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Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised and Enlarged in 2010
..Type of Work and First Performance
.......A Streetcar Named Desire is a stage play with elements of tragedy and pathos. After tryout productions performed in Boston, Philadelphia, and New Haven, Conn., the play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City on December 3, 1947, and closed on December 17, 1949, after 855
.......The action takes place between May and September in a shabby apartment building in the working-class district of New Orleans in the 1940s, shortly after the Second World War. The protagonist, Blanche Dubois, comes to New Orleans from Laurel, Miss., the site of the family homestead. Although no scenes are set in
Laurel, the effect of the town and its Old South culture on DuBois is important.
.......Laurel is a real town in southeastern Mississippi. It has a a present population of about 18,000 and is the seat of Jones County. Laurel, which was named after the
laurel shrubs growing abundantly in nearby forests, prospered early in the 20th Century as a lumbering center. Tennessee Williams, the author of A Streetcar Named Desire, was born in eastern Mississippi in the town of Columbus and was well aware of Mississippi customs and traditions.
Blanche DuBois: Neurotic central character from Laurel, Mississippi, who travels to New Orleans to visit her sister and her husband. She lives in a fantasy world of Old South chivalry but cannot control her carnal desires.
Stella Kowalski:Blanche’s down-to-earth sister who seems satisfied with her life as the wife of a New Orleans factory worker.
Stanley Kowalski:Stella’s churlish and outspoken husband and the bane of Blanche’s existence.
Mitch: Harold Mitchell, Stanley's poker partner and best friend. He woos Blanche until he finds out about her seamy past.
Eunice Hubbell:Stanley and
Blanche’s upstairs neighbor and landlady.
Steve Hubbell:Poker partner of Stanley and husband of Eunice.
Gonzales:Hispanic Poker partner of Stanley.
Allen Grey: Deceased husband of Blanche. His homosexual affair and suicide deeply scarred Blanche.
Teenage Newsboy: Collector for The Evening Star newspaper.
Shep Huntleigh: Imaginary beau of Blanche.
Doctor, Matron:Physician and nurse from a mental hospital.
.......A Streetcar Named Desire centers on a desolated woman named Blanche DuBois. Reared in Old South aristocratic traditions, she lived elegantly in the family homestead, married a man she adored, and pursued a career as an English teacher. But her life fell apart when she discovered that
her husband, Allen Grey, was having a homosexual affair. Disgraced, he killed himself. Blanche sought comfort in the arms of other men, many men. After she had relations with one of her students, a 17-year-old, authorities learned of the encounter and fired her. Meanwhile, relatives died and she could not keep up the family home. Eventually, creditors seized it. The play begins when Blanche
arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella, and her crude, outspoken husband, Stanley Kowalski. Though scarred by her past, Blanche still tries to lead the life of an elegant lady and does her best, even lying when necessary, to keep up appearances.
Plot Summary Dialogue
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
.......It is just after dusk in New Orleans on an evening early in May after World War II. In front of a shabby apartment building on a street named Elysian Fields, a white and
a black woman are sitting on the steps while piano music plays in a nearby tavern. The white woman, Eunice, lives in the building’s upstairs apartment. The black woman lives nearby. Two white men in work clothes—Stanley Kowalski and his friend Mitch, both no more than 30—round the corner.
.......Stanley and his wife, Stella, about 25, occupy the first-floor apartment. After Stanley shouts for her, she steps out on the landing and he throws her a package of meat. He and Mitch then reverse direction to go bowling at an alley around the corner. Stella decides to follow and watch them.
.......A moment later, Stella’s sister, Blanche DuBois, rounds the corner with a valise after arriving from Laurel, Mississippi. She checks an address on a slip of paper, then looks in disbelief at the apartment building. Could Stella really live in such a run-down dwelling?
