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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
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AUTHOR'S STYLE

This play about people trapped in frightful conditions brims with poetry. A poem doesn't always need elegant words. In fact, the inelegant residents of Elysian Fields speak in the blunt, straight-forward idiom of common people. Only Blanche's manner of speaking soars above the ordinary. Figurative language gushes naturally from her lips. For example, she tells Mitch how life's joys have been extinguished: "And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that's stronger than this-kitchen-candle...."

Why did Williams give Blanche the gift of poetic speech? Yes, she's an English teacher, but perhaps he had other purposes. How does her eloquence affect her relationship with Stanley, for instance?


You also find poetic language, rich with imagery, in Williams' stage directions: "The houses [of New Orleans] are mostly white frame, weathered grey, with rickety outside stairs and galleries and quaintly ornamented gables." To help create the mood of the play, Williams prescribes the sound of a "tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers." To give you a sense of the character, he calls Stanley a "gaudy seed bearer" and a "richly feathered male bird among hens." Blanche's uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, suggest "a moth."

Apes, hens, a moth-Williams' images make up a menagerie. Why does the playwright repeatedly compare his characters to animals? Does Williams keep you mindful of the constant tension between man's civilized impulses and his beast-like instincts?

The playwright may also be highlighting the symbolic clash between Stanley and Blanche. To be sure, Stanley stands for primitivism. Blanche speaks up for civilization. May she also represent the romantic traditions of the past? Don't be satisfied with only those interpretations of Stanley and Blanche. Try to extract additional symbolic meanings in the conflict between the play's antagonists. For example, what can you make of the fact that one is a dreamer and pretender, the other a realist?

You're always sure to find carefully-chosen symbols in a Williams play. Even the names of people and places carry symbolic weight. The streetcars, "Desire" and "Cemetery," evoke among other things, Blanche's need for love and her fear of death. Other names reveal Williams' irony and humor: he assigns the name "Elysian Fields," a paradise in ancient mythology, to a cheerless street in modern New Orleans. "Blanche" means white, the color signifying purity. "Stella," the earthy sister, means star. And "Belle Reve," of course, means "beautiful dream."

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