Study Guide

A Streetcar Named Desire

by Tennessee Williams

A Streetcar Named Desire Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

A Streetcar Named Desire

On a streetcar named Desire, Blanche DuBois travels from the railroad station in New Orleans to a street named Elysian Fields, where her sister, Stella, pregnant and married to Stanley Kowalski, lives in a run-down apartment building in the old French Quarter. Having lost her husband, parents, teaching position, and old family home—Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi—Blanche has nowhere to turn but to her one remaining close relative.

Thirty years old, Blanche is emotionally and economically destitute. The most traumatic experience in her life was the discovery that her husband—a poet whom she had married at the tender age of sixteen—was a homosexual. Soon after she had taunted him for his sexual impotence, he committed suicide. Their confrontation had occurred in Moon Lake Casino, ubiquitous in Williams’s plays as a house of illusions. In her subsequent guilt over his death, she found temporary release in a series of sexual affairs, the latest having involved one of her young students and resulting in her dismissal.

She is horrified at the circumstances in which her sister Stella lives and at the man to whom she is married. Polish, uneducated, inarticulate, and working class, but sexually attractive, he has won Stella by his sheer masculinity. Stella, according to production notes by director Elia Kazan, has been narcotized by his sexual superiority. A fourth important character, Stanley’s poker-playing companion Mitch, is attracted to Blanche. She is attracted to his kindness to her, for he is gentle in his manner, as Stanley is not. Blanche refers at one point to having found God in Mitch’s arms, a religious reference frequently made by Williams’s characters at important moments in their lives.

The action of the play, then, as in Greek tragedy, consists of the final events in Blanche’s life. Tensions grow between her and Stanley, even as her physical attraction to him becomes palpable. She expresses her contempt for his coarseness and animality. In scene after scene, she reminds him constantly of their cultural differences. Their hostilities develop into a Strindbergian battle of the sexes for the affection of Stella. Blanche eventually loses not only Stella but also Mitch, a possible husband.

The theatrically ironic climax occurs on Blanche’s birthday while Stella is in the hospital giving birth to her baby. Blanche has prettied up the apartment for her birthday. Drunk and inflamed by Blanche’s taunts into proving his superiority, Stanley rapes her in what is Williams’s most famous and most highly theatrical scene. Simultaneously repulsed and attracted by his sheer rawness, Blanche acts out her final rebellion against her genteel but sexually repressive background, as though to punish herself for violating her “soul.” Her struggle with Stanley is the last in a series of losses in Blanche’s life. Her delicate sensibility already strained to the breaking point when she had first arrived, she breaks down and at the end is led away to a mental institution.

As in The Glass Menagerie, there are candles, these on Blanche’s birthday cake. Like the lights that go out in Laura’s life and that forever after haunt Tom, Blanche’s are symbolically extinguished. In the red pajamas that Stanley wears for the occasion, the blue candles on the cake, the extravagantly old-fashioned dresses that Blanche wears, the festive decorations, and Williams’s use of music and lights, the illusions of Blanche’s world are highlighted. In contrast, the repulsive vulgarity and the attractive animality of Stanley’s world are symbolized in details such as the opening scene in which Stanley throws Stella a package of raw meat and the famous beer-bottle-opening scene at the birthday party. Such violently opposing images are the hallmarks of Williams’s highly theatrical poetry.

Even more than in The Glass Menagerie, when Tom descends the staircase of the Wingfields’ St. Louis apartment for the last time, Blanche’s arrival at the Kowalskis’ home suggests a descent into the lower regions. It is her final descent into a mythical underworld, in which, like Orpheus, she is psychologically mutilated and eaten. In this modern American variation of the Greek myth, which Williams dramatizes more directly in Orpheus Descending (1957) and more violently in Suddenly Last Summer, one of the stops the streetcar makes is Cemetery; the Elysian Fields, ironically, is Blanche’s last stop before her insanity and death.

