Grotesque in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire: How and Why?

Throughout this semester, we were introduced to varying degrees of literary styles and themes. From the epiphanies discovered through American Realism, to the skepticism explored through Literary Modernism, to the conflicts of social conformity and individualism approached by a Post-Modernistic America and its writers. We have had the great opportunity of being exposed to individuals who questioned and pushed the boundaries of creativity and expression. Tennessee Williams was an author and playwright who balanced the enigmatic, macabre, and often cruel disintegration of his characters with a poetic grace.

He became the keystone of a style that is known as Southern Gothic. A Streetcar Named Desire became the quintessential manifestation of the grotesque through the unraveling of the “Old South”. More specifically, his themes on the conflict between the “sensitive, non-conformist” individual against conventional society, the disintegration of the southern woman, and the divergence between southern gentiles and northern brutality to which all of Williams’ characters contributed to in some degree.

The grotesque style of literature supplies the reader with a historical as well as social perspective.

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This provides a metaphorical reference to the “dying” South and the struggle to exist against the progressive ideals of the North, all the while, fraught with trying to keep the Southern identity and dignity intact. It is stated that “A common description (of the grotesque) has to do with causation: Southern grotesque is often said to be the literary aftermath of historical misfortune. (Presley 37).

If we take into account the surrounding setting of the play, “…a two-story corner building on a street in New Orleans which is named Elysian Fields and runs between the L & N tracks and the river (Elysian Fields is a New Orleans street at the northern tip of the French Quarter, between the Louisville & Nashville railroad tracks and the Mississippi River.

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In Greek mythology the Elysian Fields are the abode of the blessed in the afterlife. ) The section is poor but, unlike corresponding sections in other American cities, it has a raffish charm” (Klinkowitz & Wallace 2187), the reader is thrust into the ensuing chaos before any of the characters are even introduced. Williams was very particular about each detail with regards to the style in which he was writing. The drama is not only a result of the surroundings, but is a symbiotic portrayal of the daily lives that exist within the grotesque. “The disorders are threefold: narcissism, familial conflict, and dream-like confusion”: (Presley 37).

The Southern Gothic, grotesque style of writing can best be characterized by the profound ability of an author to evoke feelings of disgust while contrarily evoking feelings of compassion among his/her audience as well as between the characters within the work. These emotions are presented and contained within, what seems to be, a lost individual. This character may also display traits of incontinence due to physical or mental incapability. “Literature of the grotesque, according to the authoress, is distinguished by a moral or theological vision not usually associated with realistic works.

Freaks appear in her fiction, she said, to reflect quite simply what man is like without God” (Presley 38). In keeping with the grotesque, Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire stretched the boundaries of this theme through the representation of the disintegration of the southern woman. By exploring the torrid longing of his character, Blanche Dubois, and her desires and fears. “Grotesque writers are “faced with the reality that they live in an age whose distortions function as indicators of how far man has drifted from his true image as a creature of God.

In this vein, Williams explores the corruption of mankind, along with its difficulties in reconciling its primal nature with the rules of society: Blanche’s charm and beauty is overridden by her alcoholism, nymphomania, and general debauchery” (Presley, 1). Blanche DuBois provided the extreme case of what it is like to lose yourself. Blanche was “Deceptive, dishonest, fraudulent, permanently flawed, unable to face reality, Blanche is for all that thoroughly capable of commanding audience compassion, for her struggle and the crushing defeat she endures have the magnitude of tragedy.

The inevitability of her doom, her refusal to back down in the face of it, and the essential humanity of the forces that drive her to it are the very heart of tragedy, No matter what evil she may have done, nor what villainies practiced, she is a human being trapped by the fates, making a human fight to escape and to survive with some shred of human dignity, in full recognition of her own fatal human weaknesses and increasing absence of hope” (Crandell 93). The obscure relevance to her deceptions are only a portion of why Blanche represents the grotesque.

