33 Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire

Mr. Arif Ahammed

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This module first provides a brief biographical overview of Tennessee Williams, his writings and achievements. Then it goes on to provide a plot outline of the play A Streetcar Named Desire, detailed summary of it, introduction and informations about the characters, view on its language, thematic interpretation, and comments on its use of various dramatic/literary devices.




American Playwright Tennessee Williams was born on 26th March, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi. He was the second child of Cornelius Williams and Edwina Williams with an elder sister- Rose and a younger brother Dakin. It has to be noted that Tennessee Williams was not the original name of the author. His original name was Thomas Lanier Williams. Because of his southern accent, his friends started to call him Tennessee in college. In 1939 only he went on adopt Tennessee as his official first name and came to be known as Tennessee Williams. The first seven years of his life were spent at his grandfather’s house only. The facts that his father was a travelling salesman, coarse in nature and excessively addicted to alcohol forced the author to develop a hate-filled relationship with the father at early stage of life itself. This sort of bitterness towards his father went to be further deep rooted once the family decided to move to St. Louis. His father’s alcoholism and rudeness multiplied. In school too he was ostracised due to his excessive shyness and fragile structure caused by prolong illness during early childhood days. Because of these facts, he became extremely reserved and took solace in writings. He first came into fame in 1940 and held onto it till 1960 his high with few award winning plays. He died in 1983 in a precarious incident choked on a cap of medicine bottle in 1983 at Elysee Hotel in New York City.




In 1929, he joined University of Missouri but was brought back by his father when he failed in ROTC class in his junior years. Compelled by his father, then he started to work in a shoe factory. After working there for three years, Tennessee William suffered a minor nervous breakdown in 1935. With the help of his grandparents, William again joined Washington University which he quit again for personal problems and joined University of Iowa. During this time his elder sister, whom he loved so dearly, had to went through a prefrontal lobotomy (intensive brain surgery that left her with a brain of a child for the rest of her life). That caused havoc on his mind. With much hardships, he finally managed to graduate in 1938. In 1939, he got the Rockefeller Foundation Grant with the help of Audrey Wood- a New York agent who was attracted by few of Williams’ early plays produced during his stay in Washington University. In 1940, he joined an advance playwriting class at The New School, New York City.



When he was 16 years old, Williams won a essay a competition for his essay ‘Can a Good Wife be a Good Sport’ which was published in Smart Set Magazine. It was his first writing which appeared in print. During his stay in Washington University, he came up with two plays- The Fugitive Kind and Candles to the Sun which were produced too by a St. Louis theatre group. 1939 came to be the most important year for his budding career when he published a chilling horror story in The Strand Magazine. His short story The Field of Blue Children also published in the same year in the Story magazine, upon which he officially changed his name to Tennessee Williams. He used Rockefeller Foundation Grant to write the play Battles of the Angels in 1940. After that he started working on the play ( while briefly working as script writer for MGM) which later became The Glass Menagerie in 1944. With its overwhelming success, Williams stormed into recognition as a American playwright and went on to write many more important and well-known dramas like Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, The Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, an early version of Something Unspoken and Suddenly Last Summer, and Sweet Bird of Youth. Tennessee William has more than 25 major plays to his credit. Apart from these, he wrote many one act play and screen play too. Many short stories, two  novels  [The  Roman  Spring  of  Mrs.  Stone (1950), Moise and the World of Reason (1975)], penned down by him, also speak in volume about his credential as an author.



His first major achievement  was winning the  prestigious New York Critics Circle Award  for his first notable play The Glass Menagerie. He again won the New York Critics Circle Award for two times for the plays: A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In addition to these, both these plays had also won the Pulitzer Prize. Because of the overwhelming response they received from the audience, few of his plays had been adapted to films. These films, in turn, created some famous and Oscar winning actors/actress. Due to his highly over expressionistic writings and fast changing literary demands of 1960s, he  could not hold onto his fame towards the end of his life. His separation with his love Frank Merlo and her subsequent death, pushed him into a dark realm of depression. He started to consume more and more alcohol. And his journey towards oblivion started in true sense. But he is still remembered as one of the greatest playwrights of American literary history in particular, and of English Literary history in general.



As far as the writing style of Tennessee William is considered, his early plays can easily be associated with the new American taste of realism that emerged after the era of Great Depression and World War II. As far as the language of his plays are concerned, it is marked with a strong lyricism and the reason behind it was the famous poet Heart Crane’s strong influence upon him. Enchanting repetitions, poetic southern diction, ominous Gothic settings and Freudian approach to human emotion also marked his writing style. Towards the later part of his career (not so fruitful or famous) he, perhaps unconsciously, adopted highly expressionistic technique which did not go very well among the audience and critics as well.

Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire



The author wrote the play in 1947 thinking that he is going to die within few months. With this assumption in his mind, Tennessee Williams wanted to tale what (as he felt) should be told about life. The play conveys his own unfulfilled desires of life and the approaching death as the ultimate reality of life.



Blanche DuBois: Blanche DuBois is a school teacher in Laurel, Mississippi. After loosing the possession of family assets and being fired from her job due to her sexual relation with a teenage students, She reaches New Orleans to live with her sister and brother-in-law. In spite of her miserable economic condition and immoral sexual relations, she continues to pretend about her financial status and moral dignity. She avoids the reality and creates her own imaginary world where she pretends to be highly dignified and refined in terms of class. With the passing of time Blanche continues to become more and more unstable as her sufferings increases. Mitch, her friend and lover, refuse to marry her. Stanley ultimately rapes her and pushes her permanently into the world of fantasy. Blanche’s involvement in sexual relationships is the result of her desire of receiving sexual admiration from her male suitors and this has something to do with her desperate attempt to be identified as an elegant, upper class woman.


Stella Kowalski: She is the younger sister of Blanche and also had the upper class background like her sister. But she does not boast of her background (though now it does not stand as something that can be subjected to pride). She married Stanley, who works as mere auto-part supplier) and now lives happily with him. Her higher class background gets reflected through her refined talk and sober nature though. Apparently it seems that she is happy with Stanley in spite of him being aggressive and unrefined. He even beats her once in the play. But she continues to live with him without much fuss and it may well be because of extreme sexual pleasure that she derives from highly masculine Stanley.


Stanley Kowalski: He is the husband of Stella Kowalski and works as an auto-parts salesmen. In the beginning of the play, he appears to be a strong man who is honest and loyal to his friends and wife. He does not believe in class difference and terribly hates the class consciousness of Blanche. He is originally a Polish and represents the new America that is the admixture of different race, culture and class. But towards the end of the play he appears as an highly aggressive husband who even beats his wife and rapes his sister-in-law. He is a person who believes in utter practicality and approaches it with his unrefined and coarse nature.


Harold ‘Mitch’ Mitchell: He is one of Stanley’s friend who joins the game of poker at Stanley’s place. He too belong from working class but is relatively more sensible than other male characters of the play. At the very beginning of the play he shows himself as gentleman. Though he can not match with Blanche in terms of mannerism and language, he tries his best. He offers caring and loving company to Blanche at her distress and wishes  to  marry Blanche. But when he comes to know about Blanche’s scandalous past, he refuses to marry her and angrily ask Blanche to sleep with her. But he does not force Blanche in anyway to do so and it testifies about his inherent gentlemanliness. The last scene of the play, where Blanche has been carried away to an asylum and he cries out of remorse and helplessness, also projects the tenderness and care that his heart possesses.


Steve and Eunice: They are the husband and wife and are the neighbours of Stella and Stanley. They live upstairs and Eunice seems to be pretty close with Stella.


Allan Grey: He is the husband of Blanche who committed suicide when his homosexuality got exposed and confronted very harshly by Blanche.


Shep Huntleigh: He is a former suitor of Blanche who believes that he will help her and her sister to run away from New Orleans.


A Young Collector: He is a teenager who come to Kowalski household to collect money for newspaper and receives an intense lustful kiss from Blanche.


Shaw: He is Stanley’s co-worker and has been used by Stanley as a spy to unravel Blanche’s past.


A Doctor and A Nurse: They appears at the end of the play to take Blanche away to a asylum.


A Negro Woman: She lives nearby the apartment where Kowalski family and Eunice and Steve, lives. In the very opening scene she can be seen cracking joke to Stella about Stanley’s open sexual gesture.


Prostitute: She appears just before the rape of Blanche as a tool used for for-shadowing.



Being forced to leave her home town after loosing all family assets and job (which she lost because of her sexual scandal), BlancheDuBois comes to  New Orleans  to live with  her sister Stella Kowalski and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. Her pretension of her high class background does not go well with Stanley. He finds out Blanche’s scandalous past and reveals it to Stella (her sister) and even to his friend Mitch who was in love with Blanche. Mitch, after hearing this, refuses to marry her. Blanche’s sorrowful existence continues. Ultimately, in the heat of argument, Stanley rapes her taking away everything from her. Stella refuse to believe Blanche’s allegation of Stanley raping her. Blanche suffers a nervous breakdown, withdraws completely to the world of fantasy and has been ultimately taken to an asylum.




