There's a sort of invisible thread from Madame Bovary
to A Streetcar Named Desire
, which in its route gets tied up in a hot whorehouse and wraps vainly around the cosmetics section of a pharmacy in the Southern United States before knotting at its terminus in New Orleans. I find it almost criminal how often people mistake Blanche duBois' whimsy for female frailty, for I think she is an almost unnaturally strong character; far, far moreso than her timid sister Stella. Perhaps it is because her foil, and diametric opposite, Stanley is so much so the iron casting of masculine strength and violence, that make Blanche seem to the reader/viewer so relatively weak. But the play is dominated by the very different strengths of these enormous characters: Stanley's violent force and Blanche's imaginative power.
Blanche, like her French-bourgeois predecessor, Emma Bovary, has an old fashioned ideal of romance which she cannot reconcile with her amorous experiences. Unlike Emma, Blanche has a much more sordid history, and as a result has become the battleground between her vain illusions and her knowing disillusionment. Having fallen in love with a gay boy in her youth, who subsequently died, she sought love in the many men of the local army camp, living a prostitute's kind of life, and even had an affair with a young male student, until she lost her family estate, Belle Reve (presumably from "belle rêve
," french for "beautiful dream" - and appropriately a common name for sanitariums, along with belle vue
) which she lost to debtors. Blanche's world: her home, her job, her love (or search therefor), everything, she loses, and flees her soiled reputation to live with her sister Stella and her husband Stanley Kowalski. She has a passionate imagination, which is her last remaining crutch of her fragile sanity:
“I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that's sinful, then let me be damned for it!”
Her desperation for romance, for magic, in her life is the only avenue remaining for her escape. That's what Streetcar Names Desire
is about: escape. Escape from the shameful past, drinking to escape from the dully painful present, and escape from the violent future. Blanche eventually retreats fully into her own self-delusions of romantic escape when her past creeps unexpectedly into the present.
The story of Stella and Stanley is a time-creep of the opposite orientation: Stella is made aware of the dangers and disturbances of a future with Stanley by the mistreatment of her sister. Stella sheds her luxurious tears at the the curtain close as a rueful acknowledgement of the tension between reality and illusion. While she cannot fully believe Blanche's story, she cannot bring herself to fully deny it either. Her vision of Stanley, of her sister, and of her life spread out ahead of her are forever changed by what has transpired. Though she stays with Stanley, her relationship with him is tainted with something of mistrust and fear.
Illusion in the play, the main funhouse mirror, is the illusion of appearance. Everything has a surface and an interior, and there is a struggle, a contradiction, between the veneer of appearance and the truth of substance. Blanche becomes obsessed with her appearance, rather than reconciling herself with the maelstrom of emotion and fear which boils beneath the surface, she suffocates her own Self by the feint play of her made-up appearance. She has an imagination which approaches prolepsis in its improvisational fervor. She always has a lie, a fraud, a gloss-over for the truth which is black inside of her. She is fearful of the light, which not only shows her aging appearance, signs of aging she she cannot cover-up, but is also symbolic for the truths which are rising like slag to the surface, revealing the cold worn metal beneath. What she cannot escape is that the world does not have the magic which she seeks, the most powerful force around her is truth, and it is truth which she feels she needs to escape. The tension between truth and "magic" eventually destroys her psyche.
For Stanley, escape, illusion, is obtained through vice: drinking, gambling, domestic abuse and violence. His fears of incompetence and undeserving are evaded through his violent actions, which both evade questioning yet also show his hand. He is mirrored man to Blanche, and she the revealing pier-glass to him. Because they are so opposed, they reveal the truths in each other's characters. Stanley's violence is incompatible with Blanche's romantic visions of the world, particularly her vision of men. In Stanley she seems a savage character, almost like the stock ruffian of a Spanish romance, but one which is violent even to her, which is violent in its uncovering of her secrets: one which is deliberately cruel
. This deliberate cruelty on the part of Stanley is something which Blanche finds "the only thing not forgivable" and the only thing which has the true power to shatter her war-worn illusions. For Stanley, Blanche represents the world which shares his wife, but which he fears has a stronger, atavistic claim on her. He can never offer Stella money or blissful security, he can never offer her culture. Blanche is the very manifestation of these ideals, and her romantic vision of the world is alluring to all around her, her imaginative power is a danger to Stanley's marriage, because it is a reminded to him and to Stella of the kind of life which they can never have with each other.
"They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!"
Desire and death: the only ways to reach paradise!