Her necessity to cling to the “old” southern ways (with a “death grip”) allows her to cling to her own sanity. She exudes narcissism to the fullest extent, but is unable to see the damage that it is causing to herself and the people around her. In the very first scene, Blanche describes the loss of Belle Reve. She goes on to embellish the loss as a personal encounter with death, to which she is the only witness to and the only effected party: “I, I, I, took the blows in my face and my body! All of those deaths! The long parade to the graveyard! Father, mother! Margaret, that dreadful way!

So big with it, it couldn’t be put in a coffin! But I had to be burned like rubbish!.... And, oh, what gorgeous boxes they packed them away in! Unless you were there at the bed when they cried out, “Hold me! ” you’d never suspect there was the struggle for breath and bleeding. You didn’t dream, but I saw! Saw! Saw!.... ” (Williams 2193). This description was a faint cry for compassion or an attempt to restore the relationship with Stella, but through a premeditated state of self preservation. The grotesque narcissism with which she approaches the loss of the estate and their relatives only happened to her.

It is this over dramatic perception that reinforces the author’s emphasis on the Southern Gothic or grotesque style apparent throughout his play. The culmination of the loss of Belle Reve, her husband’s suicide, and, later, her dismissal from her job, could have contributed to her current state. But it in the end, she chose not to face her demons, she opted to hide behind the ruse of entitlement associated with old Southern Society that proved to be her ultimate demise. “If there is any character in modern dramatic literature whose identity is bound up in such fantasies and sees erself as unique, special and entitled, it is Blanche DuBois, whose very name conjures up images of French, chivalric romances.

Furthermore, it is clear that she identifies with the role of the “Southern Belle” and, in fact, retreats to memories of herself as “Southern Belle” when confronted with death and trauma. Ironically, from Blanche’s point of view, although the “Southern Belle” is fundamentally superior, she is also, simultaneously, a vulnerable, even fragile figure, in need of constant attention and care, dependant on others. (Ribkoff & Tyndall 327). The reason why the grotesque is so important to the decline of the Southern woman, and this particular character, is because there is this realization that there are no happy endings. Blanche is happy to wallow in her own self destructions and with this she is libel to take down everyone within her distinct vicinity. Blanche’s character is deprived of the one thing that she longs for which is love and by reaching for the facade of the Southern Belle, she does more damage because she is the complete antithesis of the Southern Belle.

There is also a lot of symbolism associated with Blanche’s decline. Throughout her short time at her sister’s apartment, it is evident that she was taking a lot of baths through the progression of the story. As more information gets divulged about what really happened in her past, it is almost as if she is trying to maintain that she is a Southern Belle. She is trying to convince herself that she is still clean or that she can wash away her past through her frequent bathing. There is also the issue of light.

Blanche does her best to conceal herself from the light of reality by placing paper lanterns over lamps to soften the light “So, too, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is described (in the same stage direction! ) as both attracted to and repulsed by light. On the one hand, she is described as moth-like in appearance. Comparable to the moth, she is strangely attracted to that which has the power to destroy her. On the other hand, “her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light”.

To avoid it, she dresses naked light bulbs in paper lanterns, and when she goes out, with Mitch for example, it is always at night. ” (Crandall 95). This pertains to her willingness to escape reality and is yet another way that Williams exhibits the grotesque through his writing. In further examination of Blanche, her dependency on men is another portrayal of the grotesque. She is constantly looking for and acquiring the affections of men and seems to feed upon the generous nature of Mitch, Stanley’s friend.

Here we see the grotesque outlined in the form of female dependence on the male figures in their lives. At one point, Blanche rejects the union of her sister with that of the abusive Stanley Kowalski. She fantasizes about an alternative life with the financial support from Shep Huntleigh, but this still emphasizes a need for the support to exist from a male figure. Even though this wouldn’t be a stable situation for Stella, this would free her from her dependency on Stanley.

This reiterates the progression from the old to the new south, but isn’t a source of stability for Stella. She still needs to rely on Stanley and in doing so we see the indignity of the human spirit due to sacrifice. It is also a theme of Williams’ that the removal of the simply “country” life, and into the throngs of a bustling city, create the setting for the grotesque situations that these characters find themselves in. Williams thought that in moving away from the country life, we are separating ourselves further from the life that God had intended us to live.

