Streetcar: A Dose of Madness

The Psychology Of Blanche.

You can’t go through a whole screening, reading or performance of A Streetcar Named Desire without coming to a conclusion that our protagonist, Blanche has been through her fair, or some may even argue, unfair share of struggles and with that, a beaten psyche. In fact, the psychology of Blanche is tricky because, well, I’m not a professional for one, and also because there seem to be many layers to the psychological trauma and instabilities that haunt Blanche. This post by no means expresses an explicit label on her but instead aims to explore the possibilities of what our protagonist may be facing within her mind.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder/ Narcissism

From Blanche’s first arrival on the scene, we already see her sense of superiority which she isn’t afraid to show, especially towards the lifestyle of New Orleans. According to Psychcental and BPDCentral, the following are symptoms of an individual who suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance. He or she may exaggerate achievements and talents.
  2. Requires accessive admiration.
  3. Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes
  4. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive of all such symptoms, nor is it a sure fire way of diagnosing anyone. However, one can’t help but notice the similarities we see within the character of Blanche. We see this most obviously in her relationship with her sister and the how Blanche insists on validation from her. In the first scene when the sisters reunite after many years of separation, the focus (before Belle Reve) falls on appearance, as initiated by Blanche.

Blanche: (…) [She rises] I want you to look at my figure! [She turns around] You know I haven’t put on one ounce in ten years, Stella? I weigh what I weighed the summer
you left Belle Reve. The summer Dad died and you left us….

Stella: [a little wearily]: It’s just incredible, Blanche, how well you’re looking.

Blanche: You see I still have that awful vanity about my looks even now that my looks are slipping! [She laughs nervously and glances at Stella for reassurance]

Stella: [dutifully] They haven’t slipped one particle.

We see here how Blanche, through her passive goading and the stage directions of looking towards her sister prompts words of praise about her appearance. Her own self-declaration of her static weight, followed by Stella’s almost automatic rebuttal of her ‘slipping looks’ presents to the audience a seemingly routine conversation between the two sisters. It is clear, through Willaims desire for Stella to reply ‘dutifully’ that he would like the audience to know that this is the typical dynamics of their relationship. We continue to see this in the way Blanche orders Stella around, asking her for a lemon-coke in the following scene (‘Will you do that for me, sweetie?‘) and commanding her to ‘sit up straight’.  

At the same time, apart from the way Blanche takes control of Stella, evidence of her perceived superiority is also indicated in many other instances, from her joke about Polish people, ‘only, not so highbrow?‘, to dismissing or even mocking the living quarters of her sister, ‘what, two rooms did you say?’. Even upon her arrival, Blanche also snubs the residents of New Orleans, by discouraging conversation with Eunice. Hence we not only see how she thrives in the ( forced) praise of others, we also, simply by her condescending tone, understand that Blanche perceives herself above the rest of New Orleans. The irony in here is of course in the fact that Blanche has escaped her place of childhood to seek shelter in New Orleans, a place she so clearly believes is beneath her.

The last point stated above also highlights Blanche’s clearly deep-seated delusions, which not only points to narcissism but also sheds light on another equally important theme of Streetcar, that of the clash between reality and fantasy.

Denial/Delusions:

Evidence of Blanch’s delusions are aplenty in the play, and a symbol of that would definitely be the paper lantern which Blanche purchases and adorns her “room” with. Along with the prevalent motif of light, Tennesse Williams depicts Blanche’s aversions to the grim reality of her life.

The paper lantern first makes its appearance when Blanche instructs Mitch to help her place it over the light bulb.

Blanche: I can’t stand a naked light bulb (…)

Here, just as the “naked bulb” or the light is used as a metaphor to shed light on the truth, the paper lantern acts as Blanche’s defence mechanism, shielding herself and others through her delusion. The function of the paper lantern is further emphasised in the last scene when Stanley throws Blanche out of his house, his final gesture towards her destroying the paper lantern and in turn, the fantasy she has built.

“He crosses to dressing-table and seizes the paper lantern, tearing it off the light bulb, and extends it towards her.”

The vicious nature in which Stanley rips apart her delusions creates empathy within the audience who sees this visual representation as an understanding of the emotional trauma that Blanch faces.

 

The paper lantern is also part of a larger motif in place, that of light. Light is used frequently by Tennesse to draw attention to the harsh reality that Blanche faces but tries her best to ignore. Most prominent of all is Mitch calling her out on this, with his cruel declaration;

Blanche: I like it dark. The dark is comforting to me.