The play’s strongest effects can be found in Williams’s use of language and in the many symbols. The lines remaining in the memories of those who have seen A Streetcar Named Desire epitomize the strong contrasts which lie at the center of the play: Stanley’s bullish bellowing of “Stella, Stella” and Blanche’s confession, “I have always been dependent on the kindness of strangers.” Brutishness and reason, body and soul, mastery and dependency vie for survival within Stanley and Blanche.

In the loss of Belle Reve and the acceptance by Stella of a new life—the world of Stanley and of the kind but inarticulate Mitch—Williams, like Anton Chekhov in Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908), dramatizes the replacing of one era by another. Like August Strindberg in Fröken Julie (1888; Miss Julie, 1912), Williams sees the social aristocracy being replaced by a coarser but more vital one. Social Darwinism is the basis for the change. As Stella rejects the old values and asserts dominance, audience sympathy for Blanche’s vulnerability grows measurably. Regarded generally as Williams’s most compactly constructed play, A Streetcar Named Desire is a dramatization of a heroine with few, if any, peers in her impact on the consciousness of the American theatrical tradition.

A Streetcar Named Desire Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Two streetcars, one named Desire, the other Cemeteries, brings Blanche DuBois on a spring afternoon to the Elysian Fields address of her sister Stella, whom she has not seen since Stella’s marriage to Stanley Kowalski. Blanche, dressed in a fluttering white garden party outfit, jars with the shabbiness and menace of the neighborhood from her first appearance. The proprietress of the building admits her to the Kowalski apartment a few minutes before Stella’s return. One of Blanche’s weaknesses becomes immediately apparent when, after a successful search for Stanley’s whiskey, she drinks a half glass of it neat.

When Stella returns, Blanche makes only a token effort to hide her dismay at her sister’s new surroundings. Stella is happy with her wild man and regards Blanche’s criticisms with good-humored tolerance. Blanche turns on Stella and defends herself against a fancied accusation that she allowed Belle Reve, the family mansion, to be lost. When Stanley enters some time later, he greets Blanche brusquely. When he mentions her dead husband, Blanche becomes first confused and shaken, then ill. Later, while Blanche is in the bath, Stanley and Stella are free to discuss the implications of her sudden visit. Stella asks him not to tell Blanche that she is going to have a baby. Stanley, who is suspicious over the loss of Belle Reve and imagines himself cheated of property, tears open Blanche’s trunk looking for papers. Blanche enters and, using a pretext to get Stella out of the house, presents him with legal papers detailing the forfeiture of all the DuBois property. Blanche demonstrates a bewildering variety of moods in this scene, flirting with Stanley, discussing the legal transactions with calm irony, and becoming abruptly hysterical when Stanley picks up old love letters written by her dead husband. Her reaction to the news of Stella’s pregnancy is reverent wonderment.

It is Stanley’s poker night with three cronies, one of whom, Mitch, is a large, sentimental man who lives with his mother. Stella and Blanche enter after an evening in the French Quarter that they extend to two-thirty in the morning to keep out of the way of the poker game. They cross into the bedroom, separated only by portieres from the living room, and meet Mitch leaving the bathroom. Blanche looks after him with some interest as he returns to the game. She begins undressing in a shaft of light through the portieres that she knows will expose her to the men in the next room. She dons a robe in time for Mitch’s next trip to the bathroom. Out of the game, he stops to talk to Blanche, and during their conversation she adopts an air of primness and innocence. Not wanting Mitch to see how old she really is, she asks him to cover the naked light bulb with a little Chinese lantern she bought in the French Quarter. They dance briefly to some music from the radio, but when the radio distracts the poker players, Stanley becomes violent and throws the radio out of the window, which sets off displays of temper that involve everyone in the house. Blanche and Stella flee to the upstairs apartment, leaving the men to deal with an outraged Stanley. When Stanley discovers that he is alone, he bellows up the stairway like a lost animal until Stella comes down to him.

