Quest for Beauty in Tennessee Williams’ “A Street Car Named Desire”

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Quest for Beauty in the Play of Tennessee Williams “A Street Car Named Desire”

By – Anand Kumar Minj (introduction at the end of the paper), Issue. XXVII, April 2017



This paper is mainly focusing on the Quest for Beauty in the Plays of Tennessee Williams. It is the complicated situations and hardship for the protagonist for the existence. She has never known the warmth of the family life like other characters of Williams in the plays. Despite the odd and loneliness, she beautifully handles the situations positively and wins the battle.

 KEYWORDS: Beauty, Williams, Plays, Situations and Protagonist


The female protagonist who finds herself in a more complicated situation for the existence portrayed by Tennessee Williams. Despite the desperate situation, she handles the odd situation beautifully. She is less fortunate than other female characters of Tennessee Williams. She has never known the warmth of a family life that other female characters have.  She has no one to back push in the society. Despite the desperate and loneliness she beautifully finds out the solution to the odd situation. It is she who stands behind a successful man without taking credit for anything. Such a woman operates from outside the marriage, she comes in a direct confrontation with the family of the particular person, the taboo and society at large not to mention her need for financial independence. Such roles thus cannot be played by a weaker woman because of inherent difficulties. She remains constantly on the horns of illusions, if she loves her man and seeks her own fulfillment in giving him fulfillment, she rankles like a wound in conventional societies. If on the other hand, she accepts the latter’s dictate she has to neglect her own genuine nature. It is here that she finds herself on shaky grounds and tries to change her status of mistress to that of a wife, mistakenly believing that marriage is inevitable for a lasting relationship. The responsibility of such a female protagonist is rather tough.

                        An un-adopted or negative, such woman protagonist can become a femme fatale.   Because of the intimate knowledge of her man’s unconscious- his needs, wishes and ambitions, she can lapse into the role of a seductress weaning him away from everything else. Irene Claremont de Castillejo remarks:

                         If so she may lure him away from his real destiny

                         Or the practical necessities of outer life in favor of

                         some illusory anima ambition and so ultimately ruin him.(I.C.DE Castillejo p.66)

She might try to keep him tied to her apron- strings, use all feminine wiles and guiles to emasculate his urge for achieving miraculous heights or at least his cherished goals. Her possessive love and inordinate solicitude might make him seek her image in other women and cripple him psychologically. Another characteristic of a negative character of such woman is her lack of commitment to permanence in outer relationship. She might throw her hands up too soon and walk away to seek and give fulfillment to another man. Edward C. Whitmont comments:

                            Indeed she may, like her male counterpart,

                            Puer- aeternus, shy away from making any

                            concrete commitment and forever lead

                            a provisory life of emotional wandering. (E.D. Whitmont p.179)

 Exhibitionism and egotism are other negative characters in such a woman. Such female protagonist mediates the personal unconscious of her man unnoticeably, quietly, without looking for credit or reward.

                        Such woman has to be brave enough to face the world, work for her own financial independence and simultaneously bring the beauty out of her man. She might use her maidenly softness now and alternate it with aggression and willfulness then, all in the service of the relationship.  Secondly, it is not necessary that such woman can only be the other woman and not one’s wife. In fact, the converse is as true, though rare. Blessed is the man who has a wife with an ornament of this personality in her. And lastly the protagonist mentioned above is prototypical.

Blanche Dubois is a beautiful and an excellent artistic portrait of Tennessee Williams’ female protagonist on A Streetcar Named Desire.  Born into an old agrarian southern family at Belle Reve meaning “Beautiful Dream” the ancestral mansion outside laurel, Mississippi. She and younger sister Stella had the best of a coddled and comfortable childhood with all the richness and courteous attention from gentlemen. Their adolescence, however, saw the rich plantation going to seed as a price for the “Epic fornications” that the men of the family indulged in, leaving only the house and some twenty acres of land.

                        Blanche’s downhill journey also seems to begin around this time. She fell in love with an extremely good looking young poet Allen Grey and ran away with him. She “adored him and thought him almost too fine to be human,”(p.140) until one day she discovered his homosexuality. Sexually innocent then she could not understand that the boy needed her help through his half-spoken pleas to be saved from his perversion. Shocked and disgusted Blanche accused him publicly, which resulted his suicide a few minutes after by the shore of the lake. The heartbreaking loss and how it came about left a psychic trauma in her life. In close succession to her husband’s death came the deaths of her father, mother, Sister Margaret and an old cousin Jesse, each contributing to her loneliness and fear of death and disease. By then Stella had left and settled with a Polish master sergeant Stanley Kowalski, visiting only briefly for funerals. Blanche who had to pawn the estate to meet the medical and funeral expenses soon found it slipping from her fingers and had no means to regain it.

