Tennessee William’s novel, A Streetcar Named Desire, is the story of the brutish Stanley Kowalski and his meek wife Stella, a New Orleans couple whose lives are turned upside down with the arrival of Stella’s neurotic, Southern belle sister Blanche who is immediately drawn into a battle of wills with Stanley. Blanche’s childlike helplessness, romantic desires, and pretensions to aristocracy completely collapse when Stanley’s ruthless exposure of her past brings about Blanche’s final disintegration. When reading the scenes, the symbolism struck me as the most prominent aspect of the novel. Williams uses symbolism throughout the novel to progress the plot of the story, character growth, and foreshadowing of future events in the novel. In this essay, I have chosen a few symbols to discuss how Williams uses them in his novel. In addition, one symbolic event will show evidence of foreshadowing a future event in the novel.
Throughout the novel, Williams has referred to animalistic behavior and virtues. He presents New Orleans as a jungle; a metaphor Williams uses to portray the primitive, sub-human nature of its inhabitants. Stanley epitomizes this as he represents the brutes of society that dominate in this jungle. Williams conveys both imagery and dialogue to portray this notion throughout the novel as Stanley performs brutish acts and declares, “I am the king around here, so don’t you forget it.” Beating his wife Stella is one significant act that portrays Stanley’s brutish characteristics. In addition, throughout the novel Stanley presents himself as a self-important brute, driven by the force of desire that enables him to thrive in the jungle that really is his “Elysian Fields.”
Examining the climax, it is apparent that the animalistic predisposition are out in full force in Stanley as he parades around in a “vivid green silk bowling shirt” and “brilliant silk pajamas.” Therefore, the rape is a result of an act of brutal desire in its most futile form, stemming from animal impulses and hostility that propelled the two towards each other. The rape is an act in which each character is at the peak of their battle, which is to be the “final hand” in the game of desire. Furthermore, a symbolic event that I believe foreshadows the rape is when Stella pours Blanche a drink, a coke with a shot of whiskey. It overflows and spills foam on Blanche’s dress. Upset by being dirty and violated, Blanche screams with a piercing cry about stains on her pastel-colored dress. She says, “Right on my pretty pink skirt.” She is reassured and recovers when the skirt stain comes out. To Blanche, both events give her a feeling of being dirty and violated, and what helps her to recover from these feelings is cleansing. In addition, throughout the novel Blanche soaks in a hot bath to quiet her nerves. Soaking in a hot bath symbolizes Blanches compulsive cleansing of herself of her past. These three events are tapestries of Blanches need to cleanse of her past.
One object that holds a symbolic meaning in the novel is the paper lantern. Mitch, a poker friend of Stanley’s, became impressed by Blanche and strikes up a conversation with her after a poker game one night. He behaves like a gentleman and puts a protective “adorable little paper lantern” on one of the bare light bulbs at her request to soften the glare. Blanche says, “I can’t stand a naked light bulb any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” With the paper lampshade and the proper atmosphere of subdued lighting, Blanche creates a soft, exotic, romantic dream-like world in the room. “We’ve made enchantment,” says Blanche. Symbolically, she is physically, psychologically, emotionally fragile, and hypersensitive to glaring bright lights which would reveal her declining beauty.
Later, a drunk and vindictive Mitch arrives to confront Blanche while Stella and Stanley are on their way to the hospital. Angrily, he tells her he did not come to the birthday dinner because he did not want to see her anymore, enraged that she had betrayed and misled him. Mitch complains about the darkness, never being able to see her in the light. The use of black and white cinematography, with extensive use of indirect lighting in the film, adds to the shadowy, secretive atmosphere in which Blanche hides. Vulnerable, Blanche finds comfort in the shadows, hiding the ravages of time on her face. “I like dark,” Blanche says. “The dark is comforting to me.” Mitch rips the paper lantern off a light bulb, the one he had so graciously put there for her many months earlier, wanting realism and direct light reflected on her face. She prefers the pleasures of her fantasy world, not wanting to divulge her true age. Blanche says, “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth.”
In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Tennessee Williams uses a great deal of symbolism to intrigue his audience in one woman’s battle for desire. One way Williams does this is through his references of Stanley’s animalistic behavior, including parading around in his symbolic “brilliant pink pajamas” that he wore on the night of his wedding’ thus, resulting in the brutal desire act of rape. I believe the symbolism is what made the novel one of Williams most recognized novels. The symbolism’s progressed the plot, helped in character growth, and even foreshadow future events, such as Blanche’s reaction to her stained dress foreshadowing the future event of Stanley raping her.