A Streetcar Named Desire Historical and Social Context
by Tennessee Williams

A Streetcar Named Desire book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download A Streetcar Named Desire Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Many of the major themes of A Streetcar Named Desire are embodied in the history and culture of New Orleans. The lively setting of the French Quarter, with its streetcars, bars, entertainment, and jazz and blues music, provides a rich background for the emotional events of the play; the setting also draws symbolic attention to changes which were taking place in American society, especially in the South during the post-World war II years.

Napoleonic Code

When Stanley feels he is being swindled by Blanche's loss of Belle Reve, he appeals to the Napoleonic Code, a set of laws devised by the French and implemented when they ruled the region known now as Louisiana. The state of Louisiana continued to operate under some of the precepts of the Napoleonic Code, such as the Code's emphasis on inheritance law: any property belonging to a spouse prior to marriage becomes the property of both spouses once they are married. Stanley, therefore, is legally correct to claim that, by depriving Stella of her share of the family inheritance, Blanche has also deprived him.

The South

On a more general level, the play represents the decline of the aristocratic families traditionally associated with the South. These once-influential families had lost their historical importance when the South's agricultural base was unable to compete with the new industrialization. The region's agrarian economy, which had been in decline since the Confederate defeat in the Civil War, suffered further setbacks after the First World War. A labor shortage hindered Southern agriculture when large numbers of male laborers were absorbed by the military or defense-based industries. Many landowners, faced with large areas of land and no one to work on it, moved to urban areas. With the increasing industrialization that followed during the 1920s through the 1940s, the structure of the work force evolved more radically yet, incorporating large numbers of women, immigrants, and blacks. Women gained the right to vote in 1920 and the old Southern tradition of an agrarian family aristocracy ruled by men started to come to an end.

Women's Roles

Some of Blanche's difficulties can be traced to the narrow roles open to females during this period. Although she is an educated woman who has worked as a teacher, Blanche is nonetheless constrained by the expectations of Southern society. She knows that she needs men to lean on and to protect her. She has clearly known sexual freedom in the past, but understands that sexual freedom does not fit the pattern of chaste behavior to which a Southern woman would be expected to conform. Her fear of rejection is realized when Mitch learns of her love affairs back home. By rejecting Blanche and claiming that she is not the ideal woman he naively thought she was, Mitch draws attention to the discrepancy between how women really behaved and what type of behavior was publicly expected of them by society at large.

Writing of the play's setting, Williams noted that "I write out of love of the South ... (which) once had a way of life that I am just old enough to remember—a culture that had grace, elegance, an inbred culture, not a society based on money." Through the destruction of Blanche and her struggles with the contradictory demands of society, Williams expressed a lament for the destruction of the old South, making clear his understanding that such change was inevitable.

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1947 : Hungary becomes a Soviet satellite after Hungarian Communists, backed by the Red Army, seize power while Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy is on holiday. Anti-Communist sentiment builds in the U.S. The Truman Doctrine announces plans to aid Greece and Turkey and proposes economic aid to countries threatened by Communist takeover. The CIA is...

(The entire section is 907 words.)