Calling Stanley an animal, and a ‘survivor of the stone age’, Blanche claims there has been ‘some progress’, and she tells Stella, ‘Don’t- don’t hang back with the brutes!’
By comparing A Streetcar Named Desire with at least one other text, discuss ways in which the theme of ‘progress’ is explored in 20th Century American Literature.
During this essay, I will examine what ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, and ‘The Great Gatsby’ by Scott Fitzgerald portray about progress in America, and the sacrifices people may have made because of this. Literature often shows a darker side to society, and points out the faults. Literature could be described as a critique of society.
By 1947, when Tennessee Williams wrote the play; A Streetcar Named Desire, America had become the most dominant country. Wealth was very important to the Americans, which was often gained through illegal, or immoral means as people had become greedy. In The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald is stating that the American Dream of wealth and beauty is fragile, For example, the sense of wonder of the first settlers in America quickly turned into an ostentatious, wild lifestyle of the wealthy during the 1920s was followed by the reality of the stock market crash and the great depression of the 1930s. Where there is great wealth, sadness and waste always seen to follow. The end product is always a valley of ashes.
America had become the ‘Promised Land’, where people could live out the American Dream, which was to work, and make lots of money. In The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald includes a comparison of the corrupting influence of wealth to the purity of a dream as a central theme. Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, Dan Cody, and Meyer Wolfsheim are all examples of people who have been corrupted by their money. Daisy, who was born and married to wealth, has no values and no purpose in life.
America has definitely made progress as it has become very powerful and wealthy, but some would argue that it has been at the expense of emotions, arts, and culture. Materialism and capitalist beliefs have replaced the older, traditional values. On a symbolic level, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche represents the Old South, and Stanley represents the new, industrialised age. Stanley also replaces Blanche in Stella’s life. Stanley is a post World War II American, who is a confident, rugged, individualist, who has a scorn for the weak, has self-belief, enjoys his own strength, has a strong sense of pride, relies on his instincts, and is avaricious. Blanche represents a more traditional American, who is much less confident, and actually in many situations, quite insecure, vulnerable and relies on her sense of reason. She is domineering over her sister, and in her company is quite arrogant, but Stanley seems to bring out Blanches true self. She is also in touch with her emotions. Tennessee Williams states, through this symbolic use of characters, that the genteel ways of the Old South have been forever destroyed by the coarseness and brutality of the modern age.
Blanche fights to save her Old Southern roots and the family mansion, but looses them both, but then also, is unable to adapt to Stanley and Stella’s way of life at Elysian Fields. This shows that people are products of their past as shown by Blanche being destroyed by events in her life. Because of this, the mood of the entire play is dark and sombre, a reflection of the decadence and loss described in the play.
Blanche represents the fallen aristocracy of the South, is a misfit who is trying to straighten out her life while taking refuge in New Orleans with her relatives, Stanley and Stella Kowalski. Stanley is a domineering man with common ways, is set against Blanche, and is ultimately responsible for her descent into insanity and placement in the state institution.
The conflict also operates on a symbolic level, with the protagonist as the aristocratic Old South; Blanche, being destroyed by the new industrial age, represented by Stanley. Tennessee Williams clearly reveals that the genteel tradition of the Old South cannot successfully survive in the new age.
Through literature, writers are able to show the victims of the American Dream, those that are sacrificed, such as Blanche. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald clearly intends for his dream to be symbolic of the Dream for wealth, and youth. Gatsby genuinely believes that if a person makes enough money, he can buy anything, or manipulate time, so to stay perpetually young and buy their happiness through materialistic spending. Between the wealth of New York City, and the fashionable Egg Island lies the valley of ashes, the symbol of the waste and corruption that characterises the wealthy. It is only Gatsby who hasn’t been corrupted by his money, even though he has many excessive possessions, he has not amassed his wealth or it’s accoutrements for himself. In fact, he believes that his possessions will convince Daisy to forget the past, so that she will marry him. When she shatters his dream by accepting Tom over him, Gatsby has no need for any of his possessions as he had valued each item according to the worth that Daisy placed on it.
Fitzgerald is clearly saying that the American dream has gone awry. People are so devoted to chasing the mighty dollar that they have forgotten and misplaced human values.
Tennessee Williams describes Stanley as a primitive man in the opening scene of the play when “he heaves the package” at Stella. This suggests force and aggression. The package that he has thrown at her is “a red-stained package from a butchers.” This detail suggests almost that he has been hunting. There are also stereotypical gender roles, as he throws the meat to Stella through the window as she is indoors, which suggests that it is her responsibility to prepare it, and his to provide it. Stanley is a man who hasn’t really progressed very much from early man, and sometimes is described in terms of an animal. Stella describes him as “a different species.” She is aware that Stanley is from a different culture to the two sisters, but Blanche is shocked that Stella is proud of Stanley.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams paints a picture of a society in a state of transition and uncertainty. Blanche is trying to live in an idealised past, but her harsh present reality destroys her. The graceful world of the Southern plantation has gone. The reality of post-war America is the brutish and graceless nature of Stanley and his poker playing friends who, most of them lack caring qualities, especially in the ways that society deals with it’s more vulnerable members.
Economically and materialistically, America has made progress, but many, such as Fitzgerald and Williams, would argue that it is at the expense of culture and emotion.