Escapism in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams

This Resource is for Year 10-11 students studying the play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams in the Victorian Mainstream English Curriculum

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Background to the Play

First performed in 1949, A Streetcar Named Desire sprang from Tennessee Williams’ personal beliefs, reflecting his society as he saw it.  In the 1920’s, the American dream of democracy, material prosperity and equality for all had fast disappeared with the Great Depression.  This economic crisis began with the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and brought unemployment and great poverty to many.  The depression passed, but the idea of such a state of perfection was proved to be unrealistic and unattainable.  The characters in the play represent the jaded American dream, and the kind of lives, standards and tensions within which the immigrant population found themselves living.

The ‘Forward’ to A Streetcar Named Desire written by Tennessee Williams in March 1959

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The ‘Forward’ to the Penguin Books Edition 2000 of the play is written by Tennessee Williams himself and was first published in the New York Times on 8th March 1959.  Williams’ own feelings of insecurity and escapism are literally true.  At the age of 14 he discovered “…writing as an escape from a world of reality in which I felt acutely uncomfortable.  It immediately became my place of retreat, my cave, my refuge”.

Fantasy’s Inability to Overcome Reality 

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Although Williams’ protagonist in A Streetcar Named Desire is the romantic Blanche DuBois, the play is a work of social realism.  Blanche explains to Mitch that she fibs because she refuses to accept the hand fate has dealt her.  Lying to herself and to others allows her to make life appear as it should be rather than as it is.  Stanley, a practical man firmly grounded in the physical world, disdains Blanche’s fabrications and does everything he can to unravel them.  In relation to the Context ‘Whose Reality?’, Williams’ text enables the reader to explore this antagonistic relationship between Blanche and Stanley as a struggle between appearances and reality.  It propels the play’s plot and creates an overarching tension.

Through character construction we can see how people like Blanche Dubois are doomed in the world.  The play highlights the tragedy of one whose world and whose reality have no relationship with what is real.  As the play unfolds the audience witness the destruction of one who craves the abstract notion of love.  Blanche represents our desires and our capacity to imagine where we would like to be or how we would like to live.  As a direct contrast, Stanley Kowalski epitomises the modern world – pragmatic, cruel, heartless and lacking in sensitivity.

Escapism in A Streetcar Named Desire

Escapism is something we all embrace as a way to unwind and remove ourselves from the hassles of daily life.  However, we know we have to face reality and all its complexities.  Blanche Dubois’ character suffers one difficulty after another and she is unable to face the harsh realities of her world.  Escapism in A Streetcar Named Desire is represented by Blanche Dubois’ character who is unable to face the harsh realities of her world but in the end craves security, love and peace.

When she is raped by Stanley, her ability to distinguish truth from lies and illusion from reality is shattered.  Stanley’s declaration before he rapes Blanche, that “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” (Scene 10, p. 215) is a statement of his fundamental need to crush Blanche’s weakness, his “right” to exert his power over her sensitivity.  He is the manifestation of a modern and insensitive society that fails to acknowledge those needing support and craving emotional designs rather than materialistic ones. Her rape symbolises society’s inability to tolerate those who fail to fit in to the real world.

Reality Triumphs over Escapism and Fantasy

Though reality triumphs over escapism and fantasy in A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams suggests that fantasy is an important and useful tool.  At the end of the play, Blanche’s retreat into her own private fantasies enables her to partially shield herself from reality’s harsh blows.  Blanche’s insanity emerges as she retreats fully into herself, leaving the objective world behind in order to avoid accepting reality.  In order to escape fully, however, Blanche must come to perceive the exterior world as that which she imagines in her head.  Thus, objective reality is not an antidote to Blanche’s fantasy world; rather, Blanche adopts the exterior world to fit her delusions.  In both the physical and psychological realms, the boundary between fantasy and reality is permeable.  Blanche’s final, deluded happiness suggests that, to some extent, fantasy is a vital force at play in every individual’s experience, despite reality’s inevitable triumph.

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‘Maestro’ by Peter Goldsworthy A Brief Synopsis of the Importance of ‘Place’ in the Narrative

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Place is integral to an understanding of the characters in Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy.

In some ways, the cities of Darwin, Adelaide and Vienna parallel the growth of the characters.  In other respects, the character’s attitudes towards the cities reveal their motivations and, in the case of Keller, the mystery of his past.  Darwin and Adelaide exemplify the most obvious and literal examples of the polarity of North and South.

“Up North” Darwin in the 1960’s – a Wild Frontier Town

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“Up North” in the 1960’s traditionally represented the outpost of civilisation in Australia, with Darwin as its wild frontier town.  In pre-Cyclone Tracy Darwin, there were few opportunities for public entertainment or cultural events.  The town’s residents had a reputation for heavy drinking, fast driving and little regard for fine music or the arts.  In 1967 few homes had air conditioning so that Darwin’s wet heat had to be alleviated with iced drinks, ceiling fans and evening sea breezes through louvred windows.  Initially John Crabbe described Darwin’s inhabitants as “wife-beaters, fugitives from justice, alcoholics and maintenance dodgers” (p.17).  Darwin was “the terminus … A town populated by men who had run as far as they could flee” (p.17).

