Sins of the past
(Prompt; Discuss the idea(s) developed by the text creator in your chosen text about the human need to reconcile the uncertainties of the past with a new or present situation.)
The past is something that can be defined as definite—something that cannot be changed, regardless of how much an individual wants to re-write it. An individual’s past defines who they are, it shapes their identity, and it dictates who they become in their future. But what if one’s past is uncertain? In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams explores the idea that a loss of identity, caused by the uncertainties of one’s past, can cause individuals to attempt to reconcile that uncertain past with a new or present situation, through his protagonist Blanche Dubois; this is evident in Blanche’s initial loss of identity due to the uncertain homosexuality of her young husband; displayed through the way that Blanche reacts to his eminent suicide; and finally can be found in the current situation that she has placed herself in.
Blanche Dubois’ initial loss of identity occurred before the events that are scripted in Williams’ book; when Blanche was very young, she married a young man by the name of Allan Grey, whom she describes as her ‘first love’. She later discovers that her young husband was gay by coming into a dark room and turning on the light. Blanche reveals all of this to a very intrigued Harrold “Mitch” Mitchell; the author writes, “Then I found out. In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty—which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it . . . the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years. . .” (Page 114). Her husband’s uncertain homosexuality lead to the initial loss of Blanche’s identity, for she had let her love for him define her. Blanche later states that she felt as though she had failed Allan in some way, which goes to show that Blanche thought that she was so undesirable that her husband would go to another man for sexual satisfaction instead of her. This feeling of incompetence along with her attachment to Allan lead to the uncertainty of her own desirability. One could argue that Blanche didn’t truly know if Allan loved her at all and this uncertainty lead to the loss of her identity. Later, Blanche reveals that her young husband commit suicide after an exchange that took place between the two of them in a casino; “Afterwards we pretended that nothing had been discovered. . . We danced the Varsouviana! Suddenly in the middle of the dance, the boy I had married broke away from me and ran out of the casino. A few moments later—a shot!. . . It was because—on the dance floor—unable to stop myself—I’d suddenly said—“I saw! I know! You disgust me. . .” (Page 115) Blanche’s humiliation of her husband prompted him to shoot himself, for he couldn’t live with her being disgusted by him. In turn, Blanche now has to live with the guilt of knowing that, in a backwards way, she killed her husband. However, one could argue that, since Allan would have had to already have the gun, perhaps he was going to kill himself anyway. The uncertainty that Blanche, to this day, carries around with her is comprised of a few things; her uncertainty of her desirability, her uncertainty of Allan’s love, and her uncertainty surrounding his death. This uncertainty and truth lead to the disconnection of her old identity, where she would be described as bearing a striking resemblance to a butterfly. Furthermore, the discovery of her husband’s homosexuality caused her to lose her innocence in a way. She now had blood on her hands, and this was something with which she didn’t know how to cope and so, she forced herself into a different life in an attempt to reconcile the uncertainties of her dark past.
After the suicide of Allan Grey, Blanche turned to sexual gratification from strangers for comfort. Blanche states, “. . . I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of Allan—intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with. . . I think it was panic, just panic, that drove me from one to another. . .” (Page 146) In revealing this to Mitch, Blanche confesses that her ‘panic’, or to rephrase, ‘fear’, was what drove her to have sex with numerous men on multiple occasions. Blanche was afraid of the uncertainty that clouded her husband’s death as well as the part that she played in it. This new life in which she buried herself, allowed her to escape from the woman she knew herself to be, along with her past and the sins that she had committed. The intimacies with strangers was an attempt to reconcile, and reaffirm, the uncertainty that Blanche carried in terms of how desirable she was—by having sexual relations with countless men, she was attempting to prove to herself that she was a desirable woman, however in doing so, this lead to a bigger disconnection between her old identity and the woman that she was becoming; Blanche used to be a woman who was reminiscent of a butterfly. She was an Antebellum with old-fashioned ideals and morals. Through her intimacies with strangers, Blanche further distanced herself from her old identity because what she was doing went against everything that her old self stood for. Blanche, literally, lost herself in the men that she slept with, in an attempt to reaffirm her desirability, but also in an attempt to forget about the horrors that surrounded her in her old life. Blanche later reveals that this life style lead to sexual encounters with one of her seventeen-year-old students, because her ‘panic’ drove her to hunt for some form of protection. Additionally, Allan was very young when he died, so perhaps in her seduction of one of her students, Blanche was attempting to gain closure over the uncertainties clouding their relationship as well as his death. One could also argue that along with closure, Blanche was also trying to regain her lost innocence by sleeping with someone so young, and by extension get her identity back, for perhaps the student made her feel young again. This is also evident through Blanche’s encounter with the newspaper boy much later on. Ultimately, one could argue that Blanche was trying to make peace with the demons of her past by trying to regain her lost identity through this new situation.