Blanche, about 30, is elegantly attractive but somewhat fragile and vulnerable. In her white suit, complemented by pearl earrings and white gloves, she is out of place in this working-class neighborhood. When Eunice asks whether she is lost, Blanche says, “They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to
one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields.” Eunice confirms that Blanche has come to the right street and right address, 632. The black woman goes to the bowling alley to fetch Stella.
.......After the sisters reunite and
exchange pleasantries, Blanche looks for liquor and finds it, and Stella does the pouring because Blanche is shaking. Blanche assures her sister that she is not a drunkard but “just all shaken up and hot and tired and dirty.”
.......Blanche says she is on leave
from her job teaching English at a high school in Laurel. In fact, she was fired for promiscuous behavior with a teenager. Pretentiously aristocratic, Blanche bemoans her sister’s plebeian surroundings. The apartment is run-down and spare, with only a kitchen and a bedroom—separated by a curtain—and a small bathroom. Blanche fishes for compliments about her appearance, asks for another drink, and
wonders whether it will be proper for her to stay in such close quarters with Stella’s husband roaming about. Stella tells her that everything will be fine, although she cautions Blanche that Stanley’s friends are common and unrefined.
informs Stella that creditors back in Laurel have seized their family homestead, Belle Reve, even though Blanche “fought for it, bled for it, almost died for it.” She scolds Stella for not staying behind in Mississippi to help manage the property.
.......“You just came home in time for funerals, Stella,” she says.
.......The upshot is that Stella will never inherit a single cent from her share in the property, because there is no property. After Stanley arrives home and hears the news, he
demands evidence of the property loss. He is crude and mouthy, not at all afraid to speak his mind, and suspicious. Blanche allows him to see the appropriate legal documents, which she has brought with her, that confirm the loss. Stanley says he will have a lawyer examine the papers, adding, “You see . . . a man has to take an interest in his wife’s affairs—especially now that she’s going to have
a baby.” It is the first time Stella has heard of her sister’s pregnancy, and she congratulates Stella.
.......Stanley’s friends—Mitch, Steve, and Pablo—arrive for a poker game on the kitchen table. Hours later, at 2:30 in the morning, while the boys are still playing cards, Stella introduces Blanche to Mitch—Harold Mitchell—who works in the spare-parts department at the plant
employing Stanley. Blanche seems interested in Mitch. Unmarried, he lives with and watches over his ailing mother. After he asks Stanley to deal him out, he talks with Blanche. She tells him that she’s younger than Stella (although she’s five years older) and that she is in New Orleans to look after Stella—“She hasn’t been well, lately”—even though she is there because she has nowhere else to go.
She also says she is an old maid schoolteacher (although she was married once to a homosexual who committed suicide), and that she teaches high school English (although she was forced out of her job for having an affair with a student).
plays a radio and dances suggestively, Mitch imitates her movements. Irritated by the noise, Stanley—now full of drink—throws the radio out the window. Stella scolds him and Stanley moves menacingly toward her. She runs. He follows and strikes her. After the other men restrain Stanley, Mitch says, “Poker should not be played in a house with women.” Stella goes upstairs with Blanche to
.......After the card game, Stanley enters the hallway and calls upstairs repeatedly for “my baby.” Eventually, Stella comes down and they embrace tenderly on the steps, and Stanley carries her to bed. When Blanche later comes downstairs, she
glances in at Stanley and Stella in carnal passion and runs outside. Mitch materializes from around the corner, and he and Blanche have a cigarette, sit down, and talk. Romance blossoms.
.......The next day, while Stanley is out getting the car greased, Blanche
tells Stella that she’s married to a “madman” and urges her to abandon Stanley. Stella, however, shrugs off Stanley’s violent behavior of the night before and assures Blanche that he is really gentle and loving. Blanche says she “trembles” for Stella. A train rumbles by while the sisters continue their conversation in the bedroom. Stanley returns, unheard and unseen by the sisters, and
overhears Blanche criticizing him: “He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits. Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one!”
