A Streetcar Named Desire: Study Guide
by Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams is one of the foremost playwrights of the twentieth century. He won numerous awards and has created some of the most memorable characters in American theater. In an interview, Williams said, “I have always been more interested in creating a character that contains something crippled. I think nearly all of us have some kind of defect, anyway, and I suppose I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person.”
Written in 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire explores the themes of “desire, loneliness, and human fragility” (Andrews 628). The story is set in New Orleans, Louisiana in the month of May, sometime after WW II.
tragedy – Tragedies evoke the disillusionment and agony of life. Tragic protagonists are destroyed by their own self-destructive tendencies, or by external forces over which they have no control – nature, rivals, society, war, poverty, illness. Their downfall and death often seem predestined.
comedy – Comedies reflect the foibles, contradictions, and confusions of man and society. They may be broadly funny and playful, wry and cynical, or satirical and biting. Comic protagonists face many conflicts, but they usually emerge unscathed from them.
flat - apartment
portiere – a curtain hanging across a doorway
neurasthenic – an emotional and psychic disorder that is characterized especially by easy fatigability and often by lack of motivation, feelings of inadequacy, and psychosomatic symptoms
contrapuntally – a. a complementing or contrasting item b : use of contrast or interplay of elements in a work of art (as a drama)
sotto voce – under the breath : in an undertone; also : in a private manner
Bohemian – a person (as a writer or an artist) living an unconventional life usually in a colony with others
courtesan – a prostitute with a courtly , wealthy, or upper-class clientele
blanche - full discretionary power (as in carte blanche)
Elysian Fields – The mention of this is an allusion to the underworld of Greek mythology.
1. When we first meet Blanche DuBois, she has traveled to see her sister Stella. She took streetcars named Desire and Cemeteries to arrive at her sister’s apartment. What might these names represent?
2. Blanche goes into Stella’s apartment to wait for her to come home. What does she do while she is waiting?
3. What does Belle Reve mean? What does it refer to in the play?
4. Why does Blanche say that she has left her teaching job to visit Stella?
5. Why does Blanche say that she lost Belle Reve?
6. At the end of Scene One, what music “rises up, faint in the distance”?
7. Near the end of Scene One, what do we learn about Blanche’s husband?
8. In Scene Two, Stanley finds out about the loss of Belle Reve. What is his reaction?
9. What does Stanley think that Blanche has done with the money he believes she made from selling Belle Reve?
10. What does Stanley tell Blanche about Stella as they are going through her business papers?
11.Where are Stella and Blanche going while the men play poker?
12.When Blanche and Stella return to the apartment, the men are still there playing poker. Which one does Stella introduce to Blanche? What does Blanche say about him?
13. Blanche goes to the back room, a bedroom, to relax until the men finish playing. She turns on the radio. Stanley asks her to turn it off, but when she doesn’t, what does Stanley do?
14. Why does Blanche lie to Mitch about being younger than Stella? Why doesn’t she like bright lights?
15. What happens between Stella and Stanley that ends the poker game?
What kind of relationship do Stella and Stanley have?
How does Stanley differ from Blanche?
How does Mitch compare and contrast with Stanley?
Music – The play has many stage directions referring to music. What music and songs are present in the first three scenes? How does the music relate to the characters?
Light – Why is the paper lantern important to Blanche?
16. How did Stella say she reacted to Stanley’s breaking all the light bulbs on their wedding night?
17. What idea does Blanche have to escape New Orleans with Stella?
18. When Blanche and Stella are discussing Stanley, his entrance to the apartment is washed out by a passing train. What does he hear Blanche say about him?
19. In Scene Five, Blanche discusses astrological signs. What sign does she think Stanley was born under and why?
What sign does she say she was born under? What does it mean?
20. Seemingly out of the blue, Stanley asks Blanche if she knows someone named Shaw. He says that Shaw knew Blanche from Laurel but must have mixed her up with someone else who partied at the Hotel Flamingo. What is Blanche’s response?
20. Who is coming over to see Blanche on this night?
21. After Stella and Stanley leave, a young man comes to the door collecting money for the local newspaper, The Evening Star. What does Blanche do to him?
22. Blanche and Mitch discuss Stanley. She asks him if Stanley talks much about her and explains how horrid he is making her life there with them. What does Mitch respond?
23. At the end of Scene Six, Blanche is confiding in Mitch by telling him the story of how her husband died. How did he die? What led to that?
Blanche – In Scene Five, Blanche is writing a letter to Shep Huntleight. Why does she not tell him the truth of her situation?
Blanche- In Scene Five, we see Blanche drinking again. Why do you think she drinks? (Don’t say she’s an alcoholic.)
Blanche – Why does Blanche flirt with the newspaper boy?
Music – Where and what kind of music is mentioned in these scenes?
