Tennessee Williams was a prolific writer who published short stories, poems, essays, two novels, an autobiography, and dozens of plays. It is for his plays that he is most widely known. The most successful of these, in both commercial and critical terms, are The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and The Night of the Iguana (1961). All four received New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards, and both A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won Pulitzer prizes. Although Williams received less critical acclaim in his later years, he is regarded as one of the foremost American playwrights of the twentieth century.
Williams claimed that for him writing was therapy. He was always open about his troubled family background: his father’s drunken violence, the unhappy marriage of his parents, his own mental breakdown, and the insanity of his beloved sister, who as a young woman was institutionalized for the rest of her life. Williams did not hide that he was gay or that he was an abuser of alcohol and drugs. Although he denied that his writing was autobiographical, elements from his life appear frequently in his work.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams shows the reality of people’s lives, an enduring concern of his throughout his writing career. He wrote this play believing he was about to die, so he wrote about what he felt needed to be said. When it was first presented, the play was considered shocking because of its frank presentation of sexual issues.
Williams did not rely on realism alone to portray reality. In A Streetcar Named Desire as in other plays, he effectively uses dramatic devices to convey and enrich meanings. Most of the action of the play takes place in the Kowalskis’ apartment, but there is also action in the street. This action—the Mexican woman with “flores para los muertos” and the struggle of the drunk and the prostitute—provides not only local color but also a commentary on the main action. When Blanche first arrives at the apartment, a screeching cat is heard, a minor bit of stage business that helps create a sense of Blanche’s tension. The background music, too, is carefully contrived. The “Blue Piano” and the “Varsouviana” fade in and out according to what is going on in the minds of the characters, particularly Blanche. Blanche’s rape is accompanied by “hot trumpet and drums.”
The use of literary devices also underlines the meanings of the play. There are a number of significant names. Blanche DuBois, white woods, as Blanche herself points out “like an orchard in spring,” is clearly ironic. The family plantation was Belle Reve, a “beautiful dream” now gone. The Elysian Fields address of Stella and Stanley is an ironic comment on the unheavenly reality of the place, and Blanche arrives there by means of two streetcars, Cemeteries and Desire, which foreshadow the recurring images of death and desire throughout the play.
Death and desire bring Blanche to this low point in her life. She never recovers from the devastating death of her young husband, indirectly caused by the nature of his sexual desires. The deaths of her relatives are instrumental in reducing her to poverty, as do the desires, the costly “epic fornications” of her forebears. Her own promiscuous sexual desire destroys her reputation and her professional career. The rape by Stanley, which he claims is the culmination of a perverse desire they felt for each other all along, is the act that finally pushes her into insanity.
Just as Belle Reve is a relic of the plantation system that was the cornerstone of the civilization of the Old South, so is Blanche an anachronistic leftover from that culture. She is a southern belle, born to privilege and meant to be beautiful and refined, to read poetry, to flirt, and ultimately to marry and reproduce. Blanche is born too late in the history of her family and in the history of the South to inherit this legacy: The money is gone; the values are disintegrating. She hangs on to what vestiges of gentility she can, but this serves only to alienate rather than to shield her. Tender and delicate, like the moth she resembles, Blanche is unable to survive in the harsh reality of modern society.
There is more to the character of Blanche than merely the role of pathetic victim. She, too, has been active in her destruction. As she confesses to Mitch, she was not blameless in her husband’s suicide, for her cruel remark seems to have pushed him to it. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” she says pathetically to the doctor who leads her away, and perhaps it is a search for “kindness,” some warmth of human response, that leads to her gross, self-destructive sexual promiscuity. Despite recognizing her own undeniable flaws, she makes very little attempt to disguise her contempt for those she feels are inferior to her in refinement, and she is willing to use Mitch and Stanley to provide for her. She is also cruel to Stella, the one remaining person who loves her, in criticizing Stella’s husband and her way of life.
If Blanche represents defunct southern values, Stanley represents the new, urban modernity, which pays little heed to the past. If Belle Reve is not going to mean a financial inheritance, Stanley is no longer interested in Belle Reve. Williams’s stage directions indicate that Stanley’s virile, aggressive brand of masculinity is to be admired. However, Stanley, like Blanche, is an ambiguous character. His cruel intolerance of Blanche can be seen as justifiable response to her lies, hypocrisy, and mockery, but his nasty streak of violence against his wife appalls even his friends. His rape of Blanche is a horrifying and destructive act as well as a cruel betrayal of Stella. Ultimately, however, Stanley prevails. He gets rid of Blanche, who loses everything, and in the closing lines of the play, he soothes Stella’s grief, and their life goes on.
Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements / paper topics on A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in Streetcar Named Desire and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements from Streetcar Named Desire offer a summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay prompts below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from A Streetcar Named Desire at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper. Before you begin, however, please get some useful tips and hints abouthow to use PaperStarter.comin the brief User's Guide…you'll be glad you did.Thesis Statement /Essay Topic #1: The Nature of Performance in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
One thing that appears constant in the character Blanche Dubois is her struggle to keep up a certain appearance, that being a character of pure and delicate femininity. Because of specific examples that Williams gives us—particularly how Blanche behaves when she is alone vs. her behavior around men—allows us to see her character’s “range" and the contradictions. Among examples we see are how she keeps her drinking habits hidden, and her refusal to be seen in bright light or daylight. Another is the way her dialogue expresses an ultra-melodramatic femininity (her bizarre treatment of the Young Man at the end of scene five is a great example). This being said, is Blanche the only character who performs? A strong argument can be made that Stanley too, has begun to convey and demonstrate more masculine behavior since Blanche’s arrival in New Orleans. Breaking radios and plates, making lewd demands of his wife, raping Blanche; these all point to the notion that he is acting out the common man (“I was common as dirt.") as a sort of retaliatory gesture. You could argue about some other characters performing as well, though Stanley and Blanche might be enough.Thesis Statement /Essay Topic #2: The Character of Sound in A Streetcar Named Desire
Observe Tennessee Williams’ incredible attention to sounds in the descriptions and stage directions all throughout the text. You can go through and figure out how exactly the author uses these to achieve different dramatic effects. Most obvious and prevalent is the sound of the “Blue Piano" being played “perpetually" as it is once described. But others include the sound of street urchins like the tamale man, the “Negro Musicians", and the Mexican Woman (“Flores para los muertes?"), as well as the intertwining noises and conversations coming from the upstairs couple Eunice and Steve. The most provocative use of sound is perhaps the polka music and “distant revolver" shot that is described in scene nine, which might be intended to be what Blanche is hearing in her mind/what she is remembering. The music and noise could reflect the dramatic tension and release of tension, as well as being present as an ironic counterpoint to the actual mood of the characters or situation. Consider Blanche’s light singing of the song “Paper Moon" in the bathroom while Stanley and Stella have an argument.
Thesis Statement /Essay Topic #3 Desire or Death Are the Only Choices
Scene Nine of Streetcar is essentially the climactic point between Blanch and Mitch. In it, the two characters appear to have confused and mixed emotions, certainly around how to treat Blanche’s lifestyle of the past—one we are never quite clear about. Blanche claims, “The opposite [of death] is desire". Consider these two elements death and desire as binaries in opposition to each other (and one not being able to exist without the other), and show how this is manifested through the four main characters. Make an argument about what these characters want: Mitch, a wife and companion to fill a void of loneliness; Stella, wishes to keep the status quo, and seems to feel a strange sense of security in Stanley; The hyper-sexualized Stanley, who desires women and a prideful sense of property/owning things; and Blanche, whose main desire is perhaps to always be desired. There are many good examples of these throughout the play so you could write a few paragraphs for each individual character. Your discussion could also include how the degree to which Blanche and Stanley’s desires are so extreme, that it is the reason why the one is so antithetical to the other.
Thesis Statement /Essay Topic #4: The Significance of Color in Streetcar Named Desire
When reading the text, pay close attention to Williams’ use of colors, exactly when and where do they appear, and in connection to which characters. Blanche’s first appearance is in all white, and her name Blanche DuBois (we are told) means white woods. The aura of Stella and Stanley’s New Orleans apartment seems to be primarily blue, with a few scenes where red becomes dominant. In the depiction of the Poker Night in scene three, Williams describes the kitchen as having “… lurid, nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum." Make an argument about how the author uses colors to reflect states of mind, to make further commentary on particular characters, and what sorts of things specific colors represent or evoke that the text picks up on and plays with: Whiteness, maybe associated with virginity/purity; Blue being sadness and night; Red, as anger and promiscuity. Also take notice that these three prominent colors in the text are also represented in the flag of a country that Williams might be commenting on.
Thesis Statement /Essay Topic #5: The Crucial Questions of Staging A Streetcar Named Desire
Examine Tennessee Williams’ stage directions closely and try to envision what this play would look like, were it realized on the stage or screen. What are some of the points where the text limits what can be done? Conversely, and more importantly, what are some apparent places where the text leaves things more open for interpretation? Furthermore, where and how could different interpretations radically change the texts impact or meaning? Go through and pick out two or three scenes in which multiple interpretations can be made. Slight variations—for instance, what Stella does at the very end of the play, and Stanley carrying Blanche to the bed in scene ten—could have a strong impact on an audience in terms of what information is really being communicated, possibly altering the implication that Blanche is raped by Stanley, and the implication that Stella will remain with Stanley after the curtain has fallen.
This list of important quotations A Streetcar Named Desire will help you work with the essay ideasand thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from the play by Tennessee Williams listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes from A Streetcar Named Desire contain scene numbers so you can find the quotes easily.
“This ‘Blue Piano’ expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here." (Scene One)
“Blanche… is incongruous to this setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district" (scene one).
Stanley: “In the state of Louisiana we have the Napoleonic code according to which what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband and vice versa" (scene two)
“The kitchen now suggests that sort of lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum… the poker players—Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo—wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check, a light green, and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors" (scene three).
Blanche: “show me a person who hasn’t known any sorrow and I’ll show you a shuperficial—Listen to me! My tongue is a little—thick! … I’m not accustomed to having more than one drink. Two is the limit—and three! Tonight I had three" (scene three).
Stella: “I said I am not in anything that I have a desire to get out of… People have got to tolerate each other’s habits I guess" (scene four).
Blanche: “He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There’s even something—sub-human—something not quite to the stage of humanity yet!" (scene four).
Blanche: “I never was hard or self-sufficient enough. When people are soft—soft people have got to shimmer and glow—they’ve got to put on soft colors, the colors of butterfly wings, and put a—paper lantern over the light" (scene five).
Blanche: “Because of my hard knocks my vanity’s been given. What I mean is—he thinks I’m sort of—prim and proper, you know! [she laughs out sharply] I want to deceive him enough to make him—want me . . ." (scene five).
Blanche: “Young man! Young, young, young man! Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights?… Well, you do, honey lamb! Come here. I want to kiss you, just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth!" (scene five).
Blanche: “[singing]: ‘It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, Just as phony as it can be– but it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!" (scene seven)."
Stanley: “Tiger—tiger! Drop the bottle top! Drop it! We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!" [She moans. The bottle top falls. She sinks to her knees. He picks up her inert figure and carries her to the bed. The hot trumpet and drums from the Four Deuces sound loudly]