Mary Ellen P. Evans
Tennessee Williams and the Southern Belle
And such girls! . . . more grace, more elegance, more refinement, more guileless purity, were never found in the whole world over, in any age, not even that of the halcyon . . . so happy was our peculiar social system- there was about these country girls . . . mischief . . . spirit . . . fire . . . archness, coquetry, and bright winsomeness- tendrils these of a stock that was strong and true as heart could wish or nature frame; for in strong and true as heart could wish or nature frame; for in the essentials their character was based upon confiding, trusting, loving, unselfish devotion- a complete, immaculate world of womanly virtue and home piety was their, the like of what . . . was . . . never excelled, since the Almighty made man in his own image . . . young gentleman, hold of, . . . lay not so much as a finger-tip lightly upon her, for she is sacred.
(qtd. Bernhard, Southern Women 4)
She did not move. Her eyes began to grow darker and darker, lifting into her skull above a half moon of white, without focus, with the blank rigidity of a statue’s eyes. She began to say Ah-ah-ah-ah in an expiring voice, her body arching slowly backward as though faced by an exquisite torture. When he touched her she sprang like a bow, hurling herself upon him, her mouth gaped and ugly like that of a dying fish as she writhed her loins against him. (Faulkner 126)
The quotation from George W. Bagby’s The Old Virginia Gentleman (1885) presents the southern belle on her pedestal in a typical nineteenth-century description. The second quotation from Williams Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931) describes the lurid nymphomania of Temple Drake, a more extreme example of the fate of the modern southern belle. The metamorphosis began abruptly around 1914, and since then, Tennessee William’s has presented three southern belles: Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois and Alma Winemiller in the plays respectively The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire and Summer and Smoke (Abbott 20). Early on, writers saw the belle as their ideal South, pure and noble. However, more self-conscious and critical modern writers like Mr. Williams use the darker side of the belle- to symbolize the indictment the Old South or to describe the new. Characteristics that will be examined to exemplify the new belle and consequently the South are narcissism, illusion/memory and rape.
First, what exactly is a southern belle, and why did she change to the present southern belles of Williams? The belle is a young, unmarried daughter of a landed (and thus aristocratic) family, who lives on a great plantation. She is an ideal woman who would be sanctioned by Victorian morality and by the southerners’ image of the home as a constant standard of order and decency (Dillman 17). The notions of their aristocratic origins assured that the belle would be protected from reality, championed, and wooed. In addition, the realities of plantation life were well suited to the idealization of women, since women were kept isolated from the world by the nature of their life. The lucky, young girl had few tasks except to be pretty and charming. After marriage, she was expected to become a hard-working matron who supervised, nursed and mothered (Avia, WebRing).
The reasons for the changes from this proper Victorian belle to the southern belle of Tennessee Williams are both cultural and psychological. When the traditional southern myths clashed with the forces set loose by World War I, the South’s fantasies about itself no longer provided the sanctuary of values that had been sufficient for sixty years after the Civil War. World War I unleashed a chasm of industry, anxiety, death and doubt (Roudane 49). Artists, always the creators of order, had to begin to reorder the world and break up the idles of the old world. Thus the myth disintegration began in poetry, in fiction, in histories, in scholarship, and in the drama (Bynum 5).
The beauty ethic of the South prefers its lovely women to be charming and flirtatious, coquettes who never yield their purity, can create impossible tension for the belle: she is asked to exhibit herself as sexually desirable to the appropriate men, yet she must not herself respond sexually. According to Mr. Roudane,she must be as alluring as the Dark Lady, yet as pure as the White Maiden (18). The drama in which the belle appears reveals that carrying two such extremes is too much for some of the modern belles to bear. Nineteenth-century belles, whose Victorian surroundings and upbringing reinforced the dictated southern behavior, are more successful. After World War I, the basic conflicts within the personality of the belle become the central emphasis in the drama that depicts the belle and ultimately that depicts the South (Bloom 45).
