Biljana Oklopčić is senior lecturer at the Department of Foreign Languages, University of Osijek, Croatia. She has a PhD degree in American literature. Email:
In his essentially Southern play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams observes a uniquely Southern phenomenon: the Southern belle. In scene seven of the play Stella Kowalski says the following: “…you’ve got to realize that Blanche and I grew up under very different circumstances than you did” (Williams, 99). With this sentence Williams introduces a possible starting point for an analysis of the Southern belle myth. The figure of the Southern belle is founded on a canonized discourse, resting on a cultural and social personification – a description, a code, a stereotype – which legitimizes and authorizes the interpretation of culture and nature, masculinity and femininity, superiority and inferiority, power and subordination. In other words, the Southern belle stereotype is based on a fear that women “might escape the rule of the patriarchy, that the oppositions of white/black, master/slave, lady/whore, even male/female might collapse into an anarchic conflagration threatening to bring down the symbolic order” (Roberts, xii). Additionally, this Southern woman stereotype is both a literature-generating principle, often supporting the very concept of Southern fiction, and a social construct, supporting the writing of Southern history and culture. In both cases it has to be read “against the South that created [it] for different social purposes, or reinvented [it] at crucial moments in history” (Roberts, xii) providing insight “into anxieties and aspirations of the culture” (Roberts, xii).
Before I show how Williams approached this myth in his A Streetcar Named Desire, a few remarks about the appearance, development and ‘purpose’ of the Southern belle stereotype are in order. First, its appearance was tied to the Southern antebellum chivalry and masculinity code origin of which can be looked for in attempts to preserve English moral standards in the U.S. South. They, based on the Victorian model of a woman as an angel in house as well as on the small number of upper class women who were, thereby, considered “custodians of culture” (Bartlett and Cambor, 11), confirmed and authorized the hyperevaluation of upper class Southern women.
Second, the Southern belle stereotype rested on a set of very strict class, race and gender traits. Drawing on this statement, it went without saying that the belle was white and of aristocratic origin. She was lively, little bit vain, rather naïve and “had few tasks other than to be obedient, to ride, to sew, and perhaps to learn reading and writing” (Seidel, 6). Since courtship, innocent romances, and, consequently, marriage were considered to be the highest aspirations of her life, the belle’s energies and skills were mainly directed to finding and marrying real Southern gentleman. And “if she was pretty and charming and thus could participate in the process of husband-getting, so much the better” (Seidel, 6). The act of marriage gave this stereotype something new – the aura of legal commitment; it consequently transformed her into a “hardworking matron who was supervisor of the plantation, nurse, and mother” (Seidel, 6).
Third, the purpose of this Southern woman stereotype was justified upon, at least, three premises. It was, to begin with, a compensation for gender devaluation which began practically with the belle’s birth, when her mother ‘handed her over’ to mammy, and continued during her childhood and youth. This placed the belle in a kind of limbo: just as her mother was forced to accept the cultural role which denied her sexual and maternal identity, so too the belle had to deny her sexuality and, at the same time, perform passion without taking part in it. As one would expect, the construction of Southern bellehood had its racial background which was tied to sexual exploitation of African American women legalized by the institution of slavery and Jim Crow legislation. Their very presence paid homage to white upper class woman as a person who legitimately preserved white superiority since her racial ‘purity’ guaranteed her inaccessibility to inferior races and classes of men. Further investigation helps to reveal how the divinization process of white Southern upper class woman resulted in her identification with the U. S. South itself. The attacks on Southern way of life were thus interpreted as the attacks on the honor and integrity of its greatest ornament – white Southern upper class woman. Lastly, partaking in the construction of this Southern woman stereotype was a matter of prestige. Even though Southern upper class women had many reasons for abolition of slavery – sexual transgressions of their fiancées, husbands, fathers and brothers, isolation on plantations, problems in managing slaves and servants, supervision of agricultural production, dealing with slave insurrections in absence of their husbands, fathers or brothers, and were, on the other hand, attributed chastity, gentleness, compassion – virtues that corresponded to abolitionist rather than proslavery movement, they did not rebel, they did not subvert or transgress the prescribed codes of behavior. They remained loyal to the institution of slavery and Southern social system and, as a consequence, ‘earned’ the pedestal they were put on.
