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Stanley Kowalski stumbles home drunkenly to his upstairs apartment. He sees his pregnant and glowing wife Stella preparing him dinner. Without explanation, he feels an uncontrollable rage of emotions. Stella is confused and frightened. Stanley needs to leave without explanation. This is an everyday encounter that builds up a marriage of turmoil and instability. Examining this hypothetical scene from a distanced perspective, one would assume that Stanley merely has an emotional and moody countenance, which is ultimately Stella’s loss. “A Master Sergeant in the Engineers’ Corps,” Stanley enters A Steetcar Named Desire as a veteran. However, when considering Stanley’s experience as a soldier during the war, (while not specified, it is assumed WWII due to the date of publication), a deeper analysis of his post-war behavior and interactions with other characters suggests symptoms and after-effects of PTSD. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire portrays PTSD symptoms and post-war effects through Stanley and his wavelengths with other characters. Williams’s characterization and interactions between these characters within the play is a commentary on how life alters severely after war.
In order to first breakdown PTSD within Stanley Kowalski’s characterization, it is important to understand the fundamental, medical definition of PTSD. In Michael J. Scott’s scholarly article, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Cognitive-Contextual Approach” Scott breaks down PTSD criteria. “The most recent revision of PTSD criteria is contained in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, IV edition (APA, 1994) which has the following stressor criteria, criteria A, for PTSD: The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following were present. The person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or the threat to the physical integrity of self or others. (2) The person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror” (Scott, 125). While examining the breakdown of Stanley’s characterization, Scott’s criterion becomes apparently evident.
The first introduction of Stanley in Williams’s play surfaces in Act I, Scene I. Blanche has just arrived to Stella and Stanley’s apartment and is gains details on Stanley. Blanche asks Stella if Stanley will like her (Williams, 1121). Stella oddly replies, “You’ll get along fine together, if you’ll just try not to—well—compare him with men that we went out with at home” (1121). Breaking down this two-sentence segment between Stella and Blanche, important aspects of PTSD arise. Stella warns Blanche on how she should approach Stanley. This in itself acts as a trigger to some sort of emotional instability. Matching Scott’s criterion of “The person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror,” Stella’s response towards Blanche suggests that Stanley is easily receptive to triggered emotions, which would make sense due to past experiences within the war.
When considering further Stanley’s reaction to such areas of topic that Stella wanted Blanche to avoid, the issue of Stanley’s sensitivity is important to dissect. In the scientific article, “Neural Correlates of Self-Reflection in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” by R.H. Bluhm, Bluhm goes into depth on the self-referential processing within PTSD victims and how this self-perception is seriously dangerous. “Some studies reveal disturbances in self-referential processing that can be defined as the psychological processes involved when someone either explicitly or implicitly evaluates him or herself, typically in relation to other people. Maladaptive SRP can take myriad forms, many of which are often evident in individuals with PTSD, including negative self-referential cognition (e.g. believing they are bad, permanently damaged, etc.,and negative social emotions [including guilt and shame, , emotional numbing , and dissociative symptoms ” (Bluhm. 238).
Bluhm’s description of SRP reaches back to Stella’s wariness of Blanche’s questioning. Stella does not want Blanche to compare Stanley to the men back home because of the insecurity Stanley harbors within himself. Stanley would be territorial and upset if such comparison took place because the physical, biological makeup of his PTSD affected brain retrieves poor SRP feedback. Stanley might feel that he is “not good enough” for Stella because of the damages he collected through the war. Stanley therefore responds in an aggressive and guarded way as means to protect himself from the little productive self-referential perception he has left. Through Bluhm’s article, the suggestion of self-referential perception as a product within PTSD victims brings light to how not only Stella acts towards Stanley, but how Stanley acts towards himself.
From a singular characterization of Stanley, Williams’s character description is helpful when building up the foundation in which PTSD lives. “Stanley throws the screen door of the kitchen open and comes in. He is of medium height, about five feet eight or nine, and strongly, compactly built. Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens. Branching out from this complete and satisfying enter are all the auxiliary channels of his life, such as his heartiness with men, his appreciation of rough humor, his love of good drink and food and games, his car, his radio, everything that is his, bears his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer. He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them” (1124).