.......Over the next several months, Stanley and Blanche become mortal enemies, and Stanley dedicates himself to her destruction
while she keeps company with Mitch. Opening up to Mitch, she tells him about her deceased husband, Allen Grey, who killed himself after she found out he was a homosexual and told him he disgusted her while they were out dancing a polka called the Varsouviana. Meanwhile, Stanley probes Blanche’s past and gets “the dope” on her from a supply man at his plant who regularly travels through Laurel and
stays at the Flamingo Hotel there. He has told Stanley that Blanche carried on affairs with many men while living at the Flamingo, a second-rate hotel, and was evicted because of her promiscuous behavior.
.......“Did you know,” he says to Stella, “that there was
an army camp near Laurel and your sister’s was one of the places called ‘Out-of-Bounds’?”
.......While Stanley is laying out the dirty details, Blanche is bathing in the bathroom, singing the lyrics of "Paper Moon": "It's only a paper moon, Just as phony as it can
be— / But it wouldn't be make-believe If you believe in me."
.......Stanley also tells Stella that Blanche is not on a “leave of absence” from her teaching job but was “kicked out” of the high school before the end of the spring semester as the result of an
affair with a 17-year-old. Stella says she doesn’t believe the stories but admits that Blanche did “cause sorrow” at home and was always “flighty.” While defending her sister, Stella says Blanche suffered a devastating blow when she was young and married to a young man (Allen Grey) who wrote poetry. She worshipped him but found out he was a “degenerate.”
....... While talking, Stella pokes candles into a cake, saying it is Blanche's birthday and Mitch has been invited. However, Stanley says Mitch won’t be attending. It seems Stanley has tattled on Blanche to Mitch and, Stanley says, Mitch has “wised up.”
.......“He’s not going to jump in a tank with a school of sharks,” Stanley says.
.......Later, Stanley gives Blanche a birthday gift: a
bus ticket back to Laurel. His behavior upsets Blanche. Suddenly ill, she retreats to the bathroom. While Stella rebukes Stanley for his cruelty, she goes into labor pains, and Stanley takes her to a hospital.
.......Hours pass. Blanche drinks and packs her
clothes. In the giddiness of her drunken state, she dresses in a white evening gown, a pair of silver slippers, and a rhinestone tiara. While she is in the bedroom admiring herself, Stanley returns after stopping at a bar for a few drinks and two quarts of beer. He tells Blanche that Stella is still in labor and that the baby will not come until morning. Stanley removes his shirt and opens a
quart of beer, then enters the bedroom to remove pajamas from a bureau drawer. He asks Blanche why she is wearing “those fine feathers.” She fabricates a story, saying she has received a telegram from an old beau, Shep Huntleigh, inviting her on a Caribbean cruise. She says Huntleigh is a millionaire who lives in Dallas, “where gold spouts from the ground.”
.......“Well, it’s a red-letter night for us both,” Stanley says. “You having an oil-millionaire and me having a baby.”
returns to the kitchen, Blanche tells him that Huntleigh respects her and that she, as an intelligent and cultivated woman, has much to offer him. Then she insults Stanley, saying, “I have been foolish—casting my pearls before swine. . . . I’m thinking not only of you but of your friend, Mr. Mitchell [who] came back [and] implored my forgiveness.” But, she says, she bid farewell to
.......Stanley asks, “Was this before or after the telegram came from the Texas oil millionaire?”
.......Her response gives her away. Stanley says was she lying not only about the Caribbean cruise but also about Mitch’s return visit because “I know where he is.” Then he says, “Take a look at yourself in that worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented
for fifty cents from some rag-picker. And with that crazy crown on! What queen do you think you are?” He answers his own question, saying, “The queen of the Nile! Sitting on your throne and swilling down my liquor!”
.......Stanley reenters the bedroom and goes
into the bathroom. Frightened, Blanche picks up the phone receiver and requests the number of “Shep Huntleigh of Dallas,” who she says is so well known that she need not provide the operator an address. Moments later, she cancels the call and asks for Western Union to send a message that she is in “desperate circumstances.” Stanley emerges from the bathroom in his pajamas. He leers at her. She
smashes the top of a bottle and threatens him with the jagged edge. He subdues and rapes her.
