The play takes place right after World War II, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Kowalski apartment is in a poor but charming neighborhood in the French Quarter. Stella, twenty-five years old and pregnant, lives with her blue collar husband Stanley Kowalski. It is summertime, and the heat is oppressive. Blanche Dubois, Stella's older sister, arrives unexpectedly, carrying all that she owns. Blanche and Stella have a warm reunion, but Blanche has some bad news: Belle Reve, the family mansion, has been lost. Blanche stayed behind to care for their dying family while Stella left to make a new life for herself, and Blanche is clearly resentful by her sister's abandonment of the family. Blanche meets her sister's husband, Stanley, for the first time, and immediately she feels uncomfortable. We learn that Blanche was once married, when she was very young, but her husband died, leaving her widowed and alone.
Stanley initially distrusts Blanche, thinking that she has cheated Stella out of her share of Belle Reve - but Stanley soon realizes that Blanche is not the swindling type. But the animosity between the two continues. Blanche takes long baths, criticizes the squalor of the apartment, and irritates Stanley. Stanley's roughness bothers Blanche as well, since he makes no effort to be gentle with her. One night, during a poker game, Stanley gets too drunk and beats Stella. The women go to their upstairs neighbors' apartment, but soon Stella returns to Stanley. Blanche is unable to understand Stella and Stanley's powerful (and destructive) physical relationship. That night, she also meets Mitch, prompting an immediate mutual attraction.
The next day, Stanley overhears Blanche saying terrible things about him. From that time on, he devotes himself fully to her destruction. Blanche, herself, has a shady past that she keeps close to the vest. During the last days of Belle Reve, after the mansion was lost, she was exceptionally lonely and turned to strangers for comfort. Her numerous amorous encounters destroyed her reputation in Laurel, leading to the loss of her job as a high school English teacher and her near-expulsion from town.
Tensions build in the apartment throughout the summer. Blanche and Stanley see each other as enemies, and Blanche turns increasingly to alcohol for comfort. Stanley, meanwhile, investigates Blanche's past, and he passes the information about her sexual dalliances on to Mitch. Although Blanche and Mitch had been on track to marry, after he learns the truth, he loses all interest in her. On Blanche's birthday, Mitch stands her up, abandoning her for good. Stanley, meanwhile, caustically presents Blanche with her birthday gift: bus tickets back to Laurel. Blanche is overcome by sickness; she cannot return to Laurel, and Stanley knows it. As Blanche is ill in the bathroom, Stella fights with Stanley over the cruelty of his act. Mid-fight, she tells him to take her to the hospital - the baby is coming.
That night, Blanche packs and drinks. Mitch arrives unexpectedly. He confronts her with the stories of her past, and she tells him, in lurid detail, the truth about her escapades in Laurel. He approaches her, making advances, wanting what she has denied him all summer. She asks him to marry her, and when he refuses, she kicks him out of the apartment.
Hours later, Stanley comes home to get some sleep while Stella's labor continues. Blanche further antagonizes Stanley, destroying his good humor, and he responds by mercilessly destroying Blanche's illusions, one by one, until finally he rapes her.
Weeks later, another poker game is being held at the Kowalski apartment. Blanche has suffered a mental breakdown. She has told Stella about Stanley's assault, but Stella has convinced herself that it cannot be true. A doctor and nurse come and take Blanche away to the asylum. The other men continue their poker game as if nothing has happened.
On a streetcar named Desire, Blanche DuBois travels from the railroad station in New Orleans to a street named Elysian Fields, where her sister, Stella, pregnant and married to Stanley Kowalski, lives in a run-down apartment building in the old French Quarter. Having lost her husband, parents, teaching position, and old family home—Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi—Blanche has nowhere to turn but to her one remaining close relative.
Thirty years old, Blanche is emotionally and economically destitute. The most traumatic experience in her life was the discovery that her husband—a poet whom she had married at the tender age of sixteen—was a homosexual. Soon after she had taunted him for his sexual impotence, he committed suicide. Their confrontation had occurred in Moon Lake Casino, ubiquitous in Williams’s plays as a house of illusions. In her subsequent guilt over his death, she found temporary release in a series of sexual affairs, the latest having involved one of her young students and resulting in her dismissal.
