In Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, what is the meaning of Belle Reve to Blanche, Stanley, and Stella?
In playwright Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, the entrance of Blanche DuBois signifies the end of Stella and Stanley's relationship as they have known it, and Belle Reve, the palatial southern estate once owned by Blanche and Stella's family, looms like a dark cloud over the proceedings.
As Williams's play opens, the viewer is given a quick glimpse into the lives of Stanley Kowalski and his beautiful, pregnant wife Stella. We do not yet know the details of these two characters' lives, and Stanley's playful toss of a package of raw meat to his wife while on his way to the bowling alley indicates, along with the setting, that this is a family of limited means—and equally limited expectations. With the arrival of Stella's sister, Blanche, who has clearly come for an extended stay, the stability of Stanley and Stella's world is upset, and the consequences will be tragic.
When Blanche enters the scene, neither Stella nor Stanley is available, both being at the bowling alley, a fact conveyed by the Kowalskis' neighbor Eunice. Eunice soon reveals that Blanche and Stella's aristocratic roots are no secret:
EUNICE: She [Stella] showed me a picture of your home-place, the plantation.
BLANCHE: Belle Reve?
EUNICE: A great big place with white columns.
EUNICE: A place like that must be awful hard to keep up.
With this opening reference to Belle Reve, the scene is set for the gradual realization of the plantation's significance to each of the play's three main characters. Blanche, it will be revealed, has lost the estate due to financial difficulties that she initially blames on the costs associated with her parents' funerals and the recurring expenses of maintaining the property. Only later, due in no small part to Stanley's inquiries, is it made clear that Belle Reve's loss was due to Blanche's alcoholism and a series of sexual improprieties--the exposure of which will help push her over the psychological edge. For Blanche, Belle Reve will always serve as a reminder of her aristocratic roots, but it will also serve as a constant source of friction between the two sisters, evident when Blanche states to Stella, "You know I haven't put on one ounce in ten years, Stella? I weigh what I weighed the summer you left Belle Reve. The summer Dad died and you left us...." With this comment, Blanche is throwing in her sister's face the latter's failure to remain in Mississippi and help out with the plantation. Belle Reve represents a past to which Blanche wishes she could return.
For Stella, Belle Reve is a part of the past that is subordinated to the sexual satisfaction she enjoys from her marriage to the physically powerful and obviously virile Stanley. When Blanche informs Stella that she has brought fine clothes with which to meet Stella's friends, it is even more clear that Stella has left that part of her past behind: she replies that Stanley's friends are a little less than sophisticated. And when Blanche informs Stella of the loss of Belle Reve, the former again attempts to put the blame on the latter ("...you left! I stayed and struggled! You came to New Orleans and looked out for yourself. I stayed at Belle Reve and tried to hold it together!") to no avail. Stella is stunned by the revelation, but only because the loss of the estate represents the final denouement to that part of her life.
For Stanley, Belle Reve represents snobbishness that he is determined to bring down to his level. Stanley's first reaction to the news of the plantation's loss is to inquire suspiciously of the details, as though looking to secure a share of any proceeds from the estate's sale. His references to "the Napoleanic code" according to which he would be entitled to a share of the proceeds of the sale of property clearly indicate his motives in pressing Stella for details. Stanley's pride in representing the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum is piqued with the ammunition Blanche has brought him. He now has the opportunity to ensure that Blanche is aware that the moral authority has shifted in his direction, and that the "treasures" Blanche has stored in her trunk are indicative of the gulf separating these two families' roots, whether the furs and jewelry are authentic or not: "The Kowalskis and the DuBois have different notions."
From the opening of the play, a war has been fought between Blanche and Stanley, with the former openly contemptuous of the latter's place on that socioeconomic spectrum. Blanche looks down on Stanley, and Stanley is determined to level the playing field, even if comes at the expense of his wife's relationship with her sister. Lest there be any doubt about Stanley's reverse-snobbishness, observe in the following passage his comments to Stella and how Belle Reve's loss fits neatly into his view of Stella's background:
"When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going! And wasn't we happy together, wasn't it all okay till she showed here?"
Belle Reve is not just the place from which Stella and Blanche entered the world; it is a symbol of a past now long gone. For Stella, that's okay; for Blanche, it was the death of a dream. For Stanley, it was the symbol of wealth and manners that it was his pleasure to help destroy.
Belle Reve is the family estate left to Blanche and Stella when their aristocratic parents die. Blanche loses the mansion after incurring substantial debt due to funeral expenses, etc. after the death of her parents.
It is interesting to note that the meaning of Belle Reve is "beautiful dream" in French. Blanche has lost her dream of a happy marriage, and a beautiful, elegant home. She has also lost her career as a teacher due to the unfortunate choices she made after learning of her husband's infidelity.
For Stella, she has lost her dream of a happy, healthy marriage. As Stanley states, " I pulled you down off them columns (of Belle Reve) and how you loved it." He has effectively stripped her of her aristocratic ways and humbled her to his status in society.
The theme of class conflict as it relates to the play is explored in greater depth in the theme section of enotes. Please follow the link below for more details.