A Streetcar Named Desire – Motif Tracking: Light and Dark





The motif of light and darkness is used throughout the play to help convey the theme of ugly reality vs. the beautiful dreams of the characters. Williams also utilizes the light to explore the characters of Blanche and Stanley (as well as Mitch) who are struggling in their community. 


Light represents reality which the working class seems to constantly be associated with. Stanley symbolizes realism and the truth. It also illuminates the truth for people to see, whether good or bad. Furthermore, it implies that reality itself is harsh and ‘merciless’ when it illuminates people for everyone to see and judge. Blanche’s delicate nature is incapable of dealing with light even though she is attracted to it like a moth. Essentially, the light (symbolizing desires) will bring about her destruction at the end of the play. Blanche's inability to tolerate light means that her grasp on reality is also nearing its end and bright light also represents Blanche's youthful sexual innocence, while poor light represents her sexual maturity and disillusionment. However, even though light is symbolized as the truth, in the play Williams also shows how too much of it can be dangerous: he blinding light of Blanche’s love blinded her to the homosexuality of her husband and, at the end of the play, Mitch does not like what he sees when he turns on the light and sees Blanche as she really is.


Darkness conversely, as it blinds character’s (Mitch) from the truth, allows Blanche to indulge in dreams and fantasies as well as providing an escape from the ugly reality of change and time. For a while Mitch joins Blanche in indulging in the fantasy and Stella also seems to subtly share these views too when she stands up for her sister against Stanley’s accusations.  The darkness at certain key moments, allows the truth to be revealed unintentionally, hence Stanley’s violent nature when he abused Stella on the poker night..







Her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.

This introduction of Blanche foreshadows her eventual failure in the play because of her delicate nature that appears not to be durable to the roughness of reality, represented by the strong light. Her need to avoid it also suggests that she is unwilling to accept the truth of the reality she lives in and prefers the beautiful dreams that she is able to create in the dark. Her comparison to a moth also implies that she is fated for destruction since moths are attracted to the light which is that cause of their death.



‘And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare!’

Her dislike of the light is clear in this imperative and her reference of the light as a ‘merciless glare’ which emphasizes how Blanche is unwilling to confront the reality of her age and beauty. Blanche’s harsh description of it being merciless also implies her delicate nature which is incapable of accepting the change in the reality that, she believes, lacks compassion for those who experience the consequences of time.



He [Stanley] holds the bottle to the light to observe its depletion

Stanley is associated with light, which indicates him as Blanche’s opposite in a power struggle within society. Since the light represents the truth, Stanley is also seen as a symbol of (ugly) reality. The light exposes the bottle that Blanche recently drank from to be depleting suggesting not only Blanche’s corruption (her alcoholism, sexual promiscuity and predilection for young boys) will come to light but also conveying the idea that Blanche and the class and values that she represents, like the liquor in the bottle, is running out of time.



The bedroom is relatively dim with only the light that spills between the portieres and through the wide window on the street.

The setting emphasizes Blanche’s manipulation of reality in the dark (when she returns).  The light only spills through, but it is never enough to illuminate the truth for the audience as well as for Blanche.




She [Blanche] takes off the blouse and stands in her pink silk brassiere and white skirt in the light through the portieres. The game has continued in undertones.

Blanche only intentionally moves to stand in the light when she is undressing because she wants to be noticed by the men outside playing poker. This is a manifestation of Blanche’s desire to be sexually attractive like in her youthful (innocent) days when she was still beautiful.


Ironically, she only stands in the light because it outlines her body through the curtain for the men to see; therefore she is not exposing her ‘true’ self, but only her body. This scene also makes it clear that Blanche is accustomed to using her sexuality to control men.



Stella: It’s a drive that he has, You’re standing in the light, Blanche!

Blanche: Oh, am I!

[She moves out of the yellow streak of light]

The fact that Stella also helps Blanche stay away from the light also implies that she herself prefers not to destroy the dream that her sister Blanche has created, and therefore plays along.


Again, Blanche conveniently moves out of the light in order to hide her age and looks from Stella as well as herself. If she had seen her own image, she wouldn’t have been able to handle the shock and the harsh reality.



Blanche: I bought this adorable little colored paper lantern at a Chinese shop on Bourbon. Put it over the light bulb! Will you, please?

The colored paper lantern Blanche bought represents her creating a beautiful dream to gloss over the ugly reality (light bulb) that she cannot confront. By softening the light, this will also enable Blanche to lie comfortably whilst she is conversing with Mitch in this scene as well as hide her age from him.



Blanche: I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action

This following excuse after Mitch covers the lantern, conveys Blanche’s character as someone who cannot adapt to the change of society becoming more raw, lively and vivacious despite her hypocritical statement that she is ‘very adaptable-to circumstance’. It is only after the light is covered that she is able to give this excuse to Mitch. Furthermore, she indirectly refers the light bulb as being rude and vulgar.



