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In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” What are the Thematic Connections Between Sexual Desire and Death?

Tennessee Williams employs heavy use of symbolism in his writing. Rarely is a word spoken in one of his plays that doesn’t carry a deeper weight, and there’s always subtext richening the story being told. The famous A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) film adaptation is based on one of Williams’ most famous works, and film director Elia Kazan beautifully incorporated many cinematic elements that show the story’s symbolism.

Among the play’s many symbolic inferences, that of sexual desire and death is one of the most prominent, as it’s first utilized in the title of the piece. “A Streetcar Named Desire,” when interpreted, prophetically sums up the whole story. Though Blanche (Vivien Leigh) takes a literal streetcar named Desire to arrive at her sister Stella’s (Kim Hunter) house, there’s a lot more meaning than that.

In one of the film’s first pieces of dialogue, during which Blanche speaks to Eunice (Peg Hillias), we hear:

“They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”

Three key words exist in that dialogue: Desire. Cemetery. Elysian Fields.

While Blanche is brought to the Kowalski’s house by a car named Desire, she’s also brought there by her own personal desires. This is the precursor to the play. Her nymphomania and promiscuity destroyed her credibility and drove her out of her former town. Elysian Fields is Greek mythology’s land of the dead. Specifically, it’s the resting place for “heroes,” something this play doesn’t actually have, which may be symbolic in itself.

Blanche’s sexual pursuits got her evicted from Belle Reve, ostracized from her town, and by the end of the narrative, expelled from society. Thus, desire essentially leads to death for Blanche, via the path of desire.

Beyond the title, the connection between sex and death is explored numerous times throughout the film. In conversation, Blanche attributes the death of her ancestors and status to their “epic fornications.” Subtext indicates her former husband committed suicide due to her discovering his homosexuality (a fact directly addressed in the stage version). Williams is trying to advertise that overindulging in rampant lewdness leads to unwanted results.

“Blanche’s journey represents many deaths: it’s her cultural demise from refined southern lady to broke and mentally ill, it’s her demise from a huge plantation to a cot in a one bedroom lower-class apartment. Every thing leads to a symbolic death for Blanche. Living the truth (someone who fulfills their desire by entertaining men at a seedy hotel) is death for Blanche. Blanche has been surrounded by death and desire for years. Her first husband shot himself, her home was lost through the ‘desires’ of her ancestors, family members have ‘been on parade’ to the graveyard, she lost her job because of an affair with a student, and she does not deny rumours of entertaining men at a seedy hotel.” - TheatreFolk

Near the end of the film, a Mexican woman appears outside the Kowalski home selling “flowers for the dead.” Blanche finds this woman horrific, mainly because the woman is indicative of Blanche’s upcoming fate. Her tumble towards madness is growing ever more present, and her inability to act judiciously on her desires and obsession with male comfort is fatally coupled to her insanity.

“Williams makes it clear that desire is destructive. Blanche‘s desire for a man and for her dreams to be true only leads to her rape by Stanley (Marlon Brando). Thus, Williams wishes to portray that desire can lead to dire consequences.” - Academia.edu

The rape is the final push Blanche needs to cross the line to full-on madness. It’s no surprise Williams used a sexually basic, aggressive act to bring the theme to its completion. Brando’s character of Stanley is an image of sexuality usually attributed to female characters, and serves as a constant point of contention to Blanche’s desire. Their tumultuous relationship is symbolic of her constant struggle with societal appearances versus sexual cravings; a struggle she inevitably loses.