Williams’s character description of Stanley raises flags leading to PTSD qualifications. “Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes” brings award-winning PTSD blogger and researcher, Michele Rosenthal’s article “The Science Behind PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes the Brain” into consideration. Published on the Psych Central website, Rosenthal’s article breaks down the biological functions of the brain that are affected by PTSD and the behaviors that result accordingly. “The four categories of PTSD symptoms include: intrusive thoughts (unwanted memories); mood alterations (shame, blame, persistent negativity); hypervigilance (exaggerated startle response); and avoidance (of all sensory and emotional trauma-related material). These cause confusing symptoms for survivors who don’t understand how they’ve suddenly become so out of control in their own minds and bodies” (Rosenthal, 1).
This set of behaviors traces back to Stanley’s “animal joy in his being, etc.” in the way it highlights the lack of control given to PTSD survivors over their emotions. Lack of control boils down to an animalistic level of functioning that leaves little room for controlled thought, complex decision making, and overall orderly commanding. Stanley performs on this lack of control as a response towards others’ interactions with him. “He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them.” (1112). Stanley acts based on how others approach him. He responds to women in certain ways based on how they appear before him. Stanley does not have composure and controlled indifference, but rather animalistic dominance that dictates how he reacts.
Rosenthal’s article further defines the exact functions of the brain that are important to consider when diagnosing Stanley. “An overstimulated amygdala: An almond-shaped mass located deep in the brain, the amygdala is responsible for survival-related threat identification, plus tagging memories with emotion. After trauma, the amygdala can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere” (Rosenthal, 1). With an overstimulated amygdala, Stanley’s behavior is constantly on “threat mode.” The “love of good drink and food and games, his car, his radio, everything that is his” (1124), becomes a part of this overstimulated amygdala as Stanley develops an over keen protection of all things labeled his. This territorial protection and appreciation draws upon the animalistic-leveled performance that Stanley relies on in protecting what is his.
Further examining the functions of the brain affected by PTSD, Rosenthal describes, “An underactive hippocampus: An increase in the stress hormone glucocorticoid kills cells in the hippocampus, which renders it less effective in making synaptic connections necessary for memory consolidation. This interruption keeps both the body and mind stimulated in reactive mode as neither element receives the message that the threat has transformed into the past tense” (Rosenthal, 1). The underactive hippocampus correlates to “the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens” (1124). Stanley’s repetitious appreciation of women stems from his response towards them. Stanley does not develop complex understanding and sound memory of individual women, but reacts on the increased glucocorticoid hormone in his brain. With an increase of this hormone, Stanley is consistently on the animalistic hunt for domination among all women. Due to the lack of synaptic connections within Stanley’s underactive hippocampus, Stanley does not form coherent and complex memories of women that would not only differentiate them from one another, but so that he would not find it necessary to indulge in his conquest.
Williams’s character description of Stanley gives great insight to how readers should view his course and animalistic ways, but also how further study highlights his behaviors as results of his war experience. Digging deeper into Stanley’s character through specific actions made in the play, a better understanding of post-war life for a soldier can be made. In Scene Three, “The Poker Night,” the appearance of alcohol and gambling comes to the stage. In this scene, Stanley, Pablo, Steve, and Mitch are in the middle of a poker game. “The poker players—Stanley, Steve, Mitch, and Pablo—wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check, a light green, and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors” (1131). From this introduction to Stanley and his friends’ past-time, Williams guides readers to the conclusion this is a rough-and-tumble group that values vulgarity and dominance.
Alcohol and gambling is not an unheard-of association for PTSD survivors. From the research article, “What Is the Association Between Traumatic Life Events and Alcohol Abuse/Dependence in People with and Without PTSD? Findings from a Nationally Representative Sample” by Mathew G. Fetzner et al, a specific examination of alcohol dependency among PTSD survivors is made. “Although much evidence suggests a strong relationship between trauma exposure and the presence of PTSD and AUDs, reports of variability in alcohol-use and PTSD symptoms among those exposed to trauma appear throughout contemporary literature. The majority of studies to date have either defined trauma as a unitary construct, or have examined only a few specific events or a select group of events irrespective of other adverse occurrences. In addition, extant literature has primarily focused on military or treatment-seeking populations. Such paucities in knowledge and methodological limitations confuse attempts to comprehensively account for the relationship between the two disorders and trauma among the general population” (Fetzner, 2).
