In A Streetcar Named Desire, why does Blanche Dubois repeatedly refer to her late husband as "the boy?" Simply because he died young, or for a more complex,  heteronormative reason?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I tend to think that part of the reason why A Streetcar Named Desire is such an intensely powerful work is that it functions on so many different levels.  There is surface and deeper levels of meaning to it.  Part of these deeper meanings can certainly connect to sexual identity.  The beauty of the work are its multiple layers.  In explicating the work, being able to harvest the full richness of these layers help to make it more meaningful.

Blanche's reference to her husband as "boy" might be significant on a couple of levels.  The first might be a reflection of age.  To call him a "boy" reflect his youth in marriage.  It also indicates that part of Blanche's own "unlucky" nature in relationships is because she married young.  Blanche says that he "was a boy, just a boy" at the same time that she "was a very young girl."  To repeatedly refer to her late husband as "the boy" is a way for her to communicate to Mitch that she has not had the best of experiences in relationships.  The youthful referential point communicates this.  It conveys riding "that streetcar named desire" towards "the discovery" of love as a young person without much in way of older and more cautious temperament. Blanche communicates this with the idea that it was a marriage predicated in young love:  "All at once and much, much too completely.  It was like you suddenly turned on a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow." Blanche's inability to function in her emotional frame of reference is communicated through a general lack of maturity.  In referring to her late husband as "boy," she communicates this failure of age.

The definition of young love as one where there is such intensity of emotion upon something that might not be ready to sustain such force is reflective of a deeper meaning, as well.  Blanche's use of being "half in shadow" might reflect how the relationship between she and her husband was flawed because of sexual incompatibility.  It is here where sexual orientation can be seen in the reference of "boy."  Blanche might very well refer to him as a "boy" because it was clear that her late husband was not fully cognizant or able to fully articulate his sexuality to Blanche.  His living "half in shadow" is way that Blanche communicates this.  In describing him, Blanche refers to a "thing was there."  It is fair to presume that this would be his own sexual preferences, something that doomed the relationship as it proved to be beyond his and her control.  The idea of "something different" and the referential point of "the boy" might be reflective of how the issue of sexual identity was something that he could not fully fathom and she could not fully understand.  When Blanche concludes her story of interrupting the love- making between the two men as pretending "nothing had been discovered," it reflects the full force and challenging nature of sexual identity in their marriage.  Referring to him as "boy" is a way for Blanche to convey how challenging the issue of sexual identity was for both of them, reducing him to not a man in control of his own condition, but rather a boy who struggled through it.

Finally, I think that the use of the term "boy" in describing Blanche's husband might reflect the moment in which the marriage fundamentally changed. Blanche describes the moment she saw her husband in the arms of another man in a very pointed manner: "By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty--which wasn't empty, but had two people in it... the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years..."  In using the term "boy," it is a way for Blanche to remind herself of the moment that still haunts her.  It is a moment that changed her life forever, casting a shadow upon her.  In using the term "boy," Blanche describes how her husband looked in the arms of an older man.  The term enables Blanche to remember both the physicality of the moment and the emotional quality attached to it.  In the use of the term, "boy" as a way to describe her husband, Blanche's depth and Williams's sense of genius emerge.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Blanche is attracted to young boys. She lost her job as a high school teacher because she got improperly involved with an adolescent boy. She is a romanticist. She believes in love but is afraid of its physical aspects. She has never really enjoyed sex. She takes an instant dislike to Stanley because he is a earthy male animal (the kind of man that Williams himself, an openly acknowledged homosexual, would have preferred). Blanche reveals her attitude to Stella in Scene Four when she seeks to rescue her sister from the domination of this terrible brute who has just given Stella a night of uninhibited sexual ecstasy, leaving her, as Tennessee Williams describes her in the scene's opening stage directions, in "almost narcotized tranquility."

Stella is lying down in the bedroom. Her face is serene in the early morning sunlight. One hand rests on her belly, rounding slightly with her maternity. From the other dangles a book of colored comics. Her eyes and lips have that almost narcotized tranquility that is in the faces of Eastern idols.

Blanche tells her sister:

A man like that is someone to go out with--once--twice--three times when the devil is in you. But live with? Have a child by?

Blanche will never experience what Stella has experienced with Stanley. Blanche will never experience maternity either. She wants poetic love, the kind she came to appreciate during her sequestered girlhood at Belle Reve while reading authors like Sir Walter Scott, John Keats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, among others. We can well imagine what kind of English literature she was assigning to her high school students. It is indicative of the difference between the two sisters that Stella has been reading a book of colored comics after her orgiastic night with Stanley, whereas Blanche might have been spending the night reading Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters.

Stella has learned something from Stanley that Blanche has never learned from literature or from her immature lovers. She lives in a world of dreams and fantasies, and she wants to keep it that way. This is why she married a boy, why she still thinks of him as a boy, and why she is attracted to boys. Mitch is something like an overgrown boy himself. She can charm this mama's boy with her romantic notions, even though the notions, like Blanche herself, are getting old and shop-soiled.

William Faulkner has a pertinent and amusing passage about the romantic Victorian poet Tennyson in Faulkner's best novel, Light in August.

The wall of the study is lined with books. He pauses before them, seeking, until he finds the one which he wants. It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to not understand.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

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