What does the title of A Streetcar Named Desire refer to?

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At first glance, the title A Streetcar Named Desire refers to the actual trolley that Blanche takes to get to the Kowalski home. It is first mentioned in the opening scene of the play when Blanche describes the route to Eunice. It is mentioned again in Scene 4. This time Blanche tells Stella that it was "that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter" that brought her to Stella's. Desire brought her there in both a literal and figurative sense.

In the figurative sense, Blanche's desire, i.e. her sexual appetite, brought her to the Kowalski home. It was her sexual adventures in Laurel that resulted in the destruction of her reputation and led to her leaving. There are numerous examples of how Blanche's desires have led to bad ends for her. It is her desires that, like the streetcar with that name, leads Blanche from one place and condition to another.

It is noteworthy that the literal route that Blanche initially takes to Stella's and Stanley's bears the names of the metaphorical route of Blanche's journey. To get there she first takes Desire which leads to Cemeteries (death) and finally to Elysian Fields (the afterlife). It is Blanche's desires that set her on her journey. This leads to a bad end, not as extreme as death, but still quite dire. Finally, she finds herself in what she hopes to be a place of respite and safety. Unfortunately, as the story progresses, Blanche gets caught up again in a vicious cycle of sex/desire, consequences, and shelter.

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Blanche's first words in the play describe the route she is supposed to take to Stella's home:

They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!

Williams's stage directions refer to the "slightly hysterical humor" with which she says these words. Blanche's temperament and education, as well as her position as an outsider, make her alive to the poetic allusiveness of the words which, to locals with other things on their minds, seem nothing more than a mundane sequence of directions. Blanche thinks about the name of the streetcar and immediately recalls it when Stella is talking about her physical attraction to Stanley:

What you are talking about is brutal desire—just—Desire!—the name of that rattle-trap streetcar that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another.

Stella immediately asks if Blanche has ever ridden that streetcar, a question Blanche chooses to take literally but which is clearly intended as an enquiry into Blanche's own desires. The name of the streetcar thus comes to stand for all the desires, frustrated and satisfied, that drive the narrative of the play. When Mitch is about to escape at the end of an unsatisfactory date, Blanche wonders whether he will be using the streetcar named Desire to get away from her.

As a symbol, the streetcar also stands for the relentless, mechanized world of the city, Stanley's world, which is opposed to the "beautiful dream" of gracious living symbolized by Blanche's Belle Reve. The dream, like the great house, is static and lost, whereas desire, like the streetcar, drives one relentlessly onward.

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The title refers to the streetcar Blanche takes to get to the Kowalski residence. However, it also refers to the thing that drives the characters of the play: desire.

Physical desire is a key element of the play. Stella stays with Stanley primarily because of his sexual charisma. She knows he is a brutish man, but his raw sexual prowess keeps her enthralled with him. Blanche wants to remain desirable to men, dreading the approach of middle age.

However, desire also manifests itself in less carnal ways. Blanche's ultimate desire is to escape the dreariness of her sad, lonely life. As she says to Mitch, she prefers fantasy to reality and is willing to deceive people in order to give them "magic." She pursues Mitch because marrying him might mean respectability and companionship, but she ultimately loses him when Stanley informs Mitch of her sordid past.

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The title of Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire refers to a few different things.

While the title most poignantly refers to the actual streetcar Blanche takes to get to her sister's, the title also refers to the journey one takes in life.

Blanche's journey begins as she climbs onto Desire. Blanche's desire to escape her past, and the loss of Belle Reve, forces her to come to her sister's in New Orleans. Her past as a prostitute has followed her--her sexual desire openly evident as she takes every measure to flaunt herself (remember her silhouetted figure against the sheet).

Blanche's journey through life has been one led by her desire. her first love was triggered by her need to be loved and taken care of. Blanche lost her teaching position because of her desire for a student. Her sexual nature leads to her rape. Her relationship with Mitch is began because of his need for a woman unlike his mother. Desire essentially rules the play-- much like it runs the streets of New Orleans.

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