A Streetcar Named Desire

Williams, Tennessee

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: May-24-2016
  • Last revised: May-24-2016


The play is set in 1947 (the year it premiered) in New Orleans. Having lost their ancestral Mississippi home to creditors, Blanche Dubois arrives at the shabby French Quarter flat of her sister Stella. When we first meet Blanche she explains she is on a leave of absence from teaching high school English on account of her “nerves.” From her first meeting with Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski, a World War II vet, we detect class conflict and sexual tension between the two of them. As Blanche’s visit becomes more and more protracted, Stanley becomes increasingly suspicious of her motives and background. Meanwhile, she begins to date Mitch, one of Stanley’s poker buddies. Gradually we learn more about Blanche’s checkered past. She was once married to a young man who committed suicide after she discovered him in a sexual encounter with another man. Stanley uncovers rumors that she was fired from her teaching job for having sex with a student. As the play progresses, fueled by her surreptitious drinking, Blanche’s mental state unravels. When Stanley warns Mitch about Blanche’s notorious reputation, Mitch rejects her.  Adding insult to injury, while Stella is having a baby, Stanley rapes his sister-in-law. Blanche’s emotional deterioration is complete. In the final scene, a doctor and nurse arrive to take Blanche to a mental hospital. She initially resists them, but when the doctor helps her up she willingly surrenders: “Whoever you are - I have always depended on the kindness of strangers"(p. 178).


A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the greatest and most influential literary works of the 20th century. Volumes have been written about the author’s use of poetic imagery and the play’s superb balance between humor and tragedy. In addition, we have in the character of Blanche Dubois a fully realized, perfectly convincing case study in psychopathology. This was surely influenced by the author’s sister Rose, who provided inspiration as well for his earlier The Glass Menagerie, and who, following a prefrontal lobotomy, spent the remainder of her life institutionalized.     

From the outset of the play, Blanche is aware she has got to “keep ahold of myself” (p. 10). She won’t be seen in the light, indulges in a nip (or two) of liquor, and soothes herself with therapeutic baths  (hydrotherapy had been a popular 19th-century treatment for anxiety). Later, she fantasizes herself in a relationship with an old college beau, Shep Huntleigh, who, she claims, is now an oil millionaire. As the tension in the house escalates, her fanciful notions multiply. The author increasingly employs descriptions such as “hysterically,” “nervously” and “neurasthenic.” We witness Blanche in an inappropriate sexual encounter with an underage delivery boy; soon afterwards she employs the ego defense mechanism of reaction formation in her prudish behavior towards Mitch.  We also see her experience a traumatic flashback of her husband’s suicide.  Finally, we watch her regress to a childlike state, and her rescue by the fatherly, benevolent figure of the doctor.

The film version, despite featuring magnificent performances (Marlon Brando is astonishing), simply eliminates the homosexual element. Furthermore, while the text fully supports a diagnosis of severe Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (plus Histrionic Personality Disorder and Alcohol Abuse) the film appears to suggest that Blanche is suffering from a psychotic disorder (i.e. schizophrenia). Practically speaking, it can still be tricky to differentiate between the two. Actually, if one imagines that Stanley’s explosive behavior is the result of war trauma, a case might be made that there are two characters here who are suffering from PTSD.


This edition of the play includes an introduction by Arthur Miller, and an interview by Tennessee Williams “with himself.”   


New Directions

Place Published

New York



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