Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often
universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Fantasy’s Inability to Overcome Reality
protagonist in A Streetcar Named Desire is
the romantic Blanche
the play is a work of social realism. Blanche
explains to Mitch that she fibs
because she refuses to accept the hand fate has dealt her. Lying to herself and
to others allows her to make life appear as it should be rather than as it is. Stanley, a practical man firmly grounded in the physical
world, disdains Blanche’s fabrications and does everything he can to unravel them.
The antagonistic relationship between Blanche
and Stanley is a struggle between appearances and
reality. It propels the play’s plot and creates an overarching tension.
Ultimately, Blanche’s attempts to remake her own and Stella’s
existences—to rejuvenate her life and to save Stella
from a life with Stanley—fail.
One of the main ways Williams
dramatizes fantasy’s inability to overcome reality is through an exploration of
the boundary between exterior and interior. The set of the play consists of the
two-room Kowalski apartment and the surrounding street. Williams’s
use of a flexible set that allows the street to be seen
at the same time as the interior of the home expresses the notion that the home
is not a domestic sanctuary. The Kowalskis’ apartment
cannot be a self-defined world that is impermeable to greater reality. The
characters leave and enter the apartment throughout the play, often bringing
with them the problems they encounter in the larger environment. For example, Blanche refuses to leave her prejudices against the
working class behind her at the door. The most notable instance of this effect
occurs just before Stanley rapes Blanche, when the back wall of the apartment
becomes transparent to show the struggles occurring on the street,
foreshadowing the violation that is about to take place in the Kowalskis’ home.
Though reality triumphs over fantasy in A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams
suggests that fantasy is an important and useful tool. At the end of the play, Blanche’s
retreat into her own private fantasies enables her to
partially shield herself from reality’s harsh blows. Blanche’s
insanity emerges as she retreats fully into herself, leaving the objective
world behind in order to avoid accepting reality. In order to escape fully,
however, Blanche must come to perceive
the exterior world as that which she imagines in her head. Thus, objective
reality is not an antidote to Blanche’s fantasy world; rather, Blanche
adapts the exterior world to fit her delusions. In both the physical and the
psychological realms, the boundary between fantasy and reality is permeable. Blanche’s
final, deluded happiness suggests that, to some extent, fantasy is a vital
force at play in every individual’s experience, despite reality’s inevitable
The Relationship between Sex and Death
Blanche’s fear of death
manifests itself in her fears of aging and of lost beauty. She refuses to tell
anyone her true age or to appear in harsh light that will reveal her faded
looks. She seems to believe that by continually asserting her sexuality,
especially toward men younger than herself, she will
be able to avoid death and return to the world of teenage bliss she experienced
before her husband’s suicide.
However, beginning in Scene One, Williams
suggests that Blanche’s sexual history is in fact a cause of her downfall. When
she first arrives at the Kowalskis’, Blanche says she
rode a streetcar named Desire, then transferred to a streetcar named
Cemeteries, which brought her to a street named Elysian Fields. This journey,
the precursor to the play, allegorically represents the trajectory of Blanche’s
life. The Elysian Fields are the land of the dead in Greek mythology. Blanche’s
lifelong pursuit of her sexual desires has led to her eviction from Belle Reve, her ostracism from Laurel,
and, at the end of the play, her expulsion from society at
Sex leads to death for others Blanche
knows as well. Throughout the play, Blanche
is haunted by the deaths of her ancestors, which she
attributes to their “epic fornications.” Her husband’s suicide results from her
disapproval of his homosexuality. The message is that indulging one’s desire in
the form of unrestrained promiscuity leads to forced departures and unwanted
ends. In Scene Nine, when the Mexican woman appears selling “flowers for the
dead,” Blanche reacts with horror
because the woman announces Blanche’s fate. Her fall into madness can be read as the ending
brought about by her dual flaws—her inability to act appropriately on her
desire and her desperate fear of human mortality. Sex and death are intricately and fatally linked in Blanche’s
Dependence on Men
A Streetcar Named Desire presents a sharp
critique of the way the institutions and attitudes of postwar America placed restrictions on
women’s lives. Williams uses Blanche’s and Stella’s
dependence on men to expose and critique the treatment of women during the
transition from the old to the new South. Both Blanche
and Stella see male companions as their only means
to achieve happiness, and they depend on men for both their sustenance and
their self-image. Blanche recognizes
that Stella could be happier without her physically
abusive husband, Stanley. Yet, the alternative Blanche proposes—contacting Shep Huntleigh for financial
support—still involves complete dependence on men. When Stella
chooses to remain with Stanley,
she chooses to rely on, love, and believe in a man instead of her sister. Williams does not necessarily criticize Stella—he
makes it quite clear that Stanley represents a much more
secure future than Blanche does.
For herself, Blanche
sees marriage to Mitch as her means of
escaping destitution. Men’s exploitation of Blanche’s
sexuality has left her with a poor reputation. This reputation makes Blanche an unattractive marriage prospect, but,
because she is destitute, Blanche sees
marriage as her only possibility for survival. When Mitch
rejects Blanche because of Stanley’s
gossip about her reputation, Blanche immediately
thinks of another man—the millionaire Shep Huntleigh—who might rescue her.