24. It is now mid-September and Blanche’s birthday. Stella has prepared a party for her. Stanley lets Stella know that he has learned some things about Blanche. What things?
25. During their talk, Blanche is in the tub and singing. What does she sing about?
26. Who is supposed to come over for Blanche’s birthday? Why does Stanley say this person won’t be coming?
27. What has Stanley bought for Blanche?
28. Blanche is stood up. They sit talking at the table and Stanley gets angry at Stella for telling him his face and fingers are disgustingly greasy. What does he do in response?
29. What happens at the end of Scene Eight?
30. In Scene Nine, who stops by unexpectedly to see Blanche?
31. Blanche makes a very telling statement at the bottom of p. 678 about reality. What does she say?
32. What does Blanche admit happened after her husband’s death? Why did she say she did this?
33. Why does Mitch say he won’t marry Blanche now?
34. Stanley comes home from the hospital. Blanche has been drinking fairly steadily since Mitch left. Who does she tell Stanley she heard from? What invitation does she say he extended?
35. Blanche tells Stanley that Mitch came to see her that night. What does she tell him the reason was?
36. What happens at the end of Scene Ten?
37. Several weeks have passed and Stella is packing Blanche’s things. Where does Blanche think she is going? Where is she actually going?
Blanche – Why does Stanley want her to leave? How is her presence effecting his marriage?
Stanley – How has his relationship with Stella changed? How has his relationship with Blanche changed?
What do you think is the symbolic meaning of the Mexican woman selling flowers for the dead in Scene Nine?
Why does Mitch rip the paper lantern off of the light bulb? What does light represent?
Fantasy/Illusion: Blanche dwells in illusion; fantasy is her primary means of self-defense. Her deceits do not carry any trace of malice; rather, they come from her weakness and inability to confront the truth head-on. She tells things not as they are, but as they ought to be. For her, fantasy has a liberating magic that protects her from the tragedies she has had to endure. Unfortunately, this defense is frail and will be shattered by Stanley. In the end, Stanley and Stella will also resort to a kind of illusion: Stella will force herself to believe that Blanche's accusations against Stanley are false.
The Old South and the New South: Stella and Blanche come from a world that is rapidly dying. Belle Reve, their family's ancestral plantation, has been lost. The two sisters, symbolically, are the last living members of their family. Stella will mingle her blood with a man of blue-collar stock, and Blanche will enter the world of madness. Stanley represents the new order of the South: chivalry is dead, replaced by a "rat race," to which Stanley makes several proud illusions.
Cruelty: The only unforgivable crime, according to Blanche, is deliberate cruelty. This sin is Stanley's specialty. His final assault against Blanche is a merciless attack against an already-beaten foe. On the other hand, though Blanche is dishonest, she never lies out of malice. Her cruelty is unintentional; often, she lies in a vain effort to plays. Throughout Streetcar, we see the full range of cruelty, from Blanche's well-intentioned deceits to Stella self-deceiving treachery to Stanley's deliberate and unchecked malice. In Williams' plays, there are many ways to hurt someone. And some are worse than others.
The Primitive and the Primal: Blanche often speaks of Stanley as ape-like and primitive. Stanley represents a very unrefined manhood, a romantic idea of man untouched by civilization and its effeminizing influences. His appeal is clear: Stella cannot resist him, and even Blanche, though repulsed, is on some level drawn to him. Stanley's unrefined nature also includes a terrifying amorality. The service of his desire is central to who he is; he has no qualms about driving his sister-in-law to madness, or raping her.
Desire: Closely related to the theme above, desire is the central theme of the play. Blanche seeks to deny it, although we learn later in the play that desire is one of her driving motivations; her desires have caused her to be driven out of town. Desire, and not intellectual or spiritual intimacy, is the heart of Stella's and Stanley's relationship. Desire is Blanche's undoing, because she cannot find a healthy way of dealing with it: she is always either trying to suppress it or pursuing it with abandon.
Loneliness: The companion theme to desire; between these two extremes, Blanche is lost. She desperately seeks companionship and protection in the arms of strangers. And she has never recovered from her tragic and consuming love for her first husband. Blanche is in need of a defender. But in New Orleans, she will find instead the predatory and merciless Stanley.
from ClassicNote on A Streetcar Named Desire
1. What character do you have the most sympathy for? Why?
2. Only Scene Three is given a title by Williams. Give a title to three other scenes and explain your reasoning for each title.
3. Why will a woman stay with a man who abuses her?
4. Why are women attracted to “bad boys”?
5. At the beginning of the play, Stanley is bowling and at the end he is playing cards. What does this suggest about his views of life?
6. Is your first loyalty to be with your spouse or with your best friend?
7. Did Mitch love Blanche?
8. If a friend of yours is happily dating someone and you find out something bad about that person, should you tell your friend?