Challenges to this viewpoint began to appear during the Civil War. It, by contrast, put emphasis on the belle’s determinacy, strength, and inventiveness. During the period of Reconstruction and the New South “the terror of losing jurisdiction over women’s bodies created discourses of nostalgia and threat” (Roberts, 104) and transformed the belle’s suffering into that of the U. S. South. She represented the symbol of the U. S. South and one of the most important constructs of Southern mythology. During and after the 1920s, owing to changed economic, political, and social situation which allowed women, even in the U. S. South, to vote, work, get educated and, consequently, enjoy greater financial and personal independence, a new discursive space on the meaning of the Southern belle mythology was opened. It, for sure, rested on criticism and judgment rather than on eulogies. The Southern belle was now used to demythologize Southern myths since the virtues she should have been the embodiment of – beauty, passivity, submissiveness, virginity, and asexuality – proved to be the unstable and destructive property. Quite specifically, it was then asserted that
society’s emphasis on the beauty of the belle can produce a selfishness and narcissism that cause her to ignore the development of positive aspects of her personality. Taught to see herself as a beautiful object, the belle accentuates only her appearance and is not concerned with any talents that do not contribute to the goal her society has chosen for her: winning a man. (…) The sheltering of the belle leads to a harmful innocence: she cannot adequately interpret the behavior of men who do not believe in the code of southern chivalry that respects the purity of women. Moreover, (…) the repression required by the ‘ethic of purity’ which leads to a variety of physical and mental disorders, including frigidity and exaggerated subservience [is also condemned]. (Seidel, 32)
My point in citing Kathryn Lee Seidel at length here is not simply to draw attention to the subversion of the old stereotype, but to emphasize the fact that these changes did not automatically mean the inauguration of the Southern anti-belle. This was mainly possible because deeply rooted prejudices concerning women’s behavior were still the part of Southern culture. In sum, even “though southern women might be no longer queens and saints, they were not allowed to be ‘flesh and blood’ humans either” (Roberts, 109). The failure to respect the prescriptive code of behavior usually implied some kind of punishment – hysteria, madness, rape, losing social privileges, or death.
As a Southerner, Williams could not resist the influence of values, myths and images of his birth-place. He, however, tried to redefine them by negotiating them through the subversive potential of the Southern women/men stereotypes and the prescriptive rhetoric of Southern cultural codes they assert once they are separated from its institutional binding. His A Streetcar Named Desire is, for sure, a perfect example of this, for at its center is Blanche DuBois. Through this woman character, Williams appears to celebrate the gentility and sensitivity of the Old South as well as the Southern belle as its greatest ornament. But, as the representative of Southern Renaissance, he himself is ambivalent as well as suspicious about the possibility of the belle’s permanent affirmation in the modern world. As if to clarify this point, Williams portrays Blanche as the last representative of the old aristocracy who tries to survive in the modern world by escaping to alcohol, madness, promiscuity and whose memories are bitter since they are burdened by racial and sexual sins of her ancestors.
