Beyond the timeless French influence, Cajun and Creole food, jazz music, and annual debauchery of Mardi Gras, New Orleans is also famous for its literary history. Tennessee Williams encapsulates the cosmopolitan atmosphere of this melting pot in his play, A Streetcar Named Desire. In the drama, seemingly aristocratic and emotionally fragile Southern belle, Blanche Dubois, clashes with the culture of the city. Blanche goes to New Orleans to visit her sister, Stella Kowalski, but in doing so, she upsets the structure of the Kowalski household and agitates Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski. Prior to her arrival, Stanley enjoyed his blue-collar lifestyle and the role as the chauvinistic head of his home. He works hard and plays hard, taking great pleasure in gambling, bowling, and drinking.
Stanley and his sister in law, Blanche, grew up in totally different worlds, so when they first meet they size each other up fairly accurately. Stanley dislikes Blanche’s superior and refined demeanor, as it makes him feel threatened and belittled. In contrast, Blanche is perturbed by Stanley’s brutish and impulsive behavior. Their values, goals, and expectations entirely vary from one another’s, and Stella only serves as a greater source of tension as they both vie for her love and attention, with Stanley ultimately gaining Stella’s affection in a sexually charged yet brutal way. Even though Stanley has some redeeming qualities and sympathetic characteristics, Tennessee William’s unveils him to be the villain of the story, as his violent nature makes him resort to both physical and verbal abuse, which catalyzes the deterioration of Blanche’s sanity.
In the opening scenes of the play, Stanley appears to be an easygoing guy, but as the play unfolds he proves to be ruthless and compulsive. Stanley and Blanche’s personalities begin clashing from the moment they meet. Initially, Blanche flirts with him in an attempt to win him over, but he rebuffs her overtures. The first instance of his brutality occurs within moments of meeting her. Upon learning that she has lost the ancestral family estate, Belle Reeve, he senselessly presumes that both he and his wife have been cheated. Outraged, he rips through Blanche’s luggage, throwing all her fancy clothes and accessories on the floor. Stanley incorrectly assumes that she used finances from the estate to purchase her extravagant possessions, when in actuality they are worthless pieces she collected over the years. As he disrespectfully ransacks through her belongings, he discovers some letters from a deceased love of Blanche. He was thoroughly invading her privacy, and enough was enough. “The touch of your hands insults them! Now that you’ve touched them I’ll burn them! What in the hell are they? Poems a dead boy wrote, I hurt him the way that you would like to hurt me” (42).
Blanche senses the violence smoldering within Stanley. Nevertheless, his anger is often sparked by these such witty and condescending comments. In the following scene, Stanley and his buddies are in the middle of a poker game. Aggravated that he is losing, he sweeps watermelon rinds off the card table and onto the floor, as Blanche and Stella sit in the adjacent room waiting for the poker game to wind down. To lighten the mood, Blanche turns on the radio. Stanley feels as though he is being provoked, so he storms in to turn it off. Blanche blatantly goes against his wishes by turning it on yet again, only to escalate Stanley’s anger. Infuriated, Stanley “stalks fiercely through the portieres into the bedroom. He crosses to the small white radio and snatches it off the table. With a shouted oath, he tosses the instrument out the window” (57). With this immature display of force, Stanley solidifies his power over Blanche.
He later reveals the details of his investigation of Blanches past. He uncovers the sordid details of her life in Laurel and shares the information with Stella and Mitch, who had been courting Blanche and had made arrangements to dine with her that night for her birthday. Mitch stands her up and never even calls to justify himself. Stella, upset with Stanley for coming between what could have been a promising source of happiness for Blanche, angrily orders her husband to clean his face and help her with the dishes, who responds fiercely, “Every Man is a King! And I am the king around here, so don’t forget it! He hurls a cup and saucer to the floor. My place is cleared! You want me to clear your places?” (108). Again, Stanley’s violent nature is exposed because of the influence that Blanche’s superior attitude has on Stella. Stanley’s barbarity in trying to show that he is boss is self destructive, and to everyone with whom he interacts.
