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Tennessee Williams And The Southern Belle

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Tennessee Williams And The Southern Belle essay

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.. remember one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain . . .

your mother received- seventeen! – gentlemen callers! Why, sometimes there weren’t chairs enough to accommodate them all . . . Among my callers were some of the most prominent young planters of the Mississippi Delta- planters and sons of planters! There was young Champ Laughlin who later became Vice President of the Delta Planters Bank. Hadley Stevenson who was drowned in Moon Lake and left his widow one hundred and fifty thousand in Government bonds . .

. (Jacobus 129) Within this world of memory and illusion, Amanda tries to hold the family together, economically and spiritually. Her husband’s desertion of her and the family was the shock that sends her back into the golden days of her girlhood (Bloom 156). Since Amanda cannot face the reality that she was unable to hold her husband’s love, she indulges in memories of that one supreme moment of her youth, the day when she might have chosen from seventeen gentlemen callers, all rich and successful and caring for their wives.

Williams describes Amanda as, A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place, who having failed to establish contact with reality, continues to live vitally in her illusions (Kolin 98). Removed into her past and needing to fortify an endangered sense of self-worth, Amanda assumes an archaic form of southern behavior, gentility for What is there left but dependency all out lives? (Jacobus 128). In the early American South a genteel code developed, giving the white southern woman homage both to safeguard her purity from the manhood of black slaves and to symbolize a civilizing influence on the decadent ways of the white landed gentry (Abbott 52). So gentlemen callers represent a time when men were chivalrous and women were respected, admired, and pampered.

The gentlemen callers in turn represent a Glorious Hill, a past that the South once had and is still trying to hold on to. Blanche resembles Amanda in her reactions to the harsh world. Her attempt to hold the crumbling world of the family plantation together is similar to Amanda’s attempt to keep her family together. Blanche pleads with her sister Stella you can’t forget your past (Williams, Streetcar 25).

Also like Amanda she refuses to accept the reality of her life and attempts to live under illusion. She has a false sense of gentility, which is contradicted, by an equally false sense of promiscuity. The conflict between these two modes of behavior leads her to her destruction (Roudane 173). Blanche is, like Amanda, an aristocrat who has lost her social status and is unable to break from her past.

Unlike Amanda, she attempts to escape from, not into, the past, with its sordid reality. Stanley’s revelations about her many deceptions both prevent her escape and show her more complex entanglement (Bloom 69). She retreats into the prison of madness, where finally she takes refuge from both past and present. As representative of the Old South, Blanche dissipates her power; far from failing to recognize her cultural (and personal) past, she is bound to it. Caught in a neurotic limbo, she combines in herself the opposites of John’s exaggerated physical urges and Alma’s culture, pretense and affectation; Blanche cannot reconcile them, nymphomania and prudery, love of the past and hatred of the past, genuine culture and pretensions fakery exist at the same time (Dillman 155).

She remains frozen in a time that stands still for women of culture and breed and intelligence can enrich . . . and time can’t take them away (Williams, Streetcar 53). Blanche represents one way the South could take: unable to face the contrast between the romantic past and realistic present, Blanche violently betrays her code while desperately trying to maintain it. Ironically, the escape of these characters becomes a prison, confining and degrading the prisoner and sometimes others with her.

Blanche DuBois’ sense of propriety clashes with her repressed sexual drives when she confronts Stanley who lives outside the code of southern chivalry. He is a man whose overt sexuality is simultaneously desirable and repulsive to her. Unfortunately, her narcissistic coquetry induces her to entice the one man who can destroy her. She cannot reconcile her divided personality in the face of the violent passions of the modern world; consequently, she withdraws into a world of illusions and madness (Jackson 126). While representing the South further, the modern world after World War I cannot carry the conflicting idles of the past and the present reality of war.

Even though Stella, the star married to the brute, offers Blanche an example of synthesis, and even though Blanche herself is considerably more free than Alma, Blanche is like Alma is succumbing to the sensual at the expense of her ideals and her own well-being (Kolin 84). Alma and Blanche are a movement toward sensuality representing mental if not physical destruction. And a spiritual person in a physical world is impossible. The idealism is illusionary; Alma is unable to translate it into positive action. Her mother leads her to self-pity. She is bitter because she has not gotten anything for her self-sacrifice, not even recognition.

Her life tied to duty; Alma has a dream about what she would do if things were different (Bernhard, Southern Women 74). She says to John, Most of us have no choice but to lead useless lives! But you . . . have a chance to serve humanity.

Not just to go on enduring for the sake of indurance, but to serve a noble, humanitarian cause, to relieve human suffering (Williams, The Theatre 154). This need of escape branches from Alma’s ancestry is Cavalier and Puritan- her mother wears a plumed hat; her father is a preacher. She cultivates social graces, romanticizes sex, and in a manner dictated by her genteel code immediately sets out to satisfy her desire for John. At the same time, she admires Gothic cathedrals, has faith in the everlasting struggle and aspiration for more than our human limits have placed in our reach (Williams, The Theatre 197). Culture and power in both traditions have produced Alma- and the South. At the end of the play she has not so much tempered beautiful illusion with mundane reality as she has shown herself ignorant of any historical perspective.

