Many definitions of tragedy claim that at the end of the play positives have emerged. Is it possible to see anything positive in the ending of A Streetcar Named Desire? Many definitions of a tragedy claim that by the end of the play positives have emerged, I’m going to investigate whether this can be said for A Streetcar named Desire. I want to look at the outcome of the play for each of the main characters and see who, if anyone came out on top.
A Streetcar Named Desire is considered by many to be a modern tragedy, this genre differs from a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy in that it’s protagonists are not usually great people from noble backgrounds who suffer an epic downfall that has drastic consequences but ordinary people, in domestic settings who’s downfall although tragic for them has no real impact on anyone other than themselves and those close to them.
Streetcar centres around three main characters Blanche, an aging southern belle, her sister Stella who has shook off her gentile, southern upbringing and settled into a simple life in run down New Orleans and Stanley Kowalski, Stella’s husband, a man of Polish decent that seems to represent the ‘new America’. Blanche disrupts the lives of the Kaplowski’s by turning up to stay with them claiming she’s been given leave from her teaching job in Laurel, where the sisters grew up.
We later learn however this is not true, she has been fired from her job for sexual liaisons with a student and has been made a pariah in her home town for her promiscuity. Stanley finds out the truth about Stella and does his best to get rid of her and keep his friend Mitch, who Blanch set her sights on marrying, away from her. The ending of the play, although tragic and moving seems to me somewhat ambivalent, the audience are left to wonder, to some extent what will become of all the characters, this is the area that I am going to analyse.
‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’ (scene 11, 11) possibly the most famous lines of the play, and the last words we hear Blanche utter. She is being lead away by a doctor to a mental institution after suffering a complete mental breakdown culminating from the traumas of her past, her alcoholism and her treatment at the hands of Stanley Kowalski. Blanche’s final words summarise her own tragic flaw; dependence, on strangers, on men, on alcohol, on anything but herself. The flaw, it could be argued landed her in such a tragic position.
From our first introduction to Blanch we can tell she is not someone used to looking after herself, when she arrives at Elysian Fields despite the haughty air she puts on when speaking to Stella’s neighbours she has no qualms about letting Eunice and the black neighbour take control of the situation, taking her into the Kowalski’s apartment and offering to go and fetch Stella for her, then rudely asking Eunice to leave her alone. We are also immediately introduced to her dependency on alcohol; she takes a quick drink getting rid of the evidence before her sister arrives.
Straight away the audience are aware that Blanche is not a woman in control of her situation A Streetcar differs from what many would class as a tragedy in that nobody actually dies in the end, however it could be argued that Blanches future in a mental asylum is as bad as, of even worse than death. If one was to try and put any sort of positive spin on Blanches fate we could say that she is finally free of the ‘real world’ which she was obviously finding increasingly difficult to cope with. She say’s to Mitch ‘I don’t want realism.
I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! ‘ (9,6-8), maybe now she will be free to live the life she feels she should, if only in her mind. However, before jumping to this rose tinted conclusion we must acknowledge Williams own experience of the mental institutions of his day. His sister Rose, to whom he was very close, was institutionalised after a failed lobotomy, and Williams was said to be totally guilt ridden by this state of affairs. In an obituary to Rose Williams in the Independent Newspaper the author writes:
‘The troubled life of Rose Williams haunts the work of her brother Tennessee. Like a fading Southern Belle, eternally deserted’ (Hoare, P. (1996). Obituary: Rose Williams. Available: http://www. independent. co. uk/news/people/obituary-rose-williams-1362925. html. Last accessed 27th Feb 2011. ) So it is probably fair to assume that Institutions did not hold positive connotations for Williams so it may be unlikely that this is the impression he intended his audience to get. What of the other characters, Stanley and Stella.
It appears now with Blanche out of the way, life can go back to normal for them both. However as we know, Williams deals very much in realism and it would be naive to assume that the events of the last few months will not have impact on their relationship. From the beginning Stella appears to have accepted her lot when it comes to Stanley, she knows he isn’t perfect but their passion makes it worthwhile in her view; ‘there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark-that sort of make everything else seem-unimportant.
‘ (4, 29-2) and she has embraced her new life, even claiming to be ‘thrilled’ (4,21) by some of Stanley’s violent outbursts. It is clear though that Stella isn’t stupid, Williams has given Stella an air of maturity and quiet composure that is in great contrast to Blanche’s manner. I find it hard to believe that she could completely dismiss Blanche’s claim that Stanley raped her as just her desperate last attempt to get Stanley out of the picture. I feel that on some level she believes her sister, in scene 11 she says to Eunice;
‘I don’t know if I did the right thing’ (11,12) And; ‘I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley’ (11,15) Eunice replies; ‘Don’t ever believe it. Life has to go on. No matter what happens, you’ve got to keep on going’ (11,17-18) It is pointedly never said that she is doing the right thing, only that she is doing what she has to do. Stella ‘sobs with inhuman abandon’ as blanch is being led away, betraying her real feelings even more than the text, she is devastated to see her sister in this situation and no doubt feels hugely guilty for allowing it.
