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Critical Essay by Kathleen Margaret Lant
SOURCE: "A Streetcar Named Misogyny," in Violence in Drama, edited by James Redmond, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 225-38.
In the following essay, Lant discusses the significance of rape and elements of tragedy in A Street Car Named Desire. According to Lant, Blanche is unable to attain the status of a tragic figure because she is objectified and dehumanized as a victim of rape.
Tennessee gave me a lot of clues to Blanche. He was a sly fox … Tennessee said, 'Just remember, everybody thinks the last line is: "I've always been dependent on the kindness of strangers." That's not the last line. The last line is: "Gentlemen, the name of this game is five-card stud."'
Rape is not a crime of irrational, impulsive, uncontrollable lust, but is a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of a would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear.
In the moment of rape a woman becomes anonymous. Like all victims of terrorism, there is something awesomely accidental about her fate. She is like the duck flying in formation which the hunter chose to shoot down—she appeared in his gunsight. Absorbed by his violence, her soul and the history of her soul are lost, are irrelevant.
A Streetcar Named Desire is, like an elusive lover, compelling, vexing, confusing, and ultimately heartbreaking because—like the lover one never quite wins—it refuses to conform to our expectations or fulfill our hopes. It leads us on, promises much, but in the end defies our attempt to understand, to approach, to control it, even to find pleasure in it.
In fact, that is just the problem with Williams's most popular play. It doesn't tell a straight story, it won't conform to a narrative or dramatic structure we recognize, it won't—like that reluctant lover again—make up its own mind about what it wants, who it is. Williams's play has proved vexing to audiences, directors, actors, readers, and critics because it seems to hover between two completely antithetical approaches to its own materials. The work shimmers with tension, it glows by the very heat of its own ambivalence.
The widely differing responses the play seems to generate may be the result of what Foster Hirsch calls Williams's 'own ambivalence' toward the antagonists of the drama—Stanley and Blanche. According to Hirsch, the two find themselves locked in a "deadly sex war," in which "Stanley and Blanche are a solid match." Williams's commitment to both characters—his attraction to "Stanley's animal vigor" and his sympathy for Blanche's "sensibility"—enable him to write "with a fine balance." As Hirsch puts it, "Though he is almost always divided in his feelings about his characters, Williams here makes capital dramatic use of his contrary impulses, and Streetcar thrives on its imbalances."
But the imbalances and tensions Hirsch points to are more extensive, more fundamental, than Williams's merely personal ambivalences. When Hirsch observes that "Romantic Blanche and naturalistic Stanley are locked in a symbolic conflict: culture fights vulgarity, and is trampled," he restricts his reading of the play to only one of its dramatic conflicts. It is, in fact, as if in Streetcar Williams dramatizes two mutually exclusive narratives, reveals two archetypal dramatic situations which dictate completely antithetical roles for Blanche. On the one hand, the play does present Blanche as a tragic figure and Stanley as the cruel agent of her destruction. Stanley brings about Blanche's downfall by unmasking her pretensions and her lies, by physically unclothing and raping her. In this dramatic situation, Blanche is—indeed—flawed, culpable, tragically imperfect, but she is fully and flagrantly human. As a tragic figure she functions as subject, to be judged by her action or inaction, her will to save herself, her sister, her home. She is a being wholly female, driven beyond her ability to cope with the wholly male world. At this level of the play, we may grieve as the environment (Stanley) destroys Blanche, or we may rage as Blanche backs herself into a corner with her lies and evasions. But no matter how we view Blanche—with pity or anger—we see and judge Blanche as Blanche, as a fully developed human character.
But the play dramatizes another situation in which Blanche becomes merely a figure, a component of one of our culture's most pernicious, most deeply entrenched narratives—the story of rape. As a figure in this story, as its victim, its object, Blanche ceases to be human. She becomes—instead—a repository for all the mistaken notions our culture harbors about rape. She is acted upon, objectified, and ironically made guilty for her own victimization. No longer fully human, she is simply a metaphor for all that is vile about women. Blanche cannot, then, claim tragic stature or even our sympathy precisely because she is a victim of rape. And as she becomes responsible for her own victimization, Stanley is left to glory in his ascendancy. This aspect of Streetcar arises from the misogyny which colors the play and our responses to it and which undermines the very moving presentation of Blanche that Williams offers.
