'A Streetcar Named Desire' Themes

A Streetcar Named Desire deals with themes commonly found in Tennessee Williams’ work: madness, homosexuality, and the contrast between the Old and the New South.

Homosexuality

A gay man, Williams wrote the majority of his plays between the 1940s and the 1960s, and back then homosexuality was still rooted in shame, with homosexual people playing a continuous game of illusions. 

Part of Blanche’s downfall has to do with her husband’s homosexuality and being disgusted by it. “A degenerate,” who “wrote poetry,” was the way Stella described him. Blanche, in turn, referred to him as “the boy,” whom she describes as having “a nervousness, a softness, and tenderness which wasn’t like a man’s, although he wasn’t the least bit effeminate looking.” Even though he never appears on stage directly, she manages to evoke his presence quite effectively in describing him and his subsequent death.

Blanche may even be characterized as a gay, male too. Her last name, DuBois, if anglicized, is “DuBoys,” and her whole character hints at male homosexuality: she plays with illusion and false appearances, as symbolized by the lightbulb that she covers with a paper lantern. “A woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion,” she says. This ambiguity on Blanche’s part is further emphasized by Stanley, who, with his brutish demeanor, sees through her act. “Take a look at yourself in that worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for fifty cents from some rag-picker! And with the crazy crown on! What queen do you think you are?” he tells her. The fact that he uses the word “queen” pointed critics such as John Clum (author of Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama) towards seeing Blanche as an alter ego of Williams himself, but in drag.

Journey Between Two Worlds

Blanche journeys between two opposite, but equally inhabitable worlds: Belle Reve, with its emphasis of manners and southern traditions but lost to creditors, and Elysian Fields, with its overt sexuality and “raffish charm”. Neither is ideal, but they are stops along a slow destructive trip for the fragile Blanche, who was undone by the death and mannered immorality of the beautiful dream of Belle Reve, and is heading toward complete destruction in the Quarter. 

She goes to her sister’s apartment looking for asylum, and, ironically, she ends up in an actual asylum upon completely unraveling after being raped by Stanley.

Light, Purity, and the Old South

When moving to the Quarter, Blanche tries to appropriate an imagery of purity, which, we soon learn is just a façade for her life of destitution. Her name, Blanche, means “white,” her astrological sign is Virgo, and she favors wearing white, which we see both in her first scene and in her climactic confrontation with Stanley. She adopts the affectation and mannerisms of a Southern belle, in the hopes of securing a man after her first husband committed suicide and she had resorted to seducing young men in a seedy hotel. 

In fact, when she starts dating Stanley’s friend Mitch, she feigns chastity. “He thinks I am prim and proper,” she tells her sister Stella. Stanley immediately sees through Blanche’s game of smoke and mirrors. “You should just know the line she’s been feeding to Mitch. He thought she had never been more than kissed by a fellow!” Stanley tells his wife. “But Sister Blanche is no lily! Ha-ha! Some lily she is!” 

Sexuality and Desire

The three main characters of A Streetcar Named Desire are sexual. Blanche’s sexuality is decaying and unstable, while Stella, on the other hand, responds to Stanley’s thrown meat of the first scene with a gasp and a giggle, which has clear sexual connotations. The sexual chemistry shared by the Kolwaskis is the foundation of their marriage. “But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant,” Stella tells Blanche. “What you are talking about is brutal desire—just-Desire!—the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another,” her sister replies. 

And when Stella asks her whether she had ever ridden on that streetcar, Blanche answers with “It brought me here.—Where I’m not wanted and where I’m ashamed to be . . .” She is referring both to the streetcar that she boarded and to her promiscuity, which left her a pariah in Laurel, Mississippi.

Neither sister has a healthy approach towards sex. For Stella, the physical passion trumps the more daily concerns of domestic abuse; for Blanche, desire is “brutal” and has dire consequences for those who give into it. 

Madness

Tennessee Williams had a lifelong obsession with “madwomen,” possibly due to the fact that his beloved sister, Rose, was lobotomized in his absence and later institutionalized. The character of Blanche displays several symptoms of mental frailty and instability: she witnessed her late husband’s tragic death; she took to bedding “young men” in the aftermath, and we see her drink heavily throughout the entirety of the play. She also, quite vaguely, blames “nerves” for her having to take a leave of absence from her job as an English teacher.

Once in the Quarter, the web of deceptions Blanche spins in order to secure Mitch as a husband is yet another symptom of her insanity. Unable to accept her own reality, she openly says “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” However, what breaks her for good is the rape by Stanley, after which she is to be committed to a mental institution. 

Stanley appears to be quite perceptive, despite Blanche’s insisting that he’s a monkey. He tells his wife that back in Laurel, Blanche had come to be regarded “as not just different but down right loco—nuts.” 

Symbols: The Naked Lightbulb and the Paper Lantern

Blanche can’t stand to be looked at in harsh, direct light. When she first meets Mitch, she has him cover the bedroom light bulb with a colored paper lantern. “I can’t stand a naked lightbulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action,” she tells him, comparing her hatred for the naked lightbulb to her hatred towards rudeness, indecency, and profanity. By contrast, the shade softens the light and creates an atmosphere that is more comforting and calm, thus removing any harshness. For Blanche, putting the paper lantern over the light is not only a way of softening the mood and altering the appearance of the room of a place that she deems squalid, but also a way of altering her appearance and the way others view her.

Hence, the lightbulb symbolizes the naked truth, and the lantern symbolizes Blanche’s manipulation of the truth and its impact on the way others perceive her.