Tennessee Williams purposefully addresses Blanche DuBois’s internal disorder by utilizing the motif of light and darkness in order to reveal a deeper level of justification in Blanche’s actions. The motif of light and dark works to represent enlightenment and ignorance;it also represents innocence and sin. Darkness is portrayed as a response to light – after light, darkness follows. Light is addressed most adequately with relation to the astrological imagery included in the play. Darkness in the play is brought out through Blanche’s actions and imagery with the use of imagery such as shadows, dark meat, and an abuse of alcohol. Desire drives the light within the frameworks of the play. Tennessee Williams shows the audience that the light and dark world are not only illusion, but discriminatory factors which falsely antagonize and worsen Blanche’s condition. Likewise, Williams justifies Blanche’s actions in such a subtle manner that the viewer of the play would require diligence and a sense of open mindedness to sympathize with Blanche’s actions.
Much of the blame for Blanche’s misdirection is a socially constructed bias which works against her because of her role as a female in society. Despite the destructive and psychotic nature of darkness and light in Blanche’s world, her family and friends seem to leave her to fend for herself, while enabling her to destroy herself. The cast does little to assist and redirect her life. In this sense they are responsible for Blanche’s downfall.
Light is traditionally portrayed as a symbol of knowledge and innocence. Tennessee Williams uses the traditional concepts in subtle ways in order to allow his symbols to portray multiple meanings. The most obvious and apparent astrological symbol is Stella’s name which means star in Latin. This is relevant because, like a moth or a fly, Blanche travels to any light she can find. Therefore Blanche comes to stay with Stella, the glowing light that draws the brainless fly in each time. Just like a bug light, the intense shock of Stanley is there to stop her in her tracks. In terms of astrological symbolism, another obvious inclusion of symbols is Blanche’s astrological sign -Virgo. Tennessee Williams attributes the astrological sign Virgo to Blanche to metaphorically play around with several concepts simultaneously. On one hand, the idea that Virgo sounds like virgin has an ironic component when placed next to Blanche; likewise, the association of virgin with innocence is Williams’ way of letting the reader know to pair the concept of innocence with the symbol of light. As the play is being directed on stage, the lighting on stage would also be a large impact in this effect, as the light director chooses which parts of the stage to illuminate and which to leave in darkness. The most prevalent, yet discrete, astrological symbol explains why the story must necessarily be in play format: Williams ironically intends for each character to be played by an actor, commonly referred to as a star. The notion that each of the characters is a star is supported further as each character provides at least some light, or knowledge, into Blanche’s life.
Beyond astrological symbols, light has many more appearances in the play. There is one light bulb that is exposed in the apartment, which Blanche covers with a Chinese lamp shade. This part of the inclusion of light is important as it represents Blanche’s desire to resist the light. The resistance of the light continues throughout the entire play. Blanche tries to hide in the shadows in order to not be seen in the light. She goes so far as to avoid taking Mitch out while it is light outside. Ironically she avoids the light in order to appear more attractive; in reality, when Mitch gets Blanche to stand under the direct light he points out that her deceitful nature was the reason why he no longer desires her, and not her appearances at all. People look not only how they physically appear, but appear so in the framework of their own actions. Additionally, the fact that she is under direct light when she receives this revelation shows Williams’ desire to make the motif of light an intentional one.
When Blanche said, “They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at-Elysian Fields,” she brought up the contrast between light and dark. The Elysian Fields is the place of the dead in Greek mythology, and it is often depicted very black and void of light. The duality between light and dark, as a metaphor, is extended to represent the physical darkness present on stage through special effects. However it is also utilized in the emotional context of Blanche’s slow mental demise; even further the concepts of light and darkness are brought into play as the audience is challenged to realize allusions to other concepts of darkness. In an even grander philosophical sense, the concept of desire is the equivalent to intrinsic value in Blanche’s life and therefore the light which she seeks. The cemeteries are the intermediaries between the world of the living and the dead. Each of these metaphorical tombstones represents a sexual encounter which slowly leads her to her inevitable demise. With the darkness surrounding Blanche and enveloping her in chaos, Williams addresses his own inner demons and attempts to justify what wrong happened in his life through the framework of the external world which seems to force Blanche’s actions. With just one individual line, Williams let’s the reader understand that “they” (as in society or its members) were the ones that forced Blanche down the path of desire. Just as Sigmund Freud holds the belief that we are all self defeatists on a personal path toward our own destruction (especially in a sexual sense), Blanche feels justified in holding the bearer of each individual tombstone equally responsible for their sexual encounters. It is in this sense that the darkness of the socially constructed patriarchal bias toward sexuality is actualized; it is the assumption that Blanche is responsible in the eyes of her friends for each individual sexual act despite the fact that it takes two to “tango”.
