At first, it may seem that Stella and Blanche are opposites of each other. Blanche is a glamorous diva, popular among men, while Stella is an obedient wife, soon-to-be a mother, and a role model for any housewife. However, despite the differences, the sisters share one defining trait: both have a passion for satisfying their sexual desires, which has been the root of their unhappiness with life, reflecting the play’s title.
A Streetcar Named Desire was written in the post-World War II era when prostitution was heavily criminalized and prosecuted. Women were expected to be pure and obedient to their husbands. This rhetoric was elevated with the praise of masculinity after the victory in the war: women had to adjust themselves to satisfy their men’s needs, who were presented as heroes and defenders of the nation. In the play, the sexual passions of Blanche and Stella drive them to a tragic end. The play pities the women and reminds the reader about the horrors of American society in the post-war years.
The story starts with Blanche DuBois, who has just come to her sister Stella DuBois to New Orleans to live with her and her husband, Stanley Kowalski. The play gradually reveals Blanche’s past and how she ended up losing all her money. She is presented as a very flirtatious woman who used to have a luxurious lifestyle and is now horrified by the living conditions of the Kowalski family. During the poker night scene in their house, Blanche meets one of Stanley’s friends, Mitch, and then asks Stella to tell her about him. During the scene, the women dress in their home clothes while Stanley and his friends play poker behind the curtain. While doing so, Blanche steps into the light, where her undressed silhouette can be seen from the outside: “Blanche moves back into the streak of light.” (Williams 48). Later it is revealed that it caught the attention of both Stanley and Mitch, charmed by her feminine figure.
She finds herself proud of her body from the very start of the play when she lectures Stella to lose some weight. Her obsession with looks explains their value to her: the reader sees how Blanche utilizes her sexuality to achieve validation from men. Therefore, the poker scene becomes one of the most notable scenes where Blanche attempts to get what she wants using her sex appeal. Blanche is interested in men, and later the work reveals that Blanche’s sexual desires had taken over her when she lost the house.
Throughout the play, Stella is presented as being devoted to Stanley, for which Blanche criticizes her several times. Blanche sees Stanley as an uncultured brute with somewhat animalistic behavioral expressions, and after Stanley strikes Stella, Blanche realizes he is dangerous to his wife. In that poker night scene, Stella is annoyed with Stanley’s drinking until he beats her. Scared of him, she and Blanche run to Eunice, their neighbor who lives upstairs. Stanley calms down and calls Stella, and after some hesitation, she comes down to him (Williams 60). In the morning, Stella admits to Blanche that she has spent the night with Stanley, which astonishes Blanche. In this scene, the reader takes the side of Blanche, seeing Stanley’s true colors and Stella’s attachment to her beast husband. Stella does not want to admit that Stanley might cause harm not only to her but to their future child, creating excuses for his anger tantrums.
The critical takeaway is that Stella forgives her husband not because he is deeply ashamed of what he has done in a fit of rage. She forgives him because he satisfied her in bed after the fight: “Her eyes and lips have that almost narcotized tranquility that is the faces of Eastern idols” (Williams 62). Stella is not blind to Stanley’s anger and animalistic behavior, but she chooses to ignore it because she is physically attracted to Stanley. Stella’s sexual desire becomes her motivation, which foreshadows the revelation about Blanche’s past and her affair with a young student.
While Blanche utilizes her talent in flirting and seducing men to satisfy her sexual needs, Stella neglects the abuse from Stanley because of Stanley’s physical appeal. Stella even mentions it herself when she tells Blanche that Stanley smashed the light bulbs with her shoe on their wedding night: “I was–sort of–thrilled by it” (Williams 64). The light bulbs are symbolic in this scene: Stanley ensures that their marriage will be submerged in the darkness. When he takes Stella to the bedroom on the poker night, he also “bears her into the dark flat” (Williams 60). Stella finds comfort in it because she does not see the horrors of her marriage with Stanley. Her deliberate choice to ignore Stanley’s dangerous behavior resembles Blanche’s denial to acknowledge her financial situation and embrace her dark past. The theme of darkness and illusions is what unites the sisters together.
The darkness in Stella’s marriage mirrors the terrible events in Blanche’s past life, before New Orleans. During her conversation with Mitch, Blanche reveals that her husband killed himself after she discovered that he was gay. It is one of the instances where the reader realizes how important it was for Blanche to be desired by men. This was the first occurrence in Blanche’s life where a man rejected her. The death of her husband was just the beginning of her financial and mental downhill: after losing her house, she indulged herself in having an affair with her seventeen-year-old student, for which she got fired. Finally, it led her to prostitution, a secret she tries to hide throughout the whole play from Stella, Stanley, and Mitch.
The horror of sex reaches its peak when Stanley uses it to get power over Blanche: when he rapes her, Blanche is reminded that she does not have autonomy over her sexuality because she used to work as a prostitute. This drives her to a catatonic state, and she is forced to be sent into a mental asylum. While being taken by the doctors, Blanche says: “Whoever you are––I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” (Williams 153). Delirious, Blanche realizes her dependency on other people, especially, men for proving her worth. It also works as a catalyst for Stella’s epiphany: when she faces the fact that Stanley raped her sister, she starts crying while being comforted by Stanley: at this point, she cannot leave him, which makes her powerless.
In conclusion, despite the significant differences between the sisters, the central aspect of their personalities was the sexual desire that worked as a primary motivator. The theme of sex in the play develops a darker subtext along with the plot. At the beginning of the play, the reader sees charming Blanche and happily pregnant Stella. In contrast, by the end of the play, Blanche becomes antagonized for her sexual escapades, and Stella expects to bring a child into an abusive family with a monstrous father.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947. Web.