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A Streetcar Named Desire

by Tennessee Williams

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A Streetcar Named Desire Themes

The main themes in A Streetcar Named Desire are reality vs. fantasy, the emotive power of music, and cultural conflicts.

  • Reality vs. fantasy: At the core of the play is Blanche's struggle to distinguish between her imagination and her actual circumstances—and between her past and her present.
  • The emotive power of music: The play employs several incidental musical cues, which evoke key emotions in the characters.
  • Cultural conflicts: Blanche represents the old, hierarchical culture of the South, whereas the world of New Orleans s defined by a new, more progressive ethos. 

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Reality vs. Fantasy

Throughout the play, Blanche fantasizes about a life that will never be. Blanche presents herself as she wishes she was—a young, chaste Southern belle—rather than an aging sexual deviant. When Mitch accuses her of lying, she says: 

I don’t want realism. I want magic!... I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth.

Blanch is far more concerned with the fantasies in her head that the reality of the world around her. Her preoccupation with fantasy is also seen in her growing obsession with her former boyfriend, Shep Huntleigh. Early in the play, she is convinced that he will help her and Stella escape from Stanley, although there is no indication that he is engaged in Blanche’s life in any way. As the play progresses, she convinces herself that he is going to come to take her away and travel the world with her, despite the fact that he is married. By the end of the play, her certainty of Shep’s forthcoming arrival marks her insanity. Her inability to separate fantasy and reality also means that Stella does not believe her when she accuses Stanley of rape. In the end, it is this inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality that is Blanche’s undoing.

A related dimension of Blanche’s struggle with reality is her preoccupation with the past. Just as she indulges in fantasies about her future, she holds onto a lost past that she can never recover. As Blanche begins to approach middle age, she laments her dwindling youth and her lost opportunities. And so she reaches for images of happier times. Her memories of Shep Huntleigh, for example, grip her, and she tries to transform them into new possibilities for the future. However, Blanche’s memories are but fodder for fantasy, and so her grasp on reality is only weakened by such reminiscences.

The Emotive Power of Music

Throughout the play, several musical motifs recur, always coinciding with important emotional cues. The music is incidental, existing in the worlds of both the play and the audience. As such, audiences can understand—and to an extent feel—the emotions which music evokes in the characters. Much of the music comes from The Four Deuces, a club down the street from the events of the play. The two most prominent songs are “Blue Piano” and the polka “Varsouviana.” “Blue Piano,” according to stage directions, “expresses the spirit of the life which goes on [in New Orleans].” It is played at particularly emotional moments, such as when Blanche describes losing the mansion, when she learns of Stella’s baby, and when Stanley believes Stella has left him. 

The second song, the “Varsouviana,” is the polka that was playing when Blanche and her husband went dancing the night he killed himself. This theme is played when Blanche enters a state of reverie, and we are led to believe that she hears it in her head as she refers to it during her final interactions with Mitch. It always ends, she says, with a gunshot. 

Additionally, “Paper Doll” by the Mills Brothers plays after Stanley hits Stella. The lyrics of this song (“I’d rather have a paper doll to call my own than have a fickle-minded real live girl”) reflect Stanley’s need for a woman he can control. Blanche also sings “It’s only a Paper Moon” by Ella Fitzgerald. The lyrics of this song (“It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me”) reflect Blanche’s desire to live in a fantasy world. Finally, Stanley’s rape of Blanche is not shown on stage. Instead, the playing of trumpets and drums imply the rape. Music is used both to heighten and represent strong emotions throughout the play.

Cultural Conflicts

The play depicts two Southern cultures at odds. The first is the old-fashioned world in which Blanche and Stella were raised and which Blanche continues to embody. This old-fashioned culture has its roots in the plantation system that formed the foundation of the South’s economy and culture until the Civil War—and far some time after. This culture is rigidly hierarchical with regards to both race and class, and well-to-do white families, such as the DuBois family, bore a genteel air.

The other culture is that of New Orleans, whose diverse, cosmopolitan population places little stock in the hierarchies that once defined Southern life. In Williams’s New Orleans, there are characters of many ethnic and racial backgrounds who coexist without overt tensions. At one level, this harmony is attributable to New Orleanian culture, which has been defined by a richly diverse population for centuries. But Williams’s New Orleans is also representative of the broader shift in Southern—and even American—culture away from racial and ethnic hierarchies.

Blanche clashes with this comparatively progressive New Orleanian culture, bringing as she does the assumptions and airs of the old South. Indeed, Blanche’s longing for an idyllic past can be read as representative of the demise of the plantation system she comes from. Stanley, whose working-class, Polish background reflects the ethos of the new South, particularly despises Blanche’s genteel pretensions. In a sense, the conflict between Blanche and Stanley is a microcosm of the broader conflict between the old and new cultures Williams depicts.

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Scene Summaries