The Tragic Downfall of Blanche DuBois Leonard Berkman

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The Tragic Downfall of Blanche DuBois
Leonard Berkman

Though the extent to which A Streetcar Named Desire exemplifies traditional tragedy may command increasing attention as this paper progresses, a demonstration of that idea is not the central aim at hand. It is, rather, one fragment of the question of tragic stature that most concerns us here: the terms according to which "victory" may be considered within the heroine's grasp, the course of her struggle toward victory, and the pivotal moment in which the struggle turns to defeat.

Especially after the late 1940s it became commonplace for critics to talk of the ubiquitous "common man" of modern American drama, one who is already defeated at the outset of the play's action, who struggles at best passionately but always futilely, and who is always too low in mankind's moral (if not occupational) hierarchy to manage any semblance of downfall, let alone a downfall with tragic impact. Whereas Arthur Miller tried doggedly to develop a sense of tragedy within such dismal boundaries, insisting upon the commonness of his protagonists while insisting too that "victory" remained nevertheless possible for them, Tennessee Williams turned feverishly toward opposite aims. Enlisting the array of forces—temporal and eternal, comprehensible and beyond human ken against which the heroic struggle must be waged, A Streetcar Named Desire is an inspired refutation of the linking of modern American drama with the common man.

Despite what humorous irony exists in any view of Blanche DuBois as typical of the average United States citizen (particularly when that view is not reconciled with the likewise popular outcry that "life is just not as awful" as Tennessee Williams paints it) a noting of the terms according to which Blanche can be said to share in the common man's state of defeat is immediately worthwhile. A subsequent penetration into what such a view falls short of perceiving will then achieve even sharper focus.

For a thorough account of what he calls Williams' "unsparing" analysis of Blanche, turn to John Mason Brown:

Her abiding tragedy comes neither from her family's dwindling fortunes nor from her widow's grief. It is sprung from her own nature. From her uncontrollable duplicity. From her pathetic pretensions to gentility even when she is known as a prostitute in the little town in which she was brought up. From her love of the refined when her life is devoted to coarseness. From the fastidiousness of her tastes and the wantonness of her desires. From her incapacity to live up to her dreams. Most particularly, from her selfishness and her vanity, which are insatiable. (from Dramatis Personae)

Mr. Brown appears willing to apply "tragedy" to Blanche's situation despite his not finding her character inspiring in the least, and despite his not remarking upon even one instance of Blanche's self-awareness or effort at overcoming "her own nature." Were Blanche merely what Brown describes her to be, Williams would not have been the virtuously objective playwright Brown praises him for being in his restraint from moral pronouncement upon Blanche. Williams would, instead, have been inexcusably indulgent in not acknowledging that he had more properly in Blanche a subject for easy satire.

There are faulty defenses of Blanche that must be dismissed before a more pertinent appraisal of her can be attempted. At the core of these defenses is the deference to Blanche as representative of the artist. She is, after all, an English teacher, she values "culture," she is sensitive, she opposes Stan's brutishness. Above all, she is misunderstood. The enveloping effect of Williams's play, when it is interpreted from that perspective, is to generate intense self-pity among all those spectators who have thought of themselves as fragile, gifted, and rejected. To undermine such an interpretation, all one need do is ask how well Blanche does represent the artist: Wouldn't it have been more characteristic, even of the stereotype of the creative person, for Blanche to take a detached but energetic interest in observing an area of life hitherto unknown to her? Further, wouldn't Blanche need to be attacked by Stan primarily for her desires to beautify, to transmit knowledge and experience, to make people more humane to one another? (On the contrary, even what might have been a sign of the artist, the Chinese paper lantern, symbolizes in the play less beauty than concealment.) Finally, were Blanche indeed to represent the artist, where could her struggle on behalf of art be said to reach its peak and then its defeat? Where, in fact, could she be said, as an artist, to be struggling?

