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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
The detailed description and precise stage setting and directions at the beginning of the play reveal that Tennessee Williams is a very detailed and deliberate artist who could visualize the set very vividly and help the reader to do the same.
The scene opens in a poor section of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Stanley Kowalski and Harold Mitchell, his colleague at work, arrive at Stanley's apartment. Stanley loudly calls out to his wife, Stella, who is about twenty-five. Stanley, five years older than his wife, throws her a package containing a chunk of meat, an obvious sexual symbol, about which the neighbors joke. He then goes bowling, and Stella, in a subservient manner, goes to watch him "show off" his masculinity. As soon as they leave, Blanche, Stella's older sister, arrives carrying a suitcase. She is a delicate beauty, described as a moth-like creature and daintily dressed in white. As she looks around the neighborhood, she is shocked to see the commonness of her surroundings, since she and her sister were brought up in aristocratic society in the Old South.
Blanche, searching for her sister's home, is told by the landlady that Stella is out with her husband. But she lets Blanche into Stella's apartment. Blanche admits that her sister was not expecting her, and when Eunice tries to make further inquiries, Blanche does not answer. Instead, she finds a whisky bottle and pours herself a large drink. When Stella arrives, there is a joyous reunion. Blanche, who is a bundle of nerves, criticizes the apartment and asks for another drink. She informs Stella that she has taken a leave of absence from the school where she teaches English, due to nervous exhaustion. She questions how the Kowalskis will accommodate her and inquires about Stanley, Stella's Polish husband. Stella shows her his picture, and Blanche makes a few unkind remarks about Poles. Stella warns her sister that Stanley's friends are not refined people.
Blanche then relates that Belle Reve, their ancestral and aristocratic home in Laurel, has been lost and accuses Stella of shirking her family responsibilities. Blanche tells of how she has nursed the dying members of the family and mortgaged the house to pay for their expensive funerals. In the end, Belle Reve is seized to pay past-due debts.
Stanley enters, and Blanche introduces herself to this coarse man of medium height and compact build. He quickly and rudely takes off his shirt and pours himself a drink, noticing that Blanche has consumed his liquor. When he offers her a drink, Blanche lies and says she rarely touches the stuff. He asks about her job and her marriage, both unpleasant topics for Blanche. As a result, she has an attack of nerves and excuses herself, thinking she will be sick.
Tennessee Williams is a master of contrasts, and this opening scene of the play is filled with them. The protagonist, Blanche Dubois, is described as white, light, and airy with an aristocratic Old South heritage; in complete contrast to her, Stanley Kowalski, her antagonist, is dark, masculine, and solid with an unrefined Polish heritage. Blanche is shocked at the neighborhood where her sister Stella lives with her husband Stanley. Their apartment is in an old, cramped, and decaying section of the New Orleans French Quarter. It is a total contrast to the lovely and aristocratic neighborhood where Stella and Blanche were raised in the Old South.
Stanley Kowalski is introduced as a man who is strikingly coarse and loud. He enters wearing a loud-colored bowling jacket, shouts at the top of his voice to Stella, and crudely throws a packet of bloody meat at her. He is a man who is impressed with himself, demanding of others, and possessive of everything around him. (In fact, what bothers him most about Blanche is that he cannot possess her, even though many other men have.) In short, Stanley prepares the reader for the uncouth and brutal environment into which Blanche is about to enter. When Blanche arrives, she states that she first took a streetcar named Desire (hence the title of the play), then another one called Cemetery. Through the names of streetcars, the dramatist indicates that "desire" leads to "death". And in fact, the play will develop this theme. For the moment, however, the streetcars lead Blanche to the French Quarter and the apartment of her younger sister Stella. Ironically, Blanche enters, wearing white, the symbol of purity. She is described as moth-like and afraid of light; in reality, she does live in a world of darkness and sin that she cannot acknowledge. Although she drinks heavily, she tells Stanley she rarely touches liquor; although she is fired from her job, she tells her sister she has taken a leave of absence due to her nerves.
Tennessee Williams, in this opening scene, clearly shows his protagonist to be a liar - both to herself and to those around her. He also successfully captures her state of desperation; she takes refuge with her sister despite the shabby conditions. With her heavy drinking, shattered nerves, fear of being alone, and pitiful financial status, it is no small wonder, and an appropriate foreshadowing of things to come, that Blanche literally feels sick after her first encounter with Stanley, who crudely questions her about her marriage and offends her genteel sensibilities.
It is significant to note the playwright's ironic use of names. Stella means "Star", and Blanche Dubois means "White Woods". There is nothing shining or star-like about Stella, who sends her sister off to an asylum to please her crude husband; there is also nothing white (pure) or woodsy (solid) about Blanche. The name of the aristocratic family home was Belle Reve, meaning beautiful dream. But the dream turns into a nightmare for Blanche as she nurses the dying members of the family and loses her "beautiful dream" to pay off the funeral expenses of the dead family.