On the Dialectics of Trauma in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire

Journal of Medical Humanities 32 (4):325-337 (2011)
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Blanche DuBois, the tragic heroine of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire , has always been read as either “mad” from the start of the play or as a character who descends into “madness.” We argue that Streetcar adumbrates elements of trauma theory, specifically symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as involuntary reliving of traumatic events, dissociation, guilt, shame, denial, the shattering of the self, the compulsion to repeat the story of trauma, as well as the early stages of recovery from trauma. We are the first to employ trauma theory as a critical framework through which to view Blanche and the dramaturgical devices used to concretize her post-traumatic state of mind. Williams’ heroine speaks from traumatic experience and not from psychic fabrications. Indeed, we contend that the play traces Blanche’s deliberate and self-conscious working through and mourning of the traumatic losses of the past, including her idealized, narcissistic conceptions of herself within a traumatic present. Thus she is more attuned to the most disturbing parts of reality and exhibits tragic insight born of traumatic experience. Critics who see Blanche as “mad” do not fully recognize her struggle to come to terms with trauma and loss within a culture of denial. We conclude that Streetcar stages the inextricable relation between the individual and social dialectics of trauma



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