Goldsworthy Portrays Life in Darwin as a Rhythm of Dramatic Contrasts

Life in Darwin is portrayed as a rhythm of dramatic contrasts between day and night, and the Wet and Dry seasons.  Thunder is “the sound of February, of deepest, darkest Wet” (p.4).  The Wet exaggerates nature in every way.  The hard-drinking customers at The Swan where “it was always Wet season” (p.17), provide the background rhythm to Paul’s lessons with Keller and their wrangles over the choices of compositions for his lessons and practice.  The change of season to the Dry marks an important point in the characters’ moods.  Everyone’s mood is lightened and refreshed at the beginning of “seven months of clear, enamel-blue days” (p.28), when meals are taken outside in “a nightly cooling ritual” (p.30).  Throughout the novel, Goldsworthy uses the imagery of night and day, Wet and Dry, sunshine and darkness to symbolise or illustrate his characters’ states of mind.

Darwin confronts the Crabbes with Physical and Mental Challenges

The Crabbes’ move to Darwin, a career promotion for John, confronts all three family members with both physical and mental challenges.  To Paul, Darwin is a tropical paradise; to his parents it is, initially too hot, humid and uncivilised.  John Crabbe declares Darwin is “A city of booze, blow, and blasphemy” (p.9) but Paul loves Darwin from the moment he steps off the plane from Adelaide: “I loved the town of booze and blow at first sight.  And above all its smell: those hot, steamy perfumes that wrapped about me as we stepped off the plane, in the darkness, in the smallest hours of a January night.  Moist, compost air.  Sweet-and-sour air …” (p.9).

Goldsworthy Describes Darwin in Lush Descriptive Passages

Goldsworthy devotes considerable attention to crafting lushly descriptive passages which evoke Darwin’s exotic quality, its multicultural population and the strong emotions of sexuality.  Paul delights in the dense foliage of their garden, at the “unnatural greenness” of leaves, and marvels at the brilliance of parrots, butterflies, huge insects and grubs: “Everything grew larger than life in the steamy hothouse of Darwin, and the people were no exception.  Exotic, hothouse blooms” (p.11).

Darwin for Eduard Keller was an Exile

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For Herr Eduard Keller, the maestro, Darwin was an exile, a self-imposed punishment stemming from his perceived responsibility for the deaths of his wife and child.  Darwin is the maestro’s decision to live as far as possible, both literally and metaphorically from his cultured European background.  Paul vividly remembers his first encounter with the maestro.  He was fascinated by Keller: “I’d seen nothing like him before.  He was short: migrant-height, European height…The hair above that flaming face was white, sparse, downy.  On his red nose he had placed … a pince-nez… Above all, I remember the hands: those dainty, faintly ridiculous hands” (p.5).  Despite Darwin’s oppressive heat, Keller is dressed in a white linen suit, crisp and freshly laundered.  As Paul pushed his way through the drinkers in The Swan each Tuesday for his piano lesson, he found it “easy to place Keller among these fugitives” running away from things they chose not to remember.

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Reputation as a Theme in The Crucible by Arthur Miller

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

The Crucible

‘Reputation’ as a Theme in The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.  One of the most important themes in The Crucible is reputation.

In a theocratic society like Salem, where public and private moralities are one and the same, reputation plays such an important role.  Focused on maintaining public reputation, the townsfolk of Salem much fear that the sins of their friends and associates will taint their names.  Various characters base their actions on the desire to protect their respective reputations.  The protagonist John Proctor’s desire to keep his good name leads him to make the heroic choice not to make a false confession and to go to his death without signing his name to an untrue statement.

Quote of John Proctor in Act IV:

Because it is my name!  Because I cannot have another in my life!  Because I lie and sign myself to lies!  Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name?  I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

Explanation of Quote:

Proctor utters these lines at the end of the play, in Act IV, when he is wrestling with his conscience over whether to confess to witchcraft and thereby save himself from the gallows.  The judges and Hale have almost convinced him to do so, but the last stumbling block is his signature on the confession, which he cannot bring himself to give. In part, this unwillingness reflects his desire not to dis-honour his fellow prisoners: he would not be able to live with himself knowing that other innocents died while he quaked at death’s door and fled.

More importantly, it illustrates his obsession with his good name.  Early in the play, Proctor’s desire to preserve his good name keeps him from testifying against Abigail. Now, however, he has come to a true understanding of what a good reputation means and what course of action it necessitates—namely, that he tell the truth, not lie to save himself. “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” he rages; this defense of his name enables him to muster the courage to die, heroically, with his goodness intact.

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Poetry of Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Frosts poetry is a Metaphor for the ways in which we make sense of our lives

The ways in which people develop their imaginative landscapes, their attitudes and values and how they respond to the world around them are influenced by their sense of place.  In analysing texts the landscape may be seen in literal or metaphorical terms.  Places where we have lived and people we have lived with contribute to our outlook on life and how we respond to particular situations.  For some people these memories stay with them throughout life.  The imaginative landscape derives from the diversity of these experiences over the years.  The physical landscape of a person’s life forms a literal and metaphorical yardstick with which to measure the passage of time and the acquisition of personal characteristics.  The physical becomes intertwined with their imaginative landscape.

