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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), she is still a woman who, in fact, has killed her husband through her cruelty. In the last scene, when she is helpless and defeated, Stanley acts with the same kind of cruelty of which Blanche was guilty when she told her husband he disgusted her.Blanche and Stanley are presented as completely opposite. From the point of view of their attitude towards the world, Blanche lacks the stamina to handle the stresses that her experience in New Orleans brings, she ends up in a sanatorium. Stanley faces the world vigorously and his own way seems headed for triumph. Endowed with sexual virility and a keen sense of how the world goes, he is ready to charge over all obstacles. In Blanche, sexuality is allied with sentimentality, a waning yet not unattractive gentility, in a word, the collapse of a tradition. In Stanley, with a coarse new order, vigorous but rude and rough. Thus, there is a dualism of victims and victors, a protagonist versus an antagonist. Nevertheless, this opposition isn’t absolute: Blanche is cruel to her husband, patronizing to her sister, arrogant to Stanley. Although he is cruel to Blanche, Stanley is humanized by the fact that he is a faithful friend to Mitch and a satisfying husband to Stella.
Blanche’s identity is divided between who she really is and who she pretends to be in front of others. Her real personality is determined by the environment she grew up in. In her essay “Tennessee Williams and the Predicament of Women”, Louise Blackwell includes Blanche in the category of women “who have learned to be maladjusted through adjustment to abnormal family relationships and who strive to break through their bondage in order to find a mate”. While her sister Stella left her home to establish her own place in the world, Blanche remained with her aged parents long beyond the marrying age for most women. A dutiful child, she stayed behind striving to save the family estate, Belle Reve, although the plantation was lost by “grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers, who exchanged the land for their epic fornications. Since she had adjusted to an abnormal family life, she was unable to adapt to the so-called normal world of her sister when circumstances forced her.
Her sister on the other hand belongs to the group of women who “have subordinated themselves to a domineering and often inferior person in an effort to attain reality and meaning through communication with another person”. Although Stella is superior to Stanley in terms of background and personal endowments, she subordinates herself to his way of life because they have a satisfying sexual relationship. When Blanche is revolted by her boorish husband, Stella explains that “there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant.” When she is faced with a crucial choice at the end of the play, Stella accepts sending her sister to a mental institution rather than believe that Stanley had raped Blanche, proving how far she will go to defend her sexual partner.
Blanche builds a world of fantasy in which she takes refuge from reality. During most of the eleven scenes, she displays different nuances of her role of proper Southern lady. At first, she plays the “grande damme” for her own sister, criticizing her for the conditions she currently lives in. In the second scene, she plays the “sex kitten” for Stanley, while in the third she puts on the façade of a “refined lady” for Mitch, claiming that she “cannot stand a naked light bulb anymore than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action”. Next she takes the role of an “outraged aristocrat”, complaining to Stella about her brutal husband and begging her not to “hang back with the brutes”. She continues to behave like a refined lady in front of Mitch (even if, just before their date, she had flirted with the young man collecting money), but the memory of her tragic marriage destroys that role. In the eighth scene, Stanley destroys her aristocratic image when he gives her a bus ticket to Laurel, hinting at her humiliating past. She then tries to resume her refined lady role with Mitch, but finally confesses her promiscuities, explaining that she tried to turn away from death to its opposite, desire, but ultimately failed. In the climax of scene ten, she calls Stanley an animal, but he turns the animal accusation against her, calling her a tiger. In the last scene Blanche becomes the victim of her own Southern belle illusion. She confuses the role she has played with reality, as she seems not to recognize the poker players. Her famous line addressed to the doctor who had come to take her away emphasizes her suffering: “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” – it is exactly this heavy dependence on others that has brought her to this point.
The play abounds in symbolism, certain lines, characters and objects acquiring another layer of meaning. For instance, the famous paper lantern Blanche uses to cover the light bulb symbolizes her desire to “mask the light of truth to make it more acceptable to her”. When Mitch asks her about the reason, she claims that she hates being in a strong light, which is also symbolic for her status of “a fading woman who looks her best in a fading light”. The two streetcars of New Orleans, Desire and Cemetery, are also emblematic. They suggest the opposing forces that rule Blanche: through her amorous relationships she seeks to escape from the feeling of death which has surrounded her, and the only way to achieve that is to turn to desire.
Throughout the story, Blanche plays her role of the aristocratic belle of the old South, supported by the trunk full of clothes she brings to the Kowalski apartment, her poetic and proper words and her superior attitude. She is only preoccupied with drinking, dimming lights, taking hot baths, fishing for compliments about the way she looks. It is her language in particular that affirms her superior background: she is the only character who uses cultural references in her speech, correct grammar and varied syntax, elevated words and pretentious imagery.
In conclusion, although she firmly believes in the validity of her image of ideal Southern gentility, Blanche is in fact wearing a mask during the entire play. While trying to hide the lonely, disillusioned and desperate for attention woman she really is, she is slowly but surely heading towards a break-down.
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