                        It was around this time that her loneliness began to overpower her leading to the beginning of her search for sexual desire. Fleeting intimacies with younger companions seemed to take the distress out of her loneliness, for an instant, and seemed to neutralize the feeling of guilt over having caused young Allan’s death. Young trainee soldiers, young school boys and other young boys began to fill her life. Her grief drove her to drink, hysteria and nymphomania. All this was supposed to be anesthetic to quench the pain and grief of her miserable life. Her physical relationship with one of her students, her one-night stands with strangers, made her a town character, leading to her dismissal from school and expulsion from the hotel and town both.

                        Blanche having lost her all- husband, family, financial security from inheritance, her job, her youth, as also her fair reputation, reaches New Orleans to look up her sister Stella. Her “delicate beauty……that suggests a moth “(P.117), her delicate nerves and her uncertain manner, show her as a sensitive woman in a brutal world, in desperate need for refuge. She finds one such person in those shabby surroundings too-the mother coddled Mitch – but throws away her chance of finding stability mainly because she cannot anymore commit herself to man. She thinks the best way to get a man is by using the trappings of her antebellum beauty. She sees in Mitch an opportunity to prove her temptingness and seduce an easy sexual conquest. She fools the innocent Mitch by feeding him on magical details about herself. To arouse his desires, she passes for an overmodest virginal old- fashioned southern belle and does not allow him any other liberties than a kiss. She deceives him regarding her age and declares herself younger to Stella, tries to fool him regarding her drinking habits, avoids going out with him until after dark and manages to avoid being seen in direct bulb – light. She buys a paper lantern to avoid detection of her true age. All these deceptions she regards necessary for spreading the flames of love in Mitch. She adopts a cool dignified posture calculated at achieving the desired results:

I want his respect. And men don’t want anything they get too easy. But on the other hand, men lose interest quickly. Especially when the girl is over thirty. (p. 171)

She believes reality kills the romantic spirit, while the illusion is necessary to keep the flame ignited:

                             Yes, yes, magic! I try to give

                        that to people. I misrepresent

                        things to them. I don’t tell the truth.

                        I tell what ought to be truth.  (p. 204)

Blanche’s sexuality cannot function as an expression of psychic connectedness. She remains caught up in the image reality of her juiced up and fantasized Belle Reve past.  Blanche never tires of the game- playing. She continues to deceive and misrepresent things, hiding facts about herself. She cannot open herself to the relationship as a process, as an exploration, as a continuing communion. She flavors the projections and desires of men to get affirmation of her own existence.  Every, relationship for her is an adventure, a fresh occasion to have her sexual superiority and beauty affirmed.  She overworks her manners and genteel past as art to gain easy conquests on men.

                             Her shocking past uncovered by Stanley, coupled  with the  explanation given by Blanche herself, points towards the past of a street girl at best “a sentimental prostitute “as Signi Falk calls her. The hurt of young Allan’s death, followed by those of several others, compelled her to engulf herself sexually as she says, in order to forget the brooding shadow of the tragedy.

This indiscriminate indulgence has helped her escape form loneliness as also eased her sense of worthlessness: But it has made her neglect the much-needed centering of her emotions through the commitment to one person. The biological energies thus gratified have left no scope for emotional maturity. Jeanne M. Mc Glinn’s observation affirms this point of view. He regards Blanche sexually immature and inadequate “because of which she avoids adult sexual relationships but actively seeks affairs with adolescents.” Williams very competently selected the epigraph for the drama from Hart Crane’s The Broken Tower:

                      And so it was I entered the broken world,

                      To trace the visionary company of love, its voice

                      An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)

                      But not for long to hold each desperate choice(Mc Glinn, p.513)

Early in the play Stella describes Blanche as flighty, probably touching to her in capacity to experience love as a relationship. The epigraph does not refer to the ” theme of the soul’s quest for ideal love in the most unlikely of places – the broken world of actuality,” as Leonard Quirino interprets it .The epigraph, on the other hand, clearly points out the gratification that Blanche seeks in the arms of “each desperate choice” to refurnish the broken quality of her life, looking for closeness, perhaps kindness in that physical contact:

                  I’ve run for protection, Stella, from under one leaky roof to another

                  leaky roof-because it was storm-all storm, and I was- caught in the

                  centre. (P. 164)

It is also for this reason that she does not see herself as a mere prostitute. Her moral vision blurred by her desperate need  to be with someone, with ancestors for models who indulged in “epic fornications “with impunity , she moves through the world filling the void in her life with lust:

                 Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of

                 Allan intimacies with strangers was all I seemed to be able to

                 fill my empty heart with … I think it was panic , just panic that

                 drove me from one to another, hunting for some protection..(P.205)

It is this need that blinds her to her moral reality. Normand Berlin capably says,” she cannot see herself a whore because sexual activity was for her a temporary means for needed affection , the only refuge for her lonely soul.”

