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Blanche's behavior toward the poker players and during her bath reflects the way being raped by Stanley has scarred her. At the start of the play, she performs for Stanley's friends and demands their charm and devotion. By its end, she wants to hide from their gaze and hopes they won't notice her. Blanche spends much of Scene Eleven in the bath, but the bathing in this scene is different than before—an attempt to wash away Stanley's recent violation rather than her past sexual acts. She also bathes to prepare for her -imagined meeting with Shep Huntleigh rather than for any real encounter with a man. Blanche's bath in this scene shows her cleansing herself for an impending ritual and hiding from real danger rather than simply calming her nerves. It is clear that Stanley has destroyed Blanche's already tenuous connection to reality. She no longer hopes that reality will prove itself adaptable to her dreams.
Blanche's illusions and deceptions about her past lose out to the disturbing reality of the Kowalskis' marriage, but by the end of the scene the marriage proves to be a sort of illusion, based on deception. The two sisters' roles reverse. Stella admits that she may have entered a world of make-believe when she acknowledges that she cannot believe Blanche's story about the rape and continue to live with Stanley. Blanche, by retreating into hysteria and madness, and by refusing to acknowledge her sister as she leaves the apartment with the doctor, may be sparing Stella the horror of having to face the truth about her husband. Blanche's descent into madness shields Stella from the truth. If Blanche were to remain lucid, Stella might have to give Blanche's claims credibility.
In many of his plays, Williams depicts unmarried, fallen, Southern women such as Blanche who are victims to society's rules. The desperate nature of Blanche's situation is apparent in her mental attempts to convince herself that the chivalric gentleman still exists in the form of Shep Huntleigh. Her quiet determination to depend “on the kindness of strangers” is funny, because in the past Blanche has slept with quite a few strangers, but it also indicates the resignation and defeat women in her position must accept when it comes to counting on their families. Most of the strangers we see in the play—the newspaper boy, the Mexican flower woman—show that they have very little other than sadness to offer Blanche. Social convention in the Old South diminishes unmarried women completely, leaving them vulnerable to domination or destruction by men. By showing the triumph of brutality and ruthlessness over gentility and delicacy, this scene captures and portrays the disposable nature of Blanche's kind.
When she insists that Stella's life with Stanley must go on, Eunice argues that male companionship is a woman's means of survival in the face of social convention. Eunice believes that Stella must work fiercely to maintain her relationship with Stanley. Given what the audience sees Stella and Eunice suffer at the hands of their husbands, it is unlikely that these women believe nothing of Blanche's story. However, acknowledging its truth would require them to acknowledge their husbands' brutality, and it would interfere with their survival. Life “going on” depends on having the social protection of marriage and a family, regardless of the cost.
Stella's “luxurious” tears at the end of the play are shed not only for her sister, but also for the complexity and tension between illusion and reality, between Blanche's story and Stella's own understanding of her life. Stella cannot believe Blanche's story, but she cannot completely deny it either. Ultimately, Stella cries for herself, for Blanche, and for the fact that a part of her is glad to see Blanche go. She accepts the overdone comfort Stanley offers, which is peppered with endearments like “now, love,” and which conforms to the script Stella needs for life to go on. An offstage announcement that another poker game (“seven-card stud”) is about to commence ends the play with a symbol of the deception and bluffing that has taken place in the Kowalski house. The play's last line also serves as a subtle reminder that the nature of the game in the Kowalski household can always change.
Important Quotations Explained
1. They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!
Blanche speaks these words to Eunice and the Negro woman upon arriving at the Kowalski apartment at the beginning of Scene One. She has just arrived in New Orleans and is describing her means of transportation to her sister's apartment. The place names that Williams uses in A Streetcar Named Desire hold obvious metaphorical value. Elysian Fields, the Kowalskis' street, is named for the land of the dead in Greek mythology. The journey that Blanche describes making from the train station to the Kowalski apartment is an allegorical version of her life up to this point in time. Her illicit pursuit of her sexual “desires” led to her social death and expulsion from her hometown of Laurel, Mississippi. Landing in a seedy district that is likened to a pagan heaven, Blanche begins a sort of afterlife, in which she learns and lives the consequences of her life's actions.
