Southern Gothic and A Streetcar Named Desire
Southern literature was once dominated by characters that were merely stereotypes. The works thrived off of the use of southern belles and gentlemen. This limited the dynamic of the works, however; because there was only so much that could be done with characters that were predictable. In the late 1800s, authors began to use characters of Gothic archetypes in their Southern works, creating the sub-genre of Southern Gothic literature. Tennessee Williams is one author that exemplifies this style in his works. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams illustrates Southern Gothic literature through his portrayal of Blanche DuBois as a grotesque personality which she exemplifies through her self-righteousness, mental disease and her standing in society.
A grotesque character is often a key component of a Southern Gothic work. They give the author a more dynamic way of exploring the unpleasant characteristics of Southern Culture. One of the ways that Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire exemplifies the grotesque is through her self-righteousness. Throughout the play, she displays an elitist attitude through her relations with Stanley and Stella Kowalski. One of the first things that Blanche says to Stella when they are reunited is “I thought you would never come back to this horrible place!” (11). Through saying this, she is expressing her disgust at Stella’s small apartment in New Orleans, which she believes is below her because of all of the time she spent living on the plantation Belle Reve. Later in the play, Blanche tells Stella “There’s something downright—bestial—about him!” (82) when describing Stanley. This is another instance of Blanche acting with self-righteousness. She believes that she is far above Stanley and that he is a beast to her in comparison. Blanche’s self-righteousness is only one aspect of her personality that makes her exemplify the grotesque character in Southern Gothic literature.
Blanche also conveys the grotesque Southern Gothic character through her mental disease. There are various instances of her delusion and disturbed personality throughout the play. It is made clear that she is damaged not only through her past with Allan, but also through what happened at the plantation. The way she discusses these events gives insight onto how much they harmed her. When describing what happened at the plantation, she says “I, I, I took the blows in my face and my body! All of those deaths! The long parades to the graveyard! Father, mother! Margaret, the dreadful way!” (21). This displays how much of an affect the deaths at the plantation had on her, as each death directly impacted her emotionally and financially. This continues when Blanche describes what happened to Allan and says “And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that’s stronger than this—kitchen—candle. . .” (115). This statement conveys how lost Allan’s death had made her. Her love for him was as strong as a searchlight and after what happened, all of that was lost. His suicide, and her guilt surrounding it, is one of the factors that created her disturbed personality in combination with experiencing all of her family deaths. These events also create the aspect of the Southern Gothic grotesque character that makes readers possibly empathize with her.
Blanche DuBois is not only a grotesque character through her self-righteousness and mental instability, but because of her standing in society, also. The Southern Gothic grotesque character does not fit into their society, and in Blanche’s case, gossip is part of that reason. She does not belong in New Orleans partly because of her upbringing in the plantation lifestyle. She is also rejected by this society because of the rumors that are spread about her. Stanley instantly does not like Blanche because he believes that she sold Belle Reve for material items. Later in the play, he states “This somebody named Shaw is under the impression he met you in Laurel, but I figure he must have got you mixed up with some other party because this party is someone he met at a hotel called the Flamingo” (89). This begins the rumors of Blanche’s promiscuous past. These rumors not only make her even more rejected by Stanley, but also rejected by Stella and finally by Mitch. Once Stanley tells Mitch this rumor, he stops seeing Blanche and later when she tells him to marry her, he responds with “I don’t think I want to marry you anymore. You’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother” (150). These rumors make Blanche rejected by the only people she has left in her life, which furthermore adds to her losses and places an even greater toll on her mental stability.
Tennessee Williams illustrates Southern Gothic literature through his portrayal of Blanche DuBois. She exemplifies the grotesque character through her self-righteousness, mental instability, and through being rejected by society. These three factors create a flawed character that can still manage to evoke pity, if not empathy, from readers. As Gothic Literature is used to easily convey criticisms, it can be said that Blanche DuBois also is a criticism of the need for illusion instead of reality.