She is horrified at the circumstances in which her sister Stella lives and at the man to whom she is married. Polish, uneducated, inarticulate, and working class, but sexually attractive, he has won Stella by his sheer masculinity. Stella, according to production notes by director Elia Kazan, has been narcotized by his sexual superiority. A fourth important character, Stanley’s poker-playing companion Mitch, is attracted to Blanche. She is attracted to his kindness to her, for he is gentle in his manner, as Stanley is not. Blanche refers at one point to having found God in Mitch’s arms, a religious reference frequently made by Williams’s characters at important moments in their lives.
The action of the play, then, as in Greek tragedy, consists of the final events in Blanche’s life. Tensions grow between her and Stanley, even as her physical attraction to him becomes palpable. She expresses her contempt for his coarseness and animality. In scene after scene, she reminds him constantly of their cultural differences. Their hostilities develop into a Strindbergian battle of the sexes for the affection of Stella. Blanche eventually loses not only Stella but also Mitch, a possible husband.
The theatrically ironic climax occurs on Blanche’s birthday while Stella is in the hospital giving birth to her baby. Blanche has prettied up the apartment for her birthday. Drunk and inflamed by Blanche’s taunts into proving his superiority, Stanley rapes her in what is Williams’s most famous and most highly theatrical scene. Simultaneously repulsed and attracted by his sheer rawness, Blanche acts out her final rebellion against her genteel but sexually repressive background, as though to punish herself for violating her “soul.” Her struggle with Stanley is the last in a series of losses in Blanche’s life. Her delicate sensibility already strained to the breaking point when she had first arrived, she breaks down and at the end is led away to a mental institution.
As in The Glass Menagerie, there are candles, these on Blanche’s birthday cake. Like the lights that go out in Laura’s life and that forever after haunt Tom, Blanche’s are symbolically extinguished. In the red pajamas that Stanley wears for the occasion, the blue candles on the cake, the extravagantly old-fashioned dresses that Blanche wears, the festive decorations, and Williams’s use of music and lights, the illusions of Blanche’s world are highlighted. In contrast, the repulsive vulgarity and the attractive animality of Stanley’s world are symbolized in details such as the opening scene in which Stanley throws Stella a package of raw meat and the famous beer-bottle-opening scene at the birthday party. Such violently opposing images are the hallmarks of Williams’s highly theatrical poetry.
Even more than in The Glass Menagerie, when Tom descends the staircase of the Wingfields’ St. Louis apartment for the last time, Blanche’s arrival at the Kowalskis’ home suggests a descent into the lower regions. It is her final descent into a mythical underworld, in which, like Orpheus, she is psychologically mutilated and eaten. In this modern American variation of the Greek myth, which Williams dramatizes more directly in Orpheus Descending (1957) and more violently in Suddenly Last Summer, one of the stops the streetcar makes is Cemetery; the Elysian Fields, ironically, is Blanche’s last stop before her insanity and death.
The play’s strongest effects can be found in Williams’s use of language and in the many symbols. The lines remaining in the memories of those who have seen A Streetcar Named Desire epitomize the strong contrasts which lie at the center of the play: Stanley’s bullish bellowing of “Stella, Stella” and Blanche’s confession, “I have always been dependent on the kindness of strangers.” Brutishness and reason, body and soul, mastery and dependency vie for survival within Stanley and Blanche.
In the loss of Belle Reve and the acceptance by Stella of a new life—the world of Stanley and of the kind but inarticulate Mitch—Williams, like Anton Chekhov in Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908), dramatizes the replacing of one era by another. Like August Strindberg in Fröken Julie (1888; Miss Julie, 1912), Williams sees the social aristocracy being replaced by a coarser but more vital one. Social Darwinism is the basis for the change. As Stella rejects the old values and asserts dominance, audience sympathy for Blanche’s vulnerability grows measurably. Regarded generally as Williams’s most compactly constructed play, A Streetcar Named Desire is a dramatization of a heroine with few, if any, peers in her impact on the consciousness of the American theatrical tradition.