Symbols and Symbolism in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire
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The most obvious symbol used in A Streetcar Named Desire is its title and the actual reference, in the play, to the streetcars named Desire and Cemeteries. They are the means by which Blanche was brought to the home of Stanley and Stella and, as the play unfolds, we realize the names of the streetcars have a greater significance. Blanche's instructions were to “take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries." When Blanche first arrives she is possessed by a desire for love and understanding, but always in the background lurks the fear of death and destruction. If the one cannot be obtained, a transfer to the other will be the inevitable alternative. Blanche indicates this in her speech to Mitch in scene…show more content…
Perhaps one can go further in suggesting that Paradise was originally created for two. The intrusion of a third member caused sin and despair. Elysian Fields will never be the same for Stanley and Stella after Blanche's departure.
During Blanche's slow and inevitable journey toward insanity she is constantly looking for a means of escape.With ‘defiant courage’ in the face of inevitable defeat, Blanche tries to survive with dignity (Adler 13). Realizing that satisfaction is impossible in the Kowalski household, she reaches out desperately to Mitch. When this means of escape becomes unattainable she creates an escape of her own, Shep Huntleigh. He is a symbol of the perfect gentleman for whom Blanche searched but never really found. She found him, however, in her world of fantasy. As Blanche's deterioration increases, Huntleigh becomes a more vital and dominant illusion for her.
In scene nine we hear the vendor's cry of the Mexican Woman, "Flores, flores para los muertos" (flowers, flowers for the dead). It follows the moment when Mitch denounces Blanche as a liar and thereupon refuses to marry her. The vendor's cry becomes symbolic of Blanche's failure to remain among the living. Blanche protests by shouting "No, no! Not now! Not now!" but the cry persists and in the following moment Blanche loses her hold on reality.
Throughout the play there is a continual reference to light. It is used in the form of bright sunlight,
Symbolism in A Streetcar Named Devices
In literature, symbols are widely used by authors as a means of emphasising certain atmospheres and characteristic features of people and places. A symbol is an object or image that stands for itself and also for something else. In a sense, all language is symbolic considering that letters form words which stand for, or symbolise, real things. However, in literature, a symbol can be thought of as an image that evokes a different aspect of reality in order to suggest another level of meaning.
Blanche DuBois is the main character of the play and also the most thoroughly described one. The name Blanche is French and means white or fair. Her last name DuBois is of French origin as well and translates as made of wood.
Since the colour white stands for purity, innocence and virtue, the symbolism of Blanche‘s first name reveals these qualities, which stand in contrast to her actual character traits. The name suggests that Blanche is a very innocent and pure person, but throughout the play it becomes obvious that Blanche cannot call any of these traits her own. Only the illusory image which she tries to create for herself suggests these traits, but her true nature is not like that at all. She constantly tries to hide her embarrassing past from all of her new acquaintances, because she fears that they might not accept her anymore. In order to maintain her apparent social status among her new neighbours and friends, she builds this intertwined net of lies which creates a false image of herself. She herself believes in this imaginary world, and as soon as there is the slightest sign of its destruction, she seems to be lost, and her nervous condition worsens. Therefore all she cares about is to keep that image alive. Her first name is therefore quite ironic since it means the exact opposite of Blanche’s true nature and character.
Her last name, however, stands in contrast to her first name. ‘Made of wood’ suggests something solid and hard, which is the exact opposite of her fragile nature and nervous condition. However, woodcan also be associated with forest or jungle, and regarding her past, the connection becomes clear. Blanche used to indulge in a rather excessive lifestyle. She had sex with random strangers and was known throughout her hometown for that. So her former life was more like a jungle or a forest, because it was hard to see through all this and detect the real Blanche. As in a jungle, Blanche could not find a way out of this on her own. The term jungle appears in the play as well. In scene ten, when is about to rape Blanche, “the inhuman jungle voices rise up” (Williams 215). The jungle can be associated with wildness, brutality and inhuman behaviour.
As already mentioned above, wood represents something hard, or hard-working. The Du in front ofthat, however, suggests something aristocratic and noble. There seems to be a contradiction in these two terms which can be explained with the nature of her character. The way Blanche tries to create an aristocratic and sophisticated image of herself, but is in fact the complete opposite, displays this ambiguity.
Combined with her first name, her entire name would translate as “white wood,” which she explains to Mitch in scene three, “It’s a French name. It means woods and Blanche means white, so the two together mean white woods” (Williams 150). Blanche DuBois cannot only be translated as white wood but also as white and made of wood, which makes it easier for the reader to detect that she seems pure and innocent on the outside, but is really quite tough and calculating when it comes down to her image and her future, especially concerning her search for a husband.
