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“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a story of damaged people. Blanche DuBois, a repressed and sexually warped Southern belle, seeks either atonement or reassurance; she wants someone to help lift the burden of her guilt for her twisted sexuality. Meanwhile, Stanley Kowalski, a horrifyingly abusive yet unexpectedly tender “common man,” seems to be crying out for help in a post-World War II world where all he has to offer are his “common” brutishness and his rough love. The visible troubles of these maimed characters tend, however, to hide the more fundamental crimes of Stella Kowalski, the spectator who watches her husband destroy her sister’s life. In observing Blanche’s torment and Stanley’s cruelty, and ultimately making the decision that throws Blanche into the jaws of her worst nightmare and affirms the triumph of “animals” like Stanley, her transgression is less discernible–but it is also much graver.
From the beginning of the play, Stella pretends Blanche’s obvious anguish is invisible to her. In Scene One, their first meeting, Blanche is visibly distraught, even in her first words to Stella, saying, “I thought you would never come back to this horrible place! What am I saying?…I meant to be nice about it and say-Oh, what a convenient location and such…” (19). She even bluntly expresses her self-disgust with her exclamation “Daylight never exposed so total a ruin!” (21). Later, when Blanche timidly broaches the subject of the loss of Belle Reve, she all but demands clemency: “I’ll expect you to be understanding about what I have to tell you….you’re bound to reproach me-but before you do-take into consideration…I stayed and struggled!” (25). Yet Stella refuses to express compassion for her sister’s anguish, even chiding her, “Stop this hysterical outburst!” (26) and answering Blanche’s frenzied request with coldness: “Stella, I knew you would take this attitude about it!” (26). Moreover, after Blanche’s gruesome speech about the sickness and death she has observed, Stella reacts only to the fact that Blanche has insulted her husband. In her reunion with her sister, Stella has managed to ignore Blanche’s suffering, support Stanley instead, and refuse Blanche’s unmistakable appeal of “Forgive me” (27).
Once Blanche has met Stanley, the three characters form a painful triangular relationship. Stanley arrogantly abuses Blanche, while Stella tries merely to preserve peace. Stanley’s rudeness to Blanche when Stella is not present could be considered outside Stella’s jurisdiction. However, his disrespect toward Blanche is hardly hidden from her view, and at the end of Scene Three, when he is drunk and unforgivably aggressive toward both of them, Stella still returns to his bed.
In Scene Four, Blanche’s protective instincts toward Stella, whom she calls “My baby sister!” (62), reveals her caring, gentle nature. In fact, Blanche even concludes that Stella is in greater need than herself, remarking, “Your fix is worse than mine is” (65). However, all this well-meant concern is rebuffed. Stella acts superior and condescending, asserting that Blanche is “making too much fuss about this” (63). Confronted with the “empty bottles” and the “mess in the room,” evidence of Stanley’s destructive rage, Stella construes, “Oh, well, it’s his pleasure, like mine is movies and bridge. People have got to tolerate each other’s habits, I guess” (65). Indeed, in a relationship where she “tolerates” the abusive habits of a man who has insulted and terrified her own sister, Stella is in a worse “fix” than Blanche. Yet, simultaneously, she is ridiculing Blanche’s concern and undermining her self-confidence.
In a classic tragedy, the opening actions of the characters set into place events from which it becomes impossible to turn back. After Stanley rapes Blanche in Scene Ten, she petitions once more for Stella’s support. Blanche offers her sister the chance to believe her instead of Stanley. It is the same opportunity she has offered Mitch and every other figure over the course of her existence: to believe the awful history of her sins and forgive her as one victimized.
At this point in the play, the point of no return lies in Stella’s hands. She can choose to defend her husband, evidence of whose violence she has already experienced many times in the past, or she can finally side with her sister, whom she has always known as a misunderstood, sincerely troubled, but essentially well-meaning person. Yet Stella decides according to her acceptance of Stanley’s power over her. She illustrates this selfish, unquestioning acceptance herself: “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley” (133), implying that “living with Stanley” is, for her, the ultimate and indisputable ideal. When Stella decides to send Blanche to a mental institution in order to maintain her life of “colored lights” and “noises” with Stanley, she commits the worst offense in the play. She has denied Blanche trust and respite and allowed Stanley–who represents the primal, merciless forces in the world that obstruct mercy toward the meek–to prevail.
The enormity of Stella’s error is heightened by the fact that Blanche and Stanley are both on the precipice. Blanche is on the verge of a complete mental breakdown, while Stanley’s erratic brutality must be stopped for his own safety, not to mention that of all the people around him. From their first conversation in Scene One, Blanche reveals her precarious mental state to Stella, who disregards it. Later in the play, when Stella spills Coke on Blanche’s dress, her hysterical reaction is notable: “Blanche gives a piercing cry” (80). Explaining her tense condition, Blanche begs for a refuge to which she can turn, “I want to rest! I want to breathe quietly again” (81). Faced with this confidence, Stella promises that Blanche will someday achieve the peace she longs for, and finally defends her in front of Stanley in Scene Seven.
Yet when it matters most, when Blanche, crestfallen, demands an explanation for Mitch’s absence in Scene Eight, Stella fails once again to support her sister. The only consolation Stella can manage in the face of Blanche’s heart-breaking despair is a “pitying look” (110). Meanwhile, Stanley’s troubles have been, if possible, even more noticeable than Blanche’s. Stanley thinks nothing of hitting his wife in public (48) or pitching a radio out the window, simply because he does not like the music Blanche is enjoying. Stella simply stands by, observing all this outrageous violence as an uninvolved, unaffected person, rendering her even more of a fiend.
One can say it’s not Stella’s fault. She chose this life with Stanley from the beginning, making him her priority, rather than her sister. But how is it justifiable to completely abandon one’s sister? Although Stella’s crime may be hidden by the troubles of Stanley and Blanche, her atrocious passivity is much worse. Here, Williams is asking us not to become Stella. He has created a martyr in Blanche’s character, sacrificing her to a mental institution in the hope that the audience, charged as witnesses, will learn not to allow the Blanches of the world to be downtrodden in the same way, nor to allow the Stanleys of the world to succeed in their abuse. A Streetcar Named Desire is Williams’ warning to us of what will happen if we fail in our duty as witnesses. It is also his reminder of how close Blanche is to all of us, and how easily we, too, can be victims abandoned to the jaws of the wolf.
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