There is a quiet simplicity that is associated with working the land in the country and in moving to the trappings of a large city, there is room for trouble. This is also apparent through the loss of Belle Reve. When Blanche falls into misfortune and loses the house, she is forced into a life of less prestige and honor. She loses her job as a teacher due to moral discrepancies, she is called on at the hotel that she is staying at by many men, and she is forced to move in with her sister in New Orleans.

This transition represents a removal of all that is decent and good with humanity and confines us to the “cramped” quarters of a city where we lose ourselves. Stanley Kowalski’s character impresses upon the reader an animalistic quality that can only be implied to represent the conflict of the divergence between southern gentiles and northern brutality. “As much as Blanche is the representative of dreams, Stanley is the emissary of quotidian reality. His Napoleonic Code and the State of Louisiana are the realistic counterparts to Blanche’s more ephemeral Belle Reve.

Whereas Blanche values civilization and its refinements-art, poetry, and music-Stanley indulges in more primitive pleasures-eating (bringing home meat from the kill); drinking, to the point of intoxication; and sleeping with women. He knows what his pleasures are and indulges them, often to excess. He enjoys life to the fullest-“be comfortable is his motto”. In his drunken paroxysms, he easily forgets himself, and becomes one with his buddies. He is, for the most part, spontaneous and unselfconscious” (Crandall 97).

In the climax of the play, we bear witness to Stanley’s submission to the atavistic urges and northern brutality by the rape of Blanche. As the story progresses, Mitch (Stanley’s friend) exhibits how the loss of the Southern Gentile adds to the grotesque setting with which all of the characters exist in. At the end of the play, we are made aware that Blanche is being committed to an insane asylum. As the Doctor starts to take Blanche away, Mitch had an opportunity to intervene, but he didn’t.

He felt a great deal of sympathy for Blanche, but chose to not act on those feelings and instead Blanche is committed. The reason that this is such an important example of the loss of the Southern gentile was because he had the opportunity to act and didn’t step up to defend Blanche. Southern gentiles are all about honor and dignity. With the loss of these important qualities within him, he has just let Blanche succumb to the darkness that has shrouded her since she arrived at Stella’s apartment.

Even though Blanche didn’t see the hero within Mitch, they had a bond between them. They were both looking for love and for someone to take care of them. With him not coming to her rescue, the true Mitch is presented-a person who is devoid of the heroism that Blanche so desperately needed. On the conflict between the “sensitive, non-conformist” individual against conventional society, we have to re-examine Blanche Dubois. From the beginning of the play, we are well aware of Blanche’s “sensitive, non-conformist” characteristics.

She is someone who was unwilling to uphold he civilities that should exist within each person. In her having tarnishing relations with a pupil of hers, she sacrifices the only thing that she had left- her dignity. “However defensive Blanche becomes, from the moment she enters the stage until the moment she leaves it, she is in search of direction and empathy or “kindness” of others in order to work through the traumas of the past and present. Ultimately, this search for understanding is he main reason she comes to New Orleans and not simply for a place to stay” (Ribkoff & Tyndall 327).

The climax of the grotesque within this play seems to come as a result of Blanche’s sensitive, non-conformist attitude towards life. Her inability to accept responsibility for her current situation is the catalyst to the way that Stanley shows no tolerance for her. Stanley’s brutalities, along with his intolerance for Blanche’s current state of mind, clash to create the ultimately grotesque act of rape later in the play. “Many critics believe Stanley’s rape of Blanche precipitates her descent into madness.

According to Mary Ann Corrigan, this descent is part of the overall trajectory of the play: “in each of the [play’s] 11 scenes Blanche moves inexorably closer to the disintegration of her mind and the total rejection of reality” (Humanit 334). After the disintegration of the world that Williams created in A Streetcar Named Desire, we are left with the overwhelming themes of the struggle for human affection, dignity, and resolve. Through this in-depth dissection of the characters, plot, and settings, emerge the themes that exemplify the Southern Gothic/grotesque style of writing.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Grotesque in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire: How and Why?. (2017, Jan 24). Retrieved from

Grotesque in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire: How and Why? essay
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