The American Dream, the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps by taking things into their own hands to become successful and self-sufficient, is sought after by many and attained by few. Tennessee Williams explores the nightmare within the dream in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which started first as a successful Broadway play and was then adapted into a movie that starred Old Hollywood legend Vivien Leigh and launched Marlon Brando into stardom. With controversial themes of mental illness, domestic violence, homosexuality, and rape scattered throughout the plot of Streetcar, Williams shows the violent consequences of unbridled pursuit of the American Dream.
Streetcar opens with Blanche DuBois (Leigh), attempting to navigate New Orleans’ bustling French Quarter. From Blanche’s ride on the eponymous streetcar named Desire to one called Cemetery and finally to the Kowalskis’ humble apartment in Elysian Fields, Williams quickly sets the tone for the film. Blanche, a Southern belle fallen from grace, is horrified at the conditions in which her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) is living. Blanche expresses this to Stella, who laughs and brushes off Blanche’s comments about how “Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do justice to it [Elysian Fields].” Blanche has no other choice but to live there, as she no longer has her teaching job or the DuBois family plantation: Belle Reve. She informs Stella that the superintendent, Mr. Graves told her to take a break for her nerves, and Belle Reve was lost to creditors as she settled debts that their deceased family members owed.
From the start, Blanche is presented as a representation of pre-War America, run by WASPs with “traditional” values and ideas. She’s haughty and judgemental, desperate to maintain her long-gone social status in any way she can. When the viewer is introduced to Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), he’s a breath of fresh air. At first, the viewer is inclined to find him just as endearing as Stella does as an everyday guy juxtaposed to Blanche’s outdated debutante Southern values. Brando’s Stanley Kowalski is presented as the post-war embodiment of the American Dream in the form of a young, handsome, hard-working son of immigrants who served his country in World War II and is now on the way to fulfilling the ultimate goal of the nuclear family. Blanche attempts to make a good impression on Stanley, seemingly having a desire to get along with her brother-in-law, despite not understanding what Stella sees in him besides his appearance. Stanley, however, shows little to no desire to get along with Blanche.
Blanche arrives to the Kowalski household with secrets and half-truths tucked into her suitcase. While Stella brushes off Blanche’s behavior as typical, Stanley has no patience for Blanche’s antics. He’s quick to bring up the Napoleonic Code when Stella informs him that Belle Reve was lost. While he seems to be looking out for his wife’s interests, he’s acting in this way because it benefits him. He’s concerned that he lost something when Belle Reve was taken to cover the family’s debts. He assumes Blanche’s frivolity is what caused Belle Reve to be lost as he tears through her collection of what appears to designer clothing and jewelry on a teacher’s salary.
Stella and Blanche come from an upper middle class Southern family, which can be seen through their mannerisms, especially Blanche’s. Stella’s years in the French Quarter has significantly toned down most traces of her upbringing, which can be seen in her conflicts with Blanche about Stanley and his friends’ behaviors and lifestyles. Stanley, on the other hand, is a working class man. He expresses disdain for Blanche’s haughty attitude as well as anger and insecurity about being Polish, an ethnicity that was often discriminated against and looked down upon at this time.
As the movie progresses, Stanley reveals himself to be everything abhorrent about the American Dream: self-interested, apathetic and indiscriminately violent. Stanley seems to find Stella’s compassionate and empathetic personality endearing while Stella thinks that Stanley’s more brash personality exciting. Blanche, however, regards Stanley’s behavior as vulgar and horrifying, often expressing a desire to be with a gentleman. It is interesting to note that even with Blanche’s deteriorating mental state throughout the play, she is always able to accurately read Stanley for who he truly is, no matter what circumstances (even if her choice of wording is harsh and insulting).
