Classical Tragedy in Streetcar Named Desire
“In 1947 play, Tennessee Williams created A Streetcar Named Desire using elements from classical tragedy. Blanche Dubois is the tragic heroine due to the “fatal flaw” of her character—self-deception. No matter how firmly she refuses to accept reality, she will eventually have to face its harsh consequences—her tragic downfall to the asylum.
Blanche is from Dubois family in Belle Reve, which represents the upper class. This setting reflects a common characteristic of the tragic hero in classical tragedy, who is usually a person with high status in society. Although Blanche loses her family and becomes poor, she still preserves her aristocratic manner and education. However, she fails to adapt to her new life as a lower-class woman, immersing herself in her imaginatory world built up by her self-deception.
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Blanche fools herself into believing an illusionary world where she is still young and pure, and constructs multiple lies in order to live up to her illusory image. Since her mind is unable to deal with the reality of her unethical history of prostitution and immoral behavior with her student in Laurel, she dresses up in fancy and delicate clothes, all white, which suggests innocence and purity. Blanche also misrepresents her age by hiding herself under dim lights. She uses paper lanterns to cover the light bulb to dim the light, claiming: “I can’t stand a naked night bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action”(S3), in order to conceal her aged appearance and make her look younger. In spite of the fact that she is still getting old, she is willing to be trapped in her illusion to “maintain youth”.
Blanche’s other lie is to conceal her drinking problem. She says, “No, I—rarely touch [alcohol]” (S1) and, “I’m not accustomed to having more than one drink. Two is the limit—and three” (S3), while secretly she drinks bottles of alcohol to alleviate her pain over losing Allan. This demonstrates that she is unwilling to face her true self.
Similar to classical tragedy, in which the tragic hero has a recognition of his flaw that leads to his downfall in the end, Blanche shows awareness of her self-deception when she confesses: “I don’t want realism, I want Magic!…I try to give that to people, I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth” (S9). She recognizes that she uses self-deception as a tool to avoid facing reality and stay in her imaginary world which is full of “magic,” But she is reluctant to change her state of mind. This recognition, coupled with harsh reality that she refuses to confront eventually leads to her tragic downfall.
Blanche has always needed to depend on someone to fill her void from the loss of her ex-husband. She tells Stella: “I can’t be alone! Because—as you must have noticed—I’m—not very well”(S1). Therefore, as she finds Mitch, who is able to grant her love and care. She sincerely wants to marry him, saying: “Sometimes—there’s god—so quickly!”(S6) when Mitch proposes to her. She deceives Mitch by giving him the impression of innocence which causes him to have false recognition of Blanche and “[thinks] she had never been more than kissed by a fellow!”(S7) However, when Mitch finds out about Blanche’s bad reputation in Laurel, he shows his disdain towards her by saying “You are not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother.” (S9) which indicates the failure of Blanche’s fantasy for a stable life and the beginning of her tragic downfall. Blanche could have avoided this major conflict between her fantasy and the cruel reality of being rejected by her Mitch if she had shown her real self to people.
Blanche’s hubris, which is one kind of tragic flaws in classical tragedy, stems from her self-deceptive nature. Her arrogance is shown when she continues to see herself an upper-class woman who is desirable and respectable even after she loses her high status. Blanche condescends to Mitch in order to make him feel attracted to her. She teases him for not understanding French and not being a gentleman. Mitch is drawn towards the genteel manner of the “upper-class” Blanche and he describes himself as “rough bunch”(S3) in front of her. Blanche also shows a disdainful attitude towards Stanley by calling him “Polack” and “[acting] like an animal”(S4) due to his rude behavior to her and Stella. Blanche is trying to debase Stanley due to his lack of education and manner. In front of Stanley, she also claims that she has “beauty of mind and richness of the spirit and tenderness of the heart”(S10). She deludes herself in thinking that she is very rich in spirit even though she is so financially poor that she needs to depend on her sister.
When Blanche finds that Mitch is not the one she can depend on, her mind cannot deal with the conflict between her imagination and reality. So, her fantasy for love shifts to her admirer, Shep Huntleigh. She deceives herself into believing that she will earn respect from him, though she has already lost the respect of Stanley and Mitch due to their recognition of her immoral behavior. She refers to both Mitch and Stanley as “swine” (S10) because she is angry at them for exposing her immoral history, and tries to preserve the last of her self-esteem by telling Stanley that his accusations of her to Mitch were not successful. Her arrogance towards Stanley seems ironic when Stanley debunks her lies and “defeats” her by raping her. At the end of the play, she becomes insane and is sent to an asylum, which signifies her final tragic downfall. If she had accepted the truth and adjusted to her lower-class surroundings, she would have been compatible with Stanley and the events would not have resulted in her downfall.
Tennessee Williams was clearly inspired by several elements from classical tragedy to write this play. It reveals a tragic heroine who is from a family of high status in the south. She recognizes that she has a tragic flaw—self-deception—but she is unwilling to break away from her fantasy world due to the overwhelming reality of the loss of her ex-husband, her previous immoral behavior and her aging appearance. This deception of herself and others eventually leads to the tragic downfall of being diagnosed as insane and sent to an asylum.
- Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. 1947.”