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Tennessee Williams’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire, illustrates the struggle of power between economic classes and the changes taking place in America at that time, regarding social status. The constant tension between Blanche and Stanley represents the conflict between social classes, and the clash of old and new America. By viewing the play through a marxist lens, one is able to pinpoint the power the upper class holds over the lower class, and how it eventually brings forth an upheaval of the classes. Blanche is stuck on the ideas of the old South, having a difficult time facing the presence of a new modern South. When she confronts Stanley, a symbol of the new South, a clash between the characters occurs, demonstrating the social change in America. This new America is further demonstrated in the themes William’s brings out with Blanche and Stanley, namely delusion and fantasy, and masculinity and physicality, where each illustrates the changes in different ways. By evaluating the play using marxist criticism, one is able to view the themes and purposes Williams used to illustrate the changes in America’s social classes in the late 1940s.
Viewing A Streetcar Named Desire through a marxist lens, one sees a clear distinction of social classes, the struggles existing between them and the ability to overcome and move up within the classes. Blanche represents the old South through her facade of a wealthy powerful woman. However, this illusion of a prosperous and upper class life, is in reality falling apart. She comes to visit her sister Stella because she lost Belle Reve, the southern estate where she and Stella grew up. It is also filled with harsh memories of her husband’s death, and so she hopes Stella will help her get back on her feet. However, Stella has changed. When Blanche reaches Elysian Fields, she is unable to process how Stella lives in such a “ horrible place”(Williams 8). By seeing the lifestyle her sister Stella lives in, she becomes baffled by how Stella was able to go from a lavish lifestyle, to a simplistic lifestyle with a man of a lower class. Blanche is unable to understand why Stella is in love with a man like Stanley, one that “acts like an animal” and possesses something “sub-human”, “something–ape-like”(74). The tensions between Blanche and Stanley increases the longer she stays and represents the tensions and power struggles that can exist between the upper and lower classes. Blanche relays her dominance by degrading Stanley and those around him, being vocal about the unacceptable apartment accommodations, wearing lavish clothing, and making references to people of an elite nature. Being a part of the upper class, Blanche is use to having an authority that was not questioned until now. Suddenly, Stanley challenges her, which causes her to grapple with her once dominant power. She could have held onto it, but she lived in a life of illusion, of a time where the upper class were deemed more important, a reality that no longer existed, that was falling apart. Stanley was determined that Blanche would not undermine who was and make him seem weak and unimportant. So, he made her life miserable and found ways to counter her every move, until all her power was finally taken away. In one scene, Blanche turns on the radio, in which Stanley then asks who turned it on. When Blanche says she did, he then gets angry and turns it off despite his friends saying it is fine being on. She then turns it on again, causing him to once again get mad, “snatch[ing] it off the table” and throwing it “out the window”(56). This scene represents one of many scenes in which there is a grapple for power. Blanche wants the radio on, and just because she wants it on, Stanley wants it off. He wants to have control over the situation, but letting her control the radio, would put her in complete control. He is able to overcome her in this situation, foreshadowing his eventual victory in the power struggle.
The marxist theory describes the belief that in society, a person can overcome their socioeconomic class, which is illustrated by Stanley’s rise in dominance and his final success in overpowering Blanche thus breaking away from the boundaries of his social class. When Stanley hits Stella, Blanche attempts to keep Stella away from Stanley, however he prevails and Stella comes back to him. This is the beginning of Blanche’s loss of control and also her support structure. Stanley’s next blow is spreading the word regarding her prostitution making others look unkindly towards her. Blanche has nowhere to turn except inward and so starts her slow decline towards insanity. Life becomes an illusion of the past. Stanley sees her demise and takes full advantage of it. He not only has power over Blanche, but full control of Stella as well. Near the end of the book, Stanley and Blanche have their last conflict of power. Stanley “springs toward[s]” Blanche, and she “strikes at him with the bottle top”(141), in attempt to stop him from raping her. She fights to stay powerful and dominant, but finally realizes that this moment was doomed since “the beginning”(141). As “she sinks to her knees”, the constant battle for power between the two is over and Stanley wins the power struggle by raping her. When Blanche attempts to tell Stella what happened, Stella does not believe her, and instead thinks she is crazy so sends her to a mental institution. This shows how Stanley is now in control, and has dominance and power, overcoming the upper class, bringing upheaval to the social hierarchy.
