First impression lies:The power and masculinity exuded by Stanley Kolawski
Throughout scenes 1 and 2 of A Streetcar Named Desire, playwright Tennessee Williams presents Stanley as extremely powerful and authoritative through the use of dialogue as well as stage directions. The audience immediately learns how strong Stanley is in a physical sense; however, we soon discover that he is also very controlling in his own animalistic nature. Furthermore, it becomes evident that Stanley regards himself as the dominant partner in his relationship with Stella, as Williams conveys a sense of pre-eminence in Stanley’s attitude towards his wife. Each of these factors contribute to Stanley’s overall image of forceful masculinity, which grows more apparent as the play progresses.
Stanley’s physical appearance is a key aspect of his overall dominance in Streetcar, as it reflects his toughness and boldness throughout the play. For example, in the stage directions Williams describes Stanley as ‘strongly, compactly built,’ instantly illustrating him as a robust and muscular man. The fact that he is built ‘compactly’ not only highlights his solidity but also suggests that he is explosive, in the sense that his body is so compressed that he could easily lash out in an act of violence at any second. At the beginning of Act 1 Williams also notes that Stanley ‘carries his bowling jacket’ and thus reinforces his masculinity. Carla J. McDonough stresses the significance of his athletic image, as she claims that Stanley represents almost everything that Williams was not, yet what he still wanted to be. This reading is important, as it allows the audience to connect with Williams himself, and comprehend the expectations of pure manliness during the 1940’s. Further stage directions also hint at Stanley’s great strength as he is said to ‘heave’ a package at Stella and ‘pull up a fist-full of costume jewellery’ when arguing with his wife about Blanche’s supposed fortune. The use of the word ‘heave’ denotes his energy and strength, and the fact that Williams chooses to state ‘fist-full’ depicts an image of a great firm hand, therefore reinforcing Stanley’s manliness. In addition, Williams produces a strong juxtaposition, as a contrast is made between the strength of Stanley’s hulking fist and the delicacy of the cheap jewellery, which he could easily crush in the palm of his hand. It could be debated that this example represents Stanley’s control over Blanche – as he is overwhelmingly confident and domineering, while Blanche is very weak and flaky. During the 1940’s-1950’s in Southern America, there was still a great deal of inequality between men and women; men were still regarded as the dominant gender (both physically and mentally), so it’s understandable that Stanley is painted in this powerful light and William’s immediately ‘warns’ the audience about his superiority through his basic appearance.
Williams also presents Stanley in a very bestial manner to demonstrate not only how threatening but also how primitive he is. For example when Stanley is first properly introduced the stage directions state that ‘animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitude’. This reveals Stanley’s unsophisticated nature and almost suggests that he is ‘a different species’ as Stella tells Blanche. The fact that Williams describes his animal joy as ‘implicit’ stresses his fundamental desire for sex and his own shallow character. He is likened to a ‘richly feathered male bird among hens’ which indicates how he is the ‘leader of the pack’ in the sense that he is always surrounded by followers who are often intimidated by him (meaning his dominance is not contested). The phrase ‘richly feathered’ portrays him as very sensuous and attractive, which is accurate seeing as ‘brutal desire’ is the mainstay of his relationship with Stella. Furthermore the difference between a menacing male bird and an innocent hen is somewhat significant as it verifies the idea that Stanley has ultimate superiority over all his surrounding subjects. Although Williams mainly focuses on the danger of Stanley’s animal nature, a Marxist view may be that Stanley is simply taking on the ‘hunter’ role to protect his family. For example Stanley is said to return home with a ‘red-stained package from the butchers’ which connotes to animals killing prey; likewise it can be considered that Stanley is the predator (of Blanche) and defender of his territory (his apartment). Moreover Streetcar is set in the 1940’s – a period in which vast numbers of immigrants went to the United States in search of work. Many of these immigrants were Polish (like Stanley) and were often treated unjustly, facing prejudice due to their uneducated backgrounds. Consequently, it is possible that Williams has also produced this animal-like presentation of Stanley to emphasize the basic stereotype of an immigrant during the 1940s-50s. It could be interpreted that Stanley is actually quite insecure and asserts himself as a brutal leader in his own apartment in order to feel like he is more than just a ‘filthy immigrant.’
