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A Streetcar Named Desire

by Tennessee Williams

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Places Discussed

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New Orleans

The Louisiana city in which the Kowalskis live adds to the tensions inside the apartment. New Orleans just after World War II but before air-conditioning was a hot and humid place to live. Windows had to be kept open, which adds to the noise and sense of overcrowding in the Kowalski apartment. The apartment is in the French Quarter, known for incessant activity day and night. Noises of all sorts, from trains to cats to prostitutes to street vendors, constantly intrude upon the tiny space. Rowdy neighbors, also with their windows open, increase the sense of invaded privacy. Furthermore, music and vulgar merrymaking emanate from neighborhood bars. Indeed, the life outside is so much a part of the life inside that Tennessee Williams calls for a transparent wall so that outside images and activities may be seen through the apartment wall at crucial moments. Stanley, whom Williams describes as a “richly feathered male bird . . . a gaudy seed bearer,” loves the turbulence, and he contributes to it at every opportunity. Blanche, the essence of cultured southern womanhood, is flabbergasted by the endless clamor of New Orleans. Stella, the bridge between the two, is caught between her attraction to the crude and exciting vigor of Stanley and his New Orleans and her loyalty to Blanche and her background of old South gentility.

Kowalski Apartment

The entire action of the play takes place in and around the apartment of Stella and Stanley Kowalski, recent newlyweds. The two are from opposite backgrounds. Stanley is a working-class former army sergeant, who now works for a tool supply company. Stella is from Laurel, Mississippi, where her family for generations owned a large plantation outside town. The days of family wealth have gone, hence Stella’s journey to New Orleans to seek her fortune, where she meets and falls in love with Stanley, a man with little income.

Located ironically on a street called Elysium Fields (heaven), the apartment consists of a small kitchen area, a small bedroom area, and a bath. It is located near the railroad tracks in a poor section of the French Quarter. Blanche Dubois, Stella’s older sister, comes for a visit and is given a daybed in the kitchen. A curtain is hung between the kitchen and the bedroom area. All three must use the same bath. When it becomes obvious that Blanche’s visit will be a long one, tensions erupt, especially over the space occupied by Blanche’s luggage, which symbolizes to Stanley Blanche’s superior attitude to people with a less privileged background. To worsen matters, Blanche is addicted to taking long baths, especially as an escape when Stanley is at home, much to Stanley’s emotional displeasure and genuine physical discomfort.

Desire Street

New Orleans in all its earthiness and quirkiness is so much a motivator in the play that the work’s very title comes from a streetcar that ran along Desire Street. Williams also uses two other actual place names when he has Blanche say she was told to “take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemeteries and get off on Elysian Fields.” This reciting of place names ironically contains the whole story of the play. It is the city of New Orleans, however, with its French Quarter’s permissive attitude, that drives Blanche and Stanley to the cultural war that ends in sexual brutality and tragedy.

Belle Reve

Blanche and Stella grew up at Belle Reve, a lovely, graceful antebellum plantation, fronted with white columns, whose name means “beautiful dream.” Located outside Laurel, Mississippi, it is the antithesis of the brawling, urban French Quarter. The two places serve as emblems of the irreconcilable and tragic conflict between Stanley and Blanche. Blanche comes to tragedy because she cannot give up “Belle Reve,” and Stella contributes to Blanche’s agony because she chooses Stanley’s New Orleans over Belle Reve.

Literary Style

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Scene Structure

The most striking feature of Streetcar's dramatic structure is its division into scenes rather than acts. Each of the eleven scenes that make up the play ends in a dramatic climax, and the tension of each individual scene builds up to the tension of the final climax. This structure allows the audience to focus on the emotions and actions of Blanche—the only character to appear in every scene. The audience is sympathetic to Blanche because they see more of her inner thoughts and motivations than the other characters on stage. Note, for example, how only the audience is aware of how much alcohol she is drinking. The scene organization adds to the audience's sense of tragedy—Blanche's destruction is inevitable, signaling the inexorable passage of the drama and of her movement towards a final breakdown.

That Williams chose to organize his play this way may reveal his interest in film and the possibilities inherent in that medium for combining several visually dramatic incidents into a coherent experience. He also wrote a number of one-act plays during his career.


In order to connect the separate incidents of Blanche's story, Williams provided dramatic motifs and details of setting which are repeated at significant moments during the play and which signal changes in mood and tone and highlight the reemergence of crucial themes.

As the title of the play suggests, the motif of the streetcar is a crucial one, pointing to the growth of the suburbs and the urbanization of the play as well as the unrelenting and unforgiving continuation of life itself. To arrive at Stella's apartment in New Orleans, Blanche must transfer from a streetcar called Desire to one called Cemeteries in order to get to the slum known as Elysian Fields. These were actual New Orleans names but their careful combination introduces the themes of death and desire that resonate through the play. Williams wrote that the streetcars' "indiscourageable progress up and down Royal Street struck me as having some symbolic bearing of a broad nature on the life in the Vieux Carre,—and everywhere else, for that matter." An element of the play which is always heard rather than seen, the streetcar nonetheless adds much to the mood of the play and is a continual but subtle reminder of the play's setting.


Music plays a similarly important part in the stage craft of the play. Two kinds of music dominate: the first type is what Williams called "blue piano"—the blues music first associated with Southern Blacks. Later to develop into the music of New Orleans' bars and night clubs, it suggests unrestrained physical pleasure, animal strength and vitality and appears at significant emotional moments in the play—for example, when Blanche tells of the loss of Belle Reve and when she hears about Stella's pregnancy. It is also heard during moments of leisure, when people are drinking and having fun. But, in a darker mood, it appears at the moment of the rape in scene ten, signifying animal desires, and again at the very end of the play when Stanley is consoling Stella and enabling her to forget about Blanche.

In contrast to the recurring blue piano, which highlights the animal emotions of some characters, the polka known as the Varsouviana, heard only by Blanche, signals crucial moments in the development of the plot. Once the audience discovers that this music reminds Blanche of the scene on the ballroom floor when she renounced her husband, one anticipates imminent disaster whenever the music appears and reappears—particularly in the last scene of the play. It also accompanies moments of cruelty, like Stanley's gift to Blanche of a bus-ticket back home.

Both kinds of music underline the nature of the situation which is being played out on stage and stress the location of the play's actions both in the past lives of its characters and in the cultural context of New Orleans.

The dramatic organization of the play into scenes which build, through recurring themes and motifs, on the ongoing tension of the play suggest the accuracy of Arthur Miller's description of Williams' "rhapsodic insistence that form serve his utterance rather than dominating and cramping it."

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Historical and Social Context