In A Streetcar Named Desire and Lolita

The following sample essay on In A Streetcar Named Desire and Lolita, sexuality vastly impacts both characters throughout the novels. Although they may seem very different at first, their lives share similar paths of discovery, repression and loss. Both discover their sexual power very early on in their lives and the kind of male attention that they are exposed to in their youth forms their ideas of relationships. This enables them to learn how to use power to their benefit. Repression of sexuality is consistent throughout the novels, whether it is homosexuality for Allan or Paedophilia for Humbert.

Furthermore, both the female characters have been directly affected by that repression. Williams was a homosexual when homosexuality was rejected and that influenced his writing.

The pathos in his drama was based on fragments of his own life including alcoholism, depression, thwarted desire, loneliness and insanity and how those things affected him and the people around him.  For example, Blanche is based on Williams’ sister who was mentally unstable and was sent to an asylum aged 16.

Their discovered power built on desire is a very transient power and this is where the cruelty hides. As time passes, the realisation that this power may soon be lost is destructive for Blanche and, as Lolita loses her innocence, all the ways of manipulating Humbert are slipping away. In its frank discussions about desire and sexuality, Lolita was revolutionary for its time, it has been rejected by 4 American publishers who have found the story too ‘inflammatory’ for publication.

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In the beginning of the 1940s, women were seen as a weaker sex and an object of temptation because of their sexual power, however the “silent” sexual revolution began in the mid 40s.

Views began to change from sex being a procreative activity to focusing on individual satisfaction. Although people still weren’t comfortable talking about sex as it was a ’taboo’ subject, society started to get contrasting attitudes and these two novels are perfect examples of sparking the revolution and bringing ‘dark and dirty’ things to light, acceptability and normality. Williams and Nabokov explore the power that comes with female sexuality which Blanche and Lolita discover at a very young age. Male attention in Blanche’s past forms her idea of ideal relationships in the present which made her question her sister’s happiness whereas Humbert’s attention to Lolita started off as just being a game to her however as the novel goes on she fully realises the power she possesses over him and uses it for her benefit. Blanche has grown up around upper class gentleman who treated her as a lady. This is apparent by her “Please don’t get up” addressed to the men playing poker when she enters Stella’s household.

Vlasopolos commented ‘Her confidence is undermined by a setting in which she is unsure of the social conventions, the successful manipulation of which is indispensable for gaining and maintaining authority.’ which further emphasises the contrast of her experiences in Del Reve to her experiences in New Orleans and how her upbringing has structured her outlook on social interaction. She expected the men to get up when she enters the room out of politeness however she does not understand the differences between the societies from her past and present and because of that she doesn’t approve of Stanley. In this instance, although sex is empowering to Blanche it is also very cruel as she cannot open her eyes to alternative views and societies. She explains it as “ I guess it is just that I have – old fashioned ideals! (She rolls her eyes, knowing he cannot see her face)”.

The stage direction of rolling her eyes shows that she wants the audience to know how exasperated she is to have to explain it to Mitch who is so ‘common’ because it is so obvious to her that he should be acting a particular manner and she can’t believe he doesn’t understand it as if he is a little kid. However, even though Blanche has all these high expectations of men, she opens up to Stella admitting “People don’t see you – men don’t – don’t even admit your existence unless they are making love to you.” which emphasises the doubling effect she creates for herself. The phrase she uses for coitus is “making love” which is a very sensual way of describing sex, she tries to convince herself that those men are not taking advantage of her, they are performing a meaningful and sensual act and that comforts her. She is living in her make believe world where she is respected by men who are polite and gentle and she has full control of her sexual power over them.

However, the reality that she understands very well is that her sexual power is cruel and often works against her, she has been used and abused by men yet she still says “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”. By those ‘strangers’ she means her lovers and her use of “kindness” emphasizes her purposefully rejecting the idea of negative aspects those men can posses and ignores her own suffering masking them by sophistication, innocence and class that she projects. As Vlasopolos comments ‘In seeking emotional fulfillment, she has disregarded the barriers of “normal” female sexuality and of class’, Blanche has lost everything she cared about (Belle Reve, Allan and arguably Stella), all that she had left was the sexual power she exerted and her remaining sense of aristocracy.

She broke down the social frameworks of sexuality to hide her pain yet she held onto and emphasized her eminent position in that society. However those two defending mechanisms could not work together as they essentially contradict. One cannot revolutionize the status quo yet remain a prominent persona in the same world as they are trying to alter. Lolita, on the other hand has no idea about the dangers of the real world and her ignorance isn’t purposeful, in fact she is truly too innocent at the beginning of the novel to realise that Humbert might be taking advantage of her. This is portrayed in ‘…Humbert pressed his mouth to her fluttering eyelid. She laughed, and brushed past me out of the room.’ where Lolita’s reaction of laughter and running away shows that she is just playing a game with Humbert and she is still a young child who doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation she is in.

