Stanley’s Choices in A Streetcar Named Desire
The characters in A Streetcar Named Desire make a number of choices, and one of the most memorable is Stanley’s decision to rape Blanche. Stanley chooses to do this because he wants to regain power over her. Her criticism and lack of respect towards him cause him to feel inferior and to worry that his wife no longer respects his authority.
Therefore, he uses his sexuality to demonstrate power over Blanche and readdress the balance. Of course, the power struggle between Stanley and Blanche, and his rape of her, represents the larger class conflict in 1940s New Orleans.
Much of A Streetcar Named Desire is made up of a struggle between classes, and this power struggle is further shown when Stanley forces himself on Blanche. Stanley is of a lower social standing than Stella and Blanche, a fact that Blanche constantly reminds him about. Stanley has previously regained his power over higher classes by marrying Stella and keeping her in a socially lower position than him, because of her gender. It seems that he has used his sexuality to win the power struggle with Stella, and then he goes on to use the same tactic with Blanche. When she turns him down, he rapes her, in a violent and sordid attempt to reclaim the power that she has taken from him with both her social standing and her manner towards him. Clearly he had other choices. He could have chosen to speak to Blanche about his feelings and ask her to treat him with more respect. Alternatively, he could have chosen to ask her to leave his house.
It is easy to see why Stanley dislikes Blanche. She is penniless and is depending on Stanley to keep her and let her live with him and his Stella in their modest apartment. She also seems to expect Stella to wait on her. Furthermore, Blanche treats Stanley with very little respect, due to his relatively low social standing. For example, she calls him “Polack”: “…I let the place go? Where were you! In bed with your – Polack!” (Williams 1.185). Blanche relies on this offensive name, and uses her archaic idea of social class to hold power over him. This is not the only factor that makes Blanche an unsympathetic character. She is living in a world from the past; she has dated ideas and values. Her sole dream is to meet an archetypal Southern gentleman, but she will never achieve this as society no longer works that way. Stanley, on the other hand, is more realistic, and he seems to enjoy pointing out her flaws. This is most likely the first level of his response to the power struggle between them. Ironically, Stanley and Blanche are both living in the past. Stanley is steadfast on his opinions regarding the traditional gender roles, and Blanche holds on to her old fashioned ideals about conventional romance. Blanche occasionally compliments Stanley, for example when she flatters his ego: “Well, I never cared for wishy-washy people. That was why, when you walked in here last night, I said to myself — “My sister has a married man!”— Of course that was all that I could tell about you” (Williams 2.114). The two main characters compete for Stella’s care and attention, and this circumstance ensures a mutual hatred and battle between the two of them. Of course, their battle really represents the larger battle between the classes. Stanley’s lower social standing and his desire to be in charge are what leads to his raping Blanche.
Stanley decision to rape Blanche comes from his need to control others, and especially women. From the beginning of the play, it is clear that Stanley wants to dominate his home and his wife. Stanley’s beliefs about gender roles are that men are accountable for bringing in money and food and women are responsible for caring for the home, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of men. He also insists that he has Stella’s absolute and unquestionable respect. It is hard for a contemporary audience to sympathize with Stanley; he is hostile, controlling and single-minded. Williams does not offer much information about Stanley’s past, so his actions in the play are the only knowledge the audience gathers. He likes routine, maintaining conventional gender roles, seeing his male friends, and keeping up a strong sexual relationship with Stella. Additionally, Stanley’s views of women is almost purely sexual. The play’s stage directions offer a description of him that shows this: “…Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it… He sizes women up with a glance, with sexual clarifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them” (Williams 1.205). Blanche’s descent on the home badly shakes the status quo for Stanley. Blanche criticizes Stanley and he starts to worry that this might change Stella’s view of him as well. For example, in Scene Eight, Stella instructs him to tidy the table and to eat more politely. Stanley resents Stella’s unexpected display of power, and worries that she is imposing on his traditionally male role as the person in charge. Also, Stanley feels that Stella and Blanche look down on him. He says: “Pig—Polak—disgusting—vulgar—greasy!—them kind of words have been on your tongue and your sister’s too much around here! What do you two think you are? A pair of queens?” (Williams 8.14). When Stanley becomes dissatisfied, he erupts in violent temper.
The power struggle between Stanley and Blanche, and his rape of her, symbolizes the wider class conflict in 1940s New Orleans. Stanley is insecure and resentful that his wife and her sister are of a higher social standing than him. He has a number of choices about how to assert his boundaries with Blanche. He could have spoken to her about his feelings or, if he felt unable to do that, he could have spoken to Stella and asked for her help. However, Stanley lacks self-awareness and communication skills, so he uses the only tools available to him: sexuality and violence.