A Streetcar Named Desire
The heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire is famously alert to the significance of names; “Blanche DuBois,” as she flirtatiously points out early on in the play, means “white woods.” (“Like an orchard in spring!”) But the most meaningful name in the play may be the one that, unlike that of Blanche or her sister Stella—“Stella for star!”—is never parsed or etymologized by the characters themselves.
Throughout the published text of A Streetcar Named Desire, the name of the plantation once inhabited by the DuBois family—the “great big place with white columns” that pointedly represents the elevated sensibility to which the white-clad Blanche so pathetically clings—appears as “Belle Reve,” (pronounced “bell reeve”). At first glance, the name looks as if it should mean “beautiful dream”: belle after all means “beautiful” and rêve means “dream,” and Williams’s masterwork is, as we all know, about the tragic destruction of the dreams of beauty to which Blanche, like so many other of Williams’s heroines, so pathetically clings. But of course belle rêve means absolutely nothing in French. For the French noun rêve (the “e” is short) is masculine; if the French Huguenot ancestors of whom Blanche boasts (in the scene in which she translates her name) had wanted to call their estate “beautiful dream,” they would have called it Beau Rêve. What they almost certainly did call it was Belle Rive, “Beautiful Riverbank,” which is, in fact, pronounced “bell reeve,” and which is a perfectly sensible name for a house in the Mississippi Delta.
The elision of the sensible if rather ordinary “riverbank” in favor of the far more poetic if grammatically illogical “dream” is—whether Williams intended it or not—a deeply symbolic one. On the one hand, it may be said to represent the heroine’s approach to life. From the moment she shows up on the seedy doorstep of Stella and her crude husband, Stanley Kowalski, it becomes increasingly clear that Blanche’s aim is to replace the mundane, even the sordid—poverty, disgrace, loneliness, encroaching middle age, all the unflattering realities that she associates, in a telling little outburst early in the play, with the naked light bulb that hangs over Stella’s matrimonial bed—with romantic illusions, using whatever means she has to hand: liquor, deceit, costumes, colored paper lanterns. “I don’t want realism,” she cries during her climactic encounter with her shy, sweet suitor, Mitch, after he’s learned that Blanche’s affected refinements conceal a dirty past, “I’ll tell you what I want. Magic!” The action of the play consists of the proc-ess by which Blanche’s magic is eroded and ultimately pulverized by contact with hard reality, embodied by her brother-in-law, Stanley. It is no accident that Stanley is a sexual brute who smirkingly boasts of having pulled his plantation-born wife “down off them columns” into, presumably, the mire of sexual pleasure—of having, in a way, retransformed “Belle Reve” into the muddy “Belle Rive.”
But the …