From the very outset of the play, Blanche is seen as affirmation and subversion, symbol and antithesis of the Southern belle stereotype. This conflict of opposing principles begins with her name which Blanche explains as follows: “It’s a French name. It means woods and Blanche means white, so the two together mean white woods. Like an orchard in spring!” (Williams, 54-55). The connotative value of this naming act has an exciting importance for it puts emphasis on, at least, two aspects of the (demythologized) Southern myth. It connects, on the one hand, Blanche’s French, colonial and aristocratic origin, or, at least, what has remained of it, with the antebellum U. S. South and, consequently, with the idea of Southern gentility and chivalry (this particular idea was introduced by the first colonists who were either of aristocratic origin or earned this status in their community; this, in turn, helped to establish the metaphor of the US as Europe’s noble heiress). Blanche’s name, on the other hand, reveals what is hidden between the lines: centuries and generations of moral and physical corruption and degeneracy of both her aristocratic family and the U. S. South itself. Another interpretative possibility, which again underlines conflicting nature of Blanche’s identity, sets forth her name as the conflict of binaries – body and mind, nature and culture. Her name, which means both ‘white’ and ‘blank’ and thus connotes the virginity of female body “predetermined to succumb to inscription” (Vlasopolos, 326) in the tabula rasa manner, refers to body and nature, or the female binary, and defines her as the belle. Her family name, meaning ‘woods’ and consequently referring to papers and pencils (keep in mind that Blanche is a teacher and actually needs these stationery in her job), i.e. intellectual activities, introduces the idea of mind and culture, or the male binary, and places her in the exclusively anti-belle context. Similar reading of Blanche’s name, combining connotations of the lost physical virginity and the “beauty of the mind and richness of the spirit” (Williams, 126), offers Bert Cardullo in his paper “Scene 11 of A Streetcar Named Desire,” where the duality of Blanche’s name is explained with the help of the New Testament symbolism. Cardullo thus argues that
her name links her not only to the purity of the Virgin Mary, but also to the reclaimed innocence of Mary Magdalene, who was cured of her sexual waywardness by Jesus (just as Blanche was suddenly cured of hers when she remarked to Mitch, ‘Sometimes – there is God – so quickly!’. (Cardullo, 96)
The duality of Blanche’s personality, indicated by the linguistic polysemy of her name, continues by opening a discursive space on the possible existence of two Blanches: the one is the ‘passive-submissive’ Blanche who, as such, is the embodiment, and the symbol, of the Southern bellehood; the other is the ‘victimized’ Blanche who, by subverting the each and every trait of the Southern bellehood, becomes its antithesis. As one would expect, both performances are founded on a set of distinctive characteristics, features, and situations which throw new light on the existing debate. Drawing on that approach, Blanche’s partaking in the Southern belle performance is supported by several factors. Firstly and most obviously, Blanche’s plantation origin marks her inescapably as the Southern aristocrat. Secondly, Blanche is brought up in the Southern tradition of idealization of woman’s beauty. She perceives herself as a beautiful object which has to be properly decorated in order to sell well. As such, Blanche depends heavily on exterior beauty markers – dresses, hats, jewelry, perfumes, and cosmetics which are, in her brother-in-laws’s discourse, magnified into “solid-gold dress[es,] (…) genuine fox fur-pieces, (…) pearls, bracelets of solid gold, (…) and diamonds” (Williams, 35-36). These things, even though cheap and artificial, represent Blanche’s only inheritance and Blanche’s only future insurance; they remind her of the life she used to live. Thirdly, Blanche is educated. Blanche’s participation in education process foregrounds the idea of the time that college education presented “proper youthful behavior for a young woman [and] a pleasant interlude on the way to growing up” (Graham, 770-7719) insofar as it was percieved as “an asset in the marriage market” (Jabour, 40) and “the final polish necessary to gentility” (Jabour, 40). So judged, it is then not surprising that Blanche was somehow predestined to choose liberal arts, study English and “teach high school to instill a bunch of bobby-soxers and drug-store Romeos with reverence for Hawthorne and Whitman and Poe!” (Williams, 56). Access to education, on the other hand, gave Blanche the opportunity to cultivate sophisticated way of speaking and behaving; it allowed her to understand the life as ‘poetry’ in Southern plantation myth manner.
Further investigation helps to reveal how Blanche’s arrival at her sister’s home in New Orleans, her insisting on staying there – “I guess you’re hoping I’ll say I’ll put up at a hotel, but I’m not going to put up at a hotel. I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I can’t be alone!” (Williams, 23) – announces “her basic motive: need for refuge and desire for human contact” (Hardison Londre, 52), need for protection which, in the tradition of the Old South, had to be through another person, through family. In much the same way Blanche clings to the antebellum chivalry codes which obliged men to protect women in return for their contribution to cultural and social capital, their attention, love and, of course, wealth. She thus, in the tradition of the antebellum Southern belle, tries to ‘save’ herself and her sister Stella from inappropriate way of life at Stanley’s home by looking for protection in another man – her former beau Shep Huntleigh. Blanche’s behavior can be understood as “reflexive reversion to the Southern belle’s habits of thought – that is, emotional dependence on a patriarchal system of male protection for the helpless female – just moments after she had said, “I’m going to do something. Get hold of myself and make myself a new life!” (313) (Hardison Londre, 56). This particular pattern of Blanche’s behavior occurs repeatedly during the play and culminates in the last scene when Doctor and Matron come to take her to asylum. In order to avoid humiliation and save her dignity, she once again plays the role of the helpless but flirtatious Southern belle and treats Doctor as a gentleman who knows how to protect and behave to a lady in distress.
