In literature, symbols are widely used by authors as a means of emphasising certain atmospheres and characteristic features of people and places. A symbol is an object or image that stands for itself and also for something else. In a sense, all language is symbolic considering that letters form words which stand for, or symbolise, real things. However, in literature, a symbol can be thought of as an image that evokes a different aspect of reality in order to suggest another level of meaning.
Blanche DuBois is the main character of the play and also the most thoroughly described one. The name Blanche is French and means white or fair. Her last name DuBois is of French origin as well and translates as made of wood.
Since the colour white stands for purity, innocence and virtue, the symbolism of Blanche‘s first name reveals these qualities, which stand in contrast to her actual character traits. The name suggests that Blanche is a very innocent and pure person, but throughout the play it becomes obvious that Blanche cannot call any of these traits her own. Only the illusory image which she tries to create for herself suggests these traits, but her true nature is not like that at all. She constantly tries to hide her embarrassing past from all of her new acquaintances, because she fears that they might not accept her anymore. In order to maintain her apparent social status among her new neighbours and friends, she builds this intertwined net of lies which creates a false image of herself. She herself believes in this imaginary world, and as soon as there is the slightest sign of its destruction, she seems to be lost, and her nervous condition worsens. Therefore all she cares about is to keep that image alive. Her first name is therefore quite ironic since it means the exact opposite of Blanche’s true nature and character.
Her last name, however, stands in
contrast to her first name. ‘Made of wood’
suggests something solid and hard, which is the exact opposite of her fragile
nature and nervous condition. However, wood
can also be associated with forest
or jungle, and regarding her past,
the connection becomes clear. Blanche used to indulge in a rather excessive
lifestyle. She had sex with random strangers and was known throughout her
As already mentioned above, wood represents something hard, or hard-working. The Du in front of that, however, suggests something aristocratic and noble. There seems to be a contradiction in these two terms which can be explained with the nature of her character. The way Blanche tries to create an aristocratic and sophisticated image of herself, but is in fact the complete opposite, displays this ambiguity.
Combined with her first name, her entire name would translate as “white wood,” which she explains to Mitch in scene three, “It’s a French name. It means woods and Blanche means white, so the two together mean white woods” (Williams 150). Blanche DuBois cannot only be translated as white wood but also as white and made of wood, which makes it easier for the reader to detect that she seems pure and innocent on the outside, but is really quite tough and calculating when it comes down to her image and her future, especially concerning her search for a husband.
Overall, Blanche’s entire name is heavily symbolic because it reflects her true nature in a very clear way. Just as first and last name are being read out in an exact order, Blanche’s character is revealed in the same way. At first she seems to be innocent and pure, but later her past and her true nature can be discovered.
Stella is a Latin term which simply means star. Stars in general are considered to be the light which breaks through the darkness. Considering that light is the opposite of darkness, and darkness itself stands for not-knowing and intellectual dullness, the stars can be regarded as reality and knowledge shining through ignorance. Stars can also be a symbol for high ideals or goals set too high. Stella represents Blanche’s ideal concerning the fact that she is leading a contented life.
The deeper significance of her name reveals her role in the play. The symbol of a star suggests light, hope and stability. This is quite a good description of her role and her position in the play. Stella is the connection between Blanche and Stanley, the two major characters, because she contains character traits of both of them, and can therefore relate to them better than anyone else can. Therefore she can be considered to be the stabilising element of the play. She is the negotiator between the two so very different characters. Stella and Blanche have the same rather wealthy and cultivated background, which is the connection between the two women. Stella also has several things in common with Stanley.One of them is their love for wild sex (Ehrenhaft 72). During a conversation with Blanche, Stella tells her about her wedding night:
Stella: Why, on our wedding night – soon as we came in here – he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light-bulbs with it.
Blanche: He did – what?
Stella: He smashed all the light-bulbs with the heel of my slipper!
Blanche: And you – you let him? Didn’t run, didn’t scream?
Stella: I was – sort of – thrilled by it. (Williams 157).