Blanche DuBois reaches to New Orleans apartment of her sister Stella with a big trunk that indicates her intention of staying her sister’s place for a long period of time. Blanche has come from Laurel, Mississippi(a southern state) where she works as a school teacher. She conveys the fact to Stella that their ancestral home Belle Reve is no longer in her possession and the school also has also asked her to go for a leave of absence due to her bad nerves. In spite her inability to accommodate herself in a hotel, Blanche expresses her disappointment after seeing Stella’s two-room apartment due to her sense of superiority in terms of class. On the other hand, Stella appears to be quite content with the working class life style of her husband Stanley Kowalski forgetting her past class and she is even pregnant with Stanley’s child. Blanche’s sense of superiority in terms of class subjects her immediately to Stanley’s distrust and he even suspects that Blanche had conspired to rob Stella of their family assets. Blanche reveals that the ancestral home was lost due to her inability to clear a debt and it shows her horrible financial condition. Apart from this, her habit of drinking (which she tries to hide) also hints at the fact that she is faking.


The unhappy stature of Stella and Stanley’s married life come to the fore when Stanley arranges a drunken poker game with his friends. Stanley starts to get impatient, irritated and angry over Blanche’s growing closeness with his friends and specially with Mitch. When Mitch and Blanche are seen having a conversation at the bedroom, Angry Stanley enters there and throws the radio out of the window. At this point of time Stella starts shouting at Stanley and defends Blanche. This diverts Stanley’s anger towards Stella and he beats her. The men who were attending the game of poker, stops Stanley. Both Stella and Blanche have been seen escaping to their upstairs neighbour Eunice’s apartment. After sometime, Stanley asks for forgiveness from Stella with tearful eyes. Stella, being soften up, returns in Stanley’s embraces against Blanche’s wish. On the other hand, Mitch meets Blanche outside the flat and comforts her.


After this, Blanche has been seen engaged in a conversation with Stella where she tries to convince her that Stanley’s working class status and his low profile lifestyle do not match with Stella’s class and aristocratic background. So, they should leave from Stanley’s house and a millionaire named Shep Huntleigh will help them in this pursuit. Stella laughs at this proposal and dismisses it right away. However Stanley overhears Stella and Blanche’s conversation where Blanche makes fun of his lower class life style. He confront Blanche later and obliquely hints that he came to know about the rumour related to her disgraceful past.


One evening Blanche is seen lustfully kissing a teenage boy who came to their flat for collecting money for news paper. This incident hints at the truthfulness of her rumoured disgraceful past. On the same evening she goes in a date with Mitch and ultimately reveals to him that her husband committed suicide when she, with harsh words, confronted him (her husband) about his homosexuality. Mitch also informs Blanche about his loss of a former love.


Next scene takes place after one month where Stella is seen preparing special dinner for Blanche, Stanley, Mitch and herself in an fine afternoon on the occasion of Blanche’s birthday. Here Stanley informs Stella that all the rumours he heard about Blanche’s stained past are true. Blanche was thrown away from a motel (where she was staying after losing their ancestral house) for her many immoral sexual relations and she lost the job because of her sexual relation with a teenage student. Stella gets shocked and the fact that Stanley had already revealed all these things to Mitch further horrifies her.


Mitch stops meeting with Blanche and Blanche receives a one way bus ticket to Laurel.


 Stanley’s increasing cruelty towards Blanche utterly disturbs Stella but her sudden labour pain somehow subvert a fierce fight between the husband and wife.


After few hours, drunken Mitch comes to the flat where drunk Blanche sits alone. He says that he came to know everything about her past. Blanche does not deny her past and says that she was in need of human affection. Mitch further says that now he can not marry her and he wants to have sex with her. When Mitch applies force, Blanche shouts and somehow forces Mitch to leave the flat.


When Stanley returns from hospital, Blanche informs him that she will be leaving with millionaire Shep Huntleigh (though it is her own imagination only). Happy with the birth of his baby, Stanley proposes to celebrate their good fortune. But Blanche rejects the proposal and consequently after a heated argument Stanley forcefully rapes her.


When the next scene open after weeks later, Eunice (the neighbour) and Stella are found packing the bag of Blanche who is in bath with the belief that she will go to the millionaire. A Doctor and a nurse reaches to their flat to take Blanche to an asylum. Meanwhile Stella confesses to Eunice that she can’t let herself believe Blanche’s allegation of Stanley raping her. Blanche is seen speaking incoherently after coming out from bathroom. She refuses to go with the doctor first but later agrees and goes away with him without even bidding goodbye to anybody. It becomes apparent that Blanche has lost all sense of reality. Mitch is seen starts crying out of remorse. Stella too cries with the baby in her hands and Stanley consoles her hinting at a happy and normal family life in future.



