From the outset of the play, Blanche DuBois, can be viewed as a representative of the antiquated Southern Belle ideal, but is immediately forced to adapt to the modern world. (Oklopcic) Upon arriving in New Orleans to live with her sister Stella and Stella’s husband, Stanley, Blanche is faced with drastic change. New Orleans was a cosmopolitan city, a place where a variety of cultures intersected and where Blanche could no longer live on as a symbol of white purity. Blanche immediately reacts negatively to their apartment, a living space that is the exact antithesis of the Southern decadence of her former plantation home Belle Reve. Blanche had just lost this plantation home that she was so connected to. She must be forced to face change, and adjust in a society filled with self-reliant individuals who are working their way up both economically and socially, rather than clinging to the ideals of the past.
The moment when she confronts Stanley, a man who she immediately deems to be overly aggressive, is the moment when two worlds collide: the old world and the new world, or the world of the weak and the world of the dominant. This dichotomy between Blanche and Stanley can be paralleled with the dominance of the countries that were able to unite together during World War II to defeat countries that were lacking in resources, national unity, and power. The United States was one such super power, and its aggressiveness during World War II pervaded the population post World War II, leading to massive economic advancements and confidence in the future success of the nation. (Wilmeth 89) Stanley Kowlaski, who fought in the war, embodies this confidence and sense of dominance. He represents the American Dream.
While A Streetcar Named Desire does depict the economic status of Americans at large in post-war society, it is essential to examine Williams’ deliberate choice to focus his play on Americans living in New Orleans in order to further understand both Blanche’s and Stanley’s roles in the play. During World War II, New Orleans served as an ingress and egress for war materials and troops. (Campanella 9) Post World War II, the city underwent modernization and new infrastructure was built throughout it. (Starnes 115) Modernization was generally viewed as a threat to Southern distinctiveness, however, as shown by Blanche’s lamentations over her loss of Belle Reve. Modernization in New Orleans did not threaten its distinctiveness. In fact, New Orleans’ new role as an economic center in the South led to an intermingling of diverse peoples. (Starnes 115) It is, therefore, logical for Blanche DuBois, a woman with nothing but an idealistic view of her white Southern landscape of Laurel, Mississippi and Belle Reve to cling to, to undergo a culture shock when arriving in New Orleans. Despite the cultural milieu of New Orleans that could have contrasted with Blanche’s previous experiences in her hometown of Laurel, she does have French ancestry, and New Orleans did have a large sector of old European families. (Kolin 123) Therefore, Blanche is not entirely out of place in New Orleans, though Williams does provide the following description of her once she arrives to the city, “Her appearance is incongruous with this setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit…with necklace and earrings of pearl” (Williams 15). She was an anachronism in the modern era, and used her image as a pure white Southern Belle to mask her feeble, often corrupt attempts at surviving in the changing society. Oklopcic reflects this idea in her article on Southern Bellehood, “Williams portrays Blanche as the last representative of the old aristocracy who tries to survive in the modern world by escaping to alcohol, madness, and promiscuity.” Due to Blanche’s antiquated lifestyle, she was unfamiliar with diverse surroundings. For example, in response to Stella’s statement about Stanley’s diverse friends, “They’re a mixed lot Blanche,” Blanche says in an uneasy tone, “Heterogeneous—types?” (Williams 23). Despite Stanley’s ability to integrate with diverse groups of people, he himself stuck out as an anomaly in the New Orleans landscape as a Polish man. (Kolin 124) The fact that he is not truly at home in New Orleans underscores his tenacity and his intense drive to seek economic advancement, regardless of the environment he is in. Stanley’s out-of-place role in New Orleans also makes him somewhat of a foil to Blanche, whose place in society as a Southern Belle has been stripped from her by the arrival of the modern age.
