Williams portrays desire as being constructive and destructive in the play. The constructive nature of desire is shown between Stella and Stanley, who have a violent desire driven relationship, where Stanley’s brutish nature drives them apart but the animal like desire they have for one another brings them together. This is shown in The Poker night where Stanley mistreats Stella, ‘there is a sound of a blow. Stella cries out.’ But their instinctive desire for each other brings them together once more. ‘They stare at each other then come together, with low animal moans; he falls on his knees and presses his face to her belly.’
The destructive nature of desire is represented by Blanche and her experiences and relationships she develops with men show this; the relationship between Blanche and Mitch was destroyed by the revealing of her past, this halted any further relationship that could have developed, ‘you lied to me Blanche… I don’t think that I can marry you anymore’.
The relationship between Stanley and Blanche is mainly one of dominance; each one is fighting over Stella as their ‘territory’, where Stanley views Blanche as a “potentially dangerous invader of his territory” (1), (Stella). So Stanley wants Blanche gone and does not show any acceptance towards her in his life. However Stanley and Blanche have an underlying desire for one another, ‘Come to think of it, you wouldn’t be bad to interfere with’.
By using Blanche’s forbidden desire and sexual exploits which were unspeakable at the time and therefore she wasn’t accepted in society, Williams could be portraying himself through her character as his homosexuality was unspeakable in those days and he also wasn’t accepted.
The setting for the play, New Orleans, could have been derived from the fact that it was at the time a state that accepted people of all cultures and had the “most prosperous community of free persons of colour in the south” (2), so provides a stable being for the character of Stanley, who was a polish immigrant and Williams may have favoured New Orleans as he would be accepted there for who he was. Williams also lived for a time in 1939 in the French Quarter of New Orleans which influenced his writing.
Williams insinuates in the play that there may also have been a desire for war so soon after WWII which illustrates a desire for power through war. This could have been because after the American Civil war the States had no power over the South/North divide and this made a lasting impact on many, as they lost homes etc; ‘Belle Reve is lost!’. So America wants to keep the power they obtained during the Second World War.
Williams uses Blanche as a pretentious fading relic of the old south and the southern culture, which was slowly being overpowered at the time by the ‘new American’ rising urban culture, which had started to dominate the states, Williams presents this by the raping and overpowering of Blanche by Stanley and in result of this Blanche is taken away to a mental institution, this could represent the total overbearing of the new American culture over the Old South and how the Old Southern gentility and culture is lost as a result of this. Therefore showing that a desire for progress, which is symbolised by Stanley, is destructive which is shown by the deterioration of Blanche.
Williams’ other title for ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ was ‘The Moth’, the moth representing the heroine, (Blanche) as a moth-like creation.” Moths are symbols of death” (3) and by using Blanche as a representation of one; Williams could be enforcing the death of the Old South culture and way of life. (Blanche also seems to have a close relationship with death, as her young husband Allan Gray committed suicide because of his homosexuality.
‘Death – I used to sit here and she used to sit over there, and death was as close as you were’. Thus explaining that she followed her desires without consequence and as a result people turned against her and she was put outside the norm of socially acceptable behaviour of women and outcast, everybody that meant anything to her turned against her as a result of her ‘shady’ past; Mitch being the main example of this.
Blanche seems to have a desire for fantasy and ideals, ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic!’ This is shown when she hides the fact that she is ageing and changing by employing the paper lampshade to cover the harsh light bulb in the living room. ‘[Fearfully]: Light? Which light?! What for?!…Don’t turn the light on!!’ She also fantasises over having men waiting at her feet for her every word, Williams portrays this through the character of Shep Huntleigh where Blanche is constantly dropping his name in here and there as if trying to convince herself that she has a saviour who cares for her and will help her when she finds herself in difficulty. ‘Mr Shep Huntleigh, just now this wire inviting me on a cruise of the Caribbean!’
Williams presents desire as something that has the capability to destroy and he shows that this is present in all humans, when Stella and Stanley send Blanche to a mental institution and thus destroying her last chance at happiness which was with Mitch.
Arthur Miller also discusses this subject with force in ‘The Crucible’, where the town of “Salem is ripped apart by hysteria over witchcraft” (4), this relates to how Blanche is torn apart by the ‘suggested’ rape by Stanley and it marks the start of her breakdown. The Blue piano is a constant motif throughout the play and portrays what’s happening in Blanches mind, when the blue piano goes into a ‘hectic breakdown’, its representing the deterioration of Blanche and thus the end of all her desires.
Desire at the end of the play is shown by Tennessee Williams to be replete, Stella is pregnant, but grieves the loss of her sister, ‘She sobs with inhuman abandon and surrenders to crying now that her sister is gone.’ “The Streetcar that was named ‘Desire’ which brought Blanche to Elysian Fields is changed to ‘Cemeteries’, its destination is ‘The Land of the Dead’.
Streetcar draws an analogy between the control of desire and the representation by the theatre of the death of desire.” (5) By representing the death of desire Williams surpasses the issues of ‘sanity’ or ‘insanity’, ‘truth’ or ‘illusion’, to expose the emotional social law which makes those terms significant.
Although Blanche is taken to a mental institution at the end of the play, she still smiles, this could be because she has completely devolved herself into her fantasy life, and also suggests that she is the one who benefits from the ordeal as she has found happiness is her unreal fantastical world.
(1)– A Streetcar named desire – commentary by Patricia Hern
(2) – New Orleans history, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Orleans#Beginnings_through_the_19th_century
(3) – Lepidopteral Symbology – http://www.insects.org/ced4/symbol_list1.html
(4) – The Crucible – Arthur Miller
(5) – The Fate of the Symbolic in a Streetcar named desire (pg. 121) – Kathleen Hulley