Even overtly feminist readers of Williams's work do not fully explore the implications of Blanche's rape by Stanley. Focusing on the imbalances of the work and arguing that Williams's attitude toward the rape are "ambivalent," Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for example, assert that in Streetcar Williams "records, rationalizes, and critiques the use of the penis as weapon that he perceives as essential to Stanley Kowalski's relations with women." Gilbert and Gubar find Blanche a "sympathetic heroine whose imaginative energy surpasses the creativity of any of the other characters in the play; for Williams, Blanche is, nonetheless, guilty of abusing and using 'sensitive men' so that her 'punishment'—her rape—fits her crime."
Gilbert and Gubar conclude, however, that while Stanley does seem to triumph over Blanche, does seem to punish her, what we really observe is Williams's "scathing critique of the heterosexual imperative which is driving Blanche mad." Gilbert and Gubar assert that in the final scene of the play, Stanley's guilt "may be" revealed as "greater than Blanche's" because Stanley is accused by one of his poker buddies of being responsible for driving Blanche to her breakdown.
But Gilbert and Gubar—like Hirsch—read or view Streetcar somewhat myopically. They too seem unaware of resonances in the play to which most audiences and readers would respond. While they focus their attention on a feature of the play that has not been fully considered yet—Stanley's violent assault against Blanche—Gilbert and Gubar ignore the implications of Blanche's rape. In effect, Gilbert and Gubar place the play so forcefully in a feminist context that they fail to hear the reverberations the work would inevitably create in a context less than sympathetic to women, the very context in which the play was created and first produced.
There is, in fact, hostility toward women in Williams's work which has been ignored or tacitly applauded by his critics. This misogyny is not peculiar to Williams but exists in his work as a reflection of the society (and its attitudes toward women) to which he belongs. In this light, we can understand why Streetcar expresses a great compassion and affection for Blanche (a humane response to the suffering woman, a respectful acknowledgment of her humanity) and at the same time an intense hostility and prejudice toward her (a misogynist response to her very femaleness and to her vulnerability to rape, a reduction of Blanche to the status of metaphor, bearer of meaning rather than creator of meaning).
To understand that this double attitude toward Blanche exists in Streetcar is to take a step toward discovering why the play fails to hold together in important ways, why it is difficult to feel pity and terror for Blanche's plight (when we know we should), and why it is difficult not to feel vindicated at Stanley's brutal ascendancy (when we know we should not). Both attitudes, toward women in general and Blanche in particular, exert strong influence on readers and viewers, encouraging at one moment an intense compassion for Blanche and inciting in the next a distaste for and hostility toward her.
Thus, Streetcar reveals Williams's desire to render Blanche fully human, though flawed and put upon. Williams displays great compassion for Blanche and insight into the position of women in the twentieth century. He is aware of both their dependence on men and their vulnerability to the passionate excesses of men. In a sociological approach to the play, Robert Emmet Jones shows that the degeneration of Southern aristocratic society left women like Blanche in a peculiarly imperiled position; he characterizes these women as "the passive pawns of social forces and their own emotions." Blanche, raised to be decorative, fragile, and delicate, finds herself out of place, alienated from the real world, as Williams's description of her demonstrates:
Her appearance is incongruous to this setting [Elysian Fields]. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearls, white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district … Her delicate beauty must avoid strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth. (scene 1)
Blanche's genteel, feminine world has fallen apart, destroyed by the "epic fornications" of all her male relative—"improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers" (scene 2). Blanche "stayed and struggled," she tells Stella, trying to justify to her sister the loss of Belle Reve: "I … tried to hold it together … but all the burden descended on my shoulders." Jones characterizes Blanche's situation this way: "The tragedy of these women is the tragedy of the civilization which bore them, nourished them, and cast them out." What Robert Brustein calls "the dark masculine forces of society" are pitted against Blanche's typically feminine qualities. And in the struggle, Blanche is pathetically lost and brutally exploited.
