Desire and Fate: This is a dominant theme that runs throughout the play and is particularly prominent in the title itself. Williams himself was intrigued by the names of two streetcars that carried the words ‘Desire’ and ‘Cemeteries’ as their destination. Whilst living in New Orleans in 1946 Williams mentioned these aptly named streetcars in an essay he wrote: Their indistinguishable progress up and down Royal Street struck me as having symbolic bearing of a broad nature on the life in the Vieux Carre – and everywhere else for that matter.’
A streetcar running directly to its destination on a predetermined course could easily be seen as a symbol of fate. For Williams, however, the streetcar’s destination, ‘Desire’, spoke more than an undefined force of fate. This force clearly drives Blanche, her sexual passion and desire overwhelms her at moments in the play, we see her clearly driven by forces more powerful than her. She acknowledges Stanley’s masculinity and animal passion from the onset of her visit. She openly flirts with him and teases (not necessarily in a sexual way always, but she often seeks a reaction or attention) him as the play develops.
The image of the streetcar is used in scene 4 when Stella and Blanche discuss sexual desire. Stella asks Blanche, ‘Haven’t you ever ridden that streetcar?’ Stella is clearly a passionate woman too, perhaps driven by the same force as Blanche. She did after all abandon her life on a country plantation and succumb to the passionate love of Stanely. Is the final destination for Stella shown in Eunice perhaps?
There is another image of fate in the play. In scene 4, 6 and 10 Williams introduce a roaring locomotive at a dramatic moment: Blanche’s condemnation of Stanley; her description of her husband’s death and just before the rape. However, the random introduction of the locomotive as a symbol of fate does not carry here the impact of the streetcar metaphor. It could be that Williams had originally intended the locomotive as the leitmotiv (dominant, or lead, motif) of his play, but considered the ironic predetermined course of a lurching streetcar to be far more dramatic.
The idea that Williams is trying to convey seems to be that to be drive by desire is self destructive, yet the victims of an overpowering passion are carried along helplessly, unable to escape. Blanche’s fate is preordained, this is not only stressed in the streetcar image but several key moments in the play indicate that there cannot be a happy conclusion to Blanche’s story. The incident with the ‘young man’ collecting money and her elusive and dishonest drinking reveal the uncontrollable forces that drive her. Throughout his life Tennessee Williams was driven from one sexual encounter to another, exactly like Blanche, and like Blanche he too seemed incapable of committing himself to a permanent relationship, in his case homosexual. When Blanche longs for Mitch to marry her, she is not seeking a permanent sexual relationship but the material security of a home of her own (‘The poor man’s Paradise — is a little peace’ — Scene 9).
Death:Images of death recur throughout the play. The streetcar going to ‘cemeteries’ is another reminder from Williams of the likely eventual outcome of a life driven by passion and serves to reinforce the theme of fatal desire.
The references that Blanche makes to caring for her dying relatives at Belle Reve remind us of the strength she once must have had and the horrors that she witnessed. The woman swollen by disease and unable to fit into a coffin and then ‘burned like rubbish’ and the ‘blood stained pillow-slips’ then later Blanche’s wish to be ‘buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack’ all provide chilling reminders of the life Blanche has left behind physically but not mentally. When Blanche comments that she didn’t speak about death in her conversations with the dying we see how he probably never let herself grieve, especially for her dead husband.
The suicide of Blanche’s young husband is significant throughout the play. It’s own polka music reminds us insistently of the tragedy. The music in Blanche’s mind haunts her and grows louder until the fatal echo of the gunshot stops it. The disgust she openly showed at her husband’s homosexuality and her guilt at his subsequent suicide partly accounts for mental instability, her promiscuity and her alcoholism.
Madness: Blanche’s fear of madness is first hinted at in Scene 1 (‘I can’t be alone! Because — as you must have noticed — I’m — not very well …‘). Never stable even as a girl, she was shattered by her husband’s suicide and the circumstances surrounding it. Later the harrowing deaths at Belle Reve with which she evidently had to cope on her own, also took their toll. By this time she had begun her descent into promiscuity and alcoholism, and in order to blot out the ugliness of her life she created her fantasy world of adoring respectful admirers, of romantic songs and gay parties.
She is never entirely successful at this, as the memories of her husband’s suicide remain persistently alive in her mind, always accompanied by the polka music. Drink is her solace on these occasions as she waits for the sound of the shot that signals the end of the nightmare. It seems that she has learned to live with this, as she remarks to Mitch in a matter-of-fact way, ‘There now, the shot! It always stops after that!’ (Scene 9).
She has reached an accommodation with the nightmares in her mind, but she cannot bear the intrusion of ugly reality into her make-believe world. Stanley’s revelations of her past, Mitch’s rejection of her as ‘not clean enough’ and his clumsy attempt at raping her, and finally her rape by Stanley on the night when her sister is giving birth to his child, all these break her and her mind gives way. She retreats into her make-believe world, making her committal to an institution inevitable.
Like the other major themes of the play – desire and fate, and death – madness too was Tennessee ‘Williams’s obsession. His sister Rose’s strange behaviour which had long been a source of anxiety to her parents, later took the form of violent sexual fantasies and accusations against her father. Her parents had her committed to an institution. Following the medical practice of the time a pre-frontal lobotomy was carried out, and Rose calmed down, certainly, but was left with no memories, no mind. Not only did Tennessee Williams feel guilty for not having saved Rose from all this, but he now feared for his own sanity because the mental illness that afflicted Rose might be hereditary. He certainly did have a breakdown of sorts in his early twenties. All three major themes of A Streetcar Named Desire reflected his own private terrors which gave the edge to his writing.