This passage correlates Stanely and his war friends’ behavior to the trends found among PTSD survivors through their alcohol consumption. Reliance upon alcohol is a common coping mechanism designed to blur painful memories and trauma found in the horrors of war. Fetnzer and his crew’s findings in the National study conclude that, “Examination of significant AORs observed in the three series of analyses reveal robust predictability of military combat for predicting the presence of an AUD alcohol-use disorder)” . This conclusion correlates war-related events to the significant connection of an alcohol-use disorder. Stanley and his war-friends’ behaviors follow the study’s results in a predictive manner as a result of PTSD induced symptoms.
Through further interactions between Stanley and his friends, examination of speech and conversation illustrate post-war coping mechanisms. Stanley and his friends communicate through crude ways only in the presence of a game. During the poker scene, the most conversation is had between the men. This distraction of a game as means of communication points to the men’s way of safely communicating through the barrier of a game. To address real, important aspects of conversation makes the men too vulnerable and requires their protective shield to be disarmed from their brain. Because of this simple way of communicating, expression is not easily controlled. Mitch throws down watermelon rinds as a way to show his frustration (1134). Stanley slaps Stella’s thigh to assert his dominance amongst his companions (1135). These action-based forms of communication stem from the same basic response system in the overstimulated amygdala part of the PTSD brain. By being on “threat mode” 24/7, Stanley and his war companions have no means of communication in coherent, structuralized ways. To get across their points in an impactful way, actions truly speak louder than words.
The most disturbing case of action-based expression in Stanley’s character is through the domestic abuse lashed out upon Stella. PTSD is a common connecting factor linked towards domestic abuse. Examining case studies exploring domestic abuse among PTSD survivors and their partners, an interesting variation occurred. Erin Finley detailed these case studies in her scholarly journal, “Patterns and Perceptions of Intimate Partner Violence Committed by Returning Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” found in the Journal of Family Violence. In this article, Finley interviewed an array of partnerships with PTSD survivors in order to search for Intimate Partner Violence, or IPV within the population. “Three case studies illustrate two main findings. First, Veterans and family members participating in the study described three patterns of partner violence—violence committed in anger; dissociative violence; and parasomniac/hypnopompic violence—suggesting that distinct patterns of IPV may emerge in relation to PTSD symptoms. Second, participants’ descriptions suggest that common ideas about PTSD and war-related suffering can play an important role in influencing how Veterans and their partners respond to episodes of partner violence” (Finley, 3). This introduction to the case study is important in recognizing the many differences found within intimate partner violence and how different behaviors do not fit under one general umbrella.
When going into the specific case studies, two case studies stood out in their diversity and relatability to Stanley and Stella. The first study was labeled as “direct abuse.” This study reads as, “Of the 19 Veterans’ transcripts reviewed, six made spontaneous reference to incidents of IPV, all of which included physical battery such as punching, hitting, or choking” (Finley, 2). This definition of direct abuse points back to the pointed, actual, physical harm Stanley lashes out on Stella. “She backs out of sight. He advances and disappears. There is the sound of a blow. Stella cries out. Blanche screams and runs into the kitchen. The men rush forward and there is grappling and cursing. Something is overturned with a crash” (1137).
The stage directions in this scene describes the physical harm Stanley does to Stella as he strikes her for playing music. Finely’s case studies represent the population of PTSD partnerships that lay out similarly with the scene portrayed in A Streetcar Named Desire. This direct abuse can be biologically explained through Rosenthal’s description of the PTSD brain’s functions. “However, for those 20 percent of trauma survivors who go on to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — an unmitigated experience of anxiety related to the past trauma — the shift from reactive to responsive mode never occurs. Instead, the reptilian brain, primed to threat and supported by dysregulated activity in significant brain structures, holds the survivor in a constant reactive state” (Rosenthal, 1). From this constant fight response, Stanley is trained to only react upon threat responses, which at the time, he found Stella threatening. Not all cases of PTSD partnerships fall under this direct-abuse category. Finley found that another branch of abuse exists within her case studies. This type of abuse is defined as “dissociative abuse.”