Williams is not unsympathetic to the fact that Blanche must exist in a male world on male terms. He shows us that she is trapped economically and socially. When she says to Mitch of Stanley, "The first time I laid eyes on him I thought to myself, that man is my executioner!" (scene 6), she demonstrates her awareness that it is the brutal male ethic, the "Napoleonic Code," which has reduced her to virtual prostitution. Nor is Blanche unaware of the rules of the games she must play in this men's world or of the power every male has over her. From the beginning of Streetcar she is frightened ("Her voice drops and her look is frightened," scene 1), and her reaction to Stanley is consistently edged with terror ("looking apprehensively toward the front door"; "She darts and hides"; "drawing back involuntarily from his stare," scene 1).
Moreover, Williams is aware (as he shows Blanche is) that the games she plays with men—the coyness, the flirting, the submissiveness—are necessary for survival in a masculinist environment. As Andrea Dworkin points out in Women Hating, self-denigrating female social behavior is "learned behavior" that allows woman "survival in a sexist world." Blanche must please and placate those in whose hands her destiny rests. When she apologizes to Mitch for not being an interesting companion on their date, he asks why she tries so hard to please: "I was just obeying the law of nature … The one that says the lady must entertain the gentleman—or no dice" (scene 6). She leads Mitch on in a shameful way, it is true, but she is not unaware of her deception ("She rolls her eyes, knowing he cannot see her face," scene 6). Williams has made perfectly clear why the deception is necessary: Blanche is alone, vulnerable, penniless, and—most pathetic of all—desperately lonely.
Williams expresses his sympathy for women in a male-dominated world in one other way: his development of the violent and frequently physically abusive relationships between Stanley and Stella and between Steve and Eunice. Williams's sympathy is qualified, however, for—in the final analysis—in spite of the fact that he perceives the horror for women in these relationships, Williams comes out in favor of them; they are, he tells us at the end of Streetcar, life giving, fueled by desire, whereas Blanche's way represents a surrender to death.
The most revealing character in this respect is, of course, Stella. Critics are fond of accusing Blanche of refusing to face facts and of lying, but it is Stella (and Eunice, too) who constantly refuse to look at things, to listen to the truth, or even to tell the truth. Stella lies to Blanche throughout and her final, most devastating lie represents her complete betrayal of her sister: she allows Blanche to think she is going on a trip when, in fact, she is being sent to a state mental hospital. Stella, good wife that she is, concerns herself only with maintaining the status quo. She knows, at a deeply unconscious level, that she must keep Stanley happy to preserve the economic and emotional security she has achieved as his woman.
Every time Blanche confronts Stella with the facts of Stella's situation (that Stella deserted Blanche and Belle Reve, leaving Blanche to endure death and degradation; that Stanley is crude and brutal; in short, that Stella is "married to a madman!" scene 4), Stella turns her eyes away from these facts. She willingly blinds and anesthetizes herself to what her life with Stanley has become: "Blanche! You be still! That's enough!" (scene 1); "I want to go away, I want to go away!" (scene 3); "She crosses in a dazed way from the kitchen" (scene 7); "Her eyes and lips have that almost narcotized tranquility that is in the faces of Eastern idols" (scene 4). In fact, Blanche finds Stella's complete abnegation of self in the face of Stanley's brutality so astonishing that she asks Stella, "Is this a Chinese philosophy you've—cultivated?" (scene 4).
Williams demonstrates, moreover, that Stella is abused physically and degraded sexually in her relationship with her husband: she participates in and enjoys sex with Stanley after he has beaten her. There is, too, something unsavory in Stanley's equation of sex and violence (he feels that his brawling with Stella and Steve's with Eunice are perfectly natural expressions of sexual appetite) and in Stella's description of her sexual attachment to Stanley. She tells Blanche, "I can hardly stand it when he is away for a night … When he's away for a week, I nearly go wild!… And when he comes back I cry on his lap like a baby" (scene 1). Marion Magid remarks quite incisively of this scene:
It is hard to know what is more unpleasant in this image: the overt sentimentality it expresses or the latent brutality it masks: a fascination with the image of the helpless creature under the physical domination of another, accepting his favors with tears of gratitude.