Stella: But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant. [Pause.]

The uncomfortable reference to sexual activities in the dark possibly suggests how sex can delude a person in turn leading to their destruction. Her reference to darkness also suggests that it helps them avoid or ignore the conflict temporarily or to forget it altogether. The fact that sexual intercourse is associated with the dark implies that these two things help people become more willing to accept their environment and situation with the people around them (like Stanley’s violent nature).



Blanche…And so the soft people have got to – shimmer and glow – put a – paper lantern over the light…But I’m scared now – awf’ly scared. I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft. You’ve got to be soft and attractive. And I – I’m fading now!

Blanche refers to herself as a ‘soft person’ and believes that they need to be seductive to ‘court the favors of the hard ones’. She puts a paper lantern over herself because it hides the truth about herself from the men and everyone else.


She fears that her beauty and age is fading. The desperation is conveyed through her attempt to cover up the light with the paper lantern. However, she admits that she doesn’t know how much longer she can deny the reality of her situation.  Her exclamation of ‘I’m fading!’ refers to the her own light, her physical looks and the powers she holds as a member of the upper classes, and how this is finally fading



Blanche…We’ll have a night-cap. Let’s leave the lights off. Shall we?

The darkness allows her to be superior and in control of the situation with Mitch. It also allows her to easily hide her true self from Mitch and enables her to create an attractive personality in order to make Mitch fall in love.



Blanche: He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl. When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely. It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that’s how it struck the world for me. But I was unlucky. Deluded.

The reference to light for Blanche here is not the truth but rather the intense love that suddenly struck her when she saw (of fell for) her husband. The light in this case also opened up Blanche’s world pulling her from where she had always been ‘half in shadow’. In a sense this is reminiscent of the passionate love that Stella has for Stanley, a love which is also destructive.


Ironically, the light is not illuminating the truth for her too see, but rather blinds her from seeing the truth her realization of which eventually led to her husband’s suicide and her own darkness. In this case, too much light conveys the theme that passion and sexual desire (in the case of both Blanche and Stella) can be destructive.



A locomotive is heard approaching outside. She claps her hands to her ears and crouches over. The headlight of the locomotive glares into the room as it thunders past. As the noise recedes she straightens slowly and continues speaking.

Possibly, her fear of light (or the truth that it represents) is slowly driving Blanche insane. We can see this through her exaggerated effort to hide from the light of a moving locomotive. Her action of clasping her hands over her ears and crouching over further accentuates her fear of her own past and essentially her present self.


The fact that she continues the conversation like nothing has happened further hints at her impending insanity.



Blanche: …And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that’s stronger than this – kitchen – candle…

Before, we saw that when there was too much light, it had deluded her into a ‘fantasy’ of a perfect life. However, we also see that too little light can also cause delusion as wallow in their beautiful dreams.


After her husband’s death, the great amount of shock from the impact has also caused Blanche’s ‘blinding light’ to disappear with no light stronger than a ‘kitchen candle’. Blanche has experienced only two different extremes of lights and as we can see, both can distort our perception of reality.



The view through the big window is fading gradually into a still-golden dusk. A torch of sunlight blazes on the side of a big water-tank or oil-drum across the empty lot toward the business district which is now pierced by the pin-points of lighted windows or windows reflecting the sunset.

The description of the light outside the building emphasizes the contrast of the awkward atmosphere inside the apartment. The light is described as being very strong and sharp. The calm, beautiful and truthful image conveyed by the light is contrasted with absence of it in the apartment. This absence further emphasizes the tense façade being put up by the three people present in the party. Furthermore, the fact that it is a sunset, possibly foreshadows the ugly events that are about to enfold later in the scene.



Stanley:…God, honey it’s gonna be sweet when we can make the noise in the night the way that we used to and get the colored lights going with nobody’s sister behind the curtains to hear us!

The colored lights in Stanley’s speech refer to the liveliness, excitement and the raw lifestyle of his society. He is suggesting that where Stella came from lacked ‘colored’ lights and essentially the joy of living. Furthermore, the statement also implies his anger that they have to hide their lively sexuality from Blanche.




Blanche: His Auntie knows candles aren’t safe, that candles burn out in little boy’s and girl’s eyes, or wind blows them out and after that happens, electric light bulbs go on and you see too plainly…[She pauses reflectively for a moment.]

The vagueness of this quotation insinuates Blanche’s impending madness, but it also seems to imply that when people are young, their perception is very innocent. However, it is only when they become accustomed to corruption as  they grow up that the fire in the eyes burn out and thus, the artificial ‘light’ (electric bulb) is required. Moreover, the light from this bulb shows the ugly reality clearly and blatantly, which Blanche seems to be unable to accept.



