A Streetcar Named Desire - Context

  • Created by: cj2013
  • Created on: 26-04-19 21:46

A Streetcar Named Desire - Autobiographical Contex

Autobiographical Context:

  • Williams was a homosexual at a time when it was illegal across the USA. The portrayals of both Allan Grey and Blanche Du Bois can be seen as representative of the shame and psychological trauma and turmoil that people like Williams would have experienced with their desires being viewed as shameful, unacceptable and disgraceful.
  • Williams' sister was institutionalised and lobotomised due to a mental illness and WIlliams suffered alcoholism and depression himself. In the 1940s, mental illness was stigmatised and poorly understood - those who were seen as unwilling or unable to conform to society's narrow expectations were seen as a threat to society and faced being ostracised.
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A Streetcar Named Desire - Literary Context

Literary Context:

  • After the horrors of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the Second World War in the 1940s, there was a desire for social realism amongst theatre audiences in the post-war period. People wanted to confront the harsh reality of the struggles of domestic life rather than a comforting fantasy world of escapism.
  • Williams' approach to drama was described as plastic theatre in which props, settings, lighting, music and sound effects were used to enhance the themes, language, characters and actions.
  • Williams' use of decayed and derelict settings and deeply flawed characters can be seen as being inspired by a genre known as the Southern Gothic. Blanche's paranoid reference to the 'grim reaper [...] set[ting] up his headquarters on our doorstep' and her saying that 'only a writer like Mr. Edgar Allen Poe! could do [Elysian Fields] ... justice!' are both images drawn from this genre.
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A Streetcar Named Desire - Gender Inequality in th

Gender Inequality in the 1940s:

  • Although women's role in the workforce had expanded during the Second World War, many southern women went back to submissive, domestic roles afterwards.
  • Stella can be seen as a stereotypical 1940s submissive housewife - sexually, financially and emotionally dependent on her husband and confined to the domestic sphere.
  • Blanche's hopes to be rescued by a southern gentleman figure, such as Mitch or Shep Huntleigh, are another sign of female dependence - her only hope for the future is to be rescued by a chivalric, saviour figure.
  • Stanley can be seen as a stereotypical 1940s alpha male ('meat!') - a breadwinner and a survivor of the WW2 Battle of Salerno meaning he feels an invincibility and a sense of entitlement to act on his desires without fearing the consequences. He presents the **** as an inevitable consequence of patriarchal dominance: 'we've had this date [...] from the beginning'.
  • When Stella threatens Stanley's patriarchal dominance by criticising his table manners, he responds by quoting a figure of male political authority: Huey Long, a former mayor of New Orleans, demonstrating how patriarchal authority is deeply entrenched at all levels in society.
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A Streetcar Named Desire - Decline of the Old Sout

Decline of the Old South and Rise of the New South:

  • The play surrounds the decline of the Old South and its rural plantation communities, such as Belle Reve, and the rise of the New South which was being fuelled by immigrants such as Stanley Kowalski's Polish father.
  • The play surrounds the conflict between the Old Southern moral principles and values, as embodied by Blanche, and the New Southern values and moral principles, as embodied by Stanley.
  • Blanche attempts to conform to the idealised 1940s bourgeois stereotype of the Southern Belle.
  • Southern Belles were expected to be elegant, refined in their manners, morally pure, chaste [abstaining from extramarital sex] and submissive to patriarchal dominance.
  • Blanche, in reality, is and has to hide her promiscuity, poverty, alcoholism and mental instability.
  • Stanley can be seen as the embodiment of the New South and its values and moral principles - he is the son of an immigrant and is materialistic, pragmatic, practical and realistic, and sees life as a competitive 'rat-race', all of which are values that suggests he is a believer in the American Dream - the idea that all Americans could achieve prosperity and success but through their own merit, with a resentment of social class privilege and of inherited wealth.
  • Stanley's destruction of Blanche through the **** is symbolic of Williams' fears of a the rise of a new, primitive, barbaric social order and the loss of Old Southern tradition and values.
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A Streetcar Named Desire - Tragedy


  • Blanche's inability to resist or control her desires leads to the loss of her home at Belle Reve, her teaching job and ultimately her sanity as she struggles to accept who she has become.
  • Critics have used a term from Aristotelian tragedy to refer to these repeated mistakes - hamartia.
  • However, Blanche's downfall is also influenced by wider societal forces and issues, including the decline of the Old South and gender inequality in the 1940s.
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