Magid is, however, mistaken when she implies that Williams glorifies this relationship without qualification, for Williams demonstrates throughout the play that Stella is blinded and drugged and that she has shut herself off from the truth in order to maintain her relationship with Stanley.
Williams is not, then, unaware of the self-sacrifice a woman makes to live with a man like Stanley, for, as Stella says finally when she forsakes her sister so that she can stay with her husband, "I couldn't believe her story and go on living with Stanley" (scene 11). The irony of the situation is that Stella has believed Blanche's story all along; she—Stella—has called Stanley drunk, pig. She has reviled him but also has shut her eyes to her revulsion for him. This is, Williams shows us, the predicament of the heterosexual woman in the modern world. For Williams, Blanche is clearly the only female—the only fully human female—who has the will to set herself against Stanley. Only she refuses to blind herself to Stanley's evils. This pride, her insistence on her right to see and to name, may well be her tragic flaw. She may be quite simply too noble to exist as a female in a world run by a phalanx of Stanley Kowalski's.
In many ways, however, A Streetcar Named Desire dehumanizes Blanche, undercuts her tragic situation, and renders her by the end of the play a maddened hysteric with no place in a well-ordered society. In this respect, Williams draws on the most heinous and trivializing myths about women and about rape that inform our culture, and he demonstrates that he bears as many prejudices toward the modern woman as does a brute like Stanley. These prejudices, Williams's misogynous attitudes, irrevocably flaw this play, for a human being viewed as weak, neurotic, hysterical, dishonest, emotional, affected, and fragile (which, the prejudice tells us, women are and which Blanche certainly is) cannot at the same time aspire to the conditions of the tragic figure. Williams wants Blanche to be tragic (in the final scene he describes her so: "She has a tragic radiance in her red satin robe following the sculptural lines of her body," scene 11), but woman—as conceived in a system of patriarchal myth, especially the myth of rape—cannot be tragic. Blanche is, most clearly after Stanley's assault, too weak and too oppressed to convey tragic grandeur. Williams demonstrates this contradiction beautifully if unconsciously; for as soon as he characterizes Blanche as "tragic," his stage directions indicate that she must speak "with faintly hysterical vivacity" (scene 11). A neurotic woman may speak in this manner, but never an Oedipus or a Faustus.
If we look at Blanche's flaw, at the action or attitude which brings disaster and ruin upon her, we can understand the nature of Williams's predicament. In the first place, Blanche is, like most women, viewed primarily as a sexual being. As Naomi Weisstein points out, even psychologists, biologists, and anthropologists "assert that a woman is defined by her ability to attract men," and Dworkin develops her thoughts on misogyny by indicating that woman is perceived as either the wicked (that is, sexually active and knowledgeable) witch or the beautiful, innocent, victimized princess. Thus, woman is categorized by her sexual activity, and sexual activity outside of marriage can be viewed only as degeneration; indeed, in Streetcar Blanche's sexual activity is an indication of her moral degeneration. She moves from sixteen-year-old virgin Southern princess (when she married Allan) to aging, sexually promiscuous whore. Sex is—to put it simply—sinful when Blanche engages in it. With respect to Blanche as rape victim, such blatant disclosure of her sexual history is absolutely necessary. It is as though her entire sexual background must be brought before us so that we can see that she, indeed, got what she deserved.
Stanley Kowalski, on the other hand, is applauded for his sexuality, for his crude, sadistic exploitation of Stella, for his love of the "colored lights." He is certainly sexually active and, given his attitudes and manner, probably promiscuous as well (this is hinted at in Eunice's accusation of Steve, for the two couples are often compared). Williams's description of Stanley is almost fulsome in its veneration of Stanley's virility:
Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens … everything that is his … bears his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer. He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them. (scene 1)
Gilbert and Gubar point out that the "submissive Stella seems sexually enthralled by [Stanley's] violence." But clearly Williams too is enthralled by Stanley, by his violent sexuality, by his masculine threat. While Gilbert and Gubar feel that Williams, as a homosexual, stands "apart from heterosexual institution" and critiques Stanley's abuses of power, it may be more likely that Williams has created his own Galatea in Stanley. In fact, Williams seems to fall victim to Stanley's sexuality to such a degree that he revels in it—irresponsibly and appallingly—at Blanche's expense. Elia Kazan's production notes to Streetcar are even more extravagant than Williams's own words concerning Stanley; Kazan calls Stanley a "walking penis."