In this abuse, partnerships experienced a different effect of PTSD side-effects through the observation of partners, Joan and Cary. “When Joan was interviewed separately, she explained that the violence began after Cary’s first deployment, during episodes that he describes as “sleep-walking” and she describes as “dissociative.” She depicts Cary as pacing the house at night, muttering to himself” (Finley, 4). In Joan and Cary’s relationship, a more distanced form of abuse takes precedence. This dissociative abuse stems from unconscious behaviors such as sleep walking. Through the veil of an unknowing, uncontrolled action (like sleep walking) to perform violence, dissociative abuse becomes a dense, and complex area to understand. How is Joan supposed to understand her husband’s violent actions when it occurs during unconscious activities? Dissociative abuse is a complicated form of abuse to study because it is solely based upon primal, instinctive responses.
Stanley performs a combination of both intimate partner violence types. Direct abuse is seen through Stanley’s direct physical harm he acts towards Stella. However, through the distance put between himself and his wife, he is unfaithful. This is an example of dissociative abuse as Stanley does not conduct rationale, complex thought to develop reasoning for his actions. He acts purely through response, which would be seen in a direct abuse light, save for the wall of unreasoning formed in his PTSD brain. Lashing out towards Blanche, Stanley builds a wall of distance from the moral duty to his wife, and the rationale-performing function in his brain that dissolves decision making to the very limited and basic-animalistic function. This dissonance between decision making and acting out stems from Rosenthal’s description of the PTSD affected areas of the brain.
Another serious form of abuse Stanley acts out is sexual abuse, or very specifically, rape. At the end of the play, Stanley and Blanche reach the height of an argument and without letting her pass by, Stanley rapes Blanche. This sexual aggression has been studied in a number of scholarly articles seeking to correlate a connection between traumatic experiences in the war to civilian life PTSD actions. It is important to recognize the possibility of sexual abuse within the very regiments of the army that correlates to civilian-life sexual abuse. In a study done by Maureen Murdoch et al, entitled, “Gender Differences in Service Connection for PTSD,” Murdoch and her partners sought to develop investigative statistics of soldiers’ experiences of sexual abuse during their time at war. To begin, these statistics were measured through a specific form. “Veterans’ current PTSD symptom severity was measured using the Penn Inventory for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Penn Inventory).
The Penn Inventory’s internal consistency, as measured using Cronbach’s alpha, was 0.94 in this study. Scores range from 0 (no symptoms) to 78 (most severe), and scores of 35 or more identify cases of PTSD in veterans with an accuracy of 93% to 97%. (Murdoch, 952). From these numbers, symptoms were able to gain numerical value and track severity simultaneously. The definitions of sexual trauma and abuse were defined as, “In-service sexual trauma was conceptualized to include sexual harassment and sexual assault and was assessed using the Sexual Harassment Inventory (SHI). The SHI measures the two domains of sexual harassment defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (ie, a hostile work environment and quid pro quo sexual harassment) and a third domain pertaining to criminal sexual misconduct” (952). Further along the qualifications of this study, “Veterans were considered to have been sexually assaulted if they were forced to have sex against their will or if someone attempted to force them to have sex against their will” (952). After sifting through the many, specific qualifications of sexual assault and harassment, the study found an alarming result. “In a small internal validation study, the four questions regarding in-service sexual assault status with an accuracy of 91%” (952). This study revealed an overwhelmingly high rate of veterans that experienced some sort of sexual abuse/assault.
It is important to unveil the possibility of sexual assault toward Stanley during his war experience as it would be a crucial factor in dissecting his own assault upon Blanche. By correlating sexual assault upon Stanley during his time at war, the assault upon Blanche factors under a projected assault due to overwhelming mental stress of PTSD. It is important to address in both the domestic and sexual assault scenes in the play, even with scientific research backing up the possibility of PTSD related factors as the provoking indicator of the assaults, such crime should not be deemed acceptable even with the chance of a PTSD circumstance. This would be, rather, Williams’s way of addressing the need for conversation in understanding how post-war life is difficult for soldiers coming home and those they encounter.
