For those of you that don’t know, Blanche DuBois is one of the main characters in Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Set in post-war New Orleans, the play begins when Blanche, an ageing southern belle, goes to stay with her impoverished sister and her husband – and it pretty much all goes downhill from there. The play was pretty ground-breaking for its time and became a huge success, being made into several films and – the true benchmark of having ‘made it’ in popular culture – a Simpsons episode. Blanche herself has been at the centre of all this, widely hailed as one of Tennessee Williams’s most intriguing and complex characters.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
The events that bring Blanche to her sister Stella’s house are pretty firmly out of her control. Once from a wealthy family, a series of deaths in the family have led to them losing their childhood home, the plantation ‘Belle Reve’. This is symptomatic of how Blanche’s hand is forced throughout the play, so she’s not exactly 100% in control of her own destiny. Various relatives fall sick and die, and of course she could have abandoned them if she wanted to – but that’s not an option for Blanche, who feels she has to take out various loans in order to pay for all the doctor’s bills/funeral expenses.
This is a pattern that repeats itself in the play. Blanche doesn’t really choose to go and stay with her sister, she has nowhere else to go – she gets run out of town after she starts an affair with a high-school student and, it’s implied, has no money to set herself up anywhere else. Blanche doesn’t really want to marry Mitch – but she wants to get out of Stanley and Stella’s apartment, still doesn’t have enough money to take off on her own and marrying Mitch seems like the best option. Blanche doesn’t want to tell Mitch about her past – but she has to, when Stanley tells him about it and Mitch confronts her.
So Blanche isn’t really in control of her own destiny – other people and events constantly force her hand. By the end of the play all control has been taken from her, as being raped by Stanley has triggered a full nervous breakdown and she’s about to be committed to a mental hospital. But this is actually an important part of her character, and a recurring theme in Tennessee Williams’s work. Blanche is a delicate, ethereal character who cannot survive in the world as it is. The realities of life repeatedly break her, until there’s nothing left to take from her and she is eventually driven mad. Blanche is so fragile that she cannot deal with the world as it really is – she cannot take control of her own life, so she makes a fantasy life that’s much more in line with how she thinks ought to be. This fantasy is the only thing she’s really in control of.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Blanche is a very cultured character – we know she enjoys music, dancing and poetry. It’s safe to assume that she enjoys all the pastimes of the ‘accomplished woman’, which I’ve touched on in various other posts.
Her beliefs are well-discussed in the play: she clings to old-fashioned ideas about chivalry and manners, expects people to show her a certain amount of deference and prefers fantasy to reality. She also firmly believes in her own little fantasy world, where she is a delicate Southern beauty, adored from all sides, and literally cannot face up to anything that punctures that illusion. Her goals are pretty clear too: she wants to get away from her past and to marry Mitch, even though he’s not everything she hoped for.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Blanche is a very consistent character. She’s charming, flirty, delicate, ethereal, sensitive and mostly kind, but she’s also a very traditional woman who’s so firmly entrenched in her fantasy world that she rarely sees things for how they actually are. She’s also quite spoiled and needs constant flattery to feel good about herself, and extremely concerned with her looks.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A fragile, flirty woman goes to stay with her sister when she loses the family home, and begins to lose her grip on reality.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
The question of Blanche’s love life is a little complicated. It’s certainly a central feature of her character, as she spends most of the play flirting with men and trying to get Mitch to propose to her. However, it’s also made very clear that this is the result of a pretty traumatic experience in her youth, when she discovered her young husband having a homosexual affair which ended up leading to his suicide.
Blanche’s relationships with men are pretty complicated. Two things are made clear in the play: that Blanche’s self-esteem is directly related to what men think of her and that her husband’s death has left a void, that she has tried to fill with meaningless sexual relationships, which may or may not include some sex work. So Blanche’s love life isn’t just about her wanting to find a boyfriend, it’s also a means to an end: it makes her feel better about herself, gives her confidence, and has become a kind of crutch for the grief she hasn’t really been able to deal with.
Even when she meets Mitch, it’s not a straightforward love story. Mitch is clearly enchanted by her, but the same cannot be said for Blanche. She likes him, but she does not love him. He is the only one of Stanley’s friends who is polite to her and expresses any kind of interest in culture, so she really just sees him as the best of a bad bunch. Mitch represents an escape: both from Blanche’s sordid past and from the explosive tension between her and Stanley. It’s not Mitch she really wants, it’s what he can bring her.