The play is rent, then, by a thematic inconsistency. Are we to elevate Blanche to a tragic figure or simply consign her to ignominy for the same activity which we applaud in Stanley Kowalski? Some critics of the play would have us suppose that Williams means us to perceive Stanley's attitude toward sex, with its alternations of violence and pleading (in scene 3 Stanley first assaults Stella then sobs, cries, and begs until she returns to him) as somehow superior to Blanche's. Others find Stella's sexual submissiveness healthy; Robert Jones, for example, tells us that Williams's heroines
believe that through physical desire and its consummation they will belong, that they will achieve life and escape Death. They do not realize that desire fails unless it is accepted wholeheartedly, as by Stella Kowalski.
How anyone could find Stella Kowalski's comatose endurance of Stanley healthy or whole-hearted is, indeed, a subject for wonder.
Tennessee Williams claims to share D. H. Lawrence's view of life, "a belief in the purity of sensual life, the purity and the beauty of it." The inconsistencies of Streetcar, however, would lead us to believe that sexuality, no matter how debased or desperate (and it is debased and desperate between Stanley and Stella) is pure only for males. Sexuality for females seems to involve a virtuous narcosis (Stella) or a profligate frenzy (Blanche). The attitudes expressed by the characters in Streetcar also uphold this sexual double standard, for Stanley is quite willing to protect Steve from Eunice when she suspects him of infidelity. But Stanley feels it his bounden duty to reveal Blanche's sordid past to the impressionable Mitch.
Even more damning than Blanche's promiscuity (a promiscuity we must attribute to her to justify Stanley's raping her), however, is her behavior toward her young, homosexual husband, Allan, years before. Critic after critic berates Blanche for her "betrayal of the defenseless homosexual … the supreme sin," for her "rejection of Allan Grey," for her "cruelty" which "consists of unveiling her young husband's true sexual nature, forcing his suicide," for "her failure to be compassionate":
Blanche's most fundamental regret is not that she happened to marry a homosexual … [but that] when made aware of her husband's homosexuality, she brought on his suicide by her unqualified expression of disgust.
Unhappily, the play completely supports these readings. Williams does consider Blanche guilty for not saving her husband from his homosexuality (although it is certainly not clear how she is to do this) and for not showing more womanly support and compassion for the young man when she did discover the truth. She tells the story to Mitch:
There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness, and tenderness which wasn't like a man's … He came to me for help … and all I knew was I'd failed him in some mysterious way and wasn't able to give the help he needed but couldn't speak of!… on the dance-floor—unable to stop myself—I'd suddenly said—"I saw! I know! You disgust me …" (scene 6).
By the logic of the play, Blanche is guilty for not saving her husband from himself; she is also to be held responsible for his suicide. Both charges can be made only in a world where a woman's primary duty is self-sacrifice to man, where her appropriate role is that of supportive object not assertive subject. Where is there room in this situation for Blanche's own feelings? What about her rejected love, her jealousy, her anger? What about what Blanche wants?
We see, then, that Williams—investing the tragic significance of his play in Blanche—undercuts this very significance by his own sexist attitude toward her. He defines her in sexual terms (since she is no longer a virgin, she must be a degenerating whore), and he condemns her for failing to provide the self-sacrificing, womanly support her husband, Allan, needed. Williams's unacknowledged, unconscious misogyny weakens his development of Blanche as a strong, exciting character, and Blanche is damned no matter how she behaves.
Furthermore, just as Blanche is denounced for her lack of compassion for Allan and for her failure to conceal her disgust with his homosexuality, she is damned again and again for telling the truth. Women have traditionally been punished for saying what others do not want to hear: Cassandra was laughed at, scorned, and finally raped by Ajax; critical and vociferous women were burned as witches; aggressive, vocal Hedda Gabler was considered unnatural. What is especially interesting about these women is that not only are they intimidated into silence, but also the little they are permitted to say is denounced as falsehood. Cassandra is misled, insane, the Trojans believe; the witch is a "liar by nature" according to the church; and Hedda is, finally, discredited as evil. In the same way Blanche Dubois is accused of lying by Stanley Kowalski and by critics of the play. Stanley begins to enumerate Blanche's lies to Stella: "Lie Number One: All this squeamishness she puts on! You should just know the line she's been feeding Mitch" (scene 7). Most critics agree with Leonard Quirino that Blanche seeks to deny reality, "to combat actuality," and that she has a "preference for soulful illusion."