2. There are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years, affecting Belle Reve as, piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications—to put it plainly! . . . The four-letter word deprived us of our plantation, till finally all that was left—and Stella can verify that!—was the house itself and about twenty acres of ground, including a graveyard, to which now all but Stella and I have retreated.
Blanche gives this speech to Stanley in Scene Two after he accuses her of having swindled Stella out of her inheritance. While showing Stanley paperwork proving that she lost Belle Reve due to foreclosure on its mortgage, Blanche attributes her family's decline in fortune to the debauchery of its male members over the generations. Like Blanche, the DuBois ancestors put airs of gentility and refinement while secretly pursuing libidinous pleasure.
Blanche's explanation situates her as the last in a long line of ancestors who cannot express their sexual desire in a healthy fashion. Unfortunately, she is forced to deal with the bankruptcy that is the result of her ancestors' profligate ways. By running away to New Orleans and marrying Stanley, Stella removed herself from the elite social stratum to which her family belonged, thereby abandoning all its pretensions, codes of behavior, sexual mores, and problems. Blanche resents Stella's departure and subsequent happiness. In Blanche's eyes, Stella irresponsibly left Blanche alone to deal with their family in its time of distress.
3. Oh, I guess he's just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume, but maybe he's what we need to mix with our blood now that we've lost Belle Reve.
In Scene Two, Blanche makes this comment about Stanley to Stella. Blanche's statement that Stanley is “not the type that goes for jasmine perfume” is her way of saying that he lacks the refinement to appreciate fine taste as Blanche can. She suggests that, under normal circumstances, he would be an inadequate mate for a member of the DuBois clan because of his inability to appreciate the subtler things in life, whether material or spiritual, jasmine perfume or poetry.
Yet the second half of Blanche's comment acknowledges that the DuBois clan can no longer afford luxuries or delude themselves with ideas of social grandeur. Since financially Blanche and Stella no longer belong to the Southern elite, Blanche recognizes that Stella's child unavoidably will lack the monetary and social privilege that she and Stella enjoyed. The genteel South in which Blanche grew up is a thing of the past, and immigrants like Stanley, whom Blanche sees as crude, are rising in social status. Like Stanley, Stella's child may lack an appreciation for perfume and other fineries, but Stanley will likely imbue him with the survival skills that Blanche lacks. The fact that Blanche's lack of survival skills ultimately causes her downfall underscores the new importance such skills hold.
4. I am not a Polack. People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. But what I am is a one hundred percent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it, so don't ever call me a Polack.
Blanche makes derogatory and ignorant remarks about Stanley's Polish ethnicity throughout the play, implying that it makes him stupid and coarse. In Scene Eight, Stanley finally snaps and speaks these words, correcting Blanche's many misapprehensions and forcefully exposing her as an uninformed bigot. His declaration of being a proud American carries great thematic weight, for Stanley does indeed represent the new American society, which is composed of upwardly mobile immigrants. Blanche is a relic in the new America. The Southern landed aristocracy from which she assumes her sense of superiority no longer has a viable presence in the American economy, so Blanche is disenfranchised monetarily and socially.
5. Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
These words, which Blanche speaks to the doctor in Scene Eleven, form Blanche's final statement in the play. She perceives the doctor as the gentleman rescuer for whom she has been waiting since arriving in New Orleans. Blanche's final comment is ironic for two reasons. First, the doctor is not the chivalric Shep Huntleigh type of gentleman Blanche thinks he is. Second, Blanche's dependence “on the kindness of strangers” rather than on herself is the reason why she has not fared well in life. In truth, strangers have been kind only in exchange for sex. Otherwise, strangers like Stanley, Mitch, and the people of Laurel have denied Blanche the sympathy she deserves. Blanche's final remark indicates her total detachment from reality and her decision to see life only as she wishes to perceive it.
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