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‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is a play enriched with imagery and full of expressionism: it shows the world through the characters’ emotions rather than how they literally perceive it. Throughout this play, Tennessee Williams uses various forms of imagery and symbolism to explain and highlight themes and moods. The play often uses symbols to accentuate the thoughts and emotions of the characters, and it is these expressionist elements that I will go on to discuss in this essay. In this piece of writing, I will not only look at the imagery used and the meaning behind it, I will also try to evaluate its role in the functioning of the play.
The main motifs of symbolism used in this play are:
o Titles & Names
o Reference to animals
The most significant imagery in the play is the use of light and shade in the play. Light is, in many ways, a playwright’s biggest asset: light (or the lack thereof) can denote tension, fear, and suspense and can be used to draw the audience, to rivet their attention on a certain point. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Tennessee Williams, while using it for all of the above reasons, manipulates light in a unique way: light is a physical manifestation of the truth. For this reason, Blanche hates light, she is afraid it will destroy her illusions: ‘I don’t’ want realism.’
By looking at light as synonymous with truth we can see her aversion to light stems from her desire for magic (‘I’ll tell you what I want. Magic!’). Blanche’s disgust at naked light bulb (‘I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or vulgar action.’) expresses her inability to face reality, and so she puts ‘a paper lantern over the light’: the paper lantern which represents her illusions, and the faï¿½ade she presents to the rest of the world. Stanley has no patience with her fantasies, and so ‘he tears the paper lantern off the light bulb.’ This action of his is a symbol for his revealing her true self.
There is also a more apparent and less subtle reason for Blanche’s terror of light: she wants is very subconscious about her age, and she has fears of being scrutinised under the ‘merciless glare’ of the light.
Light also has other connotations in the play. For Blanche, it represents first love. When she was very young ‘the searchlight’ was switched on, and after Allan’s death it suddenly went off again, after which ‘never for one moment has there been a light stronger’ than the soft glow of a candle. Through this we can clearly see that the tragic events of her past, and the loss of her first love, have led to Blanche’s fear and intense loathing of light: she was dazzled by love early in life, and after Allan’s death, she avoided all light. For Blanche there is a difference between the soft shimmer of the candle, which she takes comfort in, and the harsh glare of the light bulb.
This leads to another, more obscure, connotation of light in the play. If the light bulb represents reality, then the candle represents hope. Blanche acknowledges that ‘candles aren’t safe’, and she associates the burning out of the candle with the loss of innocence, ‘and after that happens, electric light bulbs go on and you see too plainly’. Therefore, she associates light (reality) with the loos of innocence, specifically hers which was cruelly snatched away from her at Allan’s death. This fear of light/ reality portrays her inability to grasp anything real or solid, which is demonstrated when she gasps at her reflection in the mirror.
As can be seen, the symbol of light has a major role in the play, and it is impossible to conceive how the play would even function without it. Therefore, we can see that, in the case of the motif of light, the imagery and symbolism related thereof is very important in the play.
Another form of symbolism in the play, and closely linked to light, is the theme of heat. This time, however, the imagery is just not related to Blanche, it relates to many of the main characters in the play. In ‘A Streetcar named desire’, heat represents different individuals response to their body image. Stanley is confident, assured about his image, full of ‘power and pride’, and his level of comfort with his physical image is the reason why he easily says, ‘my clothes’re sticking to me’. He sums up his outlook on his self-image when he says ‘Be comfortable is my motto’.
In this play, heat is also used to accentuate the differences between the characters, and the differences between Mitch and Stanley are emphasised in this way. Stanley simply says ‘Do you mind if I make myself comfortable’, whereas Mitch says he is ‘ashamed of the way he perspires’. This reference to heat by both characters shows us the difference between them. It also shows that, if Stanley’s body image is bold, brash and confident, Mitch’s is shy, clumsy and insecure.
Blanche’s issue with her appearance has already been glimpsed in the previous section, through her trying to conceal her age and wilting beauty. This can be discussed in greater detail from the perspective of the motif of heat. Stella says that Blanche takes baths to ‘cool down’, which seems to directly relate to the motif heat. However, is that really why Blanche bathes so often?
Some critics feel that Blanche’s frequent bathing is a vent for her feelings of guilt over her stained past. Perhaps her frequent bathing is a result of her preoccupation with washing away sins and making a ‘fresh start’. She likes bathing because it makes her feel like ‘a brand new human being’. However, I disagree with this interpretation, as Blanche herself does not feel she has done anything wrong: ‘I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that is sinful, let me be damned for it!’ Therefore, it is unlikely that her bathing is a result of her guilt.
In my opinion, her frequent bathing is a result of her insecurity about her age and appearance. She herself states that the baths are a form of ‘hydrotherapy’: it assuages her fears of her tarnishing beauty.
Overall, although the symbol of heat is not as major or well-developed a theme as light, it enriches the play and adds many nuances to the personalities of the characters.
Names and titles are also used symbolically in this play. One critic has said that ‘Essentially this is a play about Desire and Death and the effect these have on the human soul.’ From this, and indeed simply from the title, we can see that Desire is an important theme. This theme is portrayed through the imagery of ‘A streetcar named Desire’. In his own life in New Orleans, Williams observed two streetcars (trams), one named desire, the other called cemetery.
As he observed their movement, he was impressed by the symbolism of this and their relevance to life in general. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘Desire’ and ‘Cemetery’ are two journeys we make in life: one towards our desires, our hopes, dreams and ambitions, and another toward the cemetery, through death (‘they told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemetery. These streetcar titles are especially relevant to Blanche and her past life. She has travelled on ‘Desire’ to get here: it is because of her lustful desires that she is in a position wherein she has to come to Elysian Fields to live with her sister.
Other names and titles also hold significance in this play. ‘Elysian Fields’ is a name that brings an image of peace and tranquillity, which is a definite contrast to the violent actions of the habitants of ‘Elysian Fields’. ‘Elysian Fields’ also indicates a resting place for the dead, and this once again reflects symbolically on the themes of Desire and Death. The last significant name in this play is the title of the plantation, ‘Belle Reve’. Earlier on I looked at hope from the point of view of Blanche, and we can see that ‘Belle Reve’ is a personification of that hope, as ‘Belle Reve’ means beautiful dream. For Blanche, when she looses ‘Belle Reve’, she has fully lost all her hopes and dreams, and her journey of ‘Desire’ begins to come to a halt, and her journey towards the ‘Cemetery’ begins.
In general, the symbolism of titles and names is essential to the theme of the play, and therefore holds a great deal of importance in this play.