The power struggle so evident between Blanche and Stanley is a part of the changes that were occurring in America in the 1940s. More immigrants were coming to America and a new working class was being established. This group of people was on the rise, which introduced conflicts into the social arena. Blanche comes from a wealthy family from the South, who embodies the ideals of the Old South. Stanley is a Polish immigrant’s son born in America, who represents the new modern South. When Blanche comes to the diverse, modern society of New Orleans, she begins to resent Stanley and the idea of a New South, while her romanticized Old South dwindles. Blanche is critical about the appearance of New Orleans, the place where Stanley brought Stella. She says that “never in” her “worst dreams could” she “picture” a place like this, “Only Poe! Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe!–could do it justice!”(9). Stanley and Blanche demonstrate the clash between old and new, past and present, the rise of the industrial working class versus the aristocratic class. Blanche is unable to connect and accept this modern society like Stella is. Stella tells her sister that she can “get along fine” with Stanley, but cannot “compare him with other boys we went out with at home”(15), thus explaining that change in society is upon them, and it is not as bad as Blanche makes it seem. As the conflict between Blanche and Stanley continues, Stanley’s power becomes stronger, with the rape of Blanche being the climax. Stanley’s win reinforces the strength and power of the working class, and their desire to push themselves out of the oppression of the upper class, to become something bigger and better; to be looked upon as equals to people with money and to prove they too have opportunities to succeed.
Themes present within A Streetcar Named Desire demonstrate how the characters individually express social change through their actions and words. Stanley embodies the theme of masculinity and physicality to assert his power and dominance over the characters in the play. Stella appealed to his strong physical appearance which allowed him to dominate her when it came to sex, running errands for him and with his physical abuse. With Stella originally from a wealthy southern family, his ability to dominate her, shows the social change of the lower class controlling the once upper class. He “pulled” Stella from “them columns”(121) of Belle Reve, to place her at his level. Stanley’s dominance over Stella led to his eventual dominance over Blanche. When Blanche told Stella Stanley raped her, Stella “couldn’t believe her story”(144), so sent her to a mental institution. Blanche embodies the theme of delusion and fantasy in attempts to keep the Old South alive. She acts as if she is still wealthy and prosperous, when in reality she has hit the end, being forced to live with Stella. She tells fictitious stories about her life to Stella, Stanley and Mitch, as she tries to be someone she isn’t. At one point Blanche dresses herself in a “white satin evening gown and a pair of scuffed silver slippers”, then “ plac[ed] the rhinestone tiara on her head”, and “murmur[ed] excitedly as if to a group of spectral admirers”(131), pretending she was living in her past. She eventually realizes that reality is a world she is frightened of, a place where no one is on her side, a place of insecurity. She does not want to be a part of the social changes occurring around her and fights to the very end to remain strong and in control, but cannot overcome Stanley’s power and must give in. So, to remain in the “world” of the Old South, she must live in a fantasy, as this is the only way to find peace and harmony.
Viewing A Streetcar Named Desire through a marxist lens, shows how the tension between Blanche and Stanley represents the social conflicts that existed in America at the time of the play. The power struggle the two characters have throughout the play, demonstrates how different social classes attempt to dominate over each other to keep their power. Both characters exert their power and do not want to give it up. However, Stanley dominates at the end, representing the rise of the new modern South. The Old South, once prosperous and powerful, becomes weak and unknown. Both together and individually, Blanche and Stanley represent social change within America. The rise of a new modern society based on industrialization and immigrants, prevails over the aristocratic Old South.
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