The next morning Blanche persists in regarding as desperate a situation that Stella has long since accepted as normal. Blanche recollects an old admirer, Shep Huntleigh, who she thinks might rescue them. When Stella defends Stanley, Blanche retaliates with a long speech describing Stanley as a Stone Age man. Because the noise of his entry is covered by the sound of a train, Stanley hears the entire speech. To keep them from realizing that he overheard, he leaves and enters again. Stella runs into his arms.

Several weeks later, well into the humid Louisiana summer, Blanche is hoping for a proposal of marriage from Mitch, whom she is dating. One day, Stanley, who was been making investigations into Blanche’s conduct in Laurel, Mississippi, torments Blanche with hints of what he has found out. After he leaves, a young man comes to the door to collect for the newspaper. Blanche makes tentative advances to him, and before he leaves, she kisses him very gently on the lips.

Later that evening, Blanche and Mitch return from a date. He stays on for a talk in which Blanche tells him she is hardly able to put up with Stanley’s boorishness any longer. Mitch almost ends the conversation by asking Blanche how old she is. His mother wants to know. Blanche diverts his attention from her age by telling him about her husband, whom she married when they were both very young. One evening, she discovered her husband in a sexual act with an older man. Later, while they danced to the Varsouviana at a casino outside town, she confronted him with her knowledge. Rushing outside, the young man shot himself. Somehow, the mood of this speech prompts the long-awaited proposal from Mitch. Blanche is incoherent with gratitude and relief.

On Blanche’s birthday, in the autumn, Stella prepares a birthday dinner, which Stanley spoils as effectively as he can. He tells Stella that Blanche was a prostitute at a disreputable hotel in Laurel, a hotel she was asked to leave, and that she lost her high school job because of an affair with a seventeen-year-old student. At first Stella refuses to believe Stanley, then she defends Blanche’s behavior as a reaction to a tragic marriage. Stanley gives the same information to Mitch, who does not appear for the birthday dinner. Stanley climaxes the scene by smashing the dinner dishes on the floor and giving Blanche his birthday present, a bus ticket back to Laurel. At this point, Stella reveals that she is in labor, and Stanley takes her to the hospital.

Much later that same evening, Mitch comes to the Kowalski apartment in an ugly mood. He repeats to Blanche the lurid details of her past that he learned from Stanley. She admits them angrily and volunteers even worse episodes. In the street outside the house, an old Mexican woman sells her flowers for the dead. Even though Mitch no longer wants to marry Blanche, he begins a clumsy sexual assault on her that she repels by screaming, illogically, that the building is on fire.

With the help of Stanley’s liquor, Blanche retreats into the safety of madness. By the time Stanley returns from the hospital, she is decked fantastically in scraps of old finery from her trunk. Stanley rapes her, their struggle underlined by jazz music from a neighboring bar and by a fight between a drunk and a prostitute in the street outside.

In the final scene, another poker game is in progress when Blanche is taken to an asylum. Stella cannot accept her sister’s claim that Stanley raped her, for to do so would mean the end of her marriage. To persuade Blanche to leave quietly, Stella tells her that Huntleigh came for her. When Blanche sees the attendants, she is frightened at first, but then quickly responds to their kindness. Mitch rages at Stanley and has to be pulled off him by the other men. Stanley comforts Stella’s weeping, and the neighborhood returns to normal, its values undisturbed.

A Streetcar Named Desire Summary

Scenes 1 and 2 Summary

Scenes 1 and 2
The play opens in a shabby district of New Orleans where Stanley Kowalski lives with his wife Stella. After they...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Scenes 3, 4, 5, 6 Summary

Scene 3
The tension in the house continues in the next scene when the sisters return after an evening out to the house where...

(The entire section is 263 words.)

Scenes 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 Summary

Scenes 7 and 8
Shortly afterwards there is a birthday dinner for Blanche, but Mitch, having been told by Stanley about Blanche's...

(The entire section is 330 words.)