But, in fact, if we look closely at the play, we see that Blanche tells the truth consistently and that it is for this she is punished. Of course, her first great moment of truth-telling is when she challenges Allan with his homosexuality. This does, on the surface, seem a cruel act, but imagine for a moment Stanley rather than Blanche in this position. Suppose now that Stanley finds Stella in a compromising situation with another woman. We would expect and applaud shock, rage, even violence from Stanley. We would not dream of condemning him for a lack of compassion for the errant Stella. And in a way this is exactly what we admire Stanley for doing in Streetcar. His wife, it seems, is forming a threateningly close attachment with another woman (though the relationship is by no means lesbian), and surely we are to approve of Stanley's efforts to protect his marriage. Why then should we revile Blanche for a very natural, jealous, furious reaction to a threat to her marriage? The answer is, of course, because she is female. It is not her place to protect what is hers; it is for her to support, love, cherish, accept. And, in fact, with respect to Blanche's ultimate role, her role as the victim of Stanley's rape, we expect her to lie. If the rape victim isn't terrified into an appropriate and docile silence, she will be—or has been, traditionally—discredited by police, courts, medical professionals, family and judges.
Through the course of the play, Blanche—in much the same way and with similarly disastrous results—continues to tell the truth, but now about Stanley. She reveals him as she revealed Allan; she shows her disgust for him. In scene 1 she confronts Stella with the degradation in which Stella lives: "I'm going to be honestly critical about it." And a little later she upbraids Stella for letting herself go—which Stella has done: "You messy child, you, you've spilt something on the pretty white lace collar!" After Stanley beats Stella, Blanche describes Stanley as an animal, an ape, a brute, a beast. She admonishes her sister not to "hang back with the brutes." Of course, Stanley hears this, and Blanche's fate is sealed. She has wounded male pride once too often; she has seen a little too clearly and spoken far too forcefully. She must be punished.
Williams's difficulty in characterizing Blanche as a complex, fully developed figure becomes obvious here. He suggests on one level that Blanche has erred in being cruel and insensitive to her husband, that her failure was simply a lack of compassion; what he conveys, however, is that Blanche has broken the one inviolable rule of relationships between men and women. Women do not tell the truth, they do not challenge, they do not unmask. This notion is so interwoven into the fabric of our society that it makes its way into Williams's play in spite of the fact that it diminishes the effect of the work, and it renders Blanche's sin more a crime against the sanctity of marriage and a threat to the power of men than a brief lapse in sympathy or love.
This brings us to one of the most interesting problems of Streetcar: Blanche's punishment. The fact that Blanche has incurred male wrath by seeing too much and criticizing too freely makes it entirely appropriate that she be punished by the one sure means of male domination and power over women: rape. Susan Brownmiller points out that rape is "not only a male prerogative but a man's basic weapon of force against women, the principal agent of his will and her fear." And herein lies Williams's inconsistency in having Stanley rape Blanche. The rape is to be a punishment, a retribution brought on by Blanche's great crime (beginning with her cruelty to Allan and culminating in her unmasking of Stanley). But to be a rape victim in a sexist society is to be deserving of the punishment simply because of who one is (a woman) rather than because of what one has done. It is, too, to be somehow sullied by the crime of which one is a victim. It is to be lowly and despicable; it is to be guilty for the act rather than punished by the act. Thus, Blanche's only crimes are that she is female and there fore subject to masculine will and that she is a bad enough woman (in sexual terms) to be raped. Her real crimes (if they are, indeed, crimes) are forgotten, completely obscured by the fact that we have an entire set of myths to explain rape and that these myths vigorously affirm the rape victim's guilt—which has nothing to do with how Blanche may have treated Allan in the past or with how she treats Stanley now.
