How can structuralist theory be used to analyze Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire?
Structuralist criticism is one of many different critical approaches that can be useful in analyzing Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. As the word “structuralist” suggests, strusturalists believe that humans have a tendency to make sense of reality by imposing structures on it. Therefore, any attempt to understand any aspect of human culture involves understanding the structures it implies. The existence of these structures is not always immediately obvious. Structures tend to be “binary” – that is, they tend to involve contrasts. We tend to define one thing by seeing it as a contrast with something else. Moreover, these contrasts tend to be parts of larger structures of parallel contrasts.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, such structures or systems of contrasts might include the following:
Blanche / Stanley
weak / strong
female / male
widowed / married
vulnerable / aggressive
passive / active
imaginative / realistic
defeated / victorious
One can see how some of these traits reinforce one another to form structural patterns. Thus, Blanche is a weak, widowed, passive, vulnerable female who is eventually defeated, while Stanley is a strong, married, active, aggressive male who is ultimately triumphant.
Many of the traits listed above can be seen operating together, for instance, in the moments right before Stanley takes Blanche off to rape her:
Stanley: Oh! So you want some rough-house? All right, let's have some rough-house [He springs towards her, overturning the table. She cries out and strikes at him with the bottle top but he catches her wrist.]
A structuralist, then, looks for structures in literary works – structures often rooted in patterns of similar, reinforcing contrasts. These structures are assumed to be objectively present in the work and available to rigorous, logical, objective, almost scientific demonstration and study.
Something extra: “deconstructive” criticism, as the name implies, challenges and subverts the structuralist attempt to find neat patterns and orderly structures in literary works. Deconstructors look for details that do not fit into the neat structures discovered in (or, the deconstructors would say, arbitrarily imposed upon) literary works. Is Blanche, for instance, really as weak as she seems? Is Stanley really as strong as he appears? Stanley, after all, feels sufficiently threatened by Blanche that he feels to the need to investigate her past and to use what he learns against her. In this sense, it is initially Stanley who is in the position of weakness and Blanche who is in the position of strength, but soon these positions are reversed, leaving not a neat structure of opposites but unstable, deconstructed fluctuations. Solid structures begin to wobble, and neat contrasts begin to bleed into one another. The same thing happens when we consider another question: who is really insane -- Blanche, who is led off to a mental hospital at the end of the play, or Stanley who is capable of raping his own sister-in-law? Deconstructive criticism blurs the relatively simple distinctions and contrasts sought out by structuralists.