The Characters



To begin with, the characters appearing in Scene 1 are dismissed with only brief description (if any) of their appearance. When Blanche appears, however, she is described in detail, not only her clothes but also the impression she gives of delicacy and vulnerability. As we read on, her appearance becomes ever clearer and so does her character. Her appearance — slim figure, a face of delicate fading beauty is described in the stage directions, and the readers also gather further information about her from the other characters’ comments. (Indeed she demands flattering comments from her sister, from the reluctant Stanley and from Eunice.) Her complex, contradictory character also becomes clear. Very early in the play we become aware of her class snobbery (in her dismissal of the black neighbour’s kindness and of Eunice’s company). We also learn that she is a heavy drinker. The reasons for her craving for alcohol are implied as we learn about her guilt for her husband’s suicide and about her promiscuity. Alcohol offers temporary amnesia and reassurance. Equally, her passion for taking long baths should be taken as a symbol of her yearning to wash away her guilt.


We are given the full details of her past later by Stanley, but her cheap seductive manner noted by him with astonishment in Scene 2 and again in Scene 3 is an early warning. As she so primly insists on her respectability to Mitch in Scene 6, readers will inevitably recall her flirting with Stanley earlier as well as the episode with the young man in Scene 5. Here her character is revealed through her actions, leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions. In her conversation with her sister in Scene 4 Blanche admits obliquely that she knows about sexual desire (‘when the devil is in you’) but it seems that she has never experienced true passion in which love and sexual desire play equal parts. It may be that she is too absorbed in herself ever to surrender herself.


Blanche may hide her alcoholism behind her euphemisms but she does recognise some of her weaknesses (‘I’ve got to be good and keep my hands off children’ - Scene 5). The weakness that she never does admit, and may not be aware of, is the reckless streak in her, which makes her risk her chance of security in the episode with the young man in Scene 5 and, repeatedly, when entertaining Mitch in Scene 6. Blanche’s oscillation between her fantasy world and a crushing awareness of the real world that lies just outside the boundaries of her imagination waiting to tear her apart results in a continued uncertainty about Blanche’s character and this, ultimately, contributes to making her a believable human being.



A similar method of characterization was used by Tennessee Williams when building up the character of Stanley Kowalski. The stage directions introducing him in Scene 1 give his physical description, stressing his animal sexuality, his machismo. He is meant to be seen as the cock of the walk, ‘the gaudy seed-bearer’ in the playwright’s striking phrase. His basic contempt for women may be gathered from the way he addresses the sisters during the poker game in Scene 3 (‘You hens cut out that conversation in there!’). He abuses his friends as well, but they respond with loyalty and even affection.


Stanley’s ungrammatical speech betrays his lack of education, but he is shrewd, sensing quite early in his acquaintance with Blanche that some aspects of her behaviour are out of keeping with what is expected of a Southern lady. Her drinking is no secret to him either, as Mitch tells Blanche in Scene 9.


He is quite as class-conscious as Blanche herself. Having married a gentlewoman, he is acutely aware and resentful of the differences in outlook and manner between himself and his wife. It is therefore inevitable that there should be hostility between him and Blanche, who is trying to make Stella revert to the past of Belle Reve.


It is equally inevitable, given Stanley’s awareness of his masculinity and his contempt for women, that the hostility should be expressed through sexual domination. The way the play has been constructed, with the rape as the climax in the penultimate scene, and the last scene centred on Blanche’s departure, leaves some questions unanswered. Was there a confrontation between Stanley and Blanche in which he denied her accusation? What went on during those weeks between the rape and Blanche’s departure?


Such questions in the readers’ minds refer of course only to the action of the play, but they have a bearing on Stanley’s character as well as on that of his wife. His machismo and his need to dominate are two aspects of his character that are stressed throughout the play in order to make the rape plausible. Could it be said that here Tennessee Williams sacrificed subtlety of character to the demands of the plot?



There is a degree of ambiguity about Stella’s character. The stage directions in Scene 1 offer little information beyond ‘a gentle young woman ... of a background obviously quite different from her husband’s’. The readers learn about her from the other characters’ comments, especially Blanche’s, when she remarks on her sister’s quiet, reserved manner. Gradually the readers may grow aware of a dry irony in Stella’s brief remarks which implies an independence of mind and a certain hardness.


What strikes us most about Stella is her passionate love for her husband. Strong sexuality is something the sisters share. Blanche is led by it into promiscuity which will eventually take her into the mental hospital. For Stella it is channeled into an overpowering passion for her husband which will make Blanche’s committal unavoidable. Stella’s surrender to Stanley is almost total: she has accepted his world and its values. We need to be convinced of her devotion to her husband if we are to accept as believable her complicity in Blanche’s committal. Given that Stella cannot imagine life without Stanley, her readiness to sacrifice her sister becomes inevitable. She will carry her guilt as a price to be paid for the preservation of her marriage.


When it comes to Stella and Stanley we might be permitted to wonder if the comic characters of Eunice and Steve were not introduced to foreshadow the Kowalskis’ later years - Stella slovenly, fat and blowzy after too many pregnancies, and Stanley, no longer the ‘gaudy seed-bearer’, but a fat, wheezing patron of the local prostitutes.



In the interplay of characters in A Streetcar Named Desire Mitch too has a part. Shy, clumsy, slow-thinking, he is a foil to the shrewd, loud, domineering Stanley, and of course also to the poetry-loving, fanciful Blanche. When in Scene 9 he tears Blanche’s paper lantern off the light bulb, the harshness of his action shocks like a rape, and ironically his own half hearted attempt at raping Blanche fails, and the act is carried out by his hero Stanley the same night.


The depiction of Mitch’s character depends entirely on the dialogue, on other people’s comments on him, and on his own self-deprecating remarks about himself. His role is to offer Blanche the promise of a safe haven, to spur Stanley indirectly to find out about Blanche’s past in order to protect his old buddy. Also, as Tennessee Williams hints in Scene 3, Mitch’s interest in Blanche encourages Stanley to think of her as sexually desirable, and is yet another factor in the catastrophic climax of Scene 10.


Throughout the play the emphasis is on the characters’ natures which make them act in the way they do. The inevitability of fate that is at the heart of drama is created by the characters being what they are, by acting as they do because their natures compel them. The author’s skill lies in taking the human qualities necessary for the enactment of the tragedy, and building from them, through speech and action, believable human beings.