            Erich Fromm in his famous book The Art of Loving divides human love in five categories: brotherly, motherly, erotic, self and love of god. Among these erotic love is “the craving for complete fusion, for union with one another person.” This  union is the ” souls’ union”  if the craving  matures into caring , mutual respect,  tenderness  or flowers  into understanding  the psychic  needs or what Lawrence  calls the ‘otherness’  of the partner. The true union comes if the partners relate with each other’s intrinsic nature. Such a relationship becomes an exploration into the infiniteness of finite love. In mystical writing such love partakes of the divine. Only the pure feminine beauties are capable of such love. Yet, in the absence of these values, the union is merely physical and the happiness short-lived. Sexual relation in such cases does not touch much, and less involves the soul. The relation thus is no better than the mating of animals.

            Each new affair brings freshness, intensity and exhilaration along with an illusion that the new love will be different from the earlier one. Blanche has been chasing this visual   illusion in every new affair, even in the brief one-night-stands because only physical relation seemed to her the antidote to her pitiful existence. For her the conquests have to go on, so that she goes on living without getting time to reflect on her life.  The simple thought of being alone with herself frightens her, because it would mean a challenge with her own sleazy reality. Sex  in the name  of anxiety of aloneness, satisfaction of vanity, atonement off guilt or seeking  refuge are prompted by a desire to seek  in the world of romance that which is hopelessly bleak all around herself. She flirts with Stanley, Mitch and the Evening star collector boy almost simultaneously. Among them she pursues Stanley for the satisfaction of her vanity because he poses a challenge she has not had before. The “gaudy seed bearer,”(P.128) she has for a brother in law, feels insulted by her pose of superiority and decides to put her in her place by making “her recognize that she is the same as he, a sexual animal.” So her habitual hopes of seeing him weaken before her splashy manners, apparel and beauty bounces back leaving her badly shaken. He piece by piece unravels her past and confronts her with the reality she sought to deny in herself.  She had always been on the edge of lunacy but finds herself even closer to it. The second hope was in Mitch. She hoped that overwhelmed by her beauty he would rebel against the stories of Stanley and would not desert her. Her hopes of protection, it is that entire she seeks in him, a house, “a cleft in the rock of the world that I could hide in!”(P.205), turn down despite her hopes and ardent prayers he does not come on her birthday party. He was the man who had “stopped that polka tune that I had caught in my head,”(p.201) the tune which played when Allan committed suicide, the tune that always haunted her, that tune now comes back. She finally realizes her desperation that she has lost her reputation, position and her charms. This realization is as painful as it is coupled with the rape, sends her reeling into a world of shadows, from which she was never really far away.

            Here in protagonist Blanche, Williams has portrayed the prototype feminine beauty. As prototype Blanche seeks mainly, one thing from her lovers – protection. She sees them as refuge, even though “leaky” (P.164) from the “panic” (P.205) “the storm ” (P.164) all around. She sees Mitch as a sanctuary where she can take rest:

I want to rest! I want to breathe quietly again! Yes -I want Mitch.. Very badly! Just think! If it happens! I can leave here and not be any one’s problem….(P.171)

She no longer wants Journeys because “travelling wears me out.” In other words, Journeys on the street cars named desire, the abnormal sexual activation since adolescence, have exceeded her now. She needs a cozy shelter to move herself into because more than physical elevation she requires the protection and security of a home. Mitch fits into her requirement like one made to cope. He has a big heavy frame which promises to protect her and he is tender and mother -complexes which assures her compassion. Leonard Berkman’s words capably sum up her need:

It is specifically the intermingling of sex with compassion that Blanche longs for; sex without compassion that she cannot accept. (L.Berkman p.254)

She truly thanks god for Mitch who seems to her as “the poor man’s paradise” where she can have her peace from cruel world.