In my opinion Stella made the decision to side with Stanley out of what she thought was necessity, she couldn’t bare the thought of losing the security that Stanley offers, especially now they have a child to think about so she has turned her back to the horrible truth, just as she turned her back on her old life in the plantation when things started to go wrong, she wasn’t there for her sister then and she won’t stand by her now. For me though it begs the question how long will Stella be able to continue the fai??
ade. The animal passion she enjoys so much with Stanley is unlikely to sustain her forever and is no substitute for a trusting healthy relationship. I feel eventually the cracks will begin to show, Stella’s guilt over Blanch will grow and she will increasing resent Stanley. He may be able to pacify her for now with a sexual advance; ‘He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse’ (11,4-5) but I think in the long run she is trapped it what is ultimately a doomed relationship.
This brings us to Stanley, it appears that he is the only one who got something positive from blanch being institutionalised. He can once again go back to his old life, with his doting wife and now a newborn child to further cement his position as head of the household. However by raping Blanch he has betrayed his true character, before although it is unlikely anyone could feel any sympathy for him it did seem that Stanley really did love his wife, even showing odd moments of tenderness.
Now however we see how cruel he can be and how insatiable his lust really is. He even implies that the rape was not a heat of the moment decision saying ‘we’ve had this date with each other from the beginning’ (10,25-26). He shows no remorse for his actions and if he has no qualms having sex with his sister in law while his wife is in hospital having their child, it does not say much for his general fidelity. Before the rape Stanley could be considered if not a likeably character at least a complex one.
The audience could appreciate that he didn’t have the genteel upbringing of Stella and Blanche but he was a hard worked trying to provide for his family. We could even sympathise that his already cramped home had been more of less taken over by his sister in law, allowing him and his wife virtually no privacy, I’d even go so far as to say there would be very few men who would not be frustrated by that situation.
But the rape shows him to be a true, unquestionable villain. So, although things seem to be going pretty well for him at the moment, I’d say his future looks pretty bleak, a wife that may be harbouring deep resentments, uncontrollable sexual urges, that although haven’t got him into trouble yet are likely to in the future and a violent streak that will surely loose it’s thrill for Stella. I find this view on Stella and Stanley’s future particularly interesting;
‘We may be permitted to wonder whether the semi-comic characters of Eunice and Steve were introduced to foreshadow the Kowalski’s in years to come- Stella slovenly, fat and blowzy after too many pregnancies, and Stanley no longer the ‘gaudy seed barer’ but a corpulent, wheezing patron of the local prostitutes. ‘ (Sambrook,H (2010). York notes Advanced,A Streetcar Named Desire. 9th ed. London: York Press. 58. ) Obviously all the above ideas are merely that, ideas, these are characters in a play, which have no future once the curtains come down.
But what a testament to Williams’ writing, and the realism of his characters, that we have became so emotionally attached to the characters that we crave an answer to what will become of them. This brings me to my final question, what prompted Williams to end his play in such a melancholy, unhopeful way? In an interview with Tennessee Williams by Robert Berkvist in 1974 Williams said of his plays; ‘They reflect somehow the particular psychological turmoil I was going through when I wrote them’ (Berkvist, R. (1975). An Interview With Tennessee Williams.
Available: http://www. nytimes. com/books/00/12/31/specials/williams-interview75. html. Last accessed 27th Feb 2011. ) We know Williams had his fair share of troubles, he suffered with depression, was tormented over his homosexuality, lived with the guilt of his sister being institutionalised. His plays have been thought to mirror aspects of his life. Sparknotes on A Streetcar Named Desire agree that many of his female characters contain elements of his mother and sister and his male characters were based on his brutish father and childhood bullies (SparkNotes Editors.
“SparkNote on A Streetcar Named Desire. ” SparkNotes LLC. 2003. http://www. sparknotes. com/lit/streetcar/ (accessed February 24, 2011). ) It seems to me that Streetcar in particular does support this theory, as does The Glass Menagerie. Maybe Streetcars ending was simply Williams alluding to the fact that in real life, there is not always a happy ending, we don’t always come away having learned something of even with a brighter outlook for the future, so why should the characters in his play.
To conclude, I can’t say that any positives have emerged from the ending of Streetcar, but I do not believe that this detracts in any way from the play being one of the great modern tragedies. Williams’ talent for creating believable characters his audience form attachments too is illustrated in the compulsion we feel to cultivate our own conclusions, and fill in the blanks that he didn’t. This only added to my enjoyment of reading the play and I can only assume, from the plethora of different interpretations of the text I read on the internet when researching for this piece, that I am not the only person to feel this way.