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A Streetcar Named Desire

by Tennessee Williams

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How would you describe the relationship between Stanley and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire? After reading the book, I came to the conclusion that theirs was an abusive partnership, but I feel that there are other perspectives which I would greatly appreciate.

Most modern audiences will view Stanley's relationship with Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire as a typical abusive partnership, with Stella as the victim of criminal violence. However, within the play, Stella offers a defense of their relationship as one that is excitingly tumultuous and passionate.

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There are three perspectives within A Streetcar Named Desire, one for each of the three major characters in the play. The relationship between Stella and Stanley appears to be abusive from Blanche's perspective, but not from Stanley's or, crucially, Stella's. The audience's view often depends largely on how sympathetic they find Blanche to be. This is true not only because Blanche is the only character within the play who is seriously shocked by Stanley's violence,* but because it is not clear how violent he was before her arrival. There is no doubt that Stanley is violently abusive to Blanche, but there is some uncertainly about his treatment of Stella before Blanche arrived.

Stella's calmness at the beginning of scene 4 certainly suggests that it is fairly common for Stanley to become physically abusive when drunk. She indulgently observes that "Stanley's always smashed things." Her story about Stanley smashing all the light-bulbs with her slipper suggests that she finds his volatile temper exciting, and has forgiven his outbursts as a matter of course. Stella's description of their relationship is that it is exciting and passionate. Stanley occasionally oversteps the mark, but he is sorry afterwards, and she prefers his powerful masculinity to timidity. Their relationship, according to her, is fundamentally a normal, healthy one.

A modern audience is likely to think of Stockholm syndrome, a term which had not yet been identified when the play was written. Many people will conclude that Stella is in thrall to her husband, a battered woman, and therefore unable to make a balanced judgment. However, her perspective is an important one within the play, and it is worth at least considering her defense of Stanley before dismissing it as the product of coercion and delusion.

*It is true that Eunice is angry with Stanley in Scene 3, but her anger may be as temporary as Stella's.

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It would be hard to make a case in today's world (or even at the time the play was written) that it is somehow not an abusive relationship between Stanley and Stella. I would not say that there are "other perspectives" from which we can view their relationship so much as point out that "explanations" of a kind can be seen as the background of their partnership—explanations that could be missed by readers or theatergoers on first exposure.

Stella is a woman who seems to have escaped the "old" world of Belle Reve and found fulfillment in New Orleans. Stanley is "primitive," but she obviously loves him. Because of the standards of the working-class world of the 1940s, physical violence perpetrated by a husband was, unfortunately, sometimes regarded differently than it is in today's world. This, of course, does not excuse it in any way. Stanley himself has few, if any, redeeming qualities. He can, however, be viewed as something of a victim himself, because he is a member of the exploited working class. Again, none of this makes his violence toward Stella excusable in the slightest.

At the same time,...

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Williams is using stereotypes to which Stella and Stanley appear to conform. It places an emphasis on the much different personality and status of Blanche. The primitive qualities of the "brutish" Stanley and the "submissive" Stella are in contrast to Blanche's wish to remain in the rarefied world symbolized by Belle Reve, the beautiful dream. It is even possible that Williams was actually creating the literary forms of these stereotypes, which have since been copied in drama andfiction, though without the larger themes and the contrasting personalities depicted in A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley's abusiveness and violence are a pointed contrast to the "sensitive" man Blanche had been in love with, whom she discovered to be gay and who then committed suicide. Williams's central point throughout the play, arguably, is that women are victimized in multiple ways: Stella is victimized through her husband's abuse and unfaithfulness, and Blanche is victimized through her naivete about men's sexuality—first because of the repression (at the time) of gay men and later because she does not realize that Stanley's intention all along has been to attack her. By remaining in an abusive marriage, Stella exists in an alternative dream world to Blanche's world, and the combination of mental and physical assaults upon Blanche tears her out of her dream and destroys her sanity.

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Stanley is obviously a tough and brutal type of man, but he does not become abusive until Blanche moves in with them and begins to turn Stella against her husband. This is the crux of the entire play. Stella and Stanley love each other but Blanche intrudes into their lives and tries to make Stella see Stanley as a crude, lower-class, uneducated type who is beneath her and unworthy of her. Stella loves Stanley because he is big and strong and masculine, among other things, probably a very good lover. He loves her because she is soft and gentle and because she is having his baby. They are certainly different types, but opposites very often attract. Stanley is uncouth and uneducated, but he is not stupid. Blanche grossly underestimates him, which leads to her downfall. The motion picture version of Tennessee Williams' play, which stars Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh, is marvelous.

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