Stanley’s lack of polite conversation is another way in which Williams conveys a sense of his self-importance and overall dominance, as it implies that Stanley regards himself as ‘in charge’ of the dialogue. For example when he first meets Blanche he simply doesn’t care about appearing well-spoken or cultured and immediately intrudes by asking her personal questions such as ‘you were married once weren’t you?’ and then following with ‘what happened?’ This provides an accurate presentation of how rude and abrupt Stanley is; he has no respect for the fact that Blanche may not want to disclose such intimate information with him – especially since they have literally just met one another. It becomes evident that Stanley hates anybody questioning him and he’s certainly not afraid to announce his own opinions on every matter; for example, he accuses Blanche of lying about Belle Reve without having any actual evidence. This tactic shows Stanley’s utter determination to be right as well as his arrogance, as in the quote ‘Have you ever heard of the Napoleonic Code?’ Apparent, he sees himself as intelligent and accomplished, so he completely disregards anyone else’s views. During Act 2, Stella begins to grow harsher with Stanley as she defends her sister; however, Stanley rapidly re-asserts his authority by bellowing ‘Since when do you give me orders?’ (which demonstrates how Stanley ‘calls all the shots’ in his household.) This feature also supports the fact that the majority of immigrants were not very well-educated, as it’s evident that Stanley is lacking in basic social courtesy as well as pure respect. In addition his use of explicit speech indicates his desire to present himself as a bold and self-assured figure rather than a meek, pathetic immigrant. A feminist approach to this would note the obedience of Stella towards her husband and her inability to defy him. Stanley’s sharp and blunt colloquial speech produces a rather bitter effect and contributes to his general intimidating illustration.
Williams displays Stanley as exuding power in his own relationship with Stella as well, as he appears to be very aware of the fact that he is the more dominant partner in their marriage. Stanley’s animosity contrasts greatly with Stella’s self-reservation, hence suggesting that Stella is in a much more vulnerable position than Stanley (which he possibly takes advantage of). At the beginning of the play, Williams refers to Stanley as a ‘gaudy seed-bearer’ in the stage directions, which implies that he is more ‘important’ as he is effectively responsible for the creation of their baby. The word ‘gaudy’ reveals how proud he is of himself and suggests that he is rather egotistical too, therefore indicating how confident he feels in his marriage. Williams manipulates Stanley to appear even more nasty by his treatment towards his wife; for example Stanley continuously orders Stella around by asking questions such as ‘How about my supper, huh?’ This verifies his selfishness and shows how he has little consideration even for those that he supposedly loves – especially as Stella is currently pregnant with his baby. Despite the fact that this question is rather casual, the ‘huh’ at the end almost produces an accusing tone and makes Stanley sound intimidating; meaning the audience begins to understand how controlling he is towards Stella. Carla J. McDonough believes that Stanley’s ‘assertiveness is dependent on his relationship with Stella and his ability to crush opposition.’ This suggests that Stanley’s principal trigger to his oppressive attitude is Stella herself – as she allows Stanley to simply walk all over her and do exactly as he pleases. On the other hand, a feminist may interpret Stanley as purely wanting to live up to typical 1940’s expectations of ‘masculinity’ and therefore acting so authoritatively in order to create a stronger and manlier self-image.
Generally, Williams focuses on presenting Stanley’s power from a negative perspective, as he creates a conceited and vulgar image of Stanley. Williams’ use of stage directions highlight Stanley’s own physical appearance and hint at his bestial nature and primitiveness (which can either be perceived as a setback or contribution to Stanley’s power). The clever use of Stanley’s dialogue maintains a sense of disrespect towards others and also his self-awareness of his superiority. Nevertheless, it is possible that Williams amplifies Stanley’s dominance by producing such weak and fragile surrounding characters; for example, Stella is too afraid to defend her sister, Blanche is far too feeble to protect herself, and ultimately even Mitch fails to confront Stanley about his brutality. Consequently, Stanley’s sovereignty is intensified greatly as a result of his frail subjects.
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