denial with this ideal, and she is disillusioned, forced to make her way in an unknown world. Her licentiousness and alcoholism are means to which she can escape her troubles, as she figures out reality from illusion, to find what woman she can be for all to see and herself. As difficult as this may sound, she makes it harder by living in the past and cannot escape the memory of her late husband.

Often times there are hardships in which one can escape from physically, but not mentally. The crucial point which caused the downfall of her life was when Blanche discovered the homosexual nature of her husband and the shock of his suicide. Blanche tells Mitch of this tragic occurrence along with her loathing of it: “It was because, on the dance floor – unable to stop myself – I suddenly said – I saw! I know! You disgust me!” (William 96). Blanche has forsaken her partner, instead of understanding the reality of her husband’s sexuality, she piles hate and contempt upon him. Held by the mixture of guilt and self-pity, she has no way of making peace with the incident, her shock becomes illness, and it eventually overpowers her, as Blanche is sent to an asylum in the end of the play. However, her husband isn’t the only one who made a check on her reality.

Sometimes it takes more than one thing to destroy a person. In this case it is a person, who is Stanley – the instrument to Blanche’s destruction. By doing so, Stanley also becomes the avenger of the late husband of Blanche. However, he is still responsible of ending Blanche as she is of destroying her husband. No matter how sympathetic one might be towards her (because of all the losses she has accumulated over her life: her land, her husband, and a peaceful life), she is still a woman who, in fact, is guilty of killing her husband through her malice. In the last scene, when she is helpless and vulnerable, Stanley returns the same treatment Blanche has shown to her husband to which she was disgusted by.

The difference between two worlds can be subtle or loud and knowing. Blanche and Stanley are shown as two complete opposites. From their stance of the world, Blanche can be seen lacking the capacity to cope with the stresses surrounding her experiences in New Orleans, she ends up in a medical institution. However, Stanley faces the world dynamically and in his own way seemed destined for greatness. Gifted with sexual virility and an acute understand of how the world functions, he is able and ready to face anything that may come his way. In Blanche’s case, sexuality is coupled with nostalgia, a declining yet not unattractive gentility, and is prone to collapsing. In Stanley, with a rough new order, dynamic but rude and coarse. Thus, there is contrast or dualism of losers and winners, a hero versus villain. Nevertheless, this opposition isn’t set in stone: She is harsh to her former partner, demeaning to her sister, and conceited toward Stanley. Although Stanley treats Blanche the same, he is tamed by the fact he is a true friend to Mitch and a good husband to his wife. Blanche’s identity is split between who she truly is and one of her façades she’s made up to show to others. Her real personality is revealed by the environment she was brought up from. While Stella, Blanche’s sister, left home to find herself a place in the world, Blanche stayed with her aging parents long beyond appropriate for a young unwed woman. A devoted child, she remained back to try and save the family estate, Belle Reve, although the plantation was torn from her by “grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers, who exchanged the land for their epic fornications.” (William 43). She was unable to adjust to the “normal” world that her sister was placed upon when conditions forced her to.

It’s often difficult to see those considered a sibling to be so different from one’s self. Blanche’s sister, Stella, belongs to the group of woman who have placed themselves under dominant, and often times, mediocre people in an order to stave themselves from illusions and gain meaning through the communication with another person. Although Stella is better than Stanley in terms of experience and personal skills, she placed herself under his way of life because of the sexual satisfaction he offers. When Blanche is disgusted by her rude husband, Stella admonished “there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant” (William 70). When Stella makes her decision at the end of the play, she forsakes her sister and sends her away instead of believing that her husband has committed rape, showing how far she would go to protect and defend her sexual partner.

A world of fantasy is one that is hard to escape from. Blanche uses that exact thing to take shelter from reality. In most of the 11th scene, she offers different nuances of her role of the Southern gentility. At first, she plays as a haughty woman for Stella, criticizing her for the conditions she currently live in. In scene 2, she’s the “sex kitten” for Stanley, while in the 3rd she plays as a respectable and honest woman for Mitch, arguing that she “cannot stand a naked light bulb any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action” (William 55). Then she plays as an “angry noble” complaining to Stella about her husband and demanding that she not “hang back with the brutes,” (William 72). She continues to plays the same role in front of Mitch, but it cracks when the memory of her late husband rises up. In scene 8, Stanley ends her aristocratic image when he hands her a ticket heading to Laurel, bringing up the memories of her tragic and humiliating past. When she tries to resume the role she played with Mitch, she caved in and confessed her previous sexual relations, arguing that this was the only way to stave away death, by turning to its opposite, desire, but ending up failing. She calls Stanley an animal in scene 10, but has the accusation turned against her, ending up being called a tiger. In the last Scene, Blanche turning the tables against herself and becomes the victim of her own Southern Belle illusion. She mixes up the characters she has made up with reality, as she is not able to recognize the poker players. The doctor who came to take Blanche away is addressed to by her most famous line and he highlights her suffering saying “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” (William 142). It is exactly this dependence on others that has lead her by the neck to this downfall.

In A Streetcar Named Desire, the play is rich in symbolism, specific lines, characters and objects obtaining another layer of meaning. For example, in one scene Blanche uses a paper lantern to cover a light bulb, which symbolizes her desire to mask the light or the truth. When Mitch asked her why, she said that that she hates being in a strong light, which is also symbolic for herself as a fading woman. After her previous life had ended she had nowhere to turn to and kept herself in the past. After a time, this ruined her. William Tennessee used the contrast between Blanche and Stanley to tell a story of an illusion and reality. Even though Blanche firmly believed in the authenticity of her own image as an ideal Southern gentility, she was in fact wearing a disguise the entirety of the play. While trying to conceal the loneliness, disillusioned and attention seeking woman she really is, she was too busy to figure out that she was walking right into her own demise.

References

  1. William, Tennessee. “A Streetcar named Desire.” The Norton Introduction to Literature Shorter 12th Edition. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. Las Vegas, Nevada. W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2017. 1817-1883. Print.
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