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Symbolism . Learning Objective: To examine how the motif of light and dark helps to convey the theme of reality versus fantasy. To use one of the symbols that Williams uses in ‘Streetcar’ in your own writing. . You can’t Handle the Light!.

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Learning Objective:

To examine how the motif of light and dark helps to convey the theme of reality versus fantasy.

To use one of the symbols that Williams uses in ‘Streetcar’ in your own writing.

You can’t Handle the Light!

  • Light represents reality which the working class seems to constantly be associated with. Stanley symbolizes realism and the truth. It also illuminates the truth for people to see, whether good or bad. Furthermore, it implies that reality itself is harsh and ‘merciless’ when it illuminates people for everyone to see and judge.

Blinding Light

  • Blanche: He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl. When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely. It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that’s how it struck the world for me. But I was unlucky. Deluded.

  • When Blanche discovers that Allen is gay she cannot cope with the truth. She realises that he does not love her in the same way that she loves him and that the life she thought she was going to have with him is gone. From this point on she fears the truth: the light and what it will expose about herself and others.

How else does light symbolise Blanche’s denial of reality?

  • Blanche DuBois: I can't stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action. (To hide her appearance: age, fake fur and jewellery)

  • Blanche DuBois: I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don't tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth. (Denial of reality- but not malicious. She seeks acceptance, admiration and the romanticised reality she wishes were true)

FACED With The Truth

  • Blanche feels deeply the loss of a great love and the guilt of what she said to Allen before he died.

  • She cannot cope with her new reality and so in order to cope she constructs a version of events that enables her to preserve a sense of her former self. She also wants to be perceived as what she thinks people want her to be, ‘magic. I try to give that to people.’

  • She doesn’t see it as lies p.205 “Never inside, I didn’t lie in my heart.” It was the only way that she could preserve her dignity.

  • How does Blanche want Mitch to see her? Provide quotes.


  • Stella: But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant. [Pause.]

  • The uncomfortable reference to sexual activities in the dark possibly suggests how sex can delude a person, in turn leading to their destruction. Her reference to darkness also suggests that it helps them avoid or ignore the conflict temporarily or to forget it altogether. The fact that sexual intercourse is associated with the dark implies that these two things help people become more willing to accept their environment and situation with the people around them (like Stanley’s violent nature)

  • Where else is light used symbolically in regards to the relationship between Stella and Stanley?

Chooses the Darkness

  • Stella: I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley.

  • Eunice: Don’t ever believe it. Life has got to go on. No matter what happens, you’ve got to keep on going.

  • But does she have much choice?

    This was a time where women had very little control over their lives, where they had to do what they could to survive. (We see this with Blanche as well- the hotel in Laurel).

Mitch and the paper lantern

  • Blanche: [fearfully] Light? Which light? What for?

    Mitch: This one with the paper thing on it. [He tears the paper lantern off the light bulb. She utters a frightened gasp] Blanche: What did you do that for?Mitch: So I can take a look at you good and plain!

  • Mitch’s action in ripping the paper lantern off the light bulb is significant because he is also ripping the dreams that Blanche has created and trapped herself in, in order to hide from the ugly reality she is unable to confront. The light and Mitch himself suggest realism. Furthermore, his action can also be seen as a form of violation foreshadowing the physical rape that will happen in the next scene.

  • Blanche fears the light because of the harsh realism she will be forced to face which will cause her happy fantasies (being young and beautiful) to be shattered.

Other symbols

  • Bathing

  • Colours (white, blue, red)

  • The different Streetcars

  • Flowers

  • Music

    See handout on symbols for more information

Student Example: Explanation

  • Mine is a story about Nectar, a troubled man who was once wealthy and well regarded, but lost his family business and money. Whilst he was once able to indulge in splendid fantasies, he is now without the financial ability to do so. Nectar is ageing and will soon be unable to work to support himself, and this forces him into a delusion where his business still exists. This echoes the way Blanche lost Belle Reve, as well as her money and status. She once saw herself as an object of desire, but as age catches up with her she begins to shy away from the light, preferring to hide in the dark, representative of her false reality. In my story Nectar is also fearful of light, as it symbolizes an objective reality, what everyone ‘outside’ sees, and the dark is Nectar’s false hope. Blanche’s drinking is an important part of her degradation and denial of the truth, she drinks to escape her memories and current situation. Nectar also drinks and uses amphetamines in a similar manner.

Student Example: Creative

“What? No, what are you talking about? This is my property, my business. I don’t have any problems, I don’t need an ambulance!” Nectar said anxiously. The light still shone on him and seemed to eat into his uncovered skin.

“No, MrKondovasis, this is no longer your business, it closed months ago, someone else owns the building now. Please step outside or we will remove you from the premises ourselves.”

“No, no, no, I’m not going with you, I can’t” Nectar was in a state of disbelief. This didn’t make any sense, and yet something in his mind clicked. He slammed the door shut and clapped his hands to his head.

“No …”

The door swung open again; the light struck him as if it were a solid object. A pair of hands grabbed him and hauled him from the darkness of the shop, out onto the street. There was a wash of white, piercing light. The spotlights of a police car were fixed on the front door.

“Hands against the wall, feet apart.” He was pushed against the front window of the shop, and complied. His mind had shut down, the light hurt too much, he could no longer comprehend what was going on. The same hands that grabbed him now patted him down, turned out his pockets, in the light, for all to see.

There was a radio call for a paramedic crew, and Nectar’s knees buckled. He passed out.


  • Creative piece: You could use one or more of these ideas in your own writing to enhance your piece, whilst also making your knowledge of the play apparent.

  • Expository/Persuasive: You could draw on one or more of these ideas to discuss ideas relating to the prompt and support your analysis of how and why Blanche’s reality is constructed.

  • Why Blanche is justified in believing in her fantasies in order to cope?

Your turn:

  • Write an 800-1000 word response on the prompt:

    ‘We need to hold onto illusions in order to cope with reality’, incorporating light/darkness or one of other symbols from ‘A Streetcar named Desire’ into your own writing.

  • You can write in any of the three writing styles.


  • Revisit your Self Assessment sheet and score your understanding of how the symbolism of light helps to convey the theme of reality versus fantasy.

  • Score your effort too. Did you work to the potential you hoped to?

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