Despite Stanley’s abusive treatment of Stella and, later on, Blanche, Stella chooses Stanley time and time again. The first instance of this occurs when Stanley and his friends have a poker night at the apartment. Stanley, drunk and incensed from losing hand after hand, beats Stella when she demands the poker game end and everyone leave. In a panic, Blanche and Stella rush upstairs to their neighbor Eunice’s apartment. Several minutes later, in one of Streetcar’s best known scenes, Stanley emerges from the downstairs apartment, seemingly remorseful for what he has done and screaming for Stella. She does not hesitate to return to him, as they make up and he wordlessly carries her back to their apartment. Stella is quick to forgive Stanley’s abuse and both are eager to make up, assumedly through sex. In interacting with Blanche after the incident, Stella seems to not dwell on it. Blanche, however, is rightfully horrified and outraged at Stanley’s behavior. From then on, she shows a strong mistrust and disdain of Stanley as well as concern for Stella’s–and later, her own–safety.
Stella puts her hope in Stanley, in the American Dream, convincing herself that it’s what will make her happiest. Stanley represents stability, excitement and a bright future whereas Blanche represents loss, despair and a bleak past. Blanche’s struggles and mental illness stems from the suicide of her husband, Allan Gray, a young man who she fell in love with and married as a young woman. She discovers his homosexuality and berates him for it, leading to his eventual suicide. Blanche still holds her love for Allan and regrets berating him for his sexuality, instead wishing she had been more understanding and largely blames herself for his suicide. Unable to cope with Allan’s death, Blanche seeks comfort through the sexual companionship of various men as well as one of her own students, for which she is socially outcast from Laurel.
As Blanche faces increasing adversity, especially from Stanley, she spirals further and further into her dream world, stating that she prefers it to reality. There seems to be one glimmer of hope in Blanche’s tragic life, which is Stanley’s clumsy yet kind friend, Mitch, who shows romantic and sexual interest in Blanche. Although he is not the gentleman that Blanche ultimately prefers, she enjoys his company, especially since he is gullible toward the many stories she fabricates about herself. Although Mitch plans on proposing to Blanche, which would end her struggle for male acceptance as well as her financial woes, Stanley steps in, revealing Blanche’s sordid past to Mitch. Stanley’s emotional abuse of Blanche is the breaking point in her mental stability, especially after he rapes her. His actions ultimately lead her to get institutionalized by Stanley with Stella’s reluctant support.
Blanche twists her stories and delusions to suit how she wants whoever she happens to be interacting with to see her, as seen in her interaction with a paper boy, to whom she acts seductive and jaded, and her dancing date with Mitch, to whom she refuses to let him do anything but kiss her on account of “old-fashioned ideals.” Stanley, however, claims to have been onto her since she first stepped foot in Elysian Fields. His frustration and near hatred of Blanche (as well as the absence of Stella since she is delivering the baby) makes him believe he is entitled to Blanche’s body. This built up “tension” between Blanche and Stanley leads him to state “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” moments before raping her. This final and essentially fatal blow to her emotional and physical self, leads her to retreat into her dream world permanently, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. Stanley also takes advantage of the fact that Blanche’s mental illness has made her known as a liar and denies raping her. Stella, although a bit hesitant, chooses to believe Stanley over Blanche.
It is important to note that in the play, Stella stays with Stanley for the sake of their baby, choosing to ignore Blanche’s accusations and send her to a mental institution at the suggestion of Stanley. Due the Hays Code censorship, the scene in which Stanley rapes Blanche is left for the viewer to infer, and because the rapist must be punished as per the Code, Stella leaves Stanley. This makes the ending weaker than that of the original play, as the play more accurately portrayed the reality women of the era faced. There was little to no space for women with mental illness in the 1940s like Blanche and certainly not for single mothers like Stella would be if the film’s ending were followed.
Streetcar ends with Stanley getting everything he wanted, facing no consequences for his abhorrent actions. He’s abused, brutalized and raped his way to an elevated social status, to achieving the American Dream. In his wake he leaves destruction and distrust and yet he gains from it, this structure of stepping on others to bring yourself up horrifyingly proves itself to be effective. As the viewer rightly should be enraged by Stanley’s actions, they should also feel rage toward all who have oppressed and brutalized others to bring themselves money, power and status. Though regarded as brutish but well-meaning by most in his social circle, he shows his true colors as conniving and morally bankrupt. From this perspective, the American Dream may be a dream for some, but a nightmare for many who have faced its aftermath.