Our first submission responding to A Streetcar Named Desire, Lisabelle Tan’s Flitting Across Leaky Roofs Real and Imaginary is a critical essay (written closer to the A Level format) that traverses the interrelation between setting and character in Tennessee Williams’ play. As Tan alternates her compact analysis between starting from the environment of Elysian Fields and Belle Reve and its effects on characters, and starting from the character of Blanche and how she seeks to mark new possibilities within and without familiar spaces, the open-ended questions and final comments gesture toward further points of engagement, further leaky roofs to flit towards.
“Either we create our environment or it will create us.” Discuss the significance of place and setting in A Streetcar Named Desire.
The spectrum of settings present in A Streetcar Named Desire (ASND) has several significances. The sheer multiplicity suggests that there is no one definite sanctuary to root oneself to, and characters like Blanche are compelled to frenetically flit from one “leaky roof” to another for self-preservation. Also, there are two distinct categories of settings – real and imaginary – and in some instances, the imaginary is imposed on the real as an alternative dimension of reality created by characters. While imaginary settings are indistinct blurs either rooted in memory or conjured up by distorted perceptions, the ‘real’ settings are all too tangible in its squalor and sensuousness that they seem to encapsulate the wretched human condition that afflicts most of the characters in the play – one in which death and desire are inextricable from. In this sense, it could be said that people, by injecting humanness into otherwise inanimate environments, create both real and imaginary settings. The reverse also holds true, for environments can activate and extract definite characteristics of people that might otherwise merely remain dormant in a different context.
The environment of Elysian Fields and Belle Reve both strike an uncanny parallel to their inhabitants, illustrating how people and their surroundings can simultaneously define each other. Elysian Fields consists of opposing elements, for it is where the squalid physical environment coexists with hedonistic luxury, evident in the lives of its inhabitants. Although the “section is poor”, Elysian Fields exudes a “raffish charm”, and despite the derelict state of houses “weathered grey”, there is “a kind of lyricism” in “the atmosphere of decay”, and Elysian Fields brims with the vigor of life, the “infatuated fluency” of the “spirit of life”, clearly counterbalancing decay with life, vitality. This mirrors the paradoxical natures of characters, as well as their relationships with each other. Stanley can demonstrate physical vigor, “(stalking) fiercely” and “(charging) after” Stella at one moment, and yet “(fall) on his knees” before her not long after, illustrating his emotional vulnerability and disintegration. Although the spirit of life may tinge the marriages between Stella and Stanley, Eunice and Steve, with decay, resulting in violent falling outs, the very same spirit of life injects “colored lights”, a metaphor for sexual passion, to sustain their relationships.
Belle Reve, on the other hand, French for “beautiful dream” stands for the fast disintegrating illusion of the Old South and its charm. It seems like the inhabitants of Belle Reve embody the fading of the ideal with their passings, the “long parade to the graveyard”, corresponding to how the South’s charm is being whittled away gradually to reveal the squalor beneath its charm, the skeletons in the ancestral history full of “epic fornications”. Blanche is a manifestation of Belle Reve for she has her Southern Belle mask cruelly torn off to expose her own “epic fornications”, her “many intimacies with strangers”, the parallelism to the fate of Belle Reve pointing to the imminence and inevitability of the ultimately tragic fate that she must endure. Here the people and their surroundings mirror each other, attesting to their interlinked relationship.
Being so much of a reflection of the characters’ selves, the surroundings in ASND seem to carve and confer identities upon its inhabitants. The Kowalskis’ domestic space is transformed into masculine territory on poker nights, the striking “lurid nocturnal brilliance” of the atmosphere being a manifestation of their masculinity. Stanley, the man of the house, then seeks to flaunt his supremacy as “richly feathered male” among the inferior female “hens”, as well as to demonstrate superiority over his friends such as the effeminate Mitch. The setting then empowers him with the affirmation that he is the unrivalled alpha male in his territory. Likewise, Blanche is being deemed an outsider in Elysian Fields based on how utterly “incongruous to the setting” she is, not only in terms of delicate appearance, but also in her deceit and “tarantula” web of lies in a place that prizes simple, upfront instincts. Unlike how Stanley can successfully claim ownership over the place he deems to be his territory, Blanche is treading on thin ice, for she is regarded to be an intruder encroaching into the very same space, where she knows she is “not wanted and where (she is) ashamed to be”, the very denial to access or assimilate into the surroundings immediately relegate her to the margins of society. Yet are the moments where Blanche also views herself as superior to her environment? Moreover, in considering Stanley’s ethnicity and social class, could it be that he creates the environment or is it the other way round?
Faced with such hostile environments, characters like Blanche may choose to create a space in which they are not excluded from, a semblance of a sanctuary. Blanche seeks to redefine the hostile environment of Stanley’s territory – his house. She occupies the bathroom for extended periods of time and the bathroom functions as a space for Blanche to feed her fantasies, and bathing, akin to a baptismal rite to sanctify herself from her sordid past of “many intimacies with strangers”. Blanche stakes her claim over the bathroom which is a part of the “Barnum and Bailey” world she retreats to, in which she happily deludes herself that her fantasies are real, it “wouldn’t be made-believe” for people “believed in (her)”, all the while singing with the insouciance of a “child…frolicking in the tub”. Blanche also tries to recreate the hostile environment that threatens her, and admittedly, she has “done so much with (the Kowalski house) since (she has) been here”, masking the banality and squalor of life with pretensions to aristocracy, “sprink(ling) the place with powder and (spraying) perfume”, transforming Stanley and Stella’s humble abode into a product of her fantasies. Blanche has tried to exert control over the surroundings that threaten to stifle and oppress her, and she temporarily succeeds into transforming it “into Egypt”, a territory that she, “Queen of the Nile”, can now claim to be hers. Blanche then creates settings that accommodate her, through skillful distortion and wresting territorial claim from Stanley. Yet is such manipulation of her environment ultimately short-lived and futile? While Blanche is very much a romantic idealist, how could we contrast Stella with Blanche in her interaction with their environment?
Lastly, the transition, or movement from one place to another also has its significance for it creates a new possibility, a new pathway for characters to embark on. This is especially relevant for Blanche who is evicted from the Kowalski household and Elysian Fields and packed off to an asylum. Blanche’s natural tendency to flit from “one leaky roof to another” is telling of her inability to assimilate into her surroundings, be it in Laurel of Elysian Fields. It is the environments’ very rejection of Blanche that destroys her, making her “crumble and fade”, and seek to recreate and reinvent herself in another place, “Elysian Fields”, which seems promising, an Edenic sanctuary but yet again cruelly deny her a place in society. Hence Blanche’s eventual acquiesce to leave the Kowalski home marks a new possibility, that she could “depend on the kindness of strangers” once more to lead her to a new sanctuary, a new life blanched of the stains of her past.
AFI (Areas for Improvement):
“Could extend analysis further to examine more closely the interactions of both Stella and Stanley with their environment and the deeper underlying significance present.”
LISABELLE TAN is an English Literature student perpetually enrolled in the schugh of hard knocks. She likes exquisitely crafted Japanese Literature, and considers Yoko Ogawa and Banana Yoshimoto among her favourites. Apart from being a frenetic freeter, she dabbles in poetry. Her poetry has been exhibited at The Arts House and published in NUS Margins.
Photo credit: Victoria Lee