Not all who claim Blanche to be an artist are her partisans, yet some of these critics make of Blanche an even greater symbol: that of Civilization writ large, its survival severely threatened by Stan, the Savage State. In connection with so clear-cut a polarity between the two major protagonists, an ambiguity is nevertheless felt regarding the placement of Williams's sympathies: Is Williams making as much a "Lawrencian" plea for primitive, spontaneous passion to return to dominance in his audiences' lives as he is, simultaneously, making a plea for the safeguarding of torn, sophisticated souls? The question's irrelevance to Streetcar bespeaks the askers' neglect of what concerns became crucial to Williams and to the United States after World War II. To use only the most obvious illustration, how could any contemporary, intelligent playwright be thought, in the after math of the war, to accept such evidence of sensitivity and of education as an interest in poetry and an aversion to vulgarity as his basis of distinguishing the marks of civilization from the marks of savagery? Has it not become apparent in our own time, as could never have been as apparent to most people before, that widespread education no more diminishes man's inhumanity to man than it diminishes man's misunderstanding of man? In quick demonstration, Stan shows as much understanding of Blanche as she of him.

Clearly, then, if an argument is to be put forth that Blanche does not begin and proceed and end at the same low point, that argument must hinge on a value that still remains to Williams and to his tragedy. Decidedly there is such a value, one that American dramatists of the late 1940s and 1950s cling to desperately. ( Miller, the most important exception.) This is the belief in intimate relationships (the establishing of the complex network of human love at least on a one-to-one basis) as paramount among life's pursuits. Not only is Blanche's struggle to achieve intimacy central to the tensions of the play, but the very difficult, classically noble means which she must exert to achieve it—the admitting of humiliating truths, the giving of compassion in the face of shock, the learning to moderate her life so that her continued individuality is compatible with the individuality of others—stand in testament to a by no means peculiarly mid twentieth century view of heroism. Conventionally phrased, can he who strives for order in his society succeed if he cannot bring order to his own house? What is peculiar to the point of view of the 1940s and 1950s is the emphasis on that latter, domestic order and the idea that its pursuit is sufficient unto itself. This attitude is not the social apathy, the pessimism regarding collective human endeavor, that it might be conceived as being. It is, far more, the concern with the struggle at hand.

How, in accordance with this focus upon intimacy, do we chart the course of Blanche's life on stage? First, in attending to the state of her struggle for intimacy at the outset of Streetcar's action, it is necessary to note the extent of her experience with intimacy up to the time of her arrival in New Orleans. Of Blanche's relationship with her family while her parents were alive, Williams has Blanche and Stella make scarcely a comment. It is Blanche's more fervently described devotion to their family and to their family home, Blanche's frank hatred of the wastrel fornication of her male relatives, and Blanche's talkativeness leaving little opportunity for Stella's own words, which alone distinguish her own family relationship from Stella's. Implicit in Blanche's onstage relationship with her younger sister, however, is a family mutually giving of intermittent and sudden affection to one another while being mutually reluctant, apart from Blanche's quickness to express hostile emotion, to be truthful to one another. That Blanche and Stella do not view with amazement Blanche's turning for refuge to Stella's home offers some, but not enough, counterweight to the fact that Blanche and Stella have made not one attempt to see each other, and have exchanged only untruthful letters, ever since Stella left their Mississippi plantation and married Stan.

Blanche's youthful marriage to Allan Grey matches in a crucial respect the limits to intimacy that held sway in Blanche's family: Whatever the goodness of Blanche and Allan's exchanges of affection and shared poetic sensibilities, a solidification of their intimacy through the telling of certain truths never succeeded in coming about. It is not the existence of Allan's homosexuality that signals the failure of Blanche's marriage; it is, rather, that Blanche must uncover this information by accident, that Blanche is incapable of responding compassionately to this information, that in short there never existed a marriage between them in which Allan could come to her in full trust and explicit need. Though Blanche does turn wholly to that kind of fleeting "intimate" affair with strangers in which no deeply personal demands can be placed upon her, the point Streetcar makes is not that Blanche's fall has as its source the collapse of her marriage, but instead that, immersed in dishonesty even before that collapse and nearly having yielded to it utterly, Blanche is beginning (as shown in the action of the play) to force the truth to break through. Blanche's most fundamental regret, as we see her in New Orleans, is not that she happened to marry a homosexual. Far readier to face her own responsibilities than is the similarly alcoholic Brick in the similar moral crisis presented in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Blanche's concern is more directly that, when made aware of her husband's homosexuality, she brought on the boy's suicide by her unqualified expression of disgust. In Blanche's refusal to shirk a responsibility that the conventional society of her time and place would have eagerly excused, she is doing more when she talks of her past to Mitch than simply telling him her life's story. Hoping for intimacy with Mitch, she is rising to the height that intimacy demands.