.......Weeks later, Stella packs Blanche’s belongings while Stanley plays poker with Mitch, Steve, and Pablo. Eunice comes down and asks about Blanche, who is bathing.
Blanche is now deeply disturbed—in fact, insane. Stella answers that she told Blanche arrangements were made for her to rest in the country. Stella also says, “I couldn’t believe her story [about the rape] and go on living with Stanley.”
.......When a doctor
and a matron (nurse) arrive for Blanche, Blanche struggles against them. Stella says, “Oh, God, what have I done to my sister?” Stanley soothes Stella as the doctor and matron take custody of Blanche for treatment in an institution. The poker game continues as Steve says, “This game is seven-card stud.”
.......The conversations are pruned of irrelevancy. Blanche’s educated speech and literary allusions contrast with Stanley’s down-to-earth language and crude—but often effective and amusing—imagery. The dialogue is rich in tropes, including the commonplace cliches of Stanley and the literary allusions and quotations of
Theme 1 The reluctance or inability of people to accept the truth. Blanche lives in a cocoon of unreality to protect herself against her weaknesses and shortcomings, including her inability to repress sexual desire. To preserve her ego, she lies about her promiscuous behavior in Laurel; she shuns bright light, lest it reveal her
physical imperfections; and she refuses to acknowledge her problem with alcohol. Stanley effectively penetrates her cocoon verbally with his crude insults and physically with his sexual coup de main near the end of the play. Stanley has his own problem: He lacks the insight to see what he really is—a coarse, domineering macho man ruled by primal instincts. Unlike Blanche, though, he is
happy in his ignorance. For her part, Stella accepts the truth—partly. She acknowledges that Stanley is crude and that her apartment is cramped and shabby. But, in the end, she refuses to accept the truth about her sister’s past and about Stanley’s violation of Blanche. “I couldn’t believe [Blanche’s] story [about the rape] and go on living with Stanley,” Stella says.
Theme 2 The final destruction of the Old South, symbolized by Blanche and Belle Reve (the family property seized by creditors). This theme—not unlike that in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind—begins to unfold in the opening scene of the play. Two women, one white and one black,
sit as equals on the steps of an apartment building while Blanche arrives on scene accoutered in the attitude and finery of a southern belle of yesteryear. She is an alien, a strange creature from another time, another place.
Theme 3 The despoliation of the sensitive and
feminine by the feral and masculine. Blanche and her first husband, a homosexual, cannot survive in the world of Stanley and his kind. Stanley is a robust weed who grows in Blanche’s carefully cultivated garden of lilies.
Theme 4 Unbridled sexual desire leads to isolating
darkness and eventually death. Williams establishes this theme at the beginning of the play, when Blanche takes a streetcar named Desire (sex), transfers to one named Cemeteries (Death), and gets off at a street named named Elysian Fields (the Afterlife). He maintains the theme during the play with references to Blanche’s first husband, a homosexual who committed suicide after she caught him
with another man, and with Blanche’s literal and figurative retreat into the shadows after having many sordid affairs. She shuns bright lights; she dates Mitch only in the evening.
Theme 5 All that glitters is not gold. This Shakespearean motif manifests itself in Blanche’s
inability to grasp how Stanley and Stella can succeed at marriage without the finer things of life.
.......The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of A Streetcar Named
Desire occurs, according to both definitions, when Stanley rapes Blanche. This brutal act marks the completion of her mental deterioration, pushing her over the edge from sanity to madness.
Streetcar named Desire: Blanche's desire. Although Blanche arrives in New Orleans as a somewhat broken woman, she keeps alive her desire to be with a man and to lead a life as an elegant, respectable woman. Allusions and References
Cemeteries: Old, disgraced Blanche, the one that Blanche left behind—dead, so to speak—in her hometown of Laurel, Miss., to begin anew in New Orleans. This streetcar can also suggest that life is over for the new Blanche as well, for she is damaged property edging toward madness.