The belles of Tennessee Williams could be accurately described as narcissists needing attention, people without a sense of worth, those who settle on an impossible goal to provide their life with meaning. Accordingly, Amanda, Blanche and Alma, are trained to seek the attention of men, and develop the means in how to do so (Kolin 121). And as a result, skills and traits such as assertiveness, intelligence, logic, confidence are ignored and suppressed. Their sense of worth is achieved only through the attention of others (Bernhard, Southern Women 55). This grim recognition of the belle’s narcissism is a consequence of the beauty ethic of the South.
Amanda portrays the narcissistic mother in The Glass Menagerie and has a constant preoccupation with her physical attributes and appearances (including those surrounding her) for All pretty girls are a trap, a pretty trap, and men expect them to be (Jacobus 129). Amanda’s hair is set in girlish ringlets in an attempt to retain the past, her youth, which has long since diminished. The prospect of losing her physical attributes of youth and beauty terrifies her. Every movement is done carefully and methodically as if she were being put on display. Williams’ stage directions coach the actor that She lets the hat and gloves fall on the floor- a bit of acting. . . Amanda slowly opens her purse and removes a dainty white handkerchief which she shakes out delicately and delicately touches her lips and nostrils (133). Therefore, Amanda still believes she is on that nineteenth century pedestal in the twentieth century modern world.
Amanda also obsesses on how her tenement may look on the outset of the gentleman caller. For some simple workman to drop down for dinner, she dictates a long list orders that need to be done: I want things nice, not sloppy! All my wedding silver has to be polished, the monogrammed table linen ought to be laundered! The windows have to be washed . . . And how about clothes? We have to wear something, don’t we? (145). At the onset of an actual man coming to the house, Amanda goes overboard in pleasing him, because that is what the South has trained her to do. The stage directions again point out that Amanda has worked like a Turk in preparation for the gentleman caller. The results are astonishing. The new floor lamp with its rose-silk shade is in place, a colored paper lantern . . .(146). The new materialism continues to hover over their lives as well as the new South.
Less concerned with materials and more concerned with herself, Alma resents the need to care for her senile and selfish mother, and self-pitying father. She feels she has had certain difficulties and disadvantages to cope with– which may be partly the cause of these peculiarities of mine . . .(Williams, The Theatre 152). She believes her youth is passing and knows that people . . .think of me as an old maid (169). Alma also uses over-elaborate vocabulary, for example using the term pyrotechnical display for fireworks, to display her proper upbringing and impress men.
Sadly, Alma is trapped by a code that has created her narcissism and prevented her from accepting her own sexual passion. As a result, she cannot have John Buchanan Jr. Torn between her passion and repression, she is fated to follow a pattern of relationships and a lost love. Alma is attracted to John Buchanan Jr.’s rebelliousness and sexual appeal, but their relationship is always thwarted by the part of her that wishes to be a lady; and so Alma fears John’s intensity and passion, which ironically are like her own (Jackson 14).
The treatment of the theme of the narcissist southern belle suggests that as long as men cling to their myth of women, women remain essentially abstractions, objects, and a thing to be used. Similarly, John uses women in Summer and Smoke. Until the myth is abandoned, neither men nor women will achieve self-identity (Stokes 99). The South had lost its identity after the Civil War and in the same respect; it looked to itself as an object of attraction. Likewise, Blanche often asks, How do I look? (Williams, Streetcar 37). The self-identity of the South had been destroyed by the Civil War and began to look towards the home to give itself meaning.
Amanda, Alma and Blanche are products of a society that has programmed them to conform to the feminine stereotype of the coquette, and her resulting narcissism impels her inevitable behavior. The child who is treated as a beautiful object begins to define herself as a beautiful object. When a woman’s self-image is that of an object, not a person, she can expect others to treat her accordingly (Bernhard, Hidden Histories 66). They have been reared in accordance with her society’s emphasis on feminine beauty. In one situation, Blanche’s sister Stella orders Stanley to be sure to say something nice about her appearance . . .Tell her she’s looking wonderful (Williams, Streetcar 28).