One final point. Blanche’s relationship with Stanley once again ties her to the antebellum period when the principle of noblesse oblige promoted patronizing relationship between upper and lower classes and races in the U. S. South. She behaves to Stanley as “the aristocrat who condescends to the plebeian when she is not actually scorning him. This is compulsive conduct on her part, because she must feel superior to her sister’s husband if she is not to feel inferior in view of her helplessness” (Gassner, 375). The extreme polarization of relationship between Blanche and Stanley could also be read as a “critical struggle between [two different] ways of life” (Jackson, 59) – as the struggle between Blanche’s traditional, civilized, artistic, and spiritual self and Stanley’s modern, primitive, physical, and animalistic other. Blanche, by finding additional support for her point of view in science – biology, anthropology, history, even verbalizes this struggle:
He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There’s even something – sub-human – something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something – ape-like about him, like one of those pictures I’ve seen in – anthropological studies! Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is – Stanley Kowalski – survivor of the stone age! Bearing the raw meat from the kill in the jungle! And you – you here – waiting for him! Maybe he’ll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you! That is, if kisses have been discovered yet! Night falls and the other apes gather! There in front of the cave, all grunting like him, and swilling and gnawing and hulking! His poker night! – you call it – this party of apes! Somebody growls – some creature snatches at something – the fight is on! God! Maybe we are a long way from being made in God’s image, but Stella – my sister – there has been some progress since then! Such things as art – as poetry and music – such kinds of new light have come into the world since then! In some kinds of people some tender feelings have had some little beginning! That we have got to make grow! And cling to, and hold as our flag! In this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching … Don’t – don’t hang back with the brutes! (Williams, 72)
Their conflict, or, it is tempting to claim, the struggle over authority in the house, culminates in Stanley’s rape of Blanche. The very act of the rape, which Stanley rationalizes by his famous line: “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning” (Williams, 130), is also fueled by Blanche’s refusal “to become the woman in the traveling-salesman joke, the stereotype of the nymphomaniacal upper-class girl” (Vlasopolos, 333). It, once again, demonstrates convincingly the victory of primitive over civilized, physical over spiritual, male over female…
Just as some aspects of Blanche’s personality pay homage to the concept of the Southern bellehood, so too there are other aspects of her personality that can be read against the culture which created them and reinvented them when it had found this necessary. Such reading introduces Blanche as the woman who defies to be classified as the “active property shaping the social and sexual relations” (Van Duyvenbode, 208) in the U. S. South and “shatter[s] the stereotypic chaste heroine/whore dichotomy to show women in their complexity” (Hale, 22). It also offers a new, rather different, image of Blanche as it portraits her as a victim and a potential subversive female force in the play. To discover it one has to discuss factors, features and characteristics that promoted this shift in Blanche’s character.
The ground from which we need to begin is to investigate the origin, or perhaps the reason, of Blanche’s victimization. A possible starting point for this investigation can be found in Joseph N. Riddel’s paper, “A Streetcar Named Desire – Nietzsche Descending.” Riddel thus argues that Blanche’s life could be seen as a reflection of “living division of two warring principles, desire and decorum, and she is the victim of civilization’s attempt to reconcile the two in a morality” (Riddel, 17). In other words, Blanche’s past, as well as her present, is a mixture of sin and romanticism, reality and illusion, personal excessiveness and social discipline. These are all elements that would justify a rendering of Blanche as hypersensitive, tragic woman who is, because of her uniqueness, forced to create her own world on principles of exclusion, isolation, and imagination. She is “the sensitive, misunderstood exile, (…) fugitive kind, who (…) [is] too fragile to face a malignant reality and must have a special world in which (…) [she] can take shelter” (Ganz, 101-102). As a result of Blanche’s balancing between desire to act as she wants to act and a compulsive need to behave according to prescribed standards, norms and codes, many compulsive, obsessive and, to some extent, subversive reactions – illusions, alcoholism and promiscuity – appear in her behavior. They, for much of the play, represent Blanche’s attempts to stand up to harassment and stereotyping she is exposed to.
