A Streetcar Named Desire Essays and Criticism
by Tennessee Williams

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Sex and Violence in A Streetcar Named Desire

(Drama for Students)

Woolway is an author, editor, and educator affiliated with Oriel College, Oxford, England. Her essay examines Williams's themes of sex and violence, as well as the way in which the two are linked.

Violence in A Streetcar Named Desire is fraught with sexual passion. Trying to convince Blanche of her love for Stanley despite his occasional brutality, Stella explains, "But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant." Eunice and Steve Hubbell's relationship also has this element of violence, and there is an unnerving suggestion that violence is more common and more willingly accepted by the female partner in a marriage than one would like to believe.

Blanche translates Stella's comment into the context of sexual passion, claiming that, ''What you are talking about is brutal desire—just—Desire!— the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another." Stella asks, "Haven't you ever ridden on that street-car?" and Blanche responds, "It brought me here.—Where I'm not wanted and where I'm ashamed to be." It appears that the connection in Blanche's past between violence and desire in some way contributes to the events within the time scale of the play. This is not to excuse Stanley's later act of violence or to suggest that Blanche brings it on herself—rather, Williams is demonstrating how a cycle of violence, combined with passion and desire, is hard to break.

The attraction between Blanche and Stanley gains an interesting perspective when compared to a work of classical literature by the Latin poet Ovid. In Metamorphoses, Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law Tereus while visiting her sister Procne. He cuts out her tongue so that she cannot tell what he has done. Philomela, however, embroiders a story picture to convey to her sister the recent events and Procne, in revenge, kills their son and serves him up in a pie which she encourages Tereus to eat.

Similarly, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley assaults his sister-in-law while his wife is away (in this case giving birth to their baby). But there are two substantial differences in the events which build up to the story's climax.

First, in Ovid's story there is no suggestion that Philomela associates sex with violence. There is no history of her previous lovers or any attraction between her and Tereus. In Williams's play, however, the issue of rape is confused because of Blanche's previous attraction for Stanley as well as her promiscuous past.

In a rape trial today, evidence of a woman's past sexual behavior would be discounted. If force was used by a man during sex, he has committed rape regardless of how the woman behaved in previous encounters. Williams was aware that many Americans did not always sympathize with the victim—it was all too easy to condemn women for their "loose" behavior and claim that female victims of rape brought sexual violence upon themselves. An indication of the chauvinism that still thrived during the 1940s can be found in the reviews by certain critics who covered the premiere of Streetcar; they interpreted Blanche's fate as the punishment for a fallen woman.

The issue is further complicated by Blanche's complex psyche. When talking about the combination of passion and violence in love, she appears strangely fascinated and not entirely repulsed by the thought. Speaking elliptically of the sexual arousal which violence can bring, Blanche comments, "Of course there is such a thing as the hostility of—perhaps in some perverse kind of way he—No! To think of it makes me...." Violence is a phenomenon Blanche knows to be bound up with sex, even if she chooses to appear to Mitch as sexually naive.

A second important difference from Ovid's story is that Blanche's sister does not believe her story and, consequently, gives her no support. Whereas Procne concocts revenge on her unfaithful and violent husband, Stella is...

(The entire section is 2,816 words.)