While Stanley and Stella share a deep passion for one another, there is no justification in physically abusing her. The love Stanley feels for his pregnant wife is not powerful enough to control his impulsive behavior. The tension in the household only mounts the longer Blanche overstays her welcome, for Stanley is driven crazy by the changes in Stella’s attitude due to Blanche’s influence. When Stella asks him to end his card game as it was getting late, he becomes foul. Fueled by alcohol, he “gives a loud whack of his hand” (48) on her thigh to shut her up. Stella, understandably upset, refers to him as a drunken animal. Her words further incite his tainted mood: Stanley charges after Stella…… Stella cries out. Blanche screams and runs into the kitchen. The men rush forward and there is grappling and cursing. Something is overturned with a crash. ‘My sister is going to have a baby! This is terrible. Lunacy, absolute lunacy!’ (157)
Even though there are times when Stanley’s feelings of anger are understandable, there is never justification for physical abuse, especially at someone you love. Stella’s pregnancy with his child makes Stanley’s penchant for abuse even worse. This unacceptable behavior only reinforces Stanley’s classification as the villain in the play.
While Blanche arrives in New Orleans in a fragile mental state, Stanley’s repeated cruelty puts her at the brink of insanity. As Stanley uncovers information from his investigation of Blanche’s past, he finds that her former town had classified her as crazy, “as time went by she became a town character. Regarded as not just different but downright loco- nuts” (100). In light of this revelation, Stanley becomes far more vindictive in his efforts to destroy Blanche. He also knows she is homeless as the Flamingo Hotel in Laurel “requested her to turn in her room key – permanently” (120) not long before she arrived to the Kowalskis. Additionally, Stanley’s birthday gift to Blanche, a one-way greyhound bus ticket to Laurel, is calculatingly callous, considering he is fully aware that she has no home or friends to return to. Later, when Stella is in the hospital about to deliver, Stanley and Blanche are left alone in the apartment. He is overjoyed by the fact that he will soon be having a son. Blanche, with no hope in finding love or happiness having lost her chance with Mitch, becomes fully immersed in her own fantasy world.
She creates an imaginary scenario in which a wealthy male friend whisks her away on a Caribbean cruise. She says that she will no longer be “casting my pearls before swine” (158). Blanche’s unkind reference to Stanley as swine causes his amicable mood to dissipate. Stanley begins taunting Blanche, whom he knows is very insecure about her appearance and is psychologically unwell. “And look at yourself! 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?” (127). He attacks her, with the knowledge that she is highly sensitive. Her reaction is a sad one, making it clear that he is breaking her remaining spirit as the world crumbles around her. Blanche, hurt, nervous, and frightened, begins to contend with him. He advances at her and she holds the sharp edges of a bottle she broke as a weapon to use as self-defense: ‘She cries out and strikes at him with the bottle top but he catches her wrist. ‘Tiger…! Drop the bottle-top!… We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!’ She moans. The bottle-top falls. She sinks to her knees. He picks up her inert figure and carries her to bed. (130)
Stanley rapes Blanche, which destroys her last threads of any mental stability. In his quest to ruin her, he shatters her love life, uses the secrets of her past against her, and rapes her when she is at her weakest. Raping someone who is already beaten down is truly the epitome of cruelty.
Blanche Dubois arrives in New Orleans as a last resort, but her visit ultimately wrecks her. From the moment she enters the Kowalski household, she loses herself a little bit with every passing day. She senses the violence in Stanley simmering almost immediately. Yet, she cannot help herself from actively engaging him a battle of will: Blanche contributes to the escalation of tensions between herself and Stanley. She acts as if she is better than him while demeaning him in his own home. Anyone placed in such a situation can understand Stanley’s vexation. However, while her actions certainly give reason to be annoyed, they do not warrant the assault that she faced. Blanche is understandably horrified by his brutish nature and destructive behavior when he throws items around in a tantrum.
Furthermore, she finds his physical abuse of his pregnant wife unforgivable. Blanche is in a fragile state of mind and has no youthful beauty, job, money, home, or family, and Stanley takes advantage of this vulnerability. There was no transition from her being someone he simply didn’t like, to her becoming his prey. His scrutiny of her past, and subsequent findings, which he made public, leads directly to her demise. He was entirely deliberate in his spite. His degenerate character is confirmed after his bitter transgression in raping her. Stanley Kowalski is a villain, who is willing to sabotage the life of anyone who poses a threat to his dominance.