The ability of modernization Post World War II to take over the Old South can be paralleled with Stanley’s ability to drive Blanche towards her ultimate destruction in A Streetcar Named Desire. He exerts his power over her throughout the entire play, and, despite all of his efforts, Blanche still continues to cling to the past until the very end of the play. Stanley exerted his control over Blanche by raping her and by gaining access to Belle Reve, the only place that Blanche felt she truly belonged. By simply voicing Louisiana’s Napoleonic Code, which empowers the husband equally through sanctity of property rights, Stanley was able to take over a symbol of the old order and use it for his own economic advancement. (Kolin 190) While Stanley viewed acquiring Belle Reve as an opportunity to take advantage of its present liquidation value, Blanche looked at Belle Reve as a symbol of her past and of southern grandeur. Yet, the fact that she agrees to pass the Belle Reve papers to, what she refers to as, Stanley’s “capable hands” highlights her weakness, and her acknowledgement of the dominant influence of men and capitalism over her. (Kolin 190)
Women’s striving for freedom from their husband’s control over their property rights was characteristic of first wave feminism in the United States, a movement which took place around the late 19th century (History and Theory of Feminism) This play is set post-World War II, at the start of the second-wave feminism movement, a movement during which women challenged male perception of them and gained more economic autonomy. (History and Theory of Feminism) The exchange that Williams portrays between Stanley and Blanche belongs in a previous era. Through this exchange, Williams is commenting on both the outdated culture of the South, as well as out-of-place nature of Blanche’s character. While Stella is also subservient to Stanley in many respects, she no longer lives in the past like Blanche does. Though her relationship with Stanley is far from perfect, it can be argued that Stella stays with him out of desire to maintain her own economic status, and to advance in society as Stanley advanced. (Kolin 194) Stella’s desire to advance in society and leave the past behind marks her as much more of a capitalist than Blanche could ever be considered.
Despite the general consensus that Williams aimed to capture the rise of capitalism and the fall of the order of the old Southern world, there are arguments that assign a Marxist political subtext to A Streetcar Named Desire. (Kolin 183) A fundamental goal of Marxism was to provoke the rise of the proletariat (the working class) over the bourgeois (the upper middle class), ultimately resulting in the destruction of class distinctions. (Kolin 183) This Marxist sentiment is reflected in Stanley’s rise over Blanche, a rise that leads to her symbolic demise. Another Marxist idea that pervades throughout A Streetcar Named Desire that lies most distinct from the capitalist model is the idea that all individuals are exploited regardless of their positions in society. (Kolin 184) Blanche, the Southern Belle, likely exploited Negroes who worked at Belle Reve, for example and also exploits her own self as a result of her alcohol abuse and overall debauchery. Meanwhile, Stanley overtly exploits Blanche, but also exploits his proletarian ideals in his extreme, almost animal-like desire for material wealth.
It is, therefore, essential to examine A Streetcar Named Desire using theories prevalent throughout the world during the Post World War II era, rather than solely abiding by the one-sided capitalistic model of individual advancement in society. It is this incorporation of outside views that makes Williams’ work so multi-dimensional. His characters, Blanche and Stanley, for example, may seem completely polarized at first, but, through further analysis of their roles in the South, in New Orleans, and in new economic and social movements of the time, their similarities become more apparent than their fundamental differences. They are both victims of exploitation: by society, by capitalism, and, most of all, by themselves.
A Streetcar Named Desire, first performed in 1947, can be contextualized in the era of Post-World War II America. During this era, societal structures were shifting. The bourgeoisie was fading away, and a new class of people was emerging, people who were self-reliant and fought for their own economic success. (Wilmeth 89) The character Blanche DuBois can be viewed as representative of this fading bourgeoisie, the old Southern plantation owning class of people, whereas Stanley Kowlaski can be seen as the new class of individuals, rising out from the war and ruthelessly seeking opportunity. Through this distinction, Williams makes sharp commentaries about the role of change in American society at large, drawing a contrast to the stagnancy of typical Southern society at the time.