The brutality and inescapability of oppression is a dominanttheme in literature as it is a key theme presented in A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams calls for the reform of socialconstructs such as patriarchy in this play and brings to light modes of oppressionin society, these include the physical and psychological brutality ofoppression as well as the conformity and potential for escape.The crescendo of violence in A Streetcar Named Desire portrays the physical brutality ofoppression. The build-up of violence begins when Stanley “heaves the package”1of meat at Stella in scene one. Even though this action is small and could beseen as insignificant, it gives the reader an insight into Stanley’s characteras he appears careless but the little acts of physical violence add up toStanley’s ultimate act of physical brutality at the end. Another time Stanleyis physically violent is when he “gives a loud whack of his hand”1on Stella’s thigh in scene 3. Stanley is acting as though he owns his wife bythe sexually possessive action of striking her thigh and treating her the wayhe wants to.
His male dominance is reinforced by Stella’s ineffective response,she says “sharply: that’s not fun, Stanley,”1 while the laughter ofthe other men at the table that follows, only serves to further emphasise thepassive role of women in the play. Yet, this was nothing compared to thephysical violence Stella faced later on in this scene. Stanley’s pent up angerand irritation in this scene was soon released with the “sound of a blow”1and then it was obvious to the audience that the recipient was Stellafrom the fact that “Stella cries out”1 in the stage directions thatresult in the blow. This act of violence not only exposes Stanley’s truecharacter to the audience but it also reveals the downside to the livelyvibrant life that was created by the atmosphere of the seemingly liberated NewOrleans in the first scene. Therefore, Williams is highlighting that NewOrleans is not what it seems and there are underlying problems such as thefrequent violence and this foreshadows the violence that will continue throughout the playconcluding in the rape of Blanche.
However, some critics argue that Stanley isnot cruel or violent and that the rape resulted from “Blanche’s licentiousprovocation”2.This critic puts the blame on Blanche stating that she provoked Stanley to rapeher. There is clear evidence that Stanley is violent especially towards Stellaand even the rape itself is cruel and violent.
Stanley is presented as cruelthrough his psychological brutality. As soon as Stanley finds out the ‘truth’about Blanche he proceeds to torment her for the rest of the play which leadsher to insanity at the end of the play. His desire in finding out the truthstems from his mask of false virtue. In scene three this is evident when hesearched through Blanches belongings after Stella told him about Belle Reve.After assuming that Blanche sold it off, he uses the “Napoleonic code”1to act as though he is protecting Stella from being “swindled”1 byher sister. However, the Napoleonic code favours him as he would get the moneyand so Stanley is using this code to assert his patriarchal power over Stellato claim Belle Reve as his own.
So, whenStella is presented as the voice of compassion by Williams as she explains thatthe “diamonds”1 on Blanches “crown”1 (as Stanley states)are actually “rhinestones”1 on a “tiara”1, Stanley doesnot want to believe this as it would go against his fantasies. Yet again, inscene 5, Stanley acts as though he is trying to find out the truth aboutBlanche by mentioning “hotel Flamingo”1, when what he really wantedto do was shame her and get revenge on her to uphold his male dominance. Theaudience are immediately made to feel sympathy for Blanche by Williams’ use ofdramatic irony. The fact that Stanley now knows what the audience already knew,Blanche used to be a prostitute, makes the audience feel dread as we know thatStanley would use this information to harm her. Stanley only seeks factualtruths rather than the psychological truth which is why, unlike the audience,he is unable to understand her. Williams is suggesting through Stanley that”all cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness”3. Stanley is not honestbecause if he was then he would tell the whole truth and not only get factsfrom other sources but also from Blanche herself. This can be seen in sceneseven when he tells Stella about Blanche being a prostitute and getting “mixedup”1 with a seventeen-year-old boy.
As Stanley did not state thatthe only reason that happened was because Blanche was going through the traumaof her husband’s death that happened when he was around that boy’s age, showsthat he was not telling Stella this out of his need of being truthful. This wasalso the case when he told Mitch this information, Stanley was acting as thoughhe was being a good friend when in fact he only told Mitch to ruin Blanche’slife with her one chance at happiness.This brutality and oppression isonly strengthened by the conformity of the characters in the play and insociety as well which is what makes it inescapable. This conformity is seenafter Stella is beaten by Stanley and the men are calm about it as if it is notout of the ordinary. Also, Eunice points out that this is not the first timeStanley has done this to Stella as she says that she hopes he gets locked up”same as last time”1. This indicates that the violence isreoccurring and happens often. Even though this is the case, the scene endswith Stella going back to Stanley with her eyes going “blind with tenderness”1.This suggests that the only reason it is reoccurring is because she allows ithappen and forgives him straight-away.
