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A Streetcar Named Desire

by Tennessee Williams

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Naturalism, an outgrowth of literary realism, is a literary movement that replicates  everyday reality, as opposed to such movements as Romanticism or Surrealism, in which symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment is given to literary subjects.  Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, sex, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth.  Certainly, Tennesse Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire portrays life in a naturalistic manner. 

Despite her pretenses of gentility, Blanche DuBois admitedly has ridden that streetcar named Desire in life.  In Scene Nine, she admits to the Mexican woman selling flowers that she anwered the calls of the drunken soldiers from the training camp who staggered into her lawn at Belle Reve.  While with her sister, Blanche disguises her penchant for sexual interludes, but the earthy and animalistic Stanley sees through her guise.  Finally, in the end Blanche's psychoses are exposed, and Stanley, in his naturalistic desire for survival as the dominant male, cooerces Stella into agreeing to have Blanche committed to an asylum.

Certainly, if there were ever a quintessentially naturalistic character, Stanley Kowalski is he.  He constantly speaks of being king of his castle; he reminds Stella that he brought her down from the "big columns" of her plantation home and she "loved it."  When Blanche flirts with him, he tells her ''If I didn't know that you was my wife's sister I'd get ideas about you."   However, Stanley mainly enjoys the dominance and power he holds over Blanche because he actually depises her.  Animalistic, vulgar, and violent, the strong Stanley is no match for the mentally weak Blanche or Stella the physically weaker of the married couple. 

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I think that one of the strongest aspects of naturalism present is the basic depiction of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  Stanley, Stella, Blanche, and Mitch are all regular people.  There is nothing extraordinary about them.  However, Williams places them in the fundamental collision between modernity and tradition.  Stanley is a regular, working class protagonist who is meant to represent the modern setting of pragmatism and materialism.  Blanche is a Southern woman, typical of the context, but one shoulders the burden of the past with her embodiment of Belle Reve values and the tradition of the "old South."  She is ordinary, which might belie what she actually feels about herself as being something uniquely different.  Stella is poised between both of them, a regular person in an emotional dynamic that is anything but regular.  These characters act in an ordinary manner, representing themselves and their own senses of self.  Yet, it is through depicting them in common conditions that Williams is able to bring out their humanity, or lack of it, and forge connections with the audience.

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As I understand it, the difference between naturalism and realism in fiction is that naturalism strives to be more interesting by being more dramatic while still maintaining its atmosphere of realism. Reality is not necessarily interesting. In fact, it is usually pretty boring and monotonous, as most of us can attest from our own lives. With naturalism, interesting things happen to the characters in a realistic setting and in a realistic way. A lot happens in "A Streetcar Named Desire," but it all seems to be happening to ordinary people who just happen to be going through one of the critical periods that occur in every life. This is something we have all experienced in our own lives, too. There were many days when nothing happened. There were emergency situations that came up--often completely unexpectedly--and then our lives went back into the normal mode of reality. Theodore Dreiser's great novels "Sister Carrie" and "An American Tragedy" are examples of naturalism. James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan" is a good example of realism. The contrast between realism and naturalism in fiction is interesting. Realism seems more authentic, but naturalism is more interesting because it is more dramatic and hence more exciting.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" seems realistic because of the setting, the dialogue, the crude behavior of some of the male characters, the long passage of time during which nothing much happens, and other such aspects of reality. It is naturalistic because there is a serious conflict involved leading to a tragic ending.

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The theatrical style of Naturalism and the dramatic style of Realism had been long established before A Streetcar Named Desire appeared on the stage. Real characters living real lives (in New Orleans) acted out their dramas in the naturalistic style—in fact, the style of acting, called Method acting, was noted for its naturalistic elements. In addition, the stage set, a full-blown depiction of outside and inside a New Orleans apartment, as well as the details of the props and costumes (playing cards, the “solid gold dress, I believe”) were all in the naturalistic style (which began in the “teacup” school of the 19th and early 20th centuries). It was Blanche Dubois’ artificial, “romantic” way of looking at the world, contrasted with Stanley’s coarse “anti-Romantic”, naturalistic view of the world that gave the drama its vigor and energy.

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Naturalism was a literary period which was highlighted between 1880 and 1940. Naturalists tended to believe that nature was more powerful than anything else and that mankind could never overturn its power. Naturalists would use everyday life, common characters, and lots of personification related to nature. Naturalists "studied" characters through their relationships with both other characters and nature alike. Taking an "experimental" stand on life, Naturalists were objective in life and allowed the natural order of things to progress.

While not typically defined as a Naturalistic piece, some characteristics of Naturalism are apparent in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."

First, the play depicts lower-class characters in a lower-class setting. This is very typical of the Naturalistic texts.

Second, the play's action includes circumstances of life as it really was during the period: the men worked, the women stayed home, and violence was an accepted part of both the private and societal spheres.

