'A Streetcar Named Desire' Summary

A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, is a play divided in 11 scenes. The story follows the life of fading beauty Blanche DuBois as she, broke and destitute, goes to live with her sister Stella and her brutish but extremely virile husband in New Orleans. 

Blanche Arrives in New Orleans

The street the Kowalskis live on is called Elysian Fields. While it’s clearly in the poor section of the city, it has, in Williams’ words, a “raffish” charm. We are introduced to the Kowalskis, as Stanley has gone to get meat and asks his wife Stella to catch it as he flings it at her, to which she laughs breathlessly. This indicates the carnal nature of the relationship.

Stella's sister, former Southern belle Blanche DuBois, lost her family home, named Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi, to creditors. As a result, she has to move to the French Quarter to live with her married sister and her husband, Stanley Kowalski. Blanche is a fading beauty, well in her thirties and with nowhere else to go. 

When she arrives, she tells Stella that she has taken a leave of absence from her job as an English teacher, allegedly due to “nerves.” She is not impressed with Stella’s shabby two-room apartment or with her husband, whom she describes as “primitive,” loud, and rough. Stanley, in turn, cares little about Blanche’s manner and upper-class affectations, and questions her about her earlier marriage, which tragically ended in her husband’s death. Recalling the fact causes some distress in Blanche.

Stanley's Hostility

A believer in the Napoleonic code, Stanley wants to know what exactly happened to Belle Reve, because not only does he think that his wife might have been cheated out of her rightful inheritance, but, according to said code, he would have rights to said inheritance too. Blanche hands over the papers, which contain a bundle of letters that Blanche, now emotionally overwhelmed, claims are personal love-letters from her dead husband. Afterwards, Stanley tells Blanche that he and Stella are going to have a baby. 

The night following Blanche’s arrival, Stanley hosts a poker party with his friends at their apartment. On that occasion, Blanche meets one of Stanley’s friends named Harold “Mitch” Mitchell who, unlike the other men, has courteous manners that charm Blanche. Mitch, in return, is charmed by Blanche’s affectations, too, and they take a liking to one another. The multiple interruptions that take place during poker night enrage Stanley, who, in a drunk outburst, strikes Stella. This prompts the two sisters to take refuge with the upstairs neighbor, Eunice. After getting sobered-up by his friends, Stanley recovers, and, in a line that became a hallmark in theater history, calls out Stella’s name from the courtyard. His wife eventually comes down and allows him to take her to bed. This bewilders Blanche, who, the next morning, disparages Stanley as a “subhuman animal.” Stella, on her part, claims that she and Stanley are fine. Stanley overhears this conversation but stays silent. When he walks into the room, Stella kisses him, which is meant to show that she does not care about her sister’s lowly opinion of her husband. 

Some time passes, and Blanche feels more and more slighted by Stanley, who, in turn, is committed to collecting and exposing dirt on her. Blanche is now somehow invested in Mitch, telling Stella that she hopes she can go away with him in order not to be anyone’s problem any longer. After a date with Mitch, with whom she had a mostly platonic relationship so far, Blanche finally reveals what happened with her husband, Allan Grey: she caught him with an older man and he committed suicide after Blanche told him that she was disgusted with him. This confession prompts Mitch to tell Blanche that they need each other. 

Stanley relates to Stella the gossip that he has gathered on Blanche. She did not take a leave of absence from her job because of “nerves”. Rather, she was fired because she had been sexually involved with an underage student, and she had taken to live at the Flamingo, a hotel known for prostitution. He also tells Stella that he shared these rumors with Mitch, to which Stella reacts with anger. Their fight, however, comes to an abrupt end as Stella goes into labor and has to be rushed to the hospital.

Blanche's Tragic Downfall

Blanche stays behind while Stella is in the hospital and Mitch arrives. After spending several dates with her demanding to be only seen after dark, he wants to have a good look at her, he demands some realism, to which Blanche says that she doesn’t want realism, but magic. He confronts her about the gossip Stanley brought forth concerning Blanche. She denies those allegations at first, but eventually breaks down and confesses, asking for forgiveness. Mitch feels humiliated, and, in anger, tries to rape her. Blanche reacts by screaming “fire,” which prompts Mitch to run away in fright.

Stanley comes back from the hospital and finds Blanche at home. By now, she is immersed in a fantasy about an old suitor providing her with financial support and eventually taking her away from New Orleans. Stanley plays along at first, but eventually expresses scorn at Blanche’s lies and overall act. He makes a move towards her, and she tries to attack him using a piece of glass. However, he overpowers her and rapes her. This triggers a psychotic crisis in Blanche. 

Weeks later, another poker party takes place at the Kowalskis’ apartment. Stella and Eunice are packing up Blanche’s belongings. Blanche is now psychotic and will be committed to a mental hospital. She did tell Stella about the rape she suffered from Stanley, but Stella would not believe her sister. When a doctor and a matron finally show up to take her away, she collapses in confusion. When the doctor kindly helps her get up, she surrenders to him. Mitch, who is present at the poker party, breaks down in tears. As the play ends, we see Stanley try to both comfort and fondle Stella as the poker game continues.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Frey, Angelica. "'A Streetcar Named Desire' Summary." ThoughtCo, Feb. 5, 2021, thoughtco.com/a-streetcar-named-desire-summary-4685191. Frey, Angelica. (2021, February 5). 'A Streetcar Named Desire' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-streetcar-named-desire-summary-4685191 Frey, Angelica. "'A Streetcar Named Desire' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-streetcar-named-desire-summary-4685191 (accessed June 8, 2023).