Author has used two types of language in the play. The class difference that exists among the characters gets reflected in the language too. While Blanche, who represents refined upper class, uses grammatically perfect and sophisticated language Stanley and his friends (who represent working class) use disjointed sentences without following grammatical rules and raw kind of language. So it can rightly be said that the author has used the language with utmost precision in representing the characters’ true self.


THEME OF THE PLAY:The play contains several themes within itself. They are as follows:


Triumph of reality: The play reveals the fact that reality can only be resisted for sometime from engulfing our existence, but it will ultimately overpower the imaginary world that we create to avoid reality. It gets perfectly reflected through the character of Blanche who continuously attempt to avoid the reality of her wretched present condition and wears a sense of class superiority but ultimately ends up in a mental asylum which in fact matches her reality.


Class conflict: The play also represents the slow decline of the aristocratic class of American South and the gradual rise of the urban middle class. This happened mainly at the back drop of industrial revolution during 1940 when many men from south migrated to the cities to join as industrial workers by leaving the southern landlords with limited work force for working in their land. This migrated industrial work force was further enhanced in the cities by immigrants, women and black workers, further depleting the condition of southern aristocratic class. The fact that Blanche (who represents the southern aristocratic class) continues to suffer and ultimately ends up at a mental asylum and Stanley (who represents the working class) continues to live a carefree and cheerful life actually sums up this theme.


Women’s dependency on men: They play also portrays how the main women characters relies completely on male to live a happy and satisfied life. Blanche always seeks sexual admiration from males in order to satisfy her class ego. Stella does not bother about the aggressive and coarse attitude of Stanley as she gets complete sexual satisfaction from him. Mainly these two women characters offers a feminist perspective to approach the play.



We can easily observes that mainly three motifs have used predominantly in the play. They are:


Bathing: Blanche can be seen taking bath numbers of time. It indicates Blanche’s urge to ‘wash out’ her scandalous past.


Light: Light, in the play, has been presented as something which Blanche fears. She avoids the bright light on her face. It indicates her attempt to hide her real age and hide her past. Her covering of the exposed bulb at Kowalski apartment and her refusal to date Mitch during daytime and at places full of light testifies her fear of light. Here light symbolizes Blanche’s reality which she desperately attempts to hide.


Drunkenness: Blanche’s drunkenness again indicates her intense desire to escape from the harsh reality of her past and to take shelter in the world of soothing imagination.


Symbol:There are few important symbols also in the play;like:


Shadows and sounds: In scene ten, shadows of inconsistent sizes and unnatural sounds have been used to symbolize Blanche’s gradual departure into the world of insanity.


The Varsouviana Polka: It is a musical tone to which Blanche danced with her husband for the last time. During the dance itself her husband committed suicide. This particular music has been played several times in the play as symbol representing Blanche’s remorse and loneliness.


Meat: At the very opening scene Stanley has been seen throwing a blood stained packet of meat to her wife and asks her to catch it. Here the meat and the throwing act symbolizes the hyper masculine nature of Stanley who goes on to beat his wife and rape his sister-in-law.



Dramatic and literary devices are the tools of dramatists for conveying messages and enriching meanings. In this play also Tennessee Williams has masterfully used few dramatic devices primarily in the forms of sounds and background music. When Blanche arrives at the apartment, the screeching of cat can be heard. It actually conveys the inner tension and  instability of Blanche’s mind. Further the back ground music (varsouviana tone) also continuously hints at the pathetic and sorrowful and lonely condition of Blanche. Further the  shadows of irregular sizes also have been used as a visual tool to hint at Blanche’s approaching insanity.


Foreshadowing, an important literary device, have also been used in the play mainly in two occasions. Blanche’s use of two street-car, named as Desire and Cemeteries, foreshadows the recurring sense of unfulfilled desire and approaching death throughout the play. In one another occasion, a prostitute’s encounter with a male, has been projected on the opposite wall where Blanche can be seen sitting. It ominously hints at Blanche’s rape which is going to happen.



The module provides information about author’s personal life, his writings and achievements as a writer. Then it details about the plot, characters of the play. While providing a detail summary of the play, the module describes the journey of Blanche, the protagonist of the play. It narrates how crude reality ultimately overpowers Blanche’s imaginary world. The module describes how the play speaks about the them of reality’s win over imagination, class conflict and women’s dependency on men. The modules also throws light on the context of the play, language, themes. used motifs and symbols of the play. Further it also explores how dramatic and literary devices have been used to convey and enrich various meanings.

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  1. Williams, Tennesse. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York, USA: New Directions Book, 1947.
  2. Bloom, Harold. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. United States of America: Chelsea House Publisher, 2005. print.