Bathing represents the concept of innocence and is a means of enlightenment in the play. Blanche uses the baths to reflect upon what has happened during the day, particularly bad things. In this sense bathing is the middle ground between light and dark; sometimes the baths are taken in darkness of night, and sometimes they are taken in the light of day. Blanche takes baths in order to calm herself and uses the baths in order to escape her dark past. The fact that Blanche continues to take baths shows that she will never find light again. A great deal of the struggle for light has to deal with her ex-husband. Blanche at one point admits that light used to be in her life. She forges strong connections between the symbol of light and the progression of sexual maturity as she begins to tell the story of Allan Grey, her deceased husband. At one point during her story she mentions that Grey revealed the world in a blinding light. After Grey’s death she seeks only dull lights which most likely have to do with her fear of abandonment which was caused by the trauma of Grey’s death. No sympathy beyond a superficial level and off handed remarks are given and the viewer is left wondering if anyone is sympathetic to the trauma that Blanche undergoes.
On the other hand, the idea of darkness naturally contrasts light and is representative of ignorance or naïveté. The darkness is also used to show the death of innocence. Blanche’s action of staying in the dark is the first major representation of darkness. Blanche hides in the shadow because she is shy about her age; older age is associated with darker circles under the eyes, which involves darkness in a physical sense. Additionally, older age birthdays are associated with the color black and the symbol of the grim reaper, symbolic of imminent death. A lot of the focus on vanity is involved in Blanche’s actions. As far back as Dante, vanity was attributed to sin, and the vanity in Blanche’s actions relate to the concept of sin.
The disregard toward the female, and the grim male imagery of crude lifelessness enters the foreground early on in the play. Meat is present from the very first scene in a slightly disturbing scene. Animals that have light meat are not typically large enough to fit the description given to the meat that Stanly throws, so it is most likely dark meat. The fact that even the meat is dark, and the primitive notions brought to the foreground with the mentioning of meat represent primal instincts. These are directly opposite to the innocent and very humane aspects of light. The meat represents death of an animal and therefore the extinguishing of a light from the universe. Additionally, the idea of meat is also very sexual in nature. Stella willingly accepts the dark meat and likewise accepts the sexual advances of Stanley, despite his dark nature. Beyond the darkness of the meat itself, the idea of flesh is brought to attention. Stanley’s handling of the meat is symbolic of his handling of women, and in a very dark way is representative of his idea that the manipulation and control of flesh of all kinds is justifiable in their patriarchal society. Ironically despite all of Blanche’s short comings, she is pale in flesh color. Although this means that light has not shined on her skin enough to turn it dark; on the other hand her flesh is itself light in color. In any event merely being a piece of flesh seems to be enough to drive Stanley to disregard the downfall of Blanche amidst all of the chaos; Stanley chooses to throw her onto the table for display as a piece of meat in much the way he throws a piece of meat onto the table in the first scene. At one point that was a living breathing creature, but now, through the manipulation and mutilation of man, only a dead carcass remains. An element of foreshadowing which should not go overlooked.
With nearly every meal the cast eats, alcohol of some kind is accompanied. The alcoholic behavior of Blanche is .secretive. She keeps it in the dark that she drinks alcohol on a near daily basis. Whereas the other characters in the play feel free to drink openly, Blanche irrationally hides her drinking. Blanche drinks alone in the dark, yet not in secret, as Stanley knows about her drinking. Her alcohol tends to get darker in color too. In the beginning she drinks clear grain alcohols although gradually she transgresses into drinking Stanley’s whiskey. Mitch even remarks that Blanche has been drinking Stanley’s whiskey. The grim side of the alcohol is a common recurring motifs in many plays as far back as Shakespeare, and the way in which William’s blends it in to the lives of the characters so discretely portrays a chilling image to contemporary viewers of the plays, as they witness how alcohol is part of daily life and of all the violence that is accompanied with it.
In the tenth scene, shadows start to appear on the wall. The shadows are fragments of all her inner demons projected onto the wall. Just as a projector passes light through a transparent surface in order to illuminate its true composition in expanded form, light is passed through Blanche onto the wall. This represents the fears Blanche has as well as the regrets of the past that cause her pain. Seeing the projection of her own darkness as an externalized manifestation which is separate from her own body, she is able to recognize the horrors of what has happened in her life. The idea of a shadow encompasses both light and dark. The darkness is the form of the shadow whose figure is defined by the boundaries of the light. The shadows are her inner demons which she was ignorant to in the past. She can now see these shadows with the newfound light that her breakdown is causing. This is too much for her to deal with. Much in the way that many are blinded by the light as they leave the cave in Plato’s allegory, Blanche is mentally devastated by these shadows and becomes crazy. In the end, she is brought away from the house, ignorant to reality in every seeming capacity.
Expanding the much popular convention of attributing light to knowledge and darkness to ignorance, Williams’ uses light as an image of innocence and sexual purity. Darkness is the opposition of everything that light stands for, representing sexual deviancy and impurity. Symbols such as the star and the dark meat, as well as the countless other recurring motifs included in the play allow for the central theme of the duality between light and dark to take stage. In all of the chaos, a deeper understanding of Blanche’s internal disorder is realized. Blanche is to some degree justified in feeling abandoned, yet little sympathy is directed her way from the cast. The light and dark themes surround the cast members in manifest content, in latent content, and in physical form, as the metaphorical justice Williams includes to justify Blanche’s behavior materializes on stage.