This excerpt clearly shows the connection between Stella and
Stanley, but there is something else that ties them together. Stella is, just
For both, Stanley and Blanche, Stella is their star and their hope. They always seek her support and shelter. Stella is the stable element of the play, because she does not show any sign of rapid mood swings like Blanche and Stanley do, and this is what makes her the small and quiet star of the play.
Belle Reve is the name of the
sisters’ family’s plantation in their hometown
Desire, Cemeteries and Elysian Fields
At the beginning of the play Williams introduces three terms which do not reveal their symbolic meaning right away, but the reader comes to realise their sense and importance later in the play. In scene one, Blanche describes to Eunice her journey to her sister’s place: “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields” (Williams 117).Blanche’s journey on New Orleans’ streetcars represents the journey of her own life.
Desire is her first step, just as it was the first step of her life after her husband Allan had died. Still struggling with this loss, she was desperately longing for love and companionship, but ended up leading a life which was filled with sex with random men, who never cared about her: “Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of Allan – intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with…” (Williams 205). At this time she was hence obsessed by desire.
The next step of her journey is Cemeteries, which is an obvious symbol for death. Her promiscuous
lifestyle had got her into trouble. She lost her job because she had had an
affair with one of her students, and was banned from
Elysian Fields is the name of the street where Stella and Stanley live, and it is a mythical allusion to Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid. According to Roman mythology, Elysium (or Elysian Fields) was a part of the underworld and a place of reward for the virtuous dead. Elysian Fields, though, was just a temporary place of the souls’ journey back to life:
The light as a symbol for truth and reality
The light plays an important symbolic role throughout the play because it clearly reflects Blanche’s and Stanley’s characters. The light is considered to be the basis for sight and recognition, and, as already mentioned above, it is the opposite of darkness which symbolises intellectual dullness and ignorance (Becker 171). Blanche and Stanley stand in contrast concerning their attitudes towards light, which again underlines their different characters.
Blanche’s aversion to light
Blanche’s relation to light is quite obvious because she tries to avoid bright light of any kind as well as she can. Her reaction to light can be regarded as an attempt to hide her true nature as well as her vanishing beauty and youth. By hiding from the light she tries to escape reality, for light clearly represents reality in this play. The first time that Blanche’s aversion to light becomes obvious is in scene one: “And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare” (Williams 120).
In scene three, she covers the naked light bulb with a Chinese paper lantern: “ I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action” (Williams 150). This remark shows that Blanche would rather hide behind polite phrases than accept truth and reality. The paper lantern is not very stable, though, and it can easily be destroyed, just like Blanche’s illusions.
In scene six, she takes Mitch home with her and says, “ Let’s leave the lights off” (Williams 177). Blanche thinks of Mitch as a future husband, and therefore she does not want him to know her past or her true age, and the best way to hide her age is to stay out of bright light where he could possibly see her wrinkles and fading youth in her face. Later in that scene, Blanche tells Mitch about her husband Allan: ‘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’ (Williams 182).
Therefore, in her past, light used to represent love, but now it represents something destructive for her. Allan’s suicide erased the light or love, and thus she now does not believe in it any longer and tries to escape from the light and therefore escapes reality: “…electric light bulbs go on and you see too plainly” (Williams 196). This again shows her fear of light since for her it represents reality, and in scene nine this becomes even more obvious. When Mitch tears off the paper lantern in order to take a closer look at her in the bright light, “she utters a frightened gasp” (Williams 203). Then she tells him: ‘I don’t want realism…I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on’ (Williams 204).This is Blanche’s first statement concerning her true intention and nature, and it is probably the only time where she ever confesses that she builds up an illusory image of herself.
The first apparent use of colour in the play is the symbolic meaning of Blanche’s name, which, as already mentioned above, is French and means white. When she appears in scene one, “she is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and ear-rings of pearl, white gloves and a hat…” (Williams 117).
As already mentioned above, the colour white stands for purity and innocence, but it is also the colour of light and represents perfection and virginity (Becker, 330). This association stands in complete contrast to her actual behaviour and actions. Blanche is a seductive and promiscuous woman, who lies in order to maintain her image, and therefore Williams’ use of this colour for her name and her outer appearance is quite ironic.