Illusions, or, to quote Blanche, “magic (…), misrepresent[ing] things (…), tell[ing] what ought to be truth” (Williams, 117), are found as a continuous thread woven into the fabric of A Streetcar Named Desire. Consequently, a number of interesting points arise from Blanche’s definition of it. ‘Magic’ is, to begin with, throughout the play confronted with the authority of reality which, even though manipulative, tangible, and limited, is the inseparable part of human experience and has to be accepted as the dominant mode of living. As such, it is brought into being by Blanche’s brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. Stanley, by using sources whose existence we are forced to acknowledge in our everyday life: the power of authority, physical force, intimidation, economic domination, manages to overpower Blanche’s ‘magic’. In his quest Stanley additionally “profits from staying within the parameters set for him by his sex and class” (Vlasopolos, 337). He is, thereby, seen as normal (read: ‘real’): his pleasures are normal pleasures – poker, sex, drinking, bowling; he is a good provider and a loyal member of community and society. Except for his rape of Blanche, which has actually no witnesses and thus creates a reasonable doubt in its occurrence, “nothing Stanley does threaten the social fabric” (Vlasopolos, 337). Blanche, on the contrary, builds up her ‘magic’ on her failure to conform and her deviance of her class and sex. She, one realizes,
although (…) maintains the trappings of the aristocrat in her expensive and elegant tastes, has allowed the rest to slip, like Belle Reve, away from her. In seeking emotional fulfillment, she has disregarded the barriers of “normal” female sexuality and of class. Her actions subvert the social order: she remains loyal to the memory of her homosexual husband, she fulfills the desires of young soldiers outside of very walls of her ancestral mansion, she is oblivious to class in her promiscuity, and she seduces one of her seventeen-year-old student. (Vlasopolos, 337)
When in New Orleans, she attempts to split up the Kowalskis even after she learns that Stella is pregnant and makes plans to take Stella away from Stanley. Being aware of this, Stanley enters the battle for weak and indecisive Stella, who functions as the prize between warring parts – Blanche and Stanley. He ruthlessly engages in exposing Blanche as a fraud, a prostitute, and an alcoholic, mercilessly destroys veils of ‘magic’ Blanche wrapped herself in, makes her look old and cheap in the light of the bare electric bulb, and, by imposing his reality in the form of the rape on her, eventually wins.
Not only does Blanche’s system of illusions prove to be her response to the reality of the everyday life, but it also seems to possess a redeeming merit. To understand it, one realizes, attention should first be drawn to the fact that Blanche, confronted with the disappearance of the old South and its codes and myths expressed by the selling of her plantation because of “epic fornications” (Williams, 43) of her ancestors and deaths that followed them, tries to preserve the past by marrying “the urbane and civilized, the ‘light and culture’ of the South in the form of Allan Gray” (Bigsby, 64) which thus presents “a logical extension of her desire to aestheticise experience, her preference for style over function” (Bigsby, 43). His poetic delicacy and refinement, however, turns out to be the cover for his homosexuality. Shocked and disgusted by this discovery, Blanche publicly exposes her husband and makes him commit suicide. In other words, she “discovers the corruption, or, at the very least, the profound deceit which lies behind the veneer of that side of the Southern past” (Bigsby, 64). Seen in this light, Blanche’s cruel exposure of her husband becomes the origin of guilt which has to be expiated and redeemed by her own system of illusions. She had to “turn from the death in Belle Reve to the ‘life of casual _amours_’, (…) she had [to] turn away from the misery of ‘reality’ to her romantic evasions” (Kernan, 11). In the end, or rather from the very beginning of the play, Blanche’s system of illusions proves to be a not well-chosen reaction since reality, in the character of Stanley Kowalski, forcefully imposes on her, leaving her only one exit – that of asylum as a sea resort. Blanche – homeless, ravished, and abandoned – gets confined inside the boundaries of her own illusive fiction (asylum as sea resort, Doctor as Southern gentleman) which makes her invulnerable to further assaults but, nevertheless, destroys her humanity.