                        In this   play Blanche is in the modality of nymph who prototypically embodied grace, delicacy and elegance and is characterized by water. Whereas Stanley is presented as blacksmith of the flame “red hot “(P. 141), The Elysian Fields “Stanley or stone -lea” suggests the stoneage man and Kowalski is Polish for” smith.” He is the rough hewn lord of his house, immensely proud and possessive of his things: his liquor, his bathroom, his game, his team, his wife, his child, “everything … that bears his emblem.”(P.128) He quotes from Huey long’s ‘Every man is a king,’ and believes rather intensely in it. He believes it is his rights flash his brutal life force through all kinds of barbarism including smashing things, bellowing at people, hitting his wife and insulting others. Williams describes him and his friends as “men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colours.”(P.143) He gives Stanley Capricorn as his birth sign and gives him animal habits. Boxill’s recapitulations of Marlon Brando as  Stanley show that brutish force and fire as also sexual attractiveness was combined by him in his lively portrayal off the character:

The first Stanley had the face of a poet, the body of a gladiator and the vocal placement of a whining adole- scent. Brando’s performance was a mosaic of sexual insolence, sullen moodiness, puckish good humor and terrifying rage .His slurred delivery and loutish stancesded to the grammar of acting.(Boxill,p.88)

Audiences still remember the tiger -like suddenness with which Brando, in the birthday party scene smash plates, stalks out onto the porch, shouts while continuing to pick his teeth and lick his fingers.

                        Blanche, however, is not the beautiful young woman but an aging nymph “A gorgoyle” as Henry Popkin, “a witch” as Nancy M. Tischler calls her. Her name means” white woods,” like an “orchard in spring” which is ironic because she knows she has lost her youthful vitality and looks. Like her ironic name she has an ironic birth sign, Virgo or the virgin, with the background of a whore. She is fond of water which refreshes her, makes her a “brand new human being.” She plays for long hours in the bathroom, soaking her wear out nerves in hot water. Her “hydrotherapy” is necessary for her probably to wash away the feeling of guilt as also the stains of her promiscuous life. While locomotive journeys tired her out, she views the prospect of voyage on the Carribbean with Shep Huntleigh with pleasure,”I can smell the sea air. The rest of my time I’m going to spend on the sea. And when I die, I’m going to die on the sea.”(p.220) Before her last journey from the Elysian Fields, she questions Stella from the bathroom, “Is the Coast clear?” As Eunice and Stella assist her to dress, Blanche treats them like handmaidens in the service of a water nymph. The climax of her fantasies is also connected with the sea. She hopes, “And I’ll be buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard into an ocean as blue as …. my first lover’s eyes!”(p.220) Water which dominates her lively fantasies has always dominated her life. Water principle which manifests itself through drift, dependence and lightness, has kept her on the move, to one lover from another, without allowing her to experience the much needed charges to her  emotions, to find time to introvert and see her psychic life as it really is.


Williams wanted people to believe that beauty of love is the only answer in this world pricking with anger and discontent. He believed that “the only satisfactory thing we are left with this life is the relations –if they’re sincere -between people, love being, the closest we’ve come to such a satisfying relationship”




  1. Williams Tennessee , A Street Car Named Desire , Dramatists Play Service Inc. 1947, 440 Park Avenue South, New York , NY 10016.
  2. Cardullo Bert , Drama of Intimacy and Tragedy of Incomprehension : A Streetcar Named Desire Reconsidered , Tennessee Williams : A Tribute.
  3. Quirino Leonard , The Cards Indicate a Voyage on A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams : A Tribute .
  4. Falk Signi, “The Profitable World of Tennessee Williams,”Modern Drama, Dec.1958.
  5. McGlinn Jeanne M. “Tennessee Williams’s Women: Illusion and Reality, Sexuality and Love,” ibid; (pp.517-518).
  6. Castillejo, Irene Claremont de , Knowing Woman : A Feminine Psychology(1973; New York : Harper and Colophon , 1974),p.66.
  7. Whitmont, Edward C., The Symbolic Quest: Basic Concepts of Analytical Psychology(1969;New York :Harper and Coliphon,1973)p.179.
  8. Boxeill, Roger, Tennessee Williams. New York : St Martin’s Press,1987, p.88
  9. Fromm, Erich, Art of Loving (1957; rptd. London: Unwin Paperbacks 1978)pp.48-49




The author of the paper, Anand Kumar Minj is a research scholar in the English Dept. Durga College, Raipur. There are co-authors – Prof. Shukla Banerjee & Prof. Madhu Kamra.

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