Finally, after she gets fired from her teaching job, Blanche moves in with her younger sister (Stella) once she realises that no amount of intimacy with any man could give her back her innocence and identity. By this time, one could argue that Blanche has completed the transition from a butterfly and into a moth, however she is a moth who is trying to be a butterfly; Blanche is constantly worried and insecure about her age and the fact that she is getting visibly older, and is painfully aware that her social status has disintegrated entirely due to her reputation as a “common whore”. The combination of these two factors acts as the final disconnection between her old and present self. To make up for these facts, Blanche acts flighty and innocent in an attempt to keep the old version of herself alive, for she is an entirely different person now, and the old one died along with Allan. This can be displayed through, as previously mentioned, her preoccupation with her age and the affects that her age has on her appearance; “. . . my birthday’s next month, the fifteenth of September; that’s under Virgo.” (Page 89) By Blanche revealing this information to Stanley (Stella’s crude husband), Blanche is attempting to maintain her aura of innocence—‘Virgo’ is an astrological sign that represents the virgin and virgins are typically said to be very innocent and pure. This plays in to Blanche’s excessive concern with her age, as well as her loss of identity; virgins are a symbol of innocence and youth, as well as desirability, and Blanche is attempting to convince herself of her own innocence, youth, desirability by identifying with Virgo, as well as attempting to hold on to her old identity, for you cannot change the sign under which you were born. Blanche is continuously placing herself in situations to make up for the uncertainty surrounding Allan’s death and the fact that she played a part in that death, which is clearly exemplified in the a-for-mentioned example. Blanche’s need for reconciliation of the uncertainties of her past is also displayed in her rape; “[She moans. The bottle-top falls. She sinks to her knees. He picks up her inert figure and carries her to the bed.]” (Page 162) The significance of this quote is particularly in the fact that she moans, and allows Stanley to carry her to the bed and, by extension, to rape her; Blanche believed that, because of the hand that she (thinks she) dealt in Allan’s death, she deserved to be raped, for it was a form of punishment for her. The rape acts as her acceptance of the fact that she will never regain her lost identity, and she will never be who she once was, and so she surrenders to the horrors that rape can inflict on a person because she deserves it. With this acceptance of the fact that she is no longer a butterfly, but a moth, Blanche goes mad from this loss and rejection of identity, for she has realised that she will never be young again, nor will she be able to change her past in order to make sense of the uncertainties that cloud the past that she calls her own, thus throwing herself into one last situation, as a response to the fact that her past will, in fact, remain unreconciled, and uncertain.
All in all, one can conclude that an individual’s identity is based on their past. The past is solid, the only thing that one can accept as true. However, based on A Streetcar Named desire, the uncertainties of one’s past can push an individual to make peace with that uncertainty through new situations—Blanche DuBois proves that. One could even argue that the uncertainties clouding her past were what drove her to madness. Blanche allowed her past, and the uncertainties that came with it, to define her which is why she never could truly bloom in her new identity—she was so stuck in longing for the old one. Blanche DuBois is a clear example of how a loss of identity, caused by the uncertainty of an individual’s past, can cause one to attempt to reconcile those uncertainties with a new situation.