From Blanche's entrance on stage to the moment of her confession of guilt to Mitch all of the difficulties of her achieving any sort of intimate relationship come into play. To an extent, Stan and Stella have what Blanche wants. Their intimacy involves a degree of humility, spirited affection, and overt need, certainly, as well as the working out of a pattern of living generally suitable to them both. However unsuitable such a pattern might be for Blanche, she is confronted constantly with evidence of the intimacy she desires and, simultaneously, with demonstrations of how exclusive even of her partial participation such intimacy is. Blanche's behavior vis-à-vis her own sister underscores their incompatibility for intimacy; Stella, despite her genuine feeling for Blanche, must condescend to Blanche and must flatter her or lie to her in order to be able to get along with her, just as Blanche herself feels she must "put on airs" in order to bring herself to tolerate the situation in which she now finds herself. Although Blanche's desire to be truthful and spontaneous toward Stan and Stella provokes sporadic moments of risk, as when she admits flirting with Stan and when she impulsively kisses Stella's hand, intimacy remains beyond her reach. It is with Mitch that prospects soar.

Note in the early interaction with Mitch how the foreplay, a mixture of affectation, jocularity, and sober truth, is thoroughly in keeping with the behavior we have already seen in Blanche. (She is not "suddenly" a different woman with Mitch.) By its persistence, Mitch's unconcealed vulnerability inspires Blanche to be more openly and steadily vulnerable herself. Fearful that her satisfying him would lead to his loss of regard for her, Blanche repulses Mitch's sexual advances and creates a constant impediment to their being fully easy with one another. The evidence of Mitch's own ambivalent attitude toward sex, however, supports Blanche's fear. Tellingly, Mitch's kisses are by no means fended off by Blanche when they come, in rapid succession, in response to Blanche's story of her marriage. It is specifically the intermingling of sex with compassion that Blanche longs for; sex without compassion, that she cannot accept. Crucially, Mitch's embrace is what provokes Blanche's exclamation about God. Sex (or what passed for sex in Blanche's hotel room) has not been God, or even sufficient opiate, for her; it is, in contrast, the only kind of intimacy Mitch is, temporarily at least, capable of sharing with Blanche that can restore Blanche to grace.

Blanche maintains with Mitch the height she has reached, for in her next important scene with him she tells him of the promiscuous affairs she has had (a confession which parallels the undramatized scene in which Allan's homosexuality is revealed to Blanche, with the vital distinction that Allan is not strong enough to make the disclosure of his own accord.) Stan's persecution and exposure of Blanche to Mitch do not require this second confession from Blanche; we see proof elsewhere of Blanche's ability to persist in lying no matter what others may know. Blanche has a positive impetus for revealing her past to Mitch completely, since her difficult admissions can bind the two of them all the more deeply together.

With the second confession, however, elements of tragic irony come into ascendance. There is an assertion of T. S. Eliot's to which Williams firmly and sorrowfully assents: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." The painful implication in this statement for Williams is that reality in this context, intimacy—is nevertheless what human kind finds most glorious and must always pursue. There is tragic irony, in short, in that Mitch's response to Blanche's initial tackling of truth encourages Blanche to make further truthful admissions that will only, in Mitch's eyes, condemn her. Mitch, after Blanche's second confession, of course, does not embrace her tenderly again; he calls her dirty and demands his sexual due.

