Table of Contents
- Symbolism of Innocence and Purity in Blanche's Presentation
- Blanche's Split Personality and Societal Shifts
- Blanche's Feminist Rebellion and Its Consequences
In class we were reflection on question whether Blanche is a Villain or Victim in the play called 'A Streetcar Named Desire'? In this essay I am going to analyze the complexity of this question with the help of some arguments and personal statements. Throughout the critically acclaimed play 'A Streetcar Named Desire', Williams presents the wealthy southern belle Blanche Dubois through the metaphor of a moth within the opening scenes of the play. Blanche's delicate beauty a fragile femininity which foreshadows her own deterioration because of her own desire heightened by the setting of New Orleans. He emphasises the split personality within Blanche's character as she is presented as tragic victim illustrated through her presentation as a social outcast and doomed from the start. Shirley Galloway argues that 'Blanche is both a victim and a villain', this supports the view that Blanche is a controversial character who is either viewed as a manipulative individual who owns no sense of compassion for others, or as an emotionally unstable character who has turned to alcohol and other outlets as a result of suffering tragedy at an early age, which continues to play a larger role in her later life.
Symbolism of Innocence and Purity in Blanche's Presentation
Primarily, at the beginning of Scene 1 Williams instantly presents the incongruous character of Blanche as a symbol of fragile femininity in contrast to the decaying backdrop of New Orleans, thus immediately victimising her as her first actions in the play are ones of confusion and disorientation and it is made explicitly clear that her actions are involuntary. In stage directions, Williams portrays Blanche as a 'delicate beauty' and being draped in 'white' bearing connotations of innocence and purity which is symbolic of Blanche's desire to be seen as pure and ethereal. She almost presents herself in a biblical light descending from higher status, as if untainted but also as a god-like character not only sexually clean but supercilious in social hierarchy. She views herself not only as socially superior in her 'pearls', but also glamourous and a figure of admiration for men, she expects to be flattered and treated with a princess persona. Although we see Blanche as a product of her social upbringing, her false illusion of social superiority derived from the colour 'white' insinuates an inability to accept her new environment will be agnostic to Stanley and his working-class roots. Therefore, this fade of her being a victim begins to fade as she forces her Old South values onto New America, which creates an immediate contrast in ideologies, bringing into question whether Blanche is a victim or deserving of her tragic fate. Nonetheless, she is also described as 'moth-like'. The zoomorphism of moths also insinuates a naivety behind her regal appearance as, similar to moths, she is foreshadowed to be led by attraction. Moths are also known for making senseless and nervous gestures, displaying the fact she is tense due to her inability to fit in to her new environment. This presents Blanche as a victim as she is out of tune with the ways of her new environment and therefore any manipulative behaviours she performs are put down to a lack of understanding. The zoomorphism of the moth could also be adapted to Blanche as it suggests her fate is to live in darkness, which could perhaps symbolise her ignorance therefore we villainise Blanche due to her inability to accept a society full of modernisation and change and her being stuck in her traditional ways. From the beginning, this attraction to danger presented in the 'broken world' of New Orleans suggests an instability in her character, which further progresses into a sense of inner turmoil. This victimisation aligns with Aristotle's conventions of a tragedy and presents her as a victim of circumstances, however the controversy sustained within her character alludes to Blanche's own vision of herself the victim of her own narrative and presenting this vulnerable aspect to her character that conflicts with the perfect appearance she struggles to maintain. Williams victimises Blanche, his comparison to this clinical 'white' emphasises the significance of her entrance as she, in this play, is an embodiment of the 'traditional' values of the Old South. However, the tragic destruction of Blanche acts as a greater allegory to the ending of old-fashioned and dated attitudes, embodying the death of an era and representing the changing society Williams witnessed around him.
Blanche's Split Personality and Societal Shifts
Blanche Dubois derives from an aristocratic background, the paragon of the virginal southern Belle that philanders with men and entices them into the fantasy of romance of romance and courting. Aristocratic men would expect a lady to seem unavailable, yet stills show desire and in the Old Southern etiquette this pleased both genders and was accepted. However, when she is catapulted into a new like with proletariat Stanley who foils the ways of the old South and views women as mere objects to be sexually subservient, a split personality emerges within Blanche's character. Perhaps Williams does this as an attack on women who strive to appear pure, but behind this fade is an untrustworthy and manipulative character. In scene 3, Williams sets up the motif of the light as a symbol of insecurity and Blanche complains about how 'she can't stand a naked light bulb' and so 'she bought this adorable light-coloured paper lantern'. Her conveying a despise of a 'naked light' and her having to cover it up with a 'lantern' could perhaps be symbolic for her insecurity of growing older and therefore undesirable in a society that thrived of patriarchy, so she feels the need to hide her aging to demonstrate her anxiety and obsession over how men respond to her to find a suitable suitor which aligns with her aristocratic upbringing. The light imagery presents a dim light which connotes ideas of a self-inflicted blindness where she can reimagine the society she is ostracised by, and also try to revert to being young and desirable woman. Therefore, we see Blanche as a victim of cruel and traditional misogynistic attitudes and a victim of her own upbringing. However, Blanche's detest for this 'naked light' brings out her privileged attitudes, as it shows an inability to be able to integrate into a impoverish society. This leads to a lack of empathy for Stanley which makes him feel insecure, providing emphasis to her eventual submission to Stanley and her mental degradation. This is inarguably a result of her own conscious behaviours which present her as a villain and demonstrates how she is stuck in the ways of romanticising her past which consisted of extreme racist prejudice and judgement - thus foreshadowing how she will be destroyed due to her own inability to accept modernity and change. This again shows a breakaway from the innocent fade Blanche strives to maintain. Nonetheless, lanterns are symbolic for luck and prosperity which could also be argued to hide Blanche's darker past and the idea of progression emphasises Blanche's desire for a future where women are able to unfetter from patriarchy and be seen as spiritual beings, not as slaves and sexual toys. Critic Nancy Tischler expressed how Blanche 'unconsciously invites the violence that destroys her, which portrays her as a victim' as we empathise with her being a product of her upbringing which leads to her desire of being back in a place that brought her comfort and internal ease without an insecurity of not being able to fit in. However even with this, we still villainise her as Stella seem to be accepting of the ways of New America despite deriving from the same upbringing as Blanche thus highlighting Blanche's pretentiousness hiding behind a veneer of social snobbery and sexual propriety. Williams uses Blanche to satirically attack the social injustices in society of social upbringing and gender struggles which ignites a battle within the self, cleverly displaying that self-inflicted oppression stemming from orthodox values was a catalyst for her inevitable downfall.
