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Exploring Tragedy of Blanche’s isolation in A Street Car Named Desire

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1632 words Published: 27th Aug 2021

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To explore whether the play’s tragedy lies in Blanche’s isolation, we first need to examine the necessary criteria of the genre. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is a social drama befitting the conventions of the ‘modern tragedy’. From the nineteenth century a new type of tragedy emerged, markedly different to the classical Greek tradition. In the modern tragedy the scope of the drama tends to be less ambitious, dealing with domestic and interpersonal problems rather than issues of the realm or society as a whole. The setting is usually confined to the domestic variety. Also, they usually involve a protagonist battling against social forces that inevitably threaten to overwhelm them. By this definition the modern tragedy differs from the classical variety as it encompasses the belief that the social drama can be tragic even if the hero is a victim of, not only personal flaws, but circumstance dependent on society.

However, this is not to say elements of classic tragedy, are not prevalent in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. [Aristotle’s ideas] In the following essay I will explore tropes of both contemporary and classical tragedy inherent in he play, and more relevantly Blanche’s isolation.

Throughout the play Blanche’s displacement isolates her. Her confidence is undermined by a setting in which she is unsure of the social conventions, the successful manipulation of which is indispensable for gaining and maintaining authority. Not only does Stanley dismiss her genteel protest, ‘Please don’t get up’, with ‘Nobody’s going to get up, so don’t be worried’, but Stella, who has warned her about the incapability of her customs to the present setting, finds her sister’s ‘superior attitude’ out of place. Blanche’s affair with Mitch centres on her needing a place away from Stella and Stanley, and Mitch’s rejection of her expresses itself in a refusal to bringing ‘home’. Stanley’s birthday present to her, the bus ticket to Laurel, serves only to underline his declaration. ‘She’s not stayin’ here after Tuesday’. Like Stella, he knows Blanch can return to no home. [Should I specify the exact tragic elements of this paragraph?]

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However that is not to say Blanche does not also actively isolate herself. Blanche is ostracised by her own antiquated views on class and social distinctions. Blanche’s awareness of social distinction is exhibited in the offhand manner in which she accepts both Eunice and her neighbour’s acts of kindness. To Blanche these are services naturally expected of her social inferiors. Her attitude towards these two women has the doubly effect of preparing us for her condemnation of Stella’s way of life, and specifically, her ‘ape-like’ husband, Stanley.

Blanche’s condemnation of Stanley’s ‘bestial’ nature is made explicit in Scene Four. The morning after the violence between Stanley and Stella, Blanche reproaches her sister for going back to her husband. Her urgings for them to leave Elysian Fields fall on deaf ears{amused quote}However, Stella’s amusement at Blanche’s hysterical plans soon turns to irritation as shown in her dry, ironical comments. The tragedy resides in the resentment Stella festers over her sister’s disapproval and harsh criticism of Stanley. This affects her decision in choosing to believe Blanche’s accusation of rape as the invention of a mentally unstable woman. (‘I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley’). Blanche’s hysteria casts doubts on her sanity and goes some way to influencing Stella’s readiness to have her sister committed to a mental hospital. The scene also has a dramatic function that contributes heavily to the ensuing catastrophe. Having overheard Blanche’s melodramatic condemnation Stanley now has even more reason to dislike Blanche and to wish to find a way of getting rid of her. His triumphant grin at the close of the scene promises ill for Blanche.

The emotional distance Blanche levels is based on the contradictory complexity of her character and intentions. Blanche, a figure of nervous disposition, is fretting to Stella over her coming date with Mitch, exhibiting a desperate longing for his hand in marriage. She fears growing old alone and is comforted by the thought of matrimonial security. Yet as she awaits Mitch’s arrival, Blanch engages in an episode of casual flirting with a young boy. Tennessee Williams uses the brief episode with the young man to show the contradictions in Blanche’s character. She is seemingly desperate to marry Mitch, yet she is ready to risk her future in this flirtatious episode. Blanche’s tragic flaw is made clearer as being a necessity for male attention and promiscuity. Her vain weaknesses make us seriously doubt Blanche’s true desires and destroy any possibility of a happy ending for her. She has no real desire for the safety of married life because she is unable to commit herself to a permanent relationship with one man. The moth will flutter and not settle down.

