In what way is A Streetcar Named Desire similar to an Aristotelian Tragedy? Moreover, how does Blanche conform to the archetypes of a tragic hero?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Starting off with Aristotle's definition of tragedy can illuminate how Williams' work fulfills many of its conditions. Aristotle suggests specific elements to tragedy:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions.

The "imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude" is evident in Williams' play in both its social significance as well as its psychological dimension. The exploration of class tensions in American society as well as the collision between emerging narratives in American identity are significant parts of the drama. The tension between Stanley and Blanche is as much a crash between old and new visions of America as much as anything else. At the same time, Williams' drama explores the psychological dimensions of self, seen in the profiles of Stella and Blanche, and in the raw power that Stanley wishes to exert on both. This is not light in any manner, but "serious" and reflective of a specific magnitude.

Williams' writing features "language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament."  Blanche's reveries of Belle Reve and her exploration of what life used to be is done with a Southern dialect that is able to strongly connect the audience to what is being described. Lines such as ".. Don't you just love these long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour-- but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands -- and who knows what to do with it?" or "I attempt to instill a bunch of bobby-soxers and drug-store Romeos with reverence for Hawthorne and Whitman and Poe!" are examples of this embellishment.  At the same time, Stanley's harsh dialect is seen in how he screams his wife's name and how he is able to torment Blanche, exerting power over her in a struggle for domination. Language and its "artistic ornament" is a significant part of the drama's movement towards Aristotelian tragedy.  The "action" in the drama is evident.  Its narrative unfolds through action, which heightens the tragic feel.  There is "pity and fear" for Blanche, one who has "always depended on the kindness of strangers" and one who speaks of the need to avoid "deliberate cruelty."  There is little chance that one does not feel pity and fear for her.  Blanche's existence in the world is carved out of pity and fear and is transmitted to the audience, whereby an emotional katharsis is evident in the audience's reaction to her.

Blanche fits several archetypes of the tragic hero.  Her punishment at the end exceeds any of her crimes.  Being violated by Stanley and then society, in general, is some of the worst in treatment she receives.  The audience recognizes their own frailties in Blanche's condition, helping to accomplish an emotional katharsis within them. Blanche's noble stature and fall from grace is highlighted from the pillared columns of Belle Reve to where she is in New Orleans, aboard "that streetcar named desire."  Her tragic condition is rooted in her characterization, one rooted in the tragic condition.  Blanche's weakness in emotional judgment, faith in her own misguided dreams, and her inability to function "normally" in the world embodies her tragic flaws, and ours simultaneously.