"A single individual can never triumph over society."  How far is this true of A Streetcar Named Desire? 

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tennessee Williams once described his life as a "loneliness that follows me like a shadow."  Such a condition reflects how there is not a valiant and triumphant condition of what it means to be human.  The loneliness that plagued Williams reflects how the individual is condemned to be forlorn, lost amongst the intensity of society.  This same belief is how Williams constructed Blanche, a heroine to whom he felt affinity.  It is in this light where Williams felt that the individual could never triumph over society in his characterizations offered in  A Streetcar Named Desire.

One of the lasting impressions that the audience has of Blanche is her powerlessness.  In Scene Eleven, Blanche says to the doctor, "Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Blanche's inability to find her own footing has been a consistent element in her characterization. She is powerless against the social forces that envelop her.  When describing Belle Reve, Blanche reflects how she is unable to triumph over the social world that envelops her:

There are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years, affecting Belle Reve as, piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications—to put it plainly! . . . The four-letter word deprived us of our plantation, till finally all that was left—and Stella can verify that!—was the house itself and about twenty acres of ground, including a graveyard, to which now all but Stella and I have retreated.

Blanche believes that her condition is one where she has "retreated" from the world. Williams develops her characterization as one where she has repeatedly come short in her battles with society.  The world in which she lives, the world in which she used to live, as well as the life in front of her in the future is one where she is incapable of triumphing over society.  Her fight with Stanley over Stella's "soul" is her last battle, the last chance for her to exert some strength or semblance of force.  She fails here, reflecting a condition in which someone like Blanche, to whom Williams feels an incredible amount of devotion and affinity, can never triumph over society.

Other characters in the drama show this same helpless condition against the world in which they live.  Stella is unable to fight for her sister's welfare, a realization that hits her at the end of the drama when Blanche's commitment is too late and already in motion.  When Stella speaks of marriage, it reflects how a woman like her is unable to triumph over external reality:  "But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant."  She lives in this "flawed world," incapable of changing it and unwilling to launch the assault needed to transform it.  Mitch is unable to triumph over society, as he sits silently when Blanche is taken away.  Even Stanley is not shown to be a force to overcome the social forces that dictate masculinity and success in such limited formulas. Stanley is almost savage in how he demonstrates power, and he is unable to overcome this social construction.  In describing Blanche, Williams conveys a sentiment about what it means to be an individual failing to overcome external social forces:   "... when I think about her, Blanche seems like the youth of our hearts which has to be put away for worldly considerations: poetry, music, the early soft feelings that we can't afford to live with under a naked light bulb which is now."  The failure overcome this condition where the subjective collides and fails to materialize in light of the external, or "worldly considerations," is a major reason why one could argue that in the drama, a single individual can never really triumphs over society.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

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