A Streetcar Named Desire
The Outsider is a novel about how death is nothing: the ultimate conclusion of and alternative to life, and as such is uniquely beautiful and not to be afraid of. A Streetcar Named Desire, on the other hand, presents death as a terrifying and unfortunately intrinsic aspect of life, from which Blanche runs. Meursault similarly avoids death at the beginning of the novel, but through a process of ‘enlightenment’ comes to terms with it. It is interesting how Camus uses the verb ‘perdu’ (lost) to describe the death of Emmanuel’s uncle.
Euphemistically detaching death from connotations of sadness, this accentuates a theme prevalent in The Outsider, best expressed: “I wasn’t interested in her any more if she was dead”. This is the opposite attitude to that of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, who has been so affected by death that she sees it everywhere. Even Elysian Fields appears to her to be a Poe-influenced, spirit-filled place. Everywhere she is reminded of the horrible death of her loved ones, which has profoundly affected her, to the point that when she talks about them she doesn’t even notice Stella crying: the memory of death overrules her natural senses.
Throughout the play the theme of the past affecting the present is expressed, both emotionally and with the ‘Flamingo’ tale. The past is almost a character, unlike in The Outsider which, if read existentially, considers death to be “a part of that past to which [Meursault] gives no thought or substance… because the past and the matters of life and death do not [matter]. ” “It’s not my fault” claims Meursault; he clearly believes death is never the fault of those alive.
Kell remarks of the beach murder “the language used in this passage is so elaborate and rich in simile [that it] almost detaches the act from Meursault and causes the reader to question whether he did it with intent or not. Camus detaches Meursault from the action with “the trigger gave”, further insulating Meursault against intent or consequence – and therefore against blame. ” Harrison offers an alternative reading, The Outsider offering a “startling look at what it means to be a human, to live, and to have the ability to take another’s life.
There is evidence for both these interpretations in the text, perhaps reflecting the confusion of Camus himself who, while claiming not to be an existentialist, nonetheless fraternised with those who were. Living during Europe’s twixt-wars ‘malaise’ and residing in Algiers, Camus’ people were restless and this is reflected in The Outsider. Nonetheless, “one life is as good as another” he claims, an assertion directly opposite to the sentiment at the conclusion of A Streetcar Named Desire, when Blanche’s life is sacrificed so that the other characters’ lives might improve.
Camus causes Meursault to ultimately die, raising more questions: a sympathetic reading would have us feeling sorrow at his condemnation, whereas an ironic reading would have us realise that “neither the reader nor the characters within the novel can justify Meursault’s actions”. Kell believes that “by concluding the novel with death, Camus… shows symbolically that the characters have completed – as best they can – the journey to find true identity. ” Bri?? e and Lynes claim death is an “affirmation of the supreme value of life”.
This is revealed by Camus with Meursault’s rejection of the priest’s belief that death is hope because life isn’t good enough. ‘Living like a dead man’, wishing for a ‘better life’, the priest enrages Meursault, who considers that claiming death is better than life – rather than the culmination of life – is ludicrous. It is in this moment that the light plays on Meursault’s forehead, symbolising his realisation of the true meaning of death: to reveal the beauty of existence, death being a way of proving to himself and the world that he HAS lived and goodness, what a life it was.
Death can’t be looked forward to in a way akin to life because, as with the lights at the start of the novel, it is “all or nothing”. Life or death. Again, a complete defiance of the symbolism imbedded in the set for A Streetcar Named Desire, in which decay is ‘gracefully attenuated’ by the evening beauty, representing death and life walking hand in hand. Camus’ attitude to death is more philosophical than Williams’, due no doubt to his obsession with Greek Philosophy, evident in his life-ambition of visiting Greece.
His philosophical bent was channelled forcibly into the analysis of death when in 1937 he contracted tuberculosis, bringing sense of the inevitability of death suddenly into the life that beforehand he had attempted to find meaning in by embracing to the full. Subtle cynicism to this extent is evident in Meursault’s dislike of Sundays, during which he observes crowds of people moving about with different purposes. Eventually the streets are ‘deserted’ and the trams ‘almost empty’. Watching the multi-textured layers of humanity disappear one by one ‘annoys’ Meursault, a metaphor for Camus’ struggle with acceptance of impending death.
After this, hearing youths cry “their team would never die” seems arrogant and irritating. But only irritating. Blanche, however, is physically sick at the memory of her husband’s death. Once more we see how, while Camus suggested death is a concept to affect our minds, Williams believed it affected our everyday lives and physical bodies. Even when Blanche is being accused of immoralities her ‘voice has a note of fear’ but she is nowhere near as affected as she was by the remembrance of death. Williams even uses Eunice to voice his main belief: ‘life has got to go on”.