Because Blanche cannot see around her
dependence on men, she has no realistic conception of how to rescue herself. Blanche does not realize that her dependence on men
will lead to her downfall rather than her salvation. By relying on men, Blanche puts her fate in the hands of others.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts,
or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major
Light (also a symbol)
Throughout the play, Blanche
avoids appearing in direct, bright light, especially in front of her suitor, Mitch. She also refuses to reveal her age, and it is
clear that she avoids light in order to prevent him from seeing the reality of
her fading beauty. In general, light also symbolizes the reality of Blanche’s
past. She is haunted by the ghosts of what she has
lost—her first love, her purpose in life, her dignity, and the genteel society
(real or imagined) of her ancestors.
Blanche covers the exposed lightbulb in the Kowalski apartment with a Chinese paper
lantern, and she refuses to go on dates with Mitch
during the daytime or to well-lit locations. Mitch
points out Blanche’s avoidance of light in Scene Nine, when he confronts her
with the stories Stanley
has told him of her past. Mitch then
forces Blanche to stand under the
direct light. When he tells her that he doesn’t mind
her age, just her deceitfulness, Blanche
responds by saying that she doesn’t mean any harm. She believes that magic,
rather than reality, represents life as it ought to
be. Blanche’s inability to
tolerate light means that her grasp on reality is also nearing its end.
In Scene Six, Blanche
tells Mitch that being in love with
her husband, Allan
Grey, was like having the world revealed in bright, vivid light.
Since Allan’s suicide, Blanche says, the bright light has been missing.
Through all of Blanche’s inconsequential sexual affairs with other men, she has
experienced only dim light. Bright light, therefore, represents Blanche’s
youthful sexual innocence, while poor light represents her sexual maturity and
Throughout A Streetcar Named
Desire, Blanche bathes herself.
Her sexual experiences have made her a hysterical woman, but these baths, as she
says, calm her nerves. In light of her efforts to forget and shed her illicit
past in the new community of New
Orleans, these baths represent her efforts to cleanse
herself of her odious history. Yet, just as she cannot erase the past, her
bathing is never done. Stanley also
turns to water to undo a misdeed when he showers after beating Stella.
The shower serves to soothe his violent temper; afterward, he leaves the
bathroom feeling remorseful and calls out longingly for his wife.
Both Stanley and Blanche drink excessively at various points during
the play. Stanley’s
drinking is social: he drinks with his friends at the bar, during
their poker games, and to celebrate the birth of his child. Blanche’s
drinking, on the other hand, is anti-social, and she tries to keep it a secret.
She drinks on the sly in order to withdraw from harsh reality. A state of
drunken stupor enables her to take a flight of imagination, such as concocting
a getaway with Shep Huntleigh. For both characters,
drinking leads to destructive behavior: Stanley commits domestic violence,
and Blanche deludes herself. Yet Stanley
is able to rebound from his drunken escapades, whereas alcohol augments Blanche’s
gradual departure from sanity.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or
colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Shadows and Cries
As Blanche and Stanley begin to quarrel in Scene Ten, various oddly shaped
shadows begin to appear on the wall behind her. Discordant noises and jungle
cries also occur as Blanche begins to
descend into madness. All of these effects combine to dramatize Blanche’s
final breakdown and departure from reality in the face of Stanley’s
physical threat. When she loses her sanity in her final struggle against Stanley,
Blanche retreats entirely into her own
world. Whereas she originally colors her perception of reality according to her
wishes, at this point in the play she ignores reality altogether.
The Varsouviana Polka
The Varsouviana is the polka tune to
which Blanche and her young husband, Allen
Grey, were dancing when she
last saw him alive. Earlier that day, she had walked in on him in bed with an
older male friend. The three of them then went out dancing together, pretending
that nothing had happened. In the middle of the Varsouviana,
Blanche turned to Allen and told him that he “disgusted” her. He ran
away and shot himself in the head.
The polka music plays at various points in A Streetcar Named Desire, when Blanche is feeling remorse for Allen’s
death. The first time we hear it is in Scene One, when Stanley meets Blanche and asks her about her husband. Its second
appearance occurs when Blanche tells Mitch the story of Allen Grey.
From this point on, the polka plays increasingly often, and it always drives Blanche to distraction. She tells Mitch that it ends only after she hears the sound of
a gunshot in her head.
The polka and the moment it evokes represent Blanche’s
loss of innocence. The suicide of the young husband Blanche
loved dearly was the event that triggered her mental decline. Since then, Blanche hears the Varsouviana
whenever she panics and loses her grip on reality.
“It’s Only a Paper Moon”
In Scene Seven, Blanche
sings this popular ballad while she bathes. The song’s lyrics describe the way
love turns the world into a “phony” fantasy. The speaker in the song says that
if both lovers believe in their imagined reality, then it’s
no longer “make-believe.” These lyrics sum up Blanche’s
approach to life. She believes that her fibbing is only her means of enjoying a
better way of life and is therefore essentially harmless.
As Blanche sits in the
tub singing “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” Stanley
tells Stella the details of Blanche’s
sexually corrupt past. Williams ironically
juxtaposes Blanche’s fantastical understanding of herself with Stanley’s
description of Blanche’s real nature. In reality, Blanche
is a sham who feigns propriety and sexual modesty. Once Mitch
learns the truth about Blanche, he can
no longer believe in Blanche’s tricks and lies.
In Scene One, Stanley throws a package of meat at
his adoring Stella for her to catch. The action
sends Eunice and the Negro woman into
peals of laughter. Presumably, they’ve picked up on
the sexual innuendo behind Stanley’s gesture. In hurling the
meat at Stella, Stanley states the sexual
proprietorship he holds over her. Stella’s delight
in catching Stanley’s
meat signifies her sexual infatuation with him.