Mitch: I don’t think I ever seen you in the light. [ Blanche laughs breathlessly}] That’s a fact!

Mitch: So I can take a good look at you. Good and plain.

Tennessee Williams uses this motif to advance the story while further establishing Blanche’s character. Scene 9 marks the psychological breakdown of Blanche’s character and her ultimate “stepping out of the shadows.” While Stella is giving birth, Mitch confronts Blanche in the Kowalski apartment and forces her to reveal her true intentions and manipulative nature. Blanche says that she finds the dark comforting. These actions are the result of a fatal insecurity which causes Blanche to be guarded around others. Williams uses the element of shadows so that Blanche may avoid being upfront with other characters in the playHer fear of exposing her face metaphorically represents her manipulative tendencies and delusion.

Further proof of this is seen in Scene 6 when Blanche tells Mitch the story of her first love, Allan Grey. After his suicide, Blanche compares their relationship to a bright light that had suddenly put out. Therefore, dim light is represented by Blanche’s various non-intimate sexual partners and explains her desperate need for relationship. Bright light can also represent Blanche’s vivacious past; her wealth, her lover, her family and Belle Reve. All of these elements of her past are gone by the time Blanche arrives in New Orleans, which leads us to believe that most of the bright light in Blanche’s life has dimmed.

Williams’ Manipulation

However, it is not so important that we determine exactly what Blanche is facing in the depths of her mind but more so why? Why does Willaims portray her as psychologically damaged? It is perhaps so that the audience feels sympathetic to a character who is the furthest thing from flawless. Perhaps it is also the indicate the inevitability of Blanche’s fall and shed light on the fragility of the human mind, so vulnerable to external and internal attacks.

 

Sources:

https://psychcentral.com/disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder-symptoms/

https://www.bpdcentral.com/narcissistic-disorder/hallmarks-of-npd/

Streetcar: Conflicts And Connections

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Last week, we took a look at the two prominent societies that take stage in A Streetcar Named Desire and analysed the different themes they brought to light. However, when working with the concept of The Individual And Society, we also need to understand the individuals of the play and their interactions. In fact, as coined by a teacher of mine, this entire concept can be compressed into one bite-sized label: Relationships.
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Streetcar: Social Parameters

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“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.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

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Williams A Streetcar Named Desire US 1st printing with opening night Playbill and curtain card Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia November 17, 1947 title page and By Tennessee Williams

Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III, born in 1911 passed away in 1983, leaving behind a string of successful plays that was his legacy. A Streetcar Named Desire remains one of my favourite literary text, and indeed, its popularity in the literary world still stays relevant, being the most intriguing and the most frequently analysed of Williams’ plays. Written by the American playwright and opened in 1947 on Broadway, the play faced critical success over the many years it has been performed. Although the play earned Williams the Pulitzer Prize for Drama just a year later, he still probably had no idea that till this day, A Streetcar Named Desire would be considered one of the finest plays of the 20th Century.

On opening night, the play stunned the audience with its daring depiction of sexual brutality and ended with a 30-minute long eruption of applause that turned Marlon Brando into the star he is known for today, and earned Tandy a Tony award. Unsurprisingly, the play, with its original cast and directors, ran for 800 more shows and shortly after, was adapted into a movie. In total, A Streetcar Named Desire received 12 Oscar Nominations. With all the accolades the play has received over the years, it shouldn’t be shocking that this play has been revived and adapted several times for a wide range of different audiences, from a gender-bent version called Belle Reprieve to a Scottish ballet.

One of the biggest reasons behind the play’s success is probably Williams’ bold portrayal of the animalistic nature of the society of Streetcar, and it’s raw exploration of sexuality. Along with such vivid themes, including the clash of truths and lies, (that we will, in time to come discuss at great length) running concurrently in the play, the audience of the 1940s are also forced to face the reality of their decaying society, making room for changes after the war. This spoke personally to the audience who was still recovering from the recent war and hence was also searching for their identity. Streetcar, therefore, makes a bold statement between the struggles that an individual faces and the suffocation presented by a society that itself is attempting to adapt to the post-war situation.

With how rich the play is, we can only hope to scratch the tip of the ice berg so as we delve into the streets of New Orleans, it goes without saying that there will always be more to discover.

 

 

Sources:
http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-streetcar-named-desire-opens-on-broadway