Overall, Blanche’s entire name is heavily symbolic because it reflects her true nature in a very clear way. Just as first and last name are being read out in an exact order, Blanche’s character is revealed in the same way. At first she seems to be innocent and pure, but later her past and her true nature can be discovered.
Stella is a Latin term which simply means star. Stars in general are considered to be the light which breaks through the darkness. Considering that light is the opposite of darkness, and darkness itself stands for not-knowing and intellectual dullness, the stars can be regarded as reality and knowledge shining through ignorance. Stars can also be a symbol for high ideals or goals set too high. Stella represents Blanche’s ideal concerning the fact that she is leading a contented life.
The deeper significance of her name reveals her role in the play. The symbol of a star suggests light, hope and stability. This is quite a good description of her role and her position in the play. Stella is the connection between Blanche and Stanley, the two major characters, because she contains character traits of both of them, and can therefore relate to them better than anyone else can. Therefore she can be considered to be the stabilising element of the play. She is the negotiator between the two so very different characters. Stella and Blanche have the same rather wealthy and cultivated background, which is the connection between the two women. Stella also has several things in common with Stanley.One of them is their love for wild sex (Ehrenhaft 72). During a conversation with Blanche, Stella tells her about her wedding night:
Stella:Why, on our wedding night – soon as we came in here – he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light-bulbs with it.
Blanche: He did – what?
Stella: He smashed all the light-bulbs with the heel of my slipper!
Blanche: And you – you let him? Didn’t run, didn’t scream?
Stella: I was – sort of – thrilled by it. (Williams 157).
This excerpt clearly shows the connection between Stella and Stanley, but there is something else that ties them together. Stella is, just like , very down to earth and has a very open and honest nature. She does not lie or try to hide anything in her life by creating a false image of herself, as Blanche does.
For both, Stanley and Blanche, Stella is their star and their hope. They always seek her support and shelter. Stella is the stable element of the play, because she does not show any sign of rapid mood swings like Blanche and Stanley do, and this is what makes her the small and quiet star of the play.
Belle Reve is the name of the sisters’ family’s plantation in their hometown . The name is again of French origin and means beautiful dream, which again emphasises Blanche’s tendency to cling to her illusions. The term suggests an illusion, which is not quite true, for the plantation really once existed. On the other hand, beautiful dream suggests that something beautiful, which has once existed, faded away. Therefore, the name’s symbolic meaning became true. But in contrast to Blanche’s other illusions, this is the only one that ever truly existed, and it s the only one that Stella and Blanche are both connected to, because it is their heritage, and it was real. However, looking more closely at the name, it reveals that there is a grammatical mistake. The adjective belle is feminine, but it should be masculine, for reve is masculine. Tennessee Williams probably did this on purpose and not by mistake, because it underlines the fact that Belle Reve was just a dream which crumbled. The grammatical mistake also implies a certain imperfection, which is also apparent and true for Blanche’s beautiful dream, her net of lies and false illusions.
Desire, Cemeteries and Elysian Fields
At thebeginning of the play Williams introduces three terms which do not reveal their symbolic meaning right away, but the reader comes to realise their sense and importance later in the play. In scene one, Blanche describes to Eunice her journey to her sister’s place: “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields”(Williams 117).Blanche’s journey on New Orleans’ streetcars represents the journey of her own life.
Desire is her first step, just as it was the first step of her life after her husband Allan had died. Still struggling with this loss, she was desperately longing for love and companionship, but ended up leading a life which was filled with sex with random men, who never cared about her: “Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of Allan – intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with…” (Williams 205). At this time she was hence obsessed by desire.
The next step of her journey is Cemeteries, which is an obvious symbol for death. Her promiscuous lifestyle had got her into trouble. She lost her job because she had had an affair with one of her students, and was banned from :“The opposite (of death) is desire”(Williams 206). This underlines that her life turned into the exact opposite of what it had been.
Elysian Fields is the name of the street where Stella and Stanley live, and it is a mythical allusion to Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid. According to Roman mythology, Elysium (or Elysian Fields) was a part of the underworld and a place of reward for the virtuous dead. Elysian Fields, though, was just a temporary place of the souls’ journey back to life:
The light as a symbol for truth and reality
The light plays an important symbolic role throughout the play because it clearly reflects Blanche’s and Stanley’s characters. The light is considered to be the basis for sight and recognition, and, as already mentioned above, it is the opposite of darkness which symbolises intellectual dullness and ignorance (Becker 171). Blanche and Stanley stand in contrast concerning their attitudes towards light, which again underlines their different characters.