Her playfulness is further shown when Humbert says “I knew she would let me do so, and even close her eyes as Holywood teaches.” where Nabokov indicates her interest in romantic cinematography. Even if Humbert was to kiss her she would pretend it’s make belief just like in films and would innocently brush it off. Between the years 1943 and 1946, Hollywood film production reached its profitable peak and new pin up queens like Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth arose and a cult film Casablanca has been released, Nabokov may be referring to that when he says “as Hollywood teaches”. He makes it clear throughout the novel that we should be weary of cinematography affecting young girls’ behavior by exemplifying sexuality. Although it could be sexually empowering for young women, it is suggested that Lo’s been made a victim through her mimicking Hollywood’s sexualisation.

However as the novel goes on, it becomes apparent that Lolita starts to realise the power she possesses and her innocent games become more calculated. This is discernible as Nabokov describes their first ‘sexual’ encounter as “every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty – between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock”. His metaphor of beauty and the beast reflects her innocence as the “beauty” and his comparison of his phallus to a “gagged, bursting beast” displays his burning self loathing yet inability to contain himself as it is such a rare occurrence for him. Both authors demonstrate sex as empowering however they also show how dangerous that feminine power is both psychologically and physically if it is acquired at such a young and innocent age.

Williams shows the cruelty of sex through the repression of Allan’s homosexuality which has not only shaken Blanche’s mental health, but ultimately lead to her insanity. Arguably, all of sexual exploitation in her life is rooted in the circumstances of Allan’s death. Gencheva explains “Even though she did not directly pull the trigger, she was nonetheless, an integral part of the society which considered homosexuality an immoral deviation of the human existence, and thus, she was guilty.” reiterating that Blanche’s remorse distorts her perception of the world. Williams makes that clear by his unique stage directions, in particular the ‘Varsouviana’ polka tune that plays every time Blanche’s mind escapes reality. Blanche comments on it by saying “That – music again … the polka tune they were playing when Allan – Wait! …

There now, the shot! It always stops after that!”, her emphasis on the word “always” demonstrates that after the accident her mind has started to drift away from reality and every time the hallucination of the music that was playing when her husband shot herself accompanies it. Williams shows that Blanche got stuck in a constant loop of that traumatic experience, not only through the repeating of Varsouviana but also through her sexual preferences. When Allan died they were very young and ever since, Blanche was attracted to young men of similar age to his. She addresses a boy on the street as “Young man! Young, young, young man! Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights!”. Her repetition of ‘young’ five times in two sentences demonstrates how his age is a vital factor to her attraction to him. She cannot move past the age group she was in when she lost her husband.

This signifies the impact societal judgement of sexuality can leave on one’s mental health and how haunting it could be to lose someone you love due to misconceptions about sexuality enforced by the community you grow up in. Williams was trying to convey the extent to which homosexuality was rejected in the 1940s. Police persecuted homosexuals and they tended to live in the cities like San Francisco where they were more accepted. However homosexuals were afraid of the law and of social judgement so many got married to conceal their sexuality. Yet Williams’ intention was not only to illustrate the homophobia is society, but also to depict how it could affect third party persons. Blanche says “ After the death of Allan – intimacies with strangers was all I seemed to be able to fill my empty heart with…I think it was panic, just panic, that drove me from one to another, hunting for some protection…” . Blanche’s “panic” is caused by her first love using her as a shield from the world, she needed protection but he needed it more.

Because of her experience she cannot let go of that fear that she will never obtain that protection. Societal cruelty towards sexuality has pushed Blanche’s husband to marry her for the protection that she is desperate for. In that sense, sex is demonstrated as something that can be very cruel through societal judgement both for the recipient of that judgement and to the people close to them. Similarly, Nabokov displays cruelty of sex through Humbert’s incapability of hiding his unnatural desires which awakens self hate and instability in his behaviour. Repression somewhat pushes him to do what he does. His putrid self-loathing is shown by the nicknames he uses to describe himself, for instance “ Humbert the Hoarse”, “Humbert the Popular Butcher” and “Humbert the Wounded Spider”. He explains that he has “..toyed with many pseudonyms …”Otto Otto” and “Mesmer Mesmer” and “Lumbert Lambert,” but for some reason, I think my choice expresses the nastiness best.”. He is trying to ridicule his own existence through self-deprecating satire by comparing himself to a “butcher” and to being “hoarse” and lumbering which have violent and demeaning connotations.