While the relationships between Stanley and the two women he mainly encounters in the play is an important piece of PTSD study, the specific relationship between Stanley and Mitch uncovers a critical part of post-war life for soldiers. In literature, a phenomenon has been created that illuminates the “war-buddy” dynamic. In this dynamic, an unbreakable bond is made between soldiers that experienced the rough of the war and came back home to adjust to life once again. This phenomenon includes war buddies drinking together, gambling together, talking women together, and always adhering to the sacred foundation of loyalty within the bond. The war-buddy dynamic follows suit under the literary criticism of queer theory.
Though queer theory seems to be a relatively drastic way of categorizing the war-buddy relationship, scholarship supports this categorization through the specifiers that occur in the relationship. “The strong and exclusive bond between war comrades has historically received many different names: from the classic terms traditionally used to describe it—“friendship,” “comradeship,” “fraternity” or “ésprit de corps”— to more elaborate and wide-ranging notions like “homosociality,” “homoaffectionalism” and “male bonding” (Pivordi, 1). Pivordi dictates the differentiating labels the war-buddy dynamic has received and how through the many different kinds, a sameness arises through the intimacy and uniqueness found through war-friendships. Pivordi goes further to discuss, “A more recent distinction between “friendship” and “comradeship” is crucial to the literary representation of male bonding during the Great War” (1). This comradeship is relevant in A Streetcar Named Desire through the direct interactions between Stanley and Mitch.
In Williams’s drama, Stanley and Mitch spend a lot of time together. They are in the same bowling league, they have poker night together, they understand the details of each other’s personal life. The time spent together in everyday life is an important part for the two characters as means of coping in civilian life. During the war, Stanley and Mitch experienced horrors that would be inexplicable to Stella or Blanche. While Stanley and Mitch do not openly talk about these experiences together during the play, this does not fringe away from any PTSD related symptoms as repression is an often-applied coping mechanism for trauma (Rosenthal, 1). What does get discussed, however, is the details of Blanche’s personal history. “Mitch is a buddy of mine. We were in the same outfit together. Two-forty-first Engineers. We work in the same plant and now on the same bowling team…You’re goddamn right I told him! I’d have that on my conscience the rest of my life if I knew all that stuff and let my best friend get caught up in it” (1158). In this encounter, Stanley relays to Stella how he deemed it absolutely necessary to inform Mitch on Blanche’s history due to their deeply rooted camaraderie.
Mitch’s actions from this encounter is what is essentially crucial within the war-buddy dynamic. After hearing this news from Stanley, Mitch is able to put aside his emotions and strictly adheres to what Stanley has told him. This is important in the sense that Mitch separated his own happiness and reasoning capabilities in order to comply with what his friend told him. This factors into the war-friendship in the way during battle, soldiers were not to disobey a command in any way, no matter how personally conflicting it may be. Stanley’s relationship and word is more important that Blanche’s ever could be. Regarding Pivordi further, “This combination of emotional intimacy and physical presence provides an interesting challenge to the conventional heroic and anti-heroic readings, entailing a vision of male bonding that recuperates strength and courage without sacrificing private, authentic feelings” (Pividori, 1). Stanley and Mitch rely on each other as they face an even bigger war: life after battle. Without rationale processing due to the trauma faced in everyday life, Mitch and Stanley act purely on command and response. These functions are how they survived during the war, and the tools left with their PTSD functioning capabilities.
A Streetcar Named Desire is littered with timeless, legendary literary moments that highlight everyday life in lower-class America. Through a PTSD examination of qualifying characters, the effect of war in the dysfunctionality in the play becomes overwhelmingly present and an important aspect to raise discussion. Williams’s portrayal of Stanley as a product of the horrors of war gives light to how PTSD victims cope with civilian life, and the many symptoms of the disorder that haunt the functionality of the survivors and their relationships. In order to gain perspective, it is crucial to view life through the lens of the survivor, a feat Williams accomplishes as Stanley wreaks a path of chaos and disorder: just like the experiences he faced in war. Readers are able to gain civilian perspective in encountering PTSD through Blanche and Stella, as they are scarred through Stanley’s destructive actions. PTSD is a relatively new medical discovery in its technicalities, but has existed through humanity as trauma reaches all wavelengths of life. By reading, viewing, and expressing PTSD through the lens of literary classics, discussion can be made on how recovery can be made, and understanding accomplished.
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