Lastly, the ending of the play was made apparent through all which led up to it. Life for Blanche and Stella was what it was. No matter how hard either of them tried, their lives were on a path which they would not be able to deter from. Blanche's mental instability could lead to nothing but her being institutionalized and Stella's love for Stanley could lead to nothing but her staying with him.

Naturalism was first began by French writer Emile Zola. Zola forged the road for other authors who wished to pull away from the Romantic ideas of writing. Romantics viewed life through "rose-colored glasses" (meaning they forced the beauty of all things to the front). In essence, in their desire to elevate nature and the beauty of nature, Romantics tended to alter the realities of life.

Naturalists, on the other hand, desired to show life as it really was (as an extension of Realism). The authors tended to be metaphorical scientific observers, stating only what they observed in life without manipulating it.

In regards to Williams' play, A Streetcar Named Desire, the text can be seen as containing Naturalistic characteristics. Symbolism is very important in Naturalistic writings. The play offers many different examples of symbolism. For example, the symbolism of both the streetcars and the light bulb is essential to the play. Both have multiple meanings which blossom over the course of the play.

Naturalists also elevated the importance of nature. Unlike the Romantics who idealized nature, Naturalists believed that nature was the most powerful "being" (given its tendency to be personified) upon earth. In the play's case, the nature of both Stanley and Blanche are very important. Their nature is what leads to the explosive climax.

Naturalists also tended to portray realistic characters in realistic settings. Working class characters who lived normal lives with normal struggles tended to be the focus of the characterizations created for Naturalistic pieces. The fact that the play takes place in a rundown area of New Orleans and depicts normal working class characters (like Mitch and Stanley) proves the setting to be one typically found in Naturalistic writings.

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The use of literary techniques that point to naturalism are evident in Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire, particularly in the depiction of the characters and their emotional train-wrecks which lead to their ultimate destruction, or their ultimate fates.

The character of Stella, for example, suffers a major weakness that is her sexual dependence to an abusive husband, Stanley. Her ultimate fate was to betray her own sister, deny that Stanley raped her sister, Blanche, and institutionalizing her to a sanatorium. In the end, the only gain she gets is to remain married to Stanley and keep having his children...and receiving the occasional beating.

Blanche's own personal hell came as a result of bad choices in the administration o money, in her sexual escapades, in not recognizing that her husband was gay prior to marrying him, in the choice of words she used that prompted his suicide, in her choice of lying about her current situation, and in her choice of not changing as times changed around her. Ultimately, the dysunctional people around her ended up sending her to a sanatorium after Stanley raped her and her sister Stella pretended as if nothing had happened.

Stanley is literally a cruddy character who drinks, abuses women, is untidy, demanding, and chauvinistic. He holds nothing back and he openly hits his wife, verbally abuses her and prefers his gambling and drinking to anything else. His fate was not to change, and remain in the dinginess of his apartment, with a co-dependent wife, and following his usual ways.

That is how naturalism operates in literature: Bringing out the crudest and most internal turmoils and their consequences in the destinies of each character.

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American Naturalism, which differs somewhat from European Naturalism, is heavily influenced by the idea of determinism--the theory that heredity and environment determine behavior.  Naturalism is connected to the doctrine of biological, economic, and social determism.  Naturalist writers strive to depict life accurately--much like realists--through an explanation of the causal factors that have shaped a character's life as well as a deterministic approach to the character's actions as determined by environmental forces.

Major themes of the Naturalists are man against society; violence; the consequences of sex and sex as a commodity; the waste of individual potential because of the conditioning forces of life; and man's struggle with his basic, animalistic instincts. 

In Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, many of these thematic concerns are present.  Both Blanche and Stanley struggle with their basic instincts.  But, because Blanche is a woman, she has a tarnished reputation and she was dismissed from her position as a teacher because of her association with a student. Stanley projects the violence that is in man's nature, as well.  The conflict between Stanley and Blanche has been viewed also by critics as symbolically the Old South's decline under Industrialization.  This conflict is predetermined as Blanche is a product of the aristocratic, more genteel way of life while Stanley is a product of the new social order.  When, for example, he utters his passionate outburst that he is not a "Polack," but an American citizen, Stanley declares himself part of the new society of multi-cultural America.  His desire for power as such is exerted in his animalistic behavior and his violence towards his wife and Blanche alike.  The tragic figure of Blanche is a result, too, of her social determinism.  Certain causal factors, such as the discovery of her young husband's homosexuality, have determined Blanche's lowered self-esteem and her self-deception.

Brutal at times in its depiction of life, A Streetcar Name Desire stands as a stellar example of literary Naturalism.

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Naturalism is depicted in many ways in the play. It begins with the description of Stella's house, located atop a dirty walk-up home, dogs barking, Jazz music in the distance, people yelling. Then you can feel it in Stanley's description as a dirty, oily man who is mostly like a gorilla, yelling about, hitting his wife, and being overall nasty towards Blanche. In the relationship between Stanley and Stella you see how sex makes a powerful binder and how even as she is pregnant and continues to get hit by him, it is the sex what keeps Stella forgiving her husband and ultimately betraying her sister.

