A Streetcar Named Desire, first published in 1947, is considered a landmark play for the 20th century American drama, bringing author Tennessee Williams a Pulitzer Prize. One of its most important themes deals with the contrast between reality and illusion. The aim of this essay is to examine how this contrast is reflected in the way the main character constructs her identity.
As Ruby Cohn calls it in his essay “The Garrulous Grotesque of Tennessee Williams”, A Streetcar Named Desire is “a poignant portrait of a Southern gentlewoman who is extinct in the modern world” (46). The protagonist of the play is Blanche duBois, a fading Southern belle, who comes to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella and her husband Stanley Kowalski. This provides the setting for a clash of two cultures: Blanche on one hand, symbolizing the dying Southern gentility, and Stanley on the other, representing the rising pragmatic middle-class.
Blanche is a character who has been conditioned by the society in which she was brought up, her background influencing her personality. Unhappy with her life, she is unable or unwilling to change it for the better. She prefers to retreat from reality into illusions and fantasies, building multiple façades of her identity, which she presents to the characters she interacts with. She was brought up to imitate the ideal Southern womanhood – the beautiful, sometimes shy, sometimes flirtatious yet always chaste lady. But the harsh reality of the 20th century urban America is in contradiction with this ideal, and Blanche is disillusioned, forced to make her own way in a world which does not understand her and which she does not understand. Her promiscuity and alcoholism are means of escaping these hardships, as she tries and fails to reconcile reality and illusion, to reconcile the woman she is with the woman she wants to be and wants others to believe she is.
The key to the downward slope her life has taken is the discovery that her young, adored husband was homosexual, and the shock of his subsequent suicide. Blanche tells Mitch of this traumatic experience and her disgust and revulsion: “It was because, on the dance floor – unable to stop myself – I suddenly said – I saw! I know! You disgust me!” She has turned away from him and instead of offering love and the possibility of a heterosexual life, she has offered hate and contempt. Seized by a mixture regret and self-pity, Blanche has no way of coming to terms with the disaster, her shock becomes illness, and illness eventually triumphs, as Blanche is send to the mental institution in the end of the play.
The instrument of her destruction is Stanley. By becoming her destroyer, he also becomes the avenger of her homosexual husband. Nonetheless, he is as guilty of destroying Blanche as she is of destroying her husband. However compassionate the reader might be towards her (she has, after all, lost everything: her plantation, her love, her dream of a life of gracious gentility),...