Coming back to The Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois was so entrenched in the nostalgia and romance of her past that she refuses to recognize realities anymore. Her ideal notions of men, women and culture are markedly divorced from the rapid changes that have taken place in the country after the war. Seen from this viewpoint, Stanley comes across as a brutish and uncivilized bully who constantly harasses and exploits his wife Stella. This impels Blanche to advice Stella to leave Stanley and seek a new life for herself. She reminds Stella of finer enjoyments of life such as art, music and poetry and implores her to find a civilized man who would care about these things. But in reality though, it is Blanche who is holding on to a vision of the past that no longer exists. Her idealized view of romance, marriage and culture is so divergent from the new industrial realities of post war America, which is typified by the rugged masculinity displayed by Stanley. While Stanley might lack social grace and politeness, he is honest to himself and others around him. But Blanche’s criticism of Stanley is a subconscious defence mechanism against her own illusions. By way of being critical of him she is retracting to an idyllic notion of the past.
Strong parallels of this can also be found in the later realizations of Michael Berg. At the time of his adolescent affair with Hanna, he was unaware of her involvement in a concentration camp. Michael was also unaware that Hanna is illiterate, which is why she likes other people to read her stories. During the law trials that followed the holocaust, it was revealed that Hanna made her prisoners read to her, which is when Michael finally understands the truth. It could be argued that since Michael was young and vulnerable when he first met Hanna, he cannot be held responsible for the crimes she abetted. Moreover, he was not aware of all the facts at the time. But to understand Michael’s enduring fascination and attachment to Hanna, one has to look at the initial circumstances in which they met. In the impressionable psyche of young Michael, the beauty and allure of Hanna would have made a lasting impression. To take the above mentioned assessment a little deeper, let us take a specific example. Early in the narrative of the novel we come across this memorable piece of writing (the narrator is the young Michael Berg): “As she was reaching for the other stocking, she paused, turning towards the door, and looked straight at me. I can’t describe what kind of look it was–surprised, sceptical, knowing or reproachful. I turned red. For a fraction of a second I stood there, my face burning. Then I couldn’t take it any more” (The Reader, p. 12). It is moments such as these that reveal in depth the characters of Hanna and Michael. It also explains why Hanna continued to hold a power over Michael right up till her last days. But for some untold reason, Michael carries a burden of guilt about his relationship with Hanna. He could not shrug himself of this guilt even after the passage of many years. It is this strange and unarticulated attachment toward Hanna that prompts him to keep in touch with her during her time in prison. He sends her several books to read (albeit anonymously), knowing that she would get some solace from it. Later, toward the last days of her life, she hands over to Michael what little money she’d saved up along with another cherished possession.
There is, of course, one crucial difference between the development of Blanche and Michael. In the case of Blanche, with every passing day her insecurities seem to grow and her illusions of grandeur seem more absurd. In other words, her mental poise and sanity steadily withers away as she eventually becomes totally deluded and acts insane. Blanche resorts to greater amounts of liqueur and fantasy to console her of numerous fears. But in the case of Michael, as the narrative progresses, he seems to grow wiser with it. As the novel concludes with the death of Hanna and as Michael hands down her savings to an education fund, he seemed to have attained a closure on Hanna. Although the author does not explicitly state it, this final act from Michael gives him a sense of relief and peace. The very opposite is the case with Blanche, who becomes totally insane toward the end of the play, and is handed over to medical attention. Hence, the impact of the past on the present plays out in distinctly different ways in the cases of Michael and Blanche. While Michael seems to benefit from the unravelling of past secrets, Blanche gets overwhelmed by them and ultimately succumbs to them.
Bernhard Schlink, The Reader, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (London: Phoenix, paperback edition, 1998).
Williams, Tennessee, A Streetcar Named Desire (play), first published in 1947.