Some argue that Humbert uses pseudonyms to glorify himself, for example John Wasmuth proposes that “In addition to elevating the objects of his attraction, the nymphets, Humbert also seeks to improve his own status, as the pursuer of said object – the enchanted hunter.”. However it seems clear that Humbert isn’t elevating himself for the sake of being elevated, Nabokov uses such metaphors as “enchanted hunter” to convey Humbert’s shame, hiding it behind humor and romance. He cannot accept himself for what he is just like society cannot accept him yet he cannot stop loving Lolita and the doubling of his persona tears him apart. This is apparent when he says “I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turbid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais!”. Nabokov alternates a metaphor of a “pentapod monster” and adjectives like “despicable” and “brutal” with “I loved you” to convey Humbert’s mental struggle between the two worlds he has to live in, one dreamworld full of danger and lust, one despicable reality. Humbert has no choice but to hide his real self and his real desires, he insists that ‘We are not sex fiends!

We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet.’ clarifying that society “integrated” people like him in a way that they conceal their identity and become quiet and detached in order to fit in. However even though people like Humbert can be nonviolent they can still be hugely exploitative. Nabokov questions whether society decides the rights and wrongs of sex and because of that there will be misfits who we should pity or whether objects of their desire will always be victims and they should realize that their unnatural lust will never work without hurting someone. This further illustrates that sex is cruel as, ultimately, one cannot change their sexual desires and if those sexual desires are degrading they can eat away at your life and make you suffer as you hide them for the good of society.

Williams highlights the cruelty of power derived through sex by accentuating its transience. Blanche’s power is beauty and as she gets older, her biggest fear is losing it because she realises that if she does she will have nothing to fall back on. When Stanley finds out that she has been promiscuous he stops acknowledging her femininity. By raping her he takes away her sexual power. Her sexual freedom does not fit the behaviour of the fairly conservative southern culture. Williams presents the apparent brevity of her sexual power when she tells Stella “I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft. You’ve got to be soft and attractive. And I – I’m fading now”. Although, in Blanche’s life sex is empowering, it is also pitiless because as soon as she had a taste of that power, she realises she needs it to survive.

Blanche has been dependent on men for her entire life and her biggest dream is to find protection, her mention of “fading” emphasises her paranoia of losing her beauty even though she isn’t that old. This is further illustrated by her fear of light. She tells Mitch “I like it dark. The dark is comforting to me.” implying that when it is light, he could see her better and she realize her real age. “Comforting” has a somewhat paternal connotation, as if she feels protected by the dark, because due to the absence of a man in her life, she found an alternative source of security. When Mitch confronts her for deceiving him, Blanche explains it as “I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!

Don’t turn the light on!” which shows how detached from reality she is and how she tries to convince herself that her lies should be viewed as “magic”, she is giving herself the power to judge what is “ought” to be true because she is purposefully ignoring her mental issue and is trying to justify her compulsive lies. Stanley, on the other hand doesn’t listen to anything she has to say and ignores Stella’s pleas that her sister has had an upsetting experience in her life. Blanche’s attitude to sex nullyfied his respect for her so he assures himself that the only thing Blanche is worthy of is sex. He tells her “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” as he interpreted their building tension throughout the play as sexual and persuades himself that she wants him too. This destroys Blanche and her full mental breakdown follows soon after. Likewise, Lolita’s power is based on innocence and as she grows older it is slipping away.

She was desirable when Humbert first met her when she had no idea about her sexuality. Humbert comments “I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.” where he emphasises the difference between the purity she possesses now and the ‘vices’ she will develop as she matures. The different positioning of the word “forever” puts different emphasis in the sentence affecting the meaning of it, altering it from being forever in love to the changes which signify the development of a persona and her loss of sexual power. Humbert further emphasises his point by commenting “She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past;”. Nabokov accentuates the transience of power through the world “whiff” which implies a fleeting smell making the reader associate her short-term innocence to a familiar scent one picks out for a brief second before it disappears.

Although the loss of power is cruel for Lolita who just gets the taste of it, it is also beneficial for her as her sexuality has opened for her at a young, naive and exploitable age. Levine argues that “He [Humbert] has destroyed her joy for living; he has induced in her a cynicism alien to the world of childhood, where magic and hope should prevail.” emphasizing that Humbert has introduced Lolita to sexuality too early to ever be justified. No matter how much Humbert may persuade the reader to believe that he never intended to hurt her, he has deprived Lo of her childhood and threw her into the adult world, driving adult morals, standards and beliefs into her young and developing mind through taking advantage of her body.

However, Nabokov manages to awaken sympathy for Humbert through certain aspects of his voice. The writer makes him entertaining, with a good sense of humor and tasteful ability of wordplay. Furthermore, Humbert’s voice is designed to be compelling as through the story the reader realizes that this ‘account’ was written by Humbert for the jury (ultimately us) that will rule on whether he is guilty. He is required to win us over, as Wasmuth quite rightly points out “There seems to be a desire in Humbert to engage the reader, make him a participant in the story, not merely be an observer.”. However, no matter how much Nabokov manages to awaken the reader’s empathy for Humbert, it is clear that Lolita’s maturity and sexual power has been awoken too early for her own good.

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In A Streetcar Named Desire and Lolita. (2019, Dec 12). Retrieved from

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