Blanche's Feminist Rebellion and Its Consequences
To proceed, Williams further presents Blanche as a victim by expressing how her fate had already been preconceived for her by an inherently patriarchal and misogynistic society as a satirical attack on males who rely on females to enhance their superiority ironic as females are viewed as the inferior gender. In scene 7, Blanche sings the infamous Jazz song 'It's only a paper moon' saying, 'It's only a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea but it wouldn't be make-believe if you believe in me' which echoes her need for someone to validate her existence and surroundings. The fragility of 'paper' and 'moon' is symbolic of constraint or even danger, perhaps representing how she is a product of her circumstances and how her life is out of her control thus showing her fear of survival in her new lower-class environment. The metaphysical imagery of 'moon' and 'sea' suggests freedom and how Blanche seeks to escape her position by seeking joy and freedom in this spiritual world as her escape from a patriarchal society that she has been forced into. Williams creates this contrast between ideas of restraint and ideas of freedom as being parallel to Blanche's illusion vs Blanche's reality as mechanism of cruel defence against her cruel reality. Critics suggest that 'Williams choice in song is not accidental and that Blanche sings the lyrics with light-heartedness, her lyrical choice and purposeful omission shows her emphasis on staying in her fantasy world' which suggests how her being a female has disadvantaged her in a morally barren society leaving her vulnerable to the whims and fancies of men so she turns to this fantasy world to have a false sense of control in her like. This is backed up by Stanley claiming 'her future has been mapped out for her'. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition between restraint and freedom could also suggest a conflict between males and females and it could be argued that although we admire Blanche for her feminist rebellion, she antagonises males that essentially have the ability to destroy her, thus showing that Blanche villainises herself by making enemies out of those who have fundamental control over her fate. Despite this, it could also be argued that Blanche does this as she doesn't have understanding of New America and that her antagonization of Stanley is only to protect herself from the dangers that he possesses for her little sister Stella. Williams centralises Blanche as a victim in order to expose the exploitation of women, conveying her as a female who is trying to achieve liberation against a society which emphasises social control.
With all perspectives taken into consideration, it can be said Blanche is not a victim as she is in control of her own actions and the result of it. Her excessive drinking and provocative sexual intentions lead her into a world where she is not in control and therefore, she becomes distressed when this reliance on alcohol and sex as a form of escapism begin to fade and her reality starts to take over. However, it could be concluded that Blanche is a victim, a 'tragic hero', as she follows her heart throughout her life as opposed to letting herself be guided by reason. Blanche's hamartia of giving in to desire is infused with love and violence. At the end of the play, the audience are overwhelmed with a sense of catharsis as we feel pity for Blanche, despite bringing her fate onto herself, she still knows no different. In this sense, Blanche Dubois is presented as a victim because she is presented as a character who cannot face the harsh limitations of her reality.
- Williams, T. (1947). A Streetcar Named Desire. New Directions.
- Bloom, H. (Ed.). (2010). Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. Infobase Publishing.
- Spoto, D. (2016). Blanche DuBois: An Anti-Heroine of Tragedy in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. In The Creative Act: Literature and Its Creative Act (pp. 45-60). Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
- Mazer, C. (2009). Blanche's Destruction: Feminist Analysis on A Streetcar Named Desire. Forum: University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture & the Arts, 9.
- O'Connor, J. (1952). A Streetcar Named Success. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1952/11/30/archives/a-streetcar-named-success-a-story-about-fate-and-circumstance-by.html
- Rayfield, E. (2018). The Different Faces of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Studies in Literature and Language, 16(3), 40-46.
- Shmoop Editorial Team. (2008). Character Analysis: Blanche DuBois. Shmoop. https://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/literature/a-streetcar-named-desire/blanche-dubois
- Fontenot, M. (2005). The Breaking of Blanche DuBois: The Destruction of Female Sexual Identity in A Streetcar Named Desire. Notes on Contemporary Literature, 35(4), 6-8.