Street named Elysian Fields: The new life Blanche is seeking. In Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields (also called Elysium and the Elysian Plain) made up a paradise reserved for worthy mortals after they died. Because Blanche's old self "died" in Laurel, Miss., she traveled to New Orleans to seek her Elysium.
Belle Reve: Name of Blanche's family home in Mississippi. It represents the "beautiful dream" (the meaning of Belle Rêve in French) that Blanche seeks but never experiences.
Blanche's white suit: False purity and innocence with which Blanche masks her carnal desire and cloaks her past.
Blanche's frequent bathing: Her attempt to wash away her past life.
Alcohol: Another way Blanche washes away bad memories.
Bright light: Penetrating gaze of truth that sees the real Blanche with all her imperfections. When she greets Stella the first time in the apartment, she says, "And turn that
over-light off! Turn that off! I won't be looked at in this merciless glare!" Blanche avoids bright lights throughout the play.
Blanche: Blanche means white in French, and—in keeping with her name—she wears a white dress and gloves in the opening scene of the play
to hide her real self in the purity that white suggests.
Stella: Stella means star or like a star in Latin, although she lives in a shabby apartment building in a lower-class section of New Orleans. It could be argued that she is the star of her husband’s
life and the star that led Blanche to New Orleans.
Stanley: Old English name meaning stone field. Thus, it is possible he represents a cemetery for Blanche. Stanislaus was the name of a king of Poland. Clearly, Stanley is the king of his
The small Kowalski apartment: The size and plainness of the life to which Blanche, who formerly lived in a splendid mansion, must adjust.
Gray area of Blanche's life, between the bright light that she avoids and the darkness she seeks. She loved Allen Grey, but he betrayed her. In New Orleans, she remembers the good and the bad of her relationship with him.
Paper: Imagery centering on paper represents impermanence,
unreality, or artificiality. For example, the paper legal documents Blanche brings with her to New Orleans attest to the loss of the family homestead, Belle Reve. The youth collecting for the local paper, The Evening Star, represents the ephemerality of sexual gratification. Apparently, he reminds Blanche of Allen Grey. On a whim,
she suddenly kisses the youth but then dismisses him, mindful of the disgrace she brought upon herself with her liaison with a student. The song Blanche sings while bathing, "Paper Moon," symbolizes the fantasy world of love.
Ghoul-haunted ghostland of Weir: Line from Edgar Allan Poe's 1847 poem "Ulalume," in which the speaker of the poem is attempting to cope with the loss of his love. While looking out a window, Blanche speaks this line, indicating that she is still coping with the loss of Allen Grey.
Irony and Contrast
Napoleonic code: Laws established by Napoleon on which Louisiana based its civil law. Stanley cites this law, telling Blanche it means that what belongs to a wife belongs to a husband. Therefore, Stella as part-owner of Belle Reve was entitled to part of the property. If Blanche mismanaged it or
used proceeds from it improperly, then she mismanaged or misused property Stanley owned, under the Napoleonic code.
The blind are leading the blind: Paraphrase of a verse in Matthew's Gospel in the New Testament of the Bible. Verse 14 of Chapter 15 says that if one person leads
another blind person, both will fall into a pit. Blanche speaks this line when Stella leads her away from the poker game. This is a
And if God choose, / I shall but love thee better after death!" Line is from Elizabeth
Barrett Browning's "Sonnet 43. This line is an inscription on Mitch's lighter, read by Blanche. The significance is that Blanche still thinks about her deceased husband, Allen.
Arabian Nights: Collection of stories from Arabia, India, Persia, and Egypt entitled
The One Thousand and One Nights (familiarly knows as the Arabian Nights). A legendary queen, Scheherezade, tells these entertaining stories, including tales about Aladdin's Lamp, Sindbad the Sailor, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Blanche tells the young collector for The Evening Star newspaper that he looks like a young prince "out of the Arabian Nights." She kisses him,
then tells him he must go because "I've got to be good—and keep my hands off children." This scene tells the audience that wanton desire still haunts Blanche.