There is irony, too, in that the first confession does not involve a guilt Mitch can fully understand; the second confession does, and yet Mitch's understanding of that guilt is, at once, the barrier to further understanding.

That is the point of Blanche's downfall: the finding herself turned by her impulses toward truth in intimacy back into the whore-image from which, through truth, she struggles to escape. Stan's culpability for the rape Mitch only verbally indicates is the physical incarnation of Blanche's defeat. For again, as in her time of hotels, she is no longer being excluded from "intimacy" in the ordinary usage of the word; but, just as she feared, it is the act of sex itself which denies intimacy to her thereafter.

Interestingly, it is Stan now who has to take upon himself the burden of a guilty lie. Whether or not we can wholly credit Stella's declaration that she could not continue to live with Stan if she believed Blanche's accusation of rape, it is obvious that Stan is not able to admit the truth to his wife, and that his lie drives him to compound his guilt by having Blanche committed to a mental institution. Unlike Stan and Stella's earlier coming together in which sex beautifully established the forgiveness necessary for them to end their conflict, nowhere in Streetcar is there a more vivid illustration of the pathetic use of sex to obliterate the conscience than in the penultimate lines of the play. It is no longer from Stella that Stan can gain, and no longer from Stan that Stella can gain, the forgiveness each in their lovemaking now requires.

The irrevocable impossibility of intimacy thereafter in her life is the reality that Blanche must live with no less harshly and totally than Oedipus must live with the knowledge that he has slain his father and married his mother. A sentimentality that ignores what is basic to the turn of events in Blanche's life would have to be invoked for Blanche and for her audience to hope that there could ever still, someday, after Blanche has suffered enough perhaps, arrive a Mitch who would accept Blanche in all her guilt. Not only would Mitch's rejection of her have occurred even were he not so inordinately tied to his mother (Stan's example offers only a hint of what other varieties of rejection could occur) but, more ironically, Mitch in rejecting Blanche turns against exactly the kind of life Blanche honors him for turning against. Blanche herself would have rejected Blanche.

Blanche cannot at all be accurately seen as the weak hypocrite John Mason Brown portrays her as being; the morality she persists in avowing is not her lie. The conscious drive toward propriety and refinement that her upbringing and environment have confirmed within her are not less profoundly respected by her than the sexual and emotional longing which she had to forego propriety to satisfy. Ultimately it is neither drive that Blanche would want to yield.

In this light, is it the pathetic helplessless of insanity that Blanche demonstrates as she allows herself to be led into exile "as if she were blind" (and with no attempt at violence once the doctor has become personalized)? It is likelier that although her hopes for her own future have been crushed, and although she is moving through a siege of terror, she remains free, up through her last moment on stage, to affirm that ideal toward which she has always striven. Confronted by the presence of the doctor, she can drop the pretense that Shep Huntleigh has at last come for her; but she is affirmative in maintaining the image of herself that mocks the cardplayers for the courtesy they would never think of showing to her, and she is affirmative in fighting the medical imprisonment being forced upon her until she has gained from the doctor the perceptive gallantry and kindness she has always settled for when a mutually intimate relationship was precluded. Blanche could well have persisted in accusing Stan of raping her, and she could as well have retracted her accusation so as to try to avoid being taken away. It is a tribute to her recognition of the wider meaning of her situation that she did neither.

Blanche's approval of the doctor, her equating him with the men she has fleetingly known and to the ship doctor of her death fantasy, her asking of him no more than the "kindness of strangers," is her way of proclaiming what she now knows: Doomed by the life she has led, her struggle for intimacy has come to its end. The future she sees has only strangers, at best kind strangers, in it. Blanche's tragic power lies in her ultimate acceptance of that very future she has fought so painfully, and almost successfully with Mitch, to resist. Blanche attains this acceptance with tragic dignity, forsaking her anguish but not forsaking, as the reverberations of her final statement tell us, her vision of the intimacy, her God, in whose arms she could not remain.

From Modern Drama, December 1967

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