Blanche: I like it dark. The dark is comforting to me.

The absence of light comforts Blanche because she is able to manipulate facts and reality. She is able to hide the truth and be in control of whom she is.


Possibly the whole page of 203

Blanche: [fearfully] Light? Which light? What for?

Mitch: This one with the paper thing on it. [He tears the paper lantern off the light bulb. She utters a frightened gasp] Blanche: What did you do that for?
Mitch: So I can take a look at you good and plain!

Blanche: Of course you don’t really mean to be insulting!

Mitch: No, just realistic.

Blanche: I don’t want realism

Mitch’s action in ripping the paper lantern off the light bulb is significant because he is also ripping the dreams that Blanche has created and trapped herself in, in order to hide from the ugly reality she is unable to confront. The light and Mitch himself suggest realism. Furthermore, his action can also be seen as a form of violation foreshadowing the physical rape that will happen in the next scene.


Blanche fears the light because of the harsh realism she will be forced to face which will cause her happy fantasies (being young and beautiful) to be shattered. Her denial and stubborn statement that she doesn’t want realism shows how strongly she does not wish Mitch to know the truth.




Blanche: I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! [Mitch laughs] 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 the truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – don’t turn the light on!

The reference to Blanche’s manipulation of the truth as ‘magic’ creates sympathy for Blanche’s character because she finally admits that she tries to disguise the harsh reality but only to make it more endurable for people like her. Her desperate explanation is emphasised by her final scream to not turn on the light as it is her only hope of salvaging what is left of the image that she has created for Mitch and herself.




Mitch crosses to the switch. He turns the light on and stares at her. She cries out and covers her face. He turns the light off again.

Mitch turns on the light despite Blanche’s plea not shows the rising power of his class and the power of the truth and realism that Mitch and the working classes represent. Blanche covers her face, because she doesn’t want to be exposed to the light or to be seen in the harsh reality.


Even though Mitch and the light stand for truth, Mitch ironically turns off the light in the end because he also has now seen the ugly reality and is willing to accept the dream that Blanche has created for him.



Stanley: I’ve been on to you from the start! Not once did you pull any wool over this boy’s eyes! You come in here and sprinkle the place with powder and spray perfume and cover the light-bulb with a paper lantern, and lo and behold the place has turned into Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile!

Stanley, who is the opposite to Blanche, shows how he has never been blind to Blanche’s attempts at manipulation. Blanche’s façade is symbolized by various objects and actions that she has done to gloss over the harsh reality of the environment around her- that it is in fact a small apartment with one bedroom split by a curtain and that she is old and aging. Stanley’s statement that Blanche has never successfully ‘pulled the wool over his eyes’ further suggests that he has never allowed himself to be manipulated by the lies that were in the darkness (since he is constantly connected with the light-and there seem to be light wherever he is).



He [Stanley] crosses to dressing table and seizes the paper lantern, tearing it off the light bulb, and extends it towards her. She cries out as if the lantern was herself.

This last action by Stanley emphasizes his victory over Blanche. Stanley, symbolizing the new era of the harsh truth, tears the lantern, implying that Blanche is finally stripped from her dreams and she is left exposed toe the harsh reality with no sympathy as she ‘cries out’. Stanley extends the ripped paper lantern to her, giving back her shattered dreams.



Key Moments:

There are two key moments:


Blanche: He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl. When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely. It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that’s how it struck the world for me. But I was unlucky. Deluded. (Page 182)


This quotation is significant because we have often associated light with the truth. However in Blanche’s case, the light was too strong that it blinded her from the truth. The light in this case refers to her intense love for her husband and her shock when she realized that he was gay, which led to his suicide and her plunge into darkness. Furthermore, it conveyed her naivety when she fell in love which is emphasized by her word ‘discovery’. Williams is possibly trying to convey to the audience that either extremities of light can either blind the person from the truth itself or force them to create a fantasy to indulge themselves in.


Mitch: This one with the paper thing on it. [He tears the paper lantern off the light bulb. She utters a frightened gasp] (Page 203)


The quotation depicts Mitch’s action of tearing the paper lantern from the light bulb. Here he is destroying the dreams that Blanche has built to cocoon herself from the ugly reality. Mitch’s action foreshadows Stanley’s later actions. Furthermore, he is violating Blanche metaphorically, but not physically which foreshadows the rape by Stanley in the following scene where Blanche is physically stripped of her dreams and is forced to confront the reality she lives in. The fact that Mitch rips the paper lantern, possibly suggests the rise of the working classes in American society, in contrast to the deteriorating power of the upper class which Blanche represents and which is slowly fading and weakening. At this point, Blanche’s dreams are shattered and she is exposed to the harsh light. She utters a ‘frightened gasp’ which suggests her delicacy as the harsh act leaves her in shock and as her last hope of happiness has faded.