“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”
C. Wright Mills
During my study of Streetcar in school, the concept of “The Individual VS Society” was the main lense through which we analysed the text; and to break the ice, that’s what we’ll be doing today. This concept is largely prevalent in the literary world and provides the readers with the understanding of the dynamics that an individual has with her society. Human beings are social creatures after all and the interactions they have with the people around them, as well as the society itself, is reflective of the values and themes that the author would like to highlight. At times, these values may align or clash with the readers and the individuals of the novel, but at the end of the day, this conflict helps to drive understanding of various issues.
In Streetcar, Williams places two different societies in focus; the Old America, represented by Belle Reve where Blanche has her origins from, and the bustling New America embodied by New Orleans which sets the play. The two societies have very different cultures and values and Williams uses this clash to further emphasise the tribulations of our protagonist Blanche. It is also important to note the historical context: The play was written for a post-war audience, during a time when America was restructuring its society and industrialisation led to an influx of immigrants, changing its landscape. Certainly, the loss of Belle Reve, and Blanche’s highly charged narrative in Act 1 symbolises the decay of Old America and her ways.
Blanche: I stayed and struggled!
Blanche: I stayed and fought for it, bled for it, almost died for it!
Here, the use of emotionally intense verbs, such as “struggled”, “fought” and “bled” depicts the futility of holding onto a fading society of the past. Furthermore, Williams extensively uses the motif of death here, with Blanches’ entire monologue on funerals and the personification of death itself through the use of “The Grim Reaper”, constantly reminding the readers of Belle Reve’s decay, and along with it, the death of Old America. Interestingly enough, one may argue that while Blanche is referring to the loss of Belle Reve, the audience also comes to relate this to the loss of Blanche’s place in the world. After all, Belle Reve is presented as her childhood home and by namedropping her relatives in her monologue, it also shines a light on how her family too is fading along with the place. Hence, within Act 1 itself, the audience is shown that Blanche is slowly losing her identity and has arrived in New Orleans in hopes of finding a home in Stella.
Blanche: I, I, I took the blows in my face and my body! All of those deaths! The long parade to the graveyard! Father, Mother! Margaret, that dreadful way! So big with it, couldn’t be put in a coffin! (…) Death is expensive, Miss Stella! And old Cousin Jessie’s right after Margaret’s, hers! Why, the Grim Reaper had put up his tent on our doorstep! ? Stella. Belle Reve was his headquarters!
Williams’ portrayal of New Orleans is a comment at newly industrialised America and its changing values. The stark contrast it has with Belle Reve is anything but accidental and it serves to highlight specific themes such as sexuality, animalistic behaviour, and most importantly, undermines the privacy and the hieroglyphic society of the past. Truly this clash in values and social behaviour is most obvious in the first scene of the play when Williams vividly portrays the “atmosphere of decay” in contrast with “the music of negro entertainers at a bar room” and “the spirit of the life”. While we will look into the specifics of the setting ( the Kowalski household) and how it amplifies Blanche’s mental torture in another post, we will now take a look at the society of New Orleans in general and the values, themes and motifs it highlights.
In Streetcar, New Orleans is represented primarily by its people. In the beginning of the play itself, the audience is treated to what many would call a distasteful conversation between “Negro Woman” and “Eunice”.
Negro Woman ( to Eunice) : … She says St Barnabus would send out his dog to lick her (…)
The use of sexual innuendo coupled together with Williams’ vivid description of the scene as having a “raffish charm” introduces the motif of sexuality, although brief. This is later elaborated in the scene with the appearance of Stanley, and the double entendre of the meat he tosses to Stella.
Coloured Woman: What was that package he th’ew at ‘er? (she rises from steps, laughing louder)
Eunice: You hush, now!
Negro Woman: Catch what!
In this interaction, we glean the crude and sexually overt characteristics of the people of New Orleans. Yet, it isn’t the only thing we learn. In this short glance, especially between Stella and Stanley, we are also privy to the patriarchal nature of their society. Here, we see the husband, traditionally the provider of the family, hauling meat to his wife who finds this display of power exhilarating from her characterisation of “laugh(ing) breathlessly”. Blanche even makes a reference alluding to this behaviour further into the play, narrating him as “bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle”. Certainly, she isn’t that far from the truth.
Stella: (calling after him) Stanley! Where are you going?
Stella: Can I come watch?
Notice here the use of the passive verb “watch”. Not only does Stella have to ask permission from Stanley, she is depicted here to not have any interest in the sport itself which is shared between only Stanley and his male friends. Bowling will make an appearance in the play once more, with Stella excluded once again to depict the exclusive male hierarchy.
At the same time, there is also a conversation between a sailor and a vendor. The multiple interactions taking stage reflects Williams vision of New Orleans, where “voices of people on the street can be heard overlapping”. With the use of dialogue and sounds, Williams paints the picture of New Orleans being a bustling society where everyone is engaged and full of life. This presents a certain allure and modernity ( “a cosmopolitan city”) and ties together the expressive and noisy New Orleans.
Within the opening scene of the play, we are treated to the presentation of the society in focus, with very little mention of Blanche in the beginning. Williams does this so that we fully understand the premise of the play and Blanche’s arrival, therefore, brings along a visual shock. But this, we shall look into another day.
While the two societies have been introduced and talked about in considerable length, we need to also look at the different individuals that Williams crafts for the play, and what they bring to the overall understanding of the theme of the individual and society. For now, however, we shall take a break and delve deeper into part 2 next week.