Blanche’s aversion to light
Blanche’s relation to light is quite obvious because she tries to avoid bright light of any kind as well as she can. Her reaction to light can be regarded as an attempt to hide her true nature as well as her vanishing beauty and youth. By hiding from the light she tries to escape reality, for light clearly represents reality in this play. The first time that Blanche’s aversion to light becomes obvious is in scene one: “And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare”(Williams 120).
In scene three, she covers the naked light bulb with a Chinese paper lantern: “ I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action” (Williams 150). This remark shows that Blanche would rather hide behind polite phrases than accept truth and reality. The paper lantern is not very stable, though, and it can easily be destroyed, just like Blanche’s illusions.
In scene six, she takes Mitch home with her and says, “ Let’s leave the lights off” (Williams 177). Blanche thinks of Mitch as a future husband, and therefore she does not want him to know her past or her true age, and the best way to hide her age is to stay out of bright light where he could possibly see her wrinkles and fading youth in her face. Later in that scene, Blanche tells Mitch about her husband Allan: ‘When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely. It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that’s how it struck the world for me’ (Williams 182).
Therefore, in her past, light used to represent love, but now it represents something destructive for her. Allan’s suicide erased the light or love, and thus she now does not believe in it any longer and tries to escape from the light and therefore escapes reality: “…electric light bulbs go on and you see too plainly” (Williams 196). This again shows her fear of light since for her it represents reality, and in scene nine this becomes even more obvious. When Mitch tears off the paper lantern in order to take a closer look at her in the bright light, “she utters a frightened gasp” (Williams 203). Then she tells him: ‘I don’t want realism…I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on’ (Williams 204).This is Blanche’s first statement concerning her true intention and nature, and it is probably the only time where she ever confesses that she builds up an illusory image of herself.
’s affection for light
has a different attitude concerning light and reality. He is very down to earth and realistic and displays this with his brutal honesty. For , the bright light exposes everything for what it is. He can only accept a literal truth, which can be experienced by his fanatic investigation of Blanche’s past: “You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them and how you loved it, having them coloured lights going” (Williams 199).In this passage, Stanley tries to remind Stella of the fact that when they met she was just like Blanche, but that he made her face reality again. As already mentioned above, light is the opposite of darkness and therefore the opposite of ignorance. considers himself to be knowingand constantly tries to increase his knowledge, especially the one concerning Blanche’s past.
The first apparent use of colour in the play is the symbolic meaning of Blanche’s name, which, as already mentioned above, is French and means white. When she appears in scene one, “she is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and ear-rings of pearl, white gloves and a hat…” (Williams 117).
As already mentioned above, the colour white stands for purity and innocence, but it is also the colour of light and represents perfection and virginity (Becker, 330). This association stands in complete contrast to her actual behaviour and actions. Blanche is a seductive and promiscuous woman, who lies in order to maintain her image, and therefore Williams’ use of this colour for her name and her outer appearance is quite ironic.
In scene two Blanche talks to about honesty: ‘Yes – yes – cards on the table….Well, life is too full of evasions and ambiguities, I think. I like an artist who paints in strong, bold colours, primary colours. I don’t like pinks and creams and I never cared for wishy-washy people’ (Williams 137). This paragraph clearly shows the irony in her words, because she herself is the one who is embodying a distinct difference between her actions and her statements. She is the one who is neither straight-forward nor honest, but pretends to expect this from other people to a certain extent.
In scene nine, she changes her clothes from soft colours to strong bold ones for the first time: “She has on her scarlet satin robe” (Williams 200). The colour red symbolises love, passion and fertility on the positive side, but also fire and blood on the negative one, so this is the first time that her outer appearance actually matches her intentions (Becker 244). She is meeting Mitch in this scene, and her dress certainly shows the seductress in her. Mitch refuses to marry her because of her past, and after that, in scene ten, she wears a white satin evening gown, which implies that she returned to her habit of soft colours in order to underline her pureness and virtuous nature.
’s tendency concerning colours is the exact opposite of Blanche’s. He and his friends usually dress in rather solid materials, like cotton, or denim, and their clothes are mainly coloured in blue, and sometimes green. The first time their clothes’ colours are mentioned is in scene one: ”Two men come around the corner, Stanley Kowalski and Mitch. They are about twenty-eight or thirty years old, roughly dressed in blue denim work clothes” (Williams 116).