But perhaps the most naturalist scene is Stanley's openly disclosing Blanche while she was drunk and weak, and then raping her. This is a significant depiction of the idea of naturalism because it brings human nature at its lowest point, and heightens its basic id, that is, the capability of evil and pain to others.  

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Naturalism contains the idea that man is often controlled by forces he cannot control. "A Streetcar Named Desire" takes place during the depression and Blanche, like many people during this time, has lost her home. She goes to live with the only relative she has left, her sister, Stella. Blanche sees the way that Stanley treats Stella, but Stella refuses to leave Stanley and so Blanche is stuck with him, too. Blanche obviously has no marketable skills and so she is forced to live in a very uncomfortable situation for everyone.

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In the play, A Streetcar Named Desire, how is the idea of naturalism depicted? 

Realism was a literary period which came about in the mid-nineteenth century. Realism depicted life as it really was, using common settings and characters. Not completely happy with the genre of Realism, Naturalists emerged in order to illuminate, and change, specific ideas within Realism.

Naturalists used common settings and characters in the same way Realists did. Naturalists also took an objective stand when it came to the point-of-view. Both Realists and Naturalists did not want to "interfere" with the story being told. Instead, "their" narrators mirrored scientists (in regards to how they simply recorded the "facts" as they happened). The narrator was not allowed to interfere with the story.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of Naturalism is the giving of power to nature. For the Naturalist, nature was more powerful than anything else, mankind included.

In regards to Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire, one could define specific characteristics which are Naturalistic in nature.

First, the setting is very realistic and common. The play takes place in Elysian Fields, a neighborhood in New Orleans. The setting is described exactly as one would expect to find in a rather poor, working-class section of the city. The music is also typical of the time and place.

Second, the characters are realistic and common. Stanley is the typical working-class man's man. He swears, drinks, bowls, and openly abuses his wife (which is accepted and forgiven by Stella). Blanche is the epitome of the broken and aging Southern Belle. Essentially, the play is filled with stock characters.

Lastly, no matter what any of the characters do, nature "wins." Blanche, in order to hide her aging, covers light with paper lanterns. In the end, Mitch removes the lantern and sees that she is older than she has stated (showing that man cannot cover up the natural aging process). Also, Stanley's brutish nature is far more powerful than anything else. His rape of Blanche shows the natural power of man over woman. Lastly, Blanche's diminishing mental nature cannot be stopped. In the opening, readers can see that Blanche is "not quite right." Her behavior and dialogue is confusing at times, and she tends to believe in alternate realities. In the end, the nature of her brain's weakness cannot be stopped. 

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How is Naturalism depicted in the first two scenes ofAct I of A Streetcar Named Desire?    

Naturalism is a literary movement which focuses on very specific aspects of life. The characteristics of Naturalistic texts contain the following ideals:

1.  The text is written from an objective point-of-view. This means that the author writes from a scientific perspective similar to that of an experiment. The author states that they are simply describing the action of what is happening- they do not attempt to change or influence the character or the action of the text in any way.

2. The characters described are typically deterministic. The protagonist simply sees a problem with the circumstances that they have found theme selves in, or other characters in, and wishes to change them.

3. Given the text is written from an objective point-of-view, the text is also pessimistic and emotionally cold. The author is, again, only describing what they are "seeing" from a observers point-of-view. They wish to have no compassion for the characters because it would force them to interfere with the action of the story.

4. The setting is one you would find in everyday life. There are no spectacular scenes in regards to elaborate castles or upper-class niceties. The settings are typically set in lower-class homes and workplaces.

As for the play "A Streetcar Named Desire", there are many different aspects of Naturalism depicted in the play.

Scene One: First and foremost, the scenery of the play depicts the ordinary. Elysian Fields is described as ordinary and poor. The buildings are described as "raffish".  The characters of the play also support typical Naturalistic characterizations. The men are blue collar workers and the women deal with abuse. Three times throughout the play domestic violence and rape is depicted. (These show the assumed lower class actions of the people who live here.)  The setting is also set by the music of the lone blue piano. The piano sets the mod for the entire play- one of solitude and depression.

Scene Two: This scene offers another aspect typical of Naturalistic literature. Stanley comes to find himself in circumstances beyond his control- Stella has invited her sister to stay with them. Given that Stanley is not happy about this, he does come to find out that Belle Reve has been sold- he, wanting to find a way to make this situation better, believes that getting money from the sale would make his life more bearable. Unfortunately, like all Naturalistic literature, this is not the outcome of the piece. Instead, there is no money and Stanley decides to take something else from Blanche by raping her- what is left of her sanity.

This being said, Williams is not typically depicted as a Naturalistic writer. He is normally placed in either the Modern or Post-Modern periods. Regardless, "A Streetcar Named Desire" does hold typical Naturalistic characteristics throughout the play.

See Historical Context link for importance of scenery.

See Style link for importance of motifs.

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