Blanche’s challenges to the Southern belle stereotype are also pointed up by her excessive alcohol consummation and innumerous love affairs. Throughout A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche has a drink in her hands which is quite unusual for the Southern belle she is supposed to represent. This ‘unusual spectacle’ occurs repeatedly in scene 1 when Blanche, waiting for Stella, “tosses a half tumbler of whiskey down” (Williams, 18), “looks[s again] around for some liquor (…) [which then] buzzes right through [her] and feels so good” (Williams, 19-21) when talking with Stella. Although Blanche “rarely touch[es] it” (Williams, 30) and is “not accustomed to having more than one drink” (Williams, 54), she, nevertheless, falls under alcoholic spell again and again and again – in particular in the scenes 5, 6, 9, 10 and 11. For instance, she cannot imagine her coke without “a shot in it” (Williams, 79) or a date with Mitch without a drink or two; she needs “a bottle of liquor” (Williams, 113) not only to stop the Varsouviana tune in her head but also to get over Mitch’s betrayal… It is striking in all these instances that Blanche actually uses alcohol to “extirpate moral contradictions” (Riddel, 18) that stand between her and the concept of the idealized white Southern bellehood whose principles she was supposed to have internalized as her own. Perhaps it would also be correct to say that alcohol, in these specific fictional instances, operates as the means of encouragement against the humiliation of being an unwanted intruder and a fallen role model in her own family who ‘forgot’, although they live in New Orleans, the basic codes of Southern hospitality.
Relatedly, Blanche’s frequent love affairs justify their rendering as Blanche’s physical redemption for the responsibility and guilt she has felt since she confronted her husband with his homosexuality:
I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of Allan – intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with. … I think it was panic, just panic, that drove me from one to another, hunting for some protection – here and there, in the most – unlikely places – even, at last, in a seventeen-year-old boy… (Williams, 118),
In finding it perverse, she could neither live with the idea of Allan’s homosexuality nor could she help him. The ‘neither-nor’ situation in which Blanche found herself caused Allan’s death and, consequently, made her guilt and pain-ridden. This pain, which is almost literally tearing her apart, is thus the pain of the woman violated and abused by the men-dominated culture, which cannot necessarily be heterosexually oriented. In order to live with it, she had to neutralize it with desire – a succession of sexual encounters with even younger and younger men. To Blanche, “desire was the antithesis of death and her relationship with young men a defense against the destructive processes of time” (Bigsby, 60). Blanche, for her part, was attracted by their innocence and purity – the features she, as the Southern belle, was supposed to possess; or she saw in them the reincarnation of her dead husband and, consequently, a chance to redeem her own conduct and start a new ‘marriage’ based on understanding, compassion, and gentleness; or maybe she, as Tennessee Williams argued, “in her mind has become Allan. She acts out her fantasy of how Allan would have approached a young boy” (Hardison Londre, 58) subverting and travestying in that way, the Southern belle myth that promoted clear cut borderlines between genders and sexes, races and classes.
In the end, there is only a hope that this paper, which attempted to give an insight into the historically (de)constructed myth of the Southern belle and its literary affirmation and/or subversion in the character of Blanche DuBois in Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, has been successful enough to explain the complex and, at the moments, perplexing development of Williams’s (anti)belle concept. Given this fact, the paper, beginning with a description of the Southern belle stereotype, pointed out that this very stereotype was (de)constructed along class, race and gender lines. In the second section, I discussed aspects of Blanche’s identity which were tied to the historical construction of the passive-submissive Southern bellehood. The third major section focused on Blanche’s victimization and her, more or less, subversive reactions to it. Blanche, for her part, is, most obviously, capable to shake and, occasionally, break the Southern bellehood myth; there are, at the moments, greater or smaller rebellions and transgressions she is tempted to perform. But, sometimes, just as it is courageous to deconstruct the pedestal, so too it is safer to find shelter in the well-known patterns of behavior, it is safer to be center than margin, we than other…
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