My Rosenkavelier: Blanche addresses Mitch this way when he brings her a bouquet of roses. Der Rosenkavelier
(The Knight of the Roses) is the title of a 1911 opera by German romantic composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949).
Pleiades: While surveying the night sky, Blanche says she is "looking for the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters." The Pleiades were seven daughters of the Titan Atlas
and the ocean nymph Pleione. Their names were Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra, Maia, Merope, Sterope, and Taygete. They became a group of stars (constellation). Unlike the Pleiades, Blanche is alone. She has a sister, yes, but it becomes increasingly clear that Stella sides with Stanley against her.
Je suis la Dame aux Camellias! Vous êtes Armand! Line from La Dame aux camélias, a play by Alexandre Dumas the Younger (1824-1895), which he adapted from his 1848 novel of the same name. The speaker is a courtesan (prostitute catering to the nobility) who forsakes a character named Armand. Blanche speaks this line to Mitch, perhaps seeing the
outcome of her relationship with Mitch. Notice that author Williams uses the English spelling, camellias, rather than the French camélias.
Huey Long: Politician elected governor of Louisiana in 1928 and U.S. senator in 1932. Although Long (1893-1935) enjoyed
popularity among the people, he was dictatorial and manipulative. He was assassinated in 1935. Stanley, asserting himself against encroachment on his authority by Stella and Blanche, cites Huey Long (1893-1935) as saying, "Every man is king!"
Queen of the Nile: Cleopatra,
seductive and cunning Queen of Egypt in the Macedonian dynasty. She was the seventh Cleopatra, having the full title of Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator (Goddess Who Loves Her Father). Stanley sarcastically refers to Blanche as "the queen of the Nile" in response to her pretensions to elegance.
Elysian Fields: The street Elysian Fields is not what its name suggests, a paradise, but a shabby thoroughfare in a working-class district of New Orleans. By contrast, a street in Paris with the same name (but in French, Champs-élysées) is a magnificent boulevard. Blanche's attempt to see the world through the eyes of a Parisian is
part of the reason for her descent into unreality and insanity.
White and Black: Blanche is wearing white clothing and gloves, as well as pearl earrings, when she arrives in New Orleans to suggest that she has a pristine character. However, she prefers darkness and shadows to
mask her physical perfections and, symbolically, her sinful behavior.
Old and New, Fantasy and Reality: Blanche comes from an old fairyland world to live in the real world of a modern metropolis.
Big and Small: In her old world, Blanche lived in a large house; in her new world, she lives in a tiny apartment. The size of the apartment suggests the diminution of Blanche's fortunes and her sanity.
Speech: Blanche quotes poetry and speaks
the elegant patois of aristocrats. Stanley speaks the sandpaper language of reality and brutality: coarse, crude, unvarnished.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...To what extent is Blanche a victim of her own self-delusions and Old South attitudes? To what extent is she the victim of males who take advantage of her, deceive her, or abuse her?
2...Blanche quotes literature and occasionally speaks French; her language is elegant, educated. Stanley, on the other hand, uses coarse, sometimes brutal, language. Does their speech reflect their perceptions of reality? Explain your answer.
3...Write an essay focusing on how the roles of males and females in American society changed between 1947, the year A Streetcar Named Desire was published and performed, and the present.
4...Who is the most admirable character in the
5...Comment on the significance of the following quotations from the play:
.......“I’ve got to keep hold of
myself.” (Blanche, after arriving in the Kowalski apartment)
.......“Poker should not be played in a house with women.” (Mitch, at the card game)
6...What is the meaning of the scene at the beginning of the play in which Stanley throws a package of meat up to Stella? Is it simply intended to show that Stanley is a macho male who delivers what women want, sexually, or is there more to the scene?