Obviously, a risk that arises from the Blanche’s callous flirtations is the alienation of the reader’s sympathies from her travails. It is here that the tragic story of Blanche’s young lover, Allen Grey acts to remedy this. In her youthful past, Blanche, hopelessly in love with her young husband Allen Grey, caught her lover in bed with another male friend. Later that day, pretending that nothing had happened, the three of them went out dancing together. In the middle of the Varsouviana, Blanche turned to Allen and told him that she felt ‘disgust’ towards him. He ran away and shot himself in the head. The significance of this tragic episode in Blanche’s youth is reiterated by Williams’ use of the Varsouviana Polka throughout the play. The Varsouviana is the polka tune to which Blanche and her young husband, Allen Grey, were dancing to when she last saw him alive. In the play, the polka tune calls up and accompanies Blanche’s feelings of guilt and remorse over her lost love’s death. Its dramatic effect is supplied by the fact only Blanche hears this (Mitch quote). This curious variant of the aside makes Blanche’s memories peculiarly private and contributes to her isolation. In relation to the elements of tragedy, the tragic quality to her youth is one that goes some way to explaining the dichotomy of Blanche’s intentions and is the source for the emotional vacuum she operates in the present. We as readers modify our initial doubts on her behaviour and feel immense sympathy and pity over her story, a key trait for the tragic hero.

In ‘A Streetcar’, the most significant aspect of Blanche’s isolation is psychologically, specifically her aversion from the harshness of reality to the relative safety of fantasy. Throughout the play, Blanche relies on numerous coping methods to help her endure the pain of her past tragedies and struggles. One method is her craving for drink, a trait that doesn’t go unnoticed by others (‘Liquor goes fast in hot weather’). She seeks the solace of alcohol when nervous, as before her date with Mitch, or depressed, after her rejection from Mitch. In addition, Blanche’s Chinese lantern takes on symbolic effect in Blanche’s evocative description of her love for Allen Grey. She describes falling in love as though ‘you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that’s how it struck the world for me’. In turn, she claims that ‘the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again’ after she catches him with another man, later confronts him, and discovers his suicide. The lantern is symbolic of Blanche’s attempt to block the world from her eyes. The darkness that she was plunged into after her husband’s death has become an aid and comfort from the harshness of reality (‘The darkness is comforting to me’).

Most significantly, the sombre tragedy of the play’s denouement exists in the mental breakdown of its protagonist.

At the end of the play, Blanche experiences a mental breakdown, due to Stanley’s brutal sexual assault, and is carried of to a mental hospital by medical staff. Stanley’s grotesque act is symbolic of reality’s complete domination over Blanche. Throughout her young life, she has withstood the very nadirs of pain and suffering, comforting herself with regular flights of fantasy. However, the fragile tether between reality and fantasy severs permanently at the hands of Stanley.

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The abiding mental isolation of Blanche is rife with elements of tragedy. Blanche’s daydream of a death at sea is a moment of great pathos reiterating the tragic mental break she has suffered (‘And when I die, I’m going to die on the sea’). Blanche leaves Stella’s residence on the arms of the doctor, a curiously dignified figure. As she says to him ‘I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers’ we recall these words at the end of Scene three as she thanks Mitch. The poignant truth of the statement is underlined with crushing tragedy as we realise she has experienced very little kindness in her life. These last words are a direct and effective appeal for the audience’s sympathy and pity.

The conventions of Ancient Greek tragedy demanded the focus of the genre to be on ‘the downfall a noble hero as a result of his own pride and arrogance (hubris). The opposite is the case in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ as Williams elevates a vain, self-deluded, promiscuous woman to the stature of a heroine. Yet, the focus of audience attention throughout, Blanche rises above her degradation and inspires in the audience the pity and fear demanded by classical tragedy. Blanche Dubois’s vanities and moral weaknesses fall away from her in the moment of departure and she achieves the dignity of a tragic heroine.


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