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The tragedy in A Streetcar Named Desire can be interpreted through the medium of not just watching it, but reading it. Williams achieves this through the use of stage directions written in poetic prose, which create imagery with likeness to a novel. Arguably, the most eloquent of these is the opening stage directions. These have the effect of creating a distinct picture of the cosmopolitan New Orleans, and to use setting to prepare the audience for tragedy. For example, the play is set ‘between the L & N tracks and the river’. These are symbols of the new and the old, which may reflect on the conflict between Stanley and Stella (the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Americans). Also, the ‘weathered grey’ houses may be symbolic of Blanche: something that was once white and pure, but has been defiled by hardship and age.
Williams uses contrast to create the potential for tragedy by contrasting Blanche with New Orleans. For example, colour imagery is often used to express New Orleans’ vibrant and gaudy atmosphere; ‘yellow-checked linoleum’, ‘brown river’, ‘Blue Piano’, whereas Blanche is described as colourless; ‘white suit’, ‘white gloves’. It is obvious that Blanche doesn’t fit into this society; ‘her appearance is incongruous to the setting’. We can see this further when Williams depicts her as a moth, something attracted to light, however she ‘must avoid a strong light’. This shows how although she may be attracted to the bright vitality of New Orleans, it is something she is always at an arm’s length to, and can never truly be a part of.
Williams creates the potential for tragedy by describing Blanche as a polar opposite to Stanley, with Stella as the link between them. Stanley is described as the strong, masculine, brutish symbol of the heterogeneous ‘New America’; ‘animal joy’, and ‘gaudy seed-bearer,’ whereas Blanche is described as the traditional, ultra-refined, delicate symbol of the redundant elite social stratum of the ‘Old America,’ ‘looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party’, a ‘delicate beauty’. Williams further illustrates this point using animal imagery; Stanley is a ‘richly feathered male bird’ showing his machismo and pride, while Blanche is simply ‘a moth’, showing her fragility. This dichotomy is important, as it creates a high possibility for conflict, which is intrinsic to tragedy. Another effect of this is that it helps the audience form opinions on who is the tragic hero, villain and victim. For example, some audiences may view Stanley as the villain due to his brute animalism, and Stella as the victim due to being caught in the middle of such opposing sides. However, this is a domestic tragedy and all the characters have conflicting qualities, which means that there is no clearly defined tragic hero, villain and victim. Blanche in particular has many dislikeable qualities, and is initially hard to sympathise with; perhaps she is an anti-heroine?
In many points within the first four scenes, Blanche fails to comprehend her sister’s lifestyle; ‘This – can be – her home?’ This once again shows Blanche’s ostracism from normal society, and shows her ignorance of Stanley and Stella’s relationship. This incomprehension returns in Scene 4, where she once again fails to understand their relationship, romanticising it into some kind of ‘desperate situation’ from which she must escape; ‘I’m not in anything I want to get out of’. It is ironic that Blanche assumes that Stella is being oppressed by Stanley, when it is Blanche who tends to eclipse Stella. It is this inability to clearly and objectively see relationships which is Blanche’s tragic flaw; it led her to marry a gay man, to lie to Mitch, and to make incendiary remarks about Stanley, all of which conspire to create her own tragedy.
Williams uses foreshadowing in the first four scenes to create the potential for tragedy. For example, in Scene 2, when Stanley rummages through Blanche’s trunk and throws things around, it foreshadows how he later rummages through Blanche’s life, drawing out her secrets and memories. Some audiences may interpret this invasion of privacy as a portent of her rape. Williams also foreshadows character development in these first scenes. For example, Blanche turns suddenly from tension and exhaustion (‘take them, peruse them – commit them to meory’) to the dreamy excitement of Stella’s pregnancy (‘Stella, Stella for star!) This inconsistency, along with her wavering speech, foreshadows her subsequent mental instability. Also, when Stanley tells Blanche about Stella’s pregnancy simply because he has no comeback, he unveils his spitefulness and foreshadows his later vindictiveness.
Scene 3 is important to the development of the tragedy as it unveils the violence and primitiveness that underlines Stanley and Stella’s relationship. Despite the fact that Stanley is physically violent towards Stella, she still returns to him: ‘Her eyes go blind with tenderness,’ Williams writes. This shows that her passion and love for Stanley makes her ignorant of – or overlook – his flaws. The domestic violence in Scene 3 is also important as when Stella calls Stanley an ‘animal thing’ it provokes a vicious attack from him. Blanche later makes provocative remarks about his animalism, foretelling another brutal response.
Scene 3 is also important as it prognosticates the quality of Blanche and Mitch’s relationship. We can see that they both connect on a base level because they have both experienced heartbreak: ‘there is little belongs to people who have experienced some sorrow’. However, whereas Mitch’s sorrow has made him sincere, Blanche’s sorrow has made her insincere and craving make-believe and fairy tales. Such different perspectives on such similar events show that they are ill-suited, and their relationship is destined to be fraught and unsuccessful.
An important part of the tragedy in A Streetcar Named Desire is that Blanche struggles to accept the truth, and would rather live a false, romanticised version of life, which we can see when she says ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic’. Williams uses light imagery to express this, displaying Blanche with an aversion to bright light; ‘I can’t stand a naked lightbulb’. Perhaps light represents the truth and practicality that Blanche longs to escape. Furthermore, the light imagery around Blanche is developed in her description of her relationship with Allan; ‘you suddenly turned a blinding light on… and the searchlight… was turned off again’. Perhaps light signifies love to Blanche, and the reason for her aversion is that it brings up memories to her that are too painful to recall. The fact that she describes love as a ‘spotlight’ may also highlight her need for attention and neuroticism. Light also signifies the effect of her past relationship on the way she lives her life, a mere imitation of her previous self: ‘never for one moment since has there been any light that’s stronger’. However, light imagery is also used to presage Stanley’s part in the tragedy: ‘He smashed all the lightbulbs’. This foretells the aggressive side Stanley takes towards Blanche’s truths. The fact that he puts out all the light could be an omen of her rape; nothing is real for Blanche after that.
In many ways, Scene 4 is a turning point in the play. It is the point in which Blanche makes an impassioned speech about Stanley, suggesting that he is a symbol of the degeneration of America: ‘Don’t hang back with the brutes’. Stanley overhears this, which wounds his pride, and brings up some of his own self-doubts about his status: ‘You knew I was common when you married me’. This causes Stanley to see Blanche as the problem in his relationship with Stella (‘we was fine before she arrived’) and drives him to investigate Blanche’s past, and uncover her scandal. Essentially, when Blanche condemns Stanley, she is condemning herself. Also, it is in Scene 4 where we see where Stella’s true loyalties lie. Up until then, we have seen her display equal love towards Stanley and Blanche; after Blanche expresses her disgust of Stanley, however, we see Stella embrace him. This demonstrates that perhaps her affections are tipped towards Stanley, allowing him leverage to bring about Blanche’s downfall.
In conclusion, the potential for tragedy is evident in the first four scenes of A Streetcar Named Desire as Blanche is painted as ill-fitting to everything around her. Small details foreshadow important events in the unravelling of the tragedy. These initial scenes exhibit the imperfections of the characters and relationships between them, which, catalysed by the brewing mix of tension and conflict, forms the perfect conditions for tragedy.
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