A Modernist Trait in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’: Happy Endings are Overrated
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a new movement began to take shape that fundamentally changed the style of literature. This movement is known as modernism. Towards the end of this era, Tennessee Williams wrote the play A Streetcar Named Desire and, even though modernism was on the decline, it is still considered a modernist work. There are many qualities that define modernism, but chief among these is the unresolved ending—a trait found in the last scene of Williams’s play. A closer look at this particular modernist element can provide a deeper understanding of A Streetcar Named Desire and modernism in general.
The Big Picture: Modernism
It is safe to assume that almost any movement in the arts is an act of rebellion against the prevalent norm. In the late eighteenth century, Romanticism rebelled against the rational order of the Enlightenment and, instead, celebrated the sublime nature of literature. These artists believed that reason couldn’t explain everything and produced works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Over half a century later, Naturalism took up the fight with a literary movement that favored an uncompromisingly realistic approach to art over the former idealized approach of Romanticism. Naturalists—or realists—focused on generating characters that behaved in accordance to their animal impulses, or “natural desires.” Lord of the Flies by William Golding is one such book.
Towards the end of the Naturalism movement and the beginning of the twentieth century, the world exploded with modern ideas. Freud brought fresh insights to the realms of psychology and sociology. Einstein postulated a new and fascinating theory of relativity. Information technologies such as the radio and TV emerged. A philosophy of racial superiority surfaced in Germany. During this time, several modernist works began to appear, but modernism didn’t peak until right after World War I. As warfare escalated to a global level, writers decided that the genteel tradition of literature was too outmoded for this era of violence; thus, modernism was born.
By definition, modernism is “a style or movement that aims to break with classical and traditional forms,” or, as Ezra Pound’s motto goes, “make it new!” From contradictory, ambiguous characters to the style of “stream of consciousness” writing, modernists took their rebellion to a new level. These writers sought new and unique ways to rebel against not only former ideas, but also the very structure of writing. E.E. Cummings’s use of lower-case letters is a prime example of this avant-garde thinking.
In this sense, Modernism meant that the traditional endings were not invited to the party. “Happily Ever Afters” were no longer considered “new,” and unresolved endings began to take their place. To clarify, here’s a comparison of what an ending may have looked like among the different movements mentioned before:
Romanticism: An aristocrat man falls in love with a woman beneath his station (i.e. a servant) and they are wed in a Happily Ever After. In other words, the ending is impulsive and unexpected.
Naturalism: The aristocrat and the servant get married, but they grow distant after a miscarriage. In other words, the ending is imperfect, but realistic. Life doesn’t end when the Happily Ever After wedding does.
Modernism: After the wife’s sudden miscarriage, the story ends with the husband asking for breakfast in bed the next day. * In other words, there is no clear resolution or ending.
Zooming in: A Streetcar Named Desire
A Streetcar Named Desire begins with Blanche DuBois, a fragile Southern Belle who suffers from a humiliating past and now prefers to live in her own imagination. She decides to go and stay with her sister, Stella, who lives in New Orleans. Upon arrival, Blanche immediately finds herself an enemy in Stella’s husband, Stanley–a brutish, sensual man who is suspicious of Blanche’s façade. Over the course of the play, their tense relationship continues to escalate until Stanley ultimately rapes Blanche and commits her to an insane asylum. A few weeks after the sexual assault, the last scene opens with Blanche taking a bath while Stella packs her bags and Stanley plays poker in the other room. Blanche believes that her fictional millionaire is coming to whisk her away and doesn’t understand why a doctor from an asylum shows up instead. After an initial struggle, she eventually allows herself to be led away, and the play ends with Stanley comforting Stella as she cries, while his friend Steve starts up another round of poker. For a final scene, this scene leaves things far from finalized. The viewers are aware that something isn’t quite right, that the ending isn’t quite appropriate, that the problem isn’t quite fixed.
A closer look at this scene reveals more about this unresolved ending. First and foremost, the play ends without any punishment for Stanley. Initially, Stanley is a charming young man, if only a little crude. This image slowly deteriorates into something darker and more disturbing when Stanley first beats his pregnant wife and later rapes Blanche. However, the last image the audience sees of Stanley is the model family man—a husband comforting his wife as she holds their newborn baby. After Stanley’s earlier actions, the wrongness of this image causes the audience to question the ending. Why isn’t Stanley kicked out of the house? Why isn’t Blanche rescued? Simply put, these questions are the exact kind of traditional Happily Ever After that modernism strives to avoid. A linear plot with a clear resolution will not be found in this modernist play.
The audience is also left wondering what will happen to Stella. If she believed Blanche’s story about the rape, she would not be able to continue living with Stanley. In a sense, the two sisters’ roles reverse. By choosing not to believe Blanche, Stella is choosing a world of make-believe—the same world in which Blanche built a false existence to hide from her past. On the other hand, Blanche chooses to withdraw into madness, so that Stella doesn’t have to acknowledge the horrifying truth. If Blanche appeared sane, Stella would have to give Blanche’s story more credibility. A traditional story would not allow Stella to ignore such a grievance. However, this is not a traditional story, it’s a modernist one. Even though Stella seems somewhat content with this sham reality, the audience wonders what would happen if she accepted the truth.
The play’s last line is the final puzzle piece of the unresolved ending. Steve announces that another poker game—”this game is seven-card stud”(179)—is about to begin, embodying the “bluffing” that takes place in Stanley and Stella’s household. In a traditional story, the lies would be uncovered and dealt with. However, this play leaves the lies lurking behind. Not all the cards have been laid out on the table, much like reality in general. The poker game subtly reminds the audience that the game at the Kowalskis can always change.
Whether it’s seven-card stud, Stella’s ignorance, or the lack of punishment for Stanley, the details in this last scene can reveal more about the play’s unresolved ending. In light of this insight, A Streetcar Named Desire provides an opportunity to better understand modernism and how it has changed literature overall.
*This example is similar to the central plot of James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the most well-known modernist works at the time.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Signet, 1974. Print.
“Some Characteristics of Modernism in Literature” <http://www.sprog.asb.dk/tt/Giddens/Lectures/some_characteristics_of_modernism.htm>
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