Blanche DuBois, the fallen Southern belle at the center of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, has been a character so rich and so complex that bringing her to life is one of acting's greatest challenges. Actresses talk of losing their voice, suffering bouts of depression or having anxiety attacks while playing the part. Critics and audiences alike harbor vastly torn opinions concerning Blanche’s role in the play, which range from praising her as a fallen angel victimized by her surroundings to damning her as a deranged harlot.
Blanche arrives, penniless, in New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella and her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. A former schoolteacher from a wealthy family, she has been evicted from her family home, "Belle Reve", after the deaths of several family members wiped out her and Stella's inheritance. It is also later revealed that, years earlier, her husband committed suicide after she caught him having sex with another man. She had a series of meaningless affairs to numb her grief, and was soon thrown out of her hometown of Laurel, Mississippi, as a "woman of loose morals".
Sympathy for Blanche is garnered in large part from the obvious trauma she has experienced due to the loss of her beloved husband, Allan Grey. Ironically, this aspect of the play is also one that critics and readers frequently use to demonize Blanche.
However, evidence abounds that the traumatic loss of her husband was a driving force for the downward spiral that leads Blanche to Stella’s doorstep. The scandalous events that drive Blanche to her ultimate defeat do not begin until after Allan’s death. Blanche is not inherently impious; the disintegration of the loving marriage she once clung to dissipates her naïve, youthful innocence and leads her to a sordid path. Blanche’s heartbreak following her first love causes her to descend into the degeneration that becomes her ruin, a fact which lends empathetic justification and a sorrowful light to her actions.
Behind her veneer of social snobbery and sexual propriety, Blanche is deeply insecure, an aging Southern belle who lives in a state of perpetual panic about her fading beauty. Her manner is dainty and frail, and she sports a wardrobe of showy but cheap evening clothes. She plays the role of the ideal type of person she would like to be. She refuses to see herself as she is but instead creates the illusion of what ought to be.
When Blanche meets Mitch, she realizes that here is the man who can give her a sense of belonging and who is also captivated by her girlish charms. Then Mitch forces her to admit her past life. With this revelation, Blanche is deprived of her chief attributes — that is, her illusions and her pretense.
The rape by Stanley is Blanche's destruction as an individual. In all previous sexual encounters, Blanche had freely given of herself. But to be taken so cruelly and so brutally by a man who represents all qualities which Blanche found obnoxious caused her entire world to collapse.
Blanche's last remarks in the play seem to echo pathetically her plight and predicament in life. She goes with the doctor because he seems to be a gentleman and because he is a stranger. As she leaves, she says, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Thus, Blanche's life ends in the hands of the strange doctor. She was too delicate, too sensitive, too refined, and too beautiful to live in the realistic world. Blanche’s vulnerability is also illuminated through stage directions such as “a look of sorrowful perplexity as though all human experience shows on her face”. Blanche’s vulnerability leaves her sharply exposed before the cold unresponsiveness of the people who witness her defeat and represent the society in which she has been immersed: the men’s poker game resumes abruptly after her dramatic exit, Blanche’s own sister Stella returns her pleas delivered in a “frightening whisper” by staring blankly back at her in a “moment of silence”, and Eunice simply responds to her claim of rape with, “Don’t ever believe it. Life has got to go on”. The other characters in the play, representative of the era’s misogynistic society, choose to disregard Blanche’s plight in accordance with what society expects. Blanche has fallen victim to the brutality of male dominance, yet even the women around her turn a blind eye to her suffering in order to avoid any disruption of their everyday lives.