Robert Frost’s Imaginative Landscape

Encompasses both the beauty and dark side of the land and of human nature.  While his love of the natural world is evident, inspiring him as a poet and a person, he does not romanticize it, rather he imbues it with strong moral tones, reflecting in his love of rural America.

As well as describing the physical world, Frost is also preoccupied with how the human figures are placed in the landscape and in time.  His characters are aware of where they have come from and their history.  They move in time from the past but also encompass the future.  Frost’s imaginative landscape helps us to construct versions of ourselves by exploring where and who we have come from and who we might become.

‘The Road Not Taken’ Poem by Robert Frost

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The speaker stands in the woods, considering a fork in the road.  Both ways are equally worn and equally overlaid with un-trodden leaves.  The speaker chooses one, telling himself that he will take the other another day.  Yet he knows it is unlikely that he will have the opportunity to do so.  He admits that someday in the future he will recreate the scene with a slight twist, he will claim that he took the less-travelled road.

One of the attractions of this poem is its archetypal dilemma, one that we instantly recognise because each of us encounters it numberable times, both literally and figuratively.  Paths in the woods and forks in the roads are ancient and deep-seated metaphors for life, its crises and decisions.  Identical forks, in particular, symbolise for us the nexus of free will and fate.  We are free to choose, but we do not really know beforehand what we are choosing between.  Our route is, thus, determined by an accretion of choice and chance, and it is impossible to separate the two.

The Fourth Stanza Holds the Key to the Poem with 2 Tricky Words

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference”.

Those who interpret this poem as suggesting non-conformity take the word “difference” to be a positive difference.  There is nothing in the poem that suggests that this difference signals a positive outcome.  The speaker could not offer such information, because he has not lived the “difference” yet.

The other word that leads non-discerning readers astray is the word “sigh”.  By taking “difference” to mean a positive difference, they think that the sigh is one of nostalgic relief.  However, a sigh can also mean regret.  There is the “oh, dear” kind of sigh, but also the “what a relief” kind of sigh.  Which one is it?  We do not know.

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If the the sigh is one of relief, then the difference means the speaker is glad he took the road he did.  If the sigh is one of regret, then the difference would not be good, and the speaker would be sighing in regret.  The speaker of the poem does not even know the nature of that sigh because that sigh and his evaluation of the difference his choice will make are still in the future.  It is a truism that any choice we make is going to make “all the difference” in how our future turns out.

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‘The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif ‘ Themes

The Themes in The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif includes the importance of the relationship between culture and identity

You have to ask yourself the question, “What becomes of a person in our world if political developments made it impossible for him to live in his own country?”  The politics of displacement creates an identity crisis.  Thinking outside the square about the issue of identity; “Is ‘identity’ portable?”

Conflict has Far-reaching Consequences

The text articulates the many and varied ways conflict affects individuals and communities.  The immediate and personal costs of war are often obvious.  Gorg Ali and Rosal Ali are killed.  Najaf is injured when a bomb explodes above his house and he suffers financial hardship and shame as a result of this injury.  Ultimately, Najaf is forced to flee Afghanistan when the Taliban take control of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Long Lasting Trauma from Violent Events

The text also captures the long-lasting emotional trauma that accompanies these violent events.  Consider Najaf’s emotional state while recovering from his injured leg.  He is uncharacteristically despondent, angry and jealous.  His inability to contribute to the family income and, worse, calling on his brother’s charity, make him feel “sick with shame” (p.137).  While these feelings subside when Najaf is finally cured, other key incidents show that single events have lifelong ramifications.  Najaf’s grief for Gorg Ali, for instance, does not diminish and he sheds disconsolate tears in his interview at Woomera 18 years later.  Najaf’s mother, too, endures lifelong grief.  Just before the rocket attack, Najaf comments, “her heart was still broken after the death of Gorg Ali a year before, and would stay broken for the rest of her life” (p.13).

Indirect Consequences of Living with Conflict

Long-term consequences of conflict also arise indirectly.  Living with conflict makes Najaf perpetually fearful.  He is so accustomed to being threatened that he inanely worries that the Australian authorities have been fed misinformation.  To avoid forcible recruitment into either the communist or mujahedin forces, Najaf has to keep his “eyes peeled” and “one part of [his] brain … always on alert” (pp.152-3).  He is tense, vigilant and constantly “ready to respond” to seemingly imperceptible signals (p.153).  Najaf’s safety and security are constantly undermined.

Insecurity Leads to a Sense of Powerlessness

Najaf sums up this state of mind when he realises, early in his rug-making apprenticeship, that “this future of learning and gaining greater and greater skill all depended on things that I couldn’t control” (p.154).  To cope, Najaf trains himself “not to think too far into the future” (p.154).  This demonstrates a terrible and often hidden consequence of war: people lose hope.

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