There’s no getting away from the fact that most of Blanche’s decisions are related to her love life. However, Blanche’s love life represents more than just her romantic feelings: it’s a chance to make a new life, a way of supporting her fragile self-esteem and a coping mechanism for her grief. Genuine feelings don’t really come into it. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Blanche does develop over the course of the play, but not in a positive way at all. Her tenuous grip on reality is finally shattered and she has a full nervous breakdown, leaving the last of her independence and sanity behind her. It’s not a nice development but it is a change in her character that’s well plotted out, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Blanche has plenty of weaknesses. She’s fickle, she’s manipulative, she’s a snob, she constantly resorts to sex and alcohol to deal with her problems – Blanche has weaknesses in spades. But her biggest weakness is her inability to face up to reality. She constructs an elaborate fantasy world around herself, filled with rich Southern gentlemen coming to take her away, and is so convinced that it is real that pointing out the truth is almost painful to her.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Blanche is an influence on the plot. It’s not always her actions that drive it forward, but it is certainly the decisions she makes in her relationships. The way she treats the other characters in particular is a real influence on the action, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
At first glance you might think that Blanche is the typical Southern belle – very prim and proper, and hung up on the idea of class and Southern manners. However, as the play goes on it becomes clear that this is only what she wants to be, rather than what she is. The result is a kind of tragic subversion of the trope which leaves the audience with conflicting impressions of her.
For example: Blanche is a fickle, flighty and flirty woman who manipulates men into doing what she wants, needs compliments in order to feel good about herself and spends most of the play fussing about her appearance. However, this masks a plethora of insecurities – about her looks, about ending up alone and friendless, and about her identity as a woman – which gradually becomes visible as the play goes on. She comes across as a demure lady, shy and retiring when a man starts putting the moves on her – but she is actually very promiscuous, and only acts this way because she wants a real relationship and not a meaningless fling. She’s the epitome of a high-class heiress from old money – but all the money is gone, she’s been driven out of her hometown after her various sexual escapades, and the audience doesn’t know if all the millionaires she name-drops are even real.
Blanche is a character that uses gender stereotypes to prop up her flagging self-esteem. She’s incredibly insecure and really leans in to the idea of the ‘delicate Southern belle’ in order to feel good about herself. She has an idea of what she should be – but that’s not what she is. This is just another aspect of Blanche’s mental instability, but it also ties into the pay’s commentary on the toxic nature of gender stereotypes. Williams makes much of the destructive nature of the hyper-masculine Stanley, and goes to great lengths to show the damage this can cause, but Blanche can just as easily be held up as an attempt to showcase how feminine gender stereotypes can be. Instead of accepting that she is a woman who enjoys sex and drinking, she insists that she is a proper lady who would never dream of such things, even while she’s doing them. In attempting to hold herself up to these beliefs, Blanche is tearing a hole through her self-esteem and spinning out a web of denial – which she can’t help but be caught in.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Blanche doesn’t really relate to many other female characters. We only see her interact with two: her sister, Stella, and Eunice, Stella’s neighbour. Her relationship with Eunice is nothing more than cordial, although Eunice does help her when she’s being taken to the mental hospital. It’s her relationship with Stella that has the real meat to it, with both of them reconciling themselves with the loss of their family home and Stanley’s aggressive presence.
Stella and Blanche have a very complicated relationship. They love each other but are so fundamentally different that there’s a gulf between them. Stella waits on Blanche hand and foot, but ultimately chooses to believe Stanley over her when he rapes Blanche; Blanche is concerned for Stella’s welfare, as Stanley is a textbook domestic abuser, but can’t understand that Stella actually wants to stay with him. Eventually, Stella’s rejection of her sister pretty much severs their relationship, as Blanche has completely snapped. When she decides to commit Blanche to a mental hospital she will never see her again – mental healthcare wasn’t great, and even if Stella did see her sister again she certainly wouldn’t be the same Blanche, as it’s highly likely that she would have been lobotomised.
However, while this relationship is very complicated, nuanced and symbolic of all sorts of different things, it is ultimately the only significant relationship Blanche has with another female character, so she can never ace this round.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
Blanche is a well-rounded character with clear beliefs and goals, strengths and weaknesses who influences the plot and has a complex relationship to gender stereotypes. She isn’t really in control of her own destiny and her decisions do revolve around her love life, but that’s enough for her to pass my test.
Next week, I’ll be looking at another Disney character – one of my favourites, in fact. Mulan, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.