Her decision to take what gratification this earth has to offer- giving little though to the consequences- is a playback of the South’s history (Kolin 184). So long as the soul of the South refused to face reality, it had no future. Illusion may be a world of reality these southern belles are forced to live in, but this illusion can come from or grow more intense as a result of rape or conquest. Rape stood for ultimate domination and subordination.

It is a symbol of power encompassing that onto the belle and onto the South. In a male-dominate society, women were a weaker class. After the Civil War, however, plantation owners had to adjust to an economic order no longer based on slavery (Stokes 23). The patriarchal South had made white men the dominant group in terms of their superior status, their access to lucrative economic roles, their autocracy in sexual roles, and their aggressive temperament. Women and blacks, on the other hand, were deemed subordinate in status, role, and temperament. A woman’s status depended upon her father or husband, her economic role was that of a marriageable alliance maker before marriage and a homemaker after marriage, her sexual role was that of a chaste maiden or faithful wife (so that the legitimacy of the male’s line could be preserved (Bernhard, Hidden Histories 65).

Rape as the ultimate act of domination results when the male feels denied the privileges he assumes are his right. The right to copulate whomever he pleased was long assumed; restrictions placed on him by societal taboos or laws were in no way as severe as those placed upon white women. During and after World War I, the North began to dominate the South, imposing industry and materialism as well as greed, inflicting an emphasis on money. It is reminiscent of the not-forgotten Civil War (Abbott 34). To no avail, Blanche (the Old South) threatens Stanley (the North) and screams, So I could twist the broken end in your face! (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 130). After proclaiming let’s have some rough-house! He springs toward her, overturning the table.

She cries out and strikes at him with the bottle top but he catches her wrist . . .We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning! She moans. The bottle falls.

She sinks to her knees. He picks up her inert figure and carries her to the bed (130). It is implied and not directly stated that she is raped. If it is assumed that Blanche is representative of the Old South, she is being conquered metaphorically by the North as they did in the Civil War and again in the Industrial Revolution.

The belle herself is presented as the repository of the southern values; the rapist is an outsider who represents the antithesis of these values. The rape of Blanche and other southern belles is a symbolic action that represents the violent disordering of a harmonious society (Kolin 137). Obviously, Alma was not raped, but conquered– by John Buchanan Jr. After the tables have turned, yes, the tables have turned with a vengeance, Alma has compromised her spiritual side, her soul, for the sensual side of John (Williams The Theatre 247). She has to an extent faced reality, but at a price.

His sensual side conquers Alma who died last summer- suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her (243). Buchanan, despite his upper-middleclass status, is another Stanley, a man who believes in the fundamental morality of a primitive existence. Like Stanley, he expresses contempt for the abstractions of the historical, cultural, and traditional past. Later though, John finds love and hope through Nellie (Bloom 67). Alma is forced to begin to turn her head away from her windows that lead to the Buchanan house, and towards other men, so we are able to keep on going (Williams, The Theatre 254). Friction evolved from two opposing clusters of images.

One of rural, semi-rural life enriched by tradition, religion, stable and predictable social behavior, and feeling of individual worth. And the other a chaotic, frenzy of industrial way of life. This is the atmosphere of the South following World War I. The violence and exploitation existed side by side with the genteel refinement of the South.

According to Ms. Abbott, southern myth disintegrated for several reasons whether it be the failure of individuals to pursue their ideas or the inability of southerners to resist contamination by materialists who do not believe in the southern code of behavior, the southern belles, the South, lost. (77). Amanda, Blanche and Alma are vehicles for views of Tennessee Williams of the South. Common themes exercised through not only Tennessee Williams’ plays, but through much of southern literature are narcissism, memory/illusion and rape.

They illuminate the reader of common themes of the South’s history and present state. From George Bagby to William Faulkner, the belle represents a human ideal, now regarded as antique while eliciting a paradox between living in the past and present congruently. Although, this way of life should not be encouraged in the real world, as a literary figure, her day is not over. Bibliography Evans 14 Works Cited Abbott, Shirley. Womenfolk: Growing Up Down South. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983.

Avia. Southern Belles WebRing. 1997. 1 Nov 1999. Bernhard, Virginia Eds.

Hidden Histories of Women in the New South. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994. Bernhard, Virginia Eds. Southern Women.

Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Bloom, Harold Ed. Modern Critical Views: Tennessee Williams. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Bynum, Victoria E. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South. Chaphill Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992. Dillman, Caroline Matheny Ed. Southern Women.

New York: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1988. Jackson, Esther Merle. The Broken World of Tennessee Williams. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.

Jacobus, Lee A. Ed. The Bedford Introduction to Drama Third Edition. Boston: Bedford Book, 1997. Kolin, Philip C. Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance.

Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998. Roudane, Matthew C. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Williams, Tennessee.

A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Signet Book, 1947. Evans 15 Williams, Tennessee. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams Volume Two.

New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1971. Theater.

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