These false notions about rape include the idea that all women want to be raped, that a woman—in effect—brings the rape on herself, that it is not logically possible to rape a woman who is not a virgin, and that rape is a crime of sexual desire, brought on by the overwhelming attraction of the victim or by the unbearable sexual deprivation of the rapist. Williams goes to great lengths to obscure the fact that rape is a political crime of "uncontrolled hostility" toward women, "a brutal bullying of a smaller, weaker person," by ensuring that the rape in Streetcar conforms to all the false stereotypes we hold about the act. Blanche is made to flirt with and entice Stanley: Williams shows that Blanche has an extremely unsavory sexual history, so the act of raping her seems insignificant, indeed; and he indicates that Stanley finds Blanche attractive ("come to think of it—maybe you wouldn't be bad to interfere with," scene 10), making this seem a crime of passion and desire rather than one of violence, cruelty, and revenge—which every rape is. We tend, therefore, to forget why Stanley really attacks Blanche—not because she is attractive or because she is promiscuous but because she threatens masculine power with her honesty.
The issue becomes impenetrably muddled. Because Williams harbors false notions about rape, its causes and its intent, Blanche comes off simply as a loud-mouthed, flirtatious whore who really asked for what she got. In other words, she deserves to be raped not for some crime she committed against her husband or against Stanley, but because she has committed a crime against male privilege: she has been as sexually free as Stanley. But Williams attempts also to create a tragic figure in Blanche; she is a human being who has set in motion forces which have brought about her own ruin. To represent her ruin as a sexual assault, however, certainly diminishes the effect of it, for if only whores are raped, where is the tragedy? What can possibly be tragic about the rape of a promiscuous woman to an audience or a playwright in a misogynist society? Anyone watching the play knows enough about the myths of which our world is made to realize that Blanche has brought this rape on by her own sexual promiscuity and nothing else. She is, therefore, certainly not possessed of tragic stature.
On a deeper level, however, the play acknowledges the true intent and character of the act of rape, that it is a crime of domination and power. It is clear, at this level too, that Stanley is punishing Blanche for more than her profligacy; he is punishing her for all the insults she ever hurled at any male, beginning with Allan. This is what Stanley means when he tells Blanche, "We've had this date with each other from the beginning!" (scene 10). But given the false notions the audience harbors about rape—false notions the play itself promotes—the fact that Blanche is raped necessarily diminishes her in our eyes. She becomes no longer a tragic figure but merely a sordid victim of a nasty crime, no longer fully human but merely a metaphor for all the feminine evils the real men of the world must face and deal with.
According to Normand Berlin, A Streetcar Named Desire is a tragedy, but one whose effect is determined by the attitudes we hold toward Stanley and Blanche. We must, he says, keep the scales balanced between the two antagonists in order to understand the play fully:
Desire is the common ground on which Stanley and Blanche meet … The needs of both are clearly presented by Williams and should be understood by the audience which must neither wholly condemn Blanche for her whorishness nor Stanley for his brutishness.
We cannot keep these scales balanced, however, for Blanche has been violated in such a way that she loses her tragic stature and even her status as an appropriate antagonist for Stanley. Susan Griffin observes that at the moment of rape "a woman becomes anonymous … Absorbed by … violence, her soul and the history of her soul are lost, are irrelevant." Indeed, Blanche is anonymous at the end of Streetcar; like Stella, she has been rendered comatose, catatonic by the sexuality and brutishness of the masculine world of power. Stanley triumphs, and his rape of Blanche conforms to Brownmiller's characterization of the violation of woman by man:
rape is not a crime of irrational, impulsive, uncontrollable lust, but is a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of a would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear.
Stanley is more than a would-be conqueror in Williams's play, for he has protected his domain and destroyed the enemy. He has taken all. As Tennessee Williams himself has said, the play doesn't end with Blanche, it ends with Stanley:
Just remember, everybody thinks the last line is: "I've always been dependent on the kindness of strangers." That's not the last line. The last line is: "Gentlemen, the name of this game is five-card stud."
And in this masculine world—as in this masculine game—Stanley holds all the cards.
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