The scene that follows this scene (scene4) only further highlights this as Stella reminisces her wedding day whenStanley smashed all the light bulbs. She normalises his violence by tellingBlanche that she was “thrilled by it”1. By doing this, Stella excuses her oppressorand thus conforms to the oppression while allowing it to become a social norm.
In scene nine Mitch also conforms to these societal norms as he begins to actlike Stanley when he finds out that Blanche was a prostitute. Mitch no longerhas psychological truth but “just realistic”1 truths, so he isunable to be compassionate towards Blanche when he hears about the death of herhusband. Some critics believe that Blanche “delights” in “mocking”4 Mitch while he is unableto understand why she became a prostitute.
However, this is not true becauseBlanche does not “delight” in explaining herself to Mitch. In fact, she feelsdisappointed in him for choosing to conform to the patriarchy. Lastly, in sceneeleven, Stella again conforms to the oppression when she says that she”couldn’t”1 believe Blanche about being raped and “go on living withStanley”1. Eunice reinforces this conformity by telling her to not”ever” believe it as “life has to go on”1. This shows that life forthese women is to live under the patriarchal rule even though there is anawareness of being powerless, they are forced to conform. This is part of thecycle of their lives and there is nothing the women can do about it.
Contrastingly, there areelements in the play where there is potential for the escape from oppression.This was first seen in Blanche as she did not conform to the oppression aroundher. She knew that it was the fault of the men and their “epic fornications”1that resulted in the loss of Belle Reve. Through Blanche, Williams iscriticising patriarchy as in scene 2 Stanley seeks to find out the truth aboutBelle Reve and when Blanche reveals it to him he dismisses it. Blanche is ableto show awareness of oppression as Williams establishes her as the truthteller. Williams shows that oppression is escapable as long as you have thecritical insight and are able to expose it for what it is. Blanche is able tobreak away from the social norms that make being homosexual a crime. As sherecounts her husband’s death in scene six to Mitch, she shows remorse fortelling her husband, “You disgust me”1 after finding out that he washomosexual.
The fact she felt guilt shows that she changed due to the death ofher husband and no longer follows the social norms of the Antebellum south.Some critics believe that Blanche tells Mitch this revelation because he is”dull and simple”5and she feels sorry for him. However, this is not the case, she tells Mitchbecause she values sincerity just as much as he does. Just like Blanche, Mitchis also escaping from the patriarchal society because in the beginning of theplay he shows that he has psychological truth which allows him to understandand sympathise with Blanche. Even though in scene nine Mitch lost thispsychological truth he regained it in scene eleven when he blamed Stanley andhis “god damn interfering with things”1 on Blanche’s insanity.Williams decides to return Mitch to his compassion as his message to theaudience and society is that there is still hope for change, Mitch representsthis change.
Williams calls for “the crying, screaming need of a greatworldwide human effort to know ourselves and each other a great deal better…”6. This would help societyescape from the patriarchal oppression. Based on the ideas presented inthis essay it is clear that the brutality and inescapability of oppression is adominant theme in literature.
In AStreetcar Named Desire the physical brutality of oppression is apparentthrough the character of Stanley who uses his male dominance as a way to beviolent towards the female characters. The crescendo of violence is at firstminute but it develops when Stanley hits Stella and then results in the rape ofBlanche. The psychological brutality is seen through Stanley’s mask of falsevirtue were he seemingly appears to seek the truth but when he is given the truthhe dismisses it.
Stanley only wants the truth where he exposes Blanche forbeing a prostitute and uses this to shame her instead of finding out thepsychological truth about why she became a prostitute. This brutality isreinforced by the female characters conforming to the oppression. Deeming thepatriarchal oppression as the natural cycle of life.
However, Williams makes itclear to the audience that there is potential for change through the charactersof Mitch and Blanche who challenge patriarchal oppression. 1Williams, Tennessee, A Streetcar NamedDesire (Penguin Modern Classics,2009)2Ruby Cohn in Bak, J.S. ‘Criticism on A Streetcar Named Desire: A BibliographicSurvey, 1947 – 2003’ , www.cercles.comCercles 10 (2004)3Tennessee Williams – New York Times – 19754George Hovis – The Mask of the southern Belle: Modern Critical Views – 20075George Hovis – The Mask of the southern Belle: Modern Critical Views – 2007: p178 6Tennessee Williams – ‘The World I Live In’, London Observer, 1957