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Stella and Stanley Kowalski share the house of Eunice and Steve in New Orleans: they live in the three rooms downstairs: a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. The name of the street is Elysian Fields, suggesting a form of paradise - in Greek mythology; Elysium or Elysian fields were the fields at the ends of the earth where the gods sent heroes, suggesting a place or state of ideal happiness. The irony of this is seen in the poverty and entrapment of the residents in this otherwise warm and cosmopolitan neighbourhood. The existence in a fallen world rather than paradise itself is seen through the precariously maintained relationships of the main characters over approximately 5 months.
Stella and Stanley's preferred way of living, with Stanley as the dominant force in their highly sexed, dependent relationship, is disturbed when Stella's older sister Blanche, comes to stay. Stella has not warned her ex-army husband of this intrusion and he is not impressed by Blanche's arrival and extended stay. Blanche clearly has different standards and sees herself as above Stanley, later referring to his mixed Polish-American blood in a derogatory manner, calling him a Polack. Yet she soon relishes in flirting with her sister's husband.
Stanley's lifestyle is one of drinking and gambling. He has a violent temper and a forceful character. This is seen most obviously during the Poker Night of Scene three when there is a battle of wills between Blanche and Stanley and also Stella and Stanley, as the masculine world takes over the house.
Stanley hits Stella, is restrained by his friends, and Blanche is disturbed. She wants to rescue Stella from this environment but Stella willingly returns to Stanley's calls. The gentle Stella is as different from the neighbourhood as her sister, but has moulded herself to fit in. She is pregnant (a fact which she keeps from her sister but which Stanley enjoys telling Blanche, to unsettle her, in Scene two). The baby will cement their relationship.
Blanche Dubois is set apart by her whiter-than-white appearance (association: purity) and her criticisms of the standard of living to which she has come. Her arrival is surrounded in some mystery: Belle Reve ('Beautiful Dream'), the family plantation, has been sold, but there is no evidence of money from the sale. Stanley feels that he is entitled to some of the assets, and is infuriated by what he sees as Blanche?s lies and deceit. Blanche claims to have spent the money on funeral costs as the members of the Dubois family died off and she was left to arrange their funerals, which affected her greatly.
The story of Blanche's life is revealed gradually: she over-dramatises everything but is clearly hiding some painful truths, not least, that she once had a husband who died. She implies that he had a homosexual relationship, and that her feelings of disgust at this prompted her husband's suicide. She likes sensitive, poetic men, but as her husband was her only experience of love, she finds it difficult to accept anyone else's love. Her experience of men since then is similar to prostitution, and sexuality has become more significant to her then love. Ironically, love is what she seeks.
To Stanley's annoyance, Blanche has disrupted his poker night and formed her own friendship with Mitch. Mitch offers a meaningful relationship for Blanche, when she learns of his feelings for his dying mother and a girlfriend who died. Here is potential empathy, and of course Blanche feels she can only keep this sympathy if she becomes physically involved with Mitch. She tries to extol her virtues and purity, believing this is the only way a decent man will become involved with her.
The reputation, which follows Blanche from Laurel, is discovered and investigated, initially through Stanley's enquiries. On the night of Blanche's birthday meal, Stanley tells Stella that he has informed Mitch of Blanche's past. This includes the fact that she was dismissed from her job for getting romantically involved with a seventeen-year-old male student. Mitch does not arrive for Blanche's meal; Blanche is upset. Shortly afterwards, Stella goes into labour and Stanley takes her to hospital: Blanche is alone when a delivery boy arrives: she flirts with him and kisses him on the lips, without his consent.
Mitch comes round later, and when he confronts Blanche about her past she at once both denies and backs up Stanley's discoveries. She is too unstable to separate truth from reality. She cannot let Mitch too close, protecting her own feelings and in some respects, patronising him. He threatens rape as a response to his hurt and his injured pride.
Stanley's return from hospital (assuming the baby will be a boy-obviously) on the same night as Blanche's birthday, leaves Blanche and Stanley alone. Blanche has been randomly clinging onto the comfort of an old admirer, Shep Huntleigh, whom she knew at college (she's at least 27 now). She pretends she has contact with him and that he will take her away from life in Elysian Fields. At this moment she feels insecure and threatened, to the extent that she tries to phone him in front of Stanley in a bizarre attempt to establish some authority. Stanley confronts her lies and physically places himself in her way, trapping her. Blanche breaks a bottle in self-defence but Stanley grapples this from her. Stanley suggests that the tension between himself and Blanche means that sex is a foregone conclusion, and excuse enough for rape, and the rape itself is highly problematic in the presentation of the unstable Blanche's submission.
Some weeks later, the final scene of the play shows Stella's choice of staying with Stanley and ignoring her sister's claim. Eunice supports Stella's decision as Blanche is taken away to an asylum. She is even more mentally disturbed, her final line re-asserting her vulnerability. The men play poker as she leaves, in a re-enactment of the poker night. Stanley still physically asserts his authority over her. Stella is upset, but as soon as Blanche has gone, she and Stanley find a physical comfort in each other. Mitch has awareness that this whole situation is wrong. There is no sense of retribution in the play.