Battling on in the face of an unsympathetic society, Williams lived as a drink-dependent homosexual, trying to be accepted for who he was, looking for an improved life. Not, like Camus, acknowledging the ultimate resolution of death: “there is no way out”. This theme of being trapped is present in The Outsider from the very start: Meursault has not yet realised death’s inevitability, yet the metaphors are abundant. Perez’s route represents human life: you can take shortcuts if you wish. You can wear a ‘soft felt hat’.
Or you can even traverse the ‘sticky black tar’ of dull despair. Either way, the sun – death – will catch up with you. Blanche, like Williams, tries to escape from the death that drove her to distraction at Belle Reve. “The opposite is desire”, and so she becomes a puppet of her desire. Ironically, like a moth’s desire for deadly light, these very lusts cause her to burn her wings. Williams was even considering the title ‘The Passion of a Moth’, emphasising that Blanche’s ‘escape’ from death only led her back to it.
This ironic reading suggests that Williams and Camus both accepted the inevitability of death. However, considering that ‘soft people becoming hardened by the process of survival’ is a recurring theme in William’s work, it seems more likely that Williams considered himself a soft person and, struggling to survive yet afraid of being hardened, wrote his plays as an metaphorical warning to society. Similarly, Camus creates in Meursault a cold, almost sub-human creature. Camus didn’t want to lead people but wanted them to ‘walk beside’ him.
Meursault, consequently, is not a role model but an example. He exaggerates the ineptitude of society’s acceptation that life is to be lived. Life is bound by death; that fact cannot be changed. Yet Camus made Meursault indifferent to the world, mirroring the world’s indifference to individuals. No one cares about you, and the beauty of existence is existence itself. Consequently death, as the ultimate, all-destroying solution for all that is beautiful is itself elevated to a position of extreme beauty. Williams sympathises with this, but almost as if in warning.
Blanche, once her life has failed entirely, fantasises about death with nuances of cleanliness, peace and her first, perfect love. Williams, by having her scared of death beforehand, is suggesting that death only appears to be good once all else has failed. Blanche blames herself for the death of her husband (“I hurt him”), in stark contrast to the existentialist view, nuanced in The Outsider, that humans are totally responsible for their actions. Blanche believes Stanley wishes to hurt her in this same way; this belief in human interconnectedness makes her vulnerable to him.
A feminist reading of A Streetcar Named Desire would emphasise this feminine vulnerability, which is accentuated by Blanche’s instant turning to another man for help when feeling threatened by Stanley, the sequence with the Kleenex and eyebrow pencil making these prejudiced undertones farcical. The victimised way she is influenced by men is similar to how she is affected by death, weeping and lamenting the loss of southern heritage, which creates a stark contrast to Stanley’s practical northern business interest in the estate.
At the time Williams was writing, the North and South of America were just coming to terms with each other, which results in an interesting possible Marxist reading, Bray suggesting the “transfer of papers is a key concept in the evolution of the social system from the old agrarian South, burdened by its past, as represented by Blanche, to the postwar urban-industrial society in which Stanley’s class has gained leverage”.
This ‘burden’ of the past is addressed by Camus’ absurdist ‘living in the present’ attitude, though The Outsider still has subtle Marxist undertones, notably the conflicting despising of non-Algerians (“[Parisians] have all got white skin”) with the assumption that the local Arabs are inferior, implying a broken and confused society, the result of capitalist colonisation. This attitude is no doubt the result of Camus’ humble Algerian upbringing, filling him with appreciation for the ‘pathos’ and ‘grandeur’ of the poverty-stricken.
The Outsider is about Meursault’s realisation that death is inevitable and, in a way, good. All his life he allowed nothing to influence him. Then, that day on the beach, the sun got to him. Unable to escape its heat and light, he was irritated that he was unable to control every aspect of himself. And with this irritation came the realisation that not only can he not escape the ‘reverberating’ heat, but neither could he escape death.
He realises that, in the grand scheme of things, it matters not whether this Arab dies now or later. He pulls the trigger, symbolising his acceptance of the inevitability of death, and began to live an enlightened life unto death. A Streetcar Named Desire is about Blanche running from, and ultimate running into, death. Whereas for Meursault light symbolised death, for Blanche it symbolises life and truth. And yet she covered up and was afraid of the light, as her life had been full of death.
She felt trapped by inevitability, and she ran from it: “I don’t want realism! “. She hid until the shadows were stripped away. Camus strips away shadows in The Outsider too, in keeping with his lifelong policy of pursuing truth. For Meursault this revelation is good: death is good. Williams, however, suggests (by removing Blanche at the end of the play) that perhaps it’s wiser to cover up the truth – death – and in return gain an easy life.