In scene two Blanche talks to
In scene nine, she changes her clothes from soft colours to strong bold ones for the first time: “She has on her scarlet satin robe” (Williams 200). The colour red symbolises love, passion and fertility on the positive side, but also fire and blood on the negative one, so this is the first time that her outer appearance actually matches her intentions (Becker 244). She is meeting Mitch in this scene, and her dress certainly shows the seductress in her. Mitch refuses to marry her because of her past, and after that, in scene ten, she wears a white satin evening gown, which implies that she returned to her habit of soft colours in order to underline her pureness and virtuous nature.
The colour blue is considered to be a symbol for
the divine or heavenly, but also for the truth (Becker 44). Once again,
Williams uses a certain colour to express a person’s human qualities, although,
in this case, the association is not ironic, but matches the person’s
Later, in scene nine, Mitch “comes around the corner in work clothes: blue denim shirt and pants. He is unshaven” (Williams 200). In this scene he meets Blanche, who is wearing her red satin robe. The confrontation of the colours red and blue, symbolises the confrontation between femininity and masculinity.
The blue piano
The blue piano is first mentioned in the
introductory stage directions of the first scene: “This ‘blue piano’ expresses
the spirit of the life which goes on there” (Williams 115). Throughout the
play, the blue piano always appears when Blanche is talking about the loss of
her family and Belle Reve, but it is also present
during her meeting and kissing the young newspaper man. The blue piano thus
stands for depression, loneliness and her longing for love, which the adjective
blue already suggests. This quality
is not identical with the colour symbolism of blue. It describes
Blanche’s emotions and represents her need for companionship and love, but also
her hope, as the scene with the paper-boy shows. Mitch tells her in scene nine
that he will not marry her due to her promiscuous past, “the distant piano is
slow and blue” (Williams 207). Later, in scene ten, it grows louder when she is
on the phone trying to get in touch with Shep Huntleigh. In this situation, her hopes are rising, and so
does the piano. In the last scene, Blanche is being taken away to a mental
institution, and Stanley and his friends play poker again: “The luxurious
sobbing, the sensual murmur fade away under the
swelling music of the ‘blue piano’ and the muted trumpet” (Williams 226). The
blue piano, accompanying the card game, symbolises
The Varsouviana Polka
The Varsouviana Polka
on the other hand appears when Blanche is being confronted with her past and
the truth, or when she talks about Allan. The reason for this seems obvious,
for exactly this polka had been played when her husband Allan committed
suicide. The polka represents death and immanent disaster. Blanche tells Mitch
in scene six about Allan, and how she caught him cheating on her: “Polka music
sounds, in a minor key faint with distance” (Williams 183). When
In scene eleven, the connection between the polka and Blanche’s state of mind and emotion becomes even more obvious. She gets totally lost in her illusions about Shep Huntleigh and runs into her room when the doctor arrives: “The Varsouviana is filtered into weird distortion, accompanied by the cries and noises of the jungle” (Williams 222). Thus the polka’s weird distortion matches the confusion in her mind.
Blanche the moth
In the first scene, Blanche is compared to an animal: “There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth” (Williams 117). Both butterflies and moths start life as ugly caterpillars and only later transform into something more beautiful. The butterfly and cocoon symbol reflects Blanche’s attempts to re-create herself and, so to speak, spring forth a new, beautiful person from her cocoon of lies. In contrast to the butterfly, who lives during daytime, the moth mainly lives during the night, which makes it a creature of the darkness, and the butterfly one of the light. As already mentioned above, the butterfly leaves the dark cocoon to live in the light, but the moth stays in darkness for that is the time when it is feeding. This can be adapted to Blanche as it seems as though—contrasting with her name—it is her fate to live in the darkness, which symbolises ignorance. Blanche does not find a way out: at the end of the play she is being taken away to the mental institution, which means that she finally does not conquer her fate.
In contrast to Blanche,