The colour blue is considered to be a symbol for the divine or heavenly, but also for the truth (Becker 44). Once again, Williams uses a certain colour to express a person’s human qualities, although, in this case, the association is not ironic, but matches the person’s behaviour. is an honest person with no sympathy for lies and superficiality. The colour blue also represents strength, masculinity, calm and authority, which clearly underlines ’s character. however is not the only character displayed in this way. His friends’ colours, especially Mitch’s are being described as well. Williams points out the aspect of masculinity in the following excerpt and underlines it by mentioning the men’s clothing colours: ‘The poker players – Stanely, Steve, Mitch, and Pablo – wear coloured 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 colours’ (Williams 143).
Later, in scene nine, Mitch “comes around the corner in work clothes: blue denim shirt and pants. He is unshaven” (Williams 200). In this scene he meets Blanche, who is wearing her red satin robe. The confrontation of the colours red and blue,symbolises the confrontation between femininity and masculinity.
The blue piano
The blue piano is first mentioned in the introductory stage directions of the first scene: “This ‘blue piano’ expresses the spirit of the life which goes on there” (Williams 115). Throughout the play, the blue piano always appears when Blanche is talking about the loss of her family and Belle Reve, but it is also present during her meeting and kissing the young newspaper man. The blue piano thus stands for depression, loneliness and her longing for love, which the adjective blue already suggests. This quality is not identical with the colour symbolism of blue. It describes Blanche’s emotions and represents her need for companionship and love, but also her hope, as the scene with the paper-boy shows. Mitch tells her in scene nine that he will not marry her due to her promiscuous past, “the distant piano is slow and blue” (Williams 207). Later, in scene ten, it grows louder when she is on the phone trying to get in touch with ShepHuntleigh. In this situation, her hopes are rising, and so does the piano. In the last scene, Blanche is being taken away to a mental institution, and Stanley and his friends play poker again: “The luxurious sobbing, the sensual murmur fade away under the swelling music of the ‘blue piano’ and the muted trumpet” (Williams 226). The blue piano, accompanying the card game, symbolises’s victory over Blanche.
The Varsouviana Polka
The Varsouviana Polka on the other hand appears when Blanche is being confronted with her past and the truth, or when she talks about Allan. The reason for this seems obvious, for exactly this polka had been played when her husband Allan committed suicide. The polka represents death and immanent disaster. Blanche tells Mitch in scene six about Allan, and how she caught him cheating on her: “Polka music sounds, in a minor key faint with distance” (Williams 183). When gives her a ticket back to for a birthday presents, the situation means disaster for Blanche. She realises that she is not wanted anymore, and that she has nowhere to go, for is an unacceptableplace to go to after all the incidents there: “The Varsouviana music steals in softly and continues playing” (Williams 198). Again, the polka represents disaster.
In scene eleven, the connection between the polka and Blanche’s state of mind and emotion becomes even more obvious. She gets totally lost in her illusions about ShepHuntleigh and runs into her room when the doctor arrives: “The Varsouviana is filtered into weird distortion, accompanied by the cries and noises of the jungle” (Williams 222). Thus the polka’s weird distortion matches the confusion in her mind.
Blanche the moth
In the first scene, Blanche is compared to an animal: “There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth” (Williams 117). Both butterflies and moths start life as ugly caterpillars and only later transform into something more beautiful. The butterfly and cocoon symbol reflects Blanche’s attempts to re-create herself and, so to speak, spring forth a new, beautiful person from her cocoon of lies. In contrast to the butterfly, who lives during daytime, the moth mainly lives during the night, which makes it a creature of the darkness, and the butterfly one of the light. As already mentioned above, the butterfly leaves the dark cocoon to live in the light, but the moth stays in darkness for that is the time when it is feeding. This can be adapted to Blanche as it seems as though—contrasting with her name—it is her fate to live in the darkness, which symbolises ignorance. Blanche does not find a way out: at the end of the play she is being taken away to the mental institution, which means that she finally does not conquer her fate.
In contrast to Blanche, displays brutal and wild behaviour—from her perspective: ‘He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There’s something – sub-human – something not quite the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something – ape-like about him, like one of those pictures…’ (Williams 163). is at this point compared to an ape. Characteristic traits of apes are mobility, intelligence, deceit, but also lasciviousness, the drive to imitate and quarrelsome stinginess (Becker 11). Especially the lasciviousness matches ’s character, for it can be detected in his love for wild sex, and his raping Blanche. With ’s connection to the ape, Williams again builds up a link to the jungle. Apes often live in the jungle, for it is their habitat. Therefore ’s habitat, the Elysian Fields, can be considered to be a jungle. It appears to be an appropriate place for Blanche to visit, when the "white woods" actually camouflage the "noises of the jungle" dominating her mind.