A narcissist needing attention, a person without a sense of worth, she settles on an impossible goal to provide her life with meaning. Blanche begins to lose self-worth unless someone says a word about my appearance (Williams, Streetcar 21). She is depicted as a perfect product of southern culture, which had long enjoined upper-class women, taught to be unconcerned with fleshly matters. Unfortunately, the role of the narcissist is played at the expense of reality; a woman infatuated with her ego loses all hold on the actual world, she has no concern to establish with real relation with others (Jackson 285). Thus Blanche loses all of reality at the end of Streetcar Named Desire.
The former belle and the aging belle nurture illusions about their youthful allure. This remnant of their youthful narcissism leads them to regale their family stories, adorn themselves in old jewelry, or repress old crushes. This results in illusion stemming from a narcissistic world.
The heyday of the belle is short-lived; from a debut at sixteen or seventeen to the threat of spinsterhood by nineteen, her career lasts for a few short years (Dillman 28). The excitement of those years is intense: a belle is the center of male and female attention; all her actions are designed to attain the end for which her childhood has prepared her and on which her future depends. Indeed, the courtship phase of her life is the only phase over which she has at least some control, when her decisions might be based on preference. A belle may well remember these days, and cling to them as a brief moment of a time they had freedom (Bernhard, Southern Women 85).
Amanda, Blanche and Alma proclaim themselves to be ladies. They carry an air of grandeur, maintaining elegant gestures and speech in situations that render those traits incongruous. Amanda persists in clutching the fragments of dreams, the flashes of memory, for psychological sustenance. Enthusiastically recollecting the battalions of gentlemen who formerly called on her at Blue Mountains, she retells the story over and over again (Bloom 187). She sees the world through a veil of fantasy and illusion.
Amanda fancies herself a former Delta belle, an illusion into which she attempts to escape from the confinement of a tenement house in St. Louis. Rooted in a tradition of the genteel Southerner, she can have no social position, no financial security, apart from her husband. With no career plans, she devotes her pride to her husband and children. In her struggle for survival, she uses the DAR to sell magazines, while her daughter runs up the grocery bills and son ropes in potential providers. The myth is that a southern belle is the symbol of youth, beauty and wealth (Kolin 143). She attempts to force the southern belle on Laura, which contributes to the disintegration of Laura’s personality as well Amanda refuses to acknowledge this myth has past, so she escapes into her memories:
Sometimes they come when they are least expected! Why, I remember one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain . . . your mother received- seventeen! – gentlemen callers! Why, sometimes there weren’t chairs enough to accommodate them all . . . Among my callers were some of the most prominent young planters of the Mississippi Delta- planters and sons of planters! There was young Champ Laughlin who later became Vice President of the Delta Planters Bank. Hadley Stevenson who was drowned in Moon Lake and left his widow one hundred and fifty thousand in Government bonds . . . (Jacobus 129)
Within this world of memory and illusion, Amanda tries to hold the family together, economically and spiritually. Her husband’s desertion of her and the family was the shock that sends her back into the golden days of her girlhood (Bloom 156). Since Amanda cannot face the reality that she was unable to hold her husband’s love, she indulges in memories of that one supreme moment of her youth, the day when she might have chosen from seventeen gentlemen callers, all rich and successful and caring for their wives. Williams describes Amanda as, A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place, who having failed to establish contact with reality, continues to live vitally in her illusions (Kolin 98).
Removed into her past and needing to fortify an endangered sense of self-worth, Amanda assumes an archaic form of southern behavior, gentility for What is there left but dependency all out lives? (Jacobus 128). In the early American South a genteel code developed, giving the white southern woman homage both to safeguard her purity from the manhood of black slaves and to symbolize a civilizing influence on the decadent ways of the white landed gentry (Abbott 52). So gentlemen callers represent a time when men were chivalrous and women were respected, admired, and pampered. The gentlemen callers in turn represent a Glorious Hill, a past that the South once had and is still trying to hold on to.
Blanche resembles Amanda in her reactions to the harsh world. Her attempt to hold the crumbling world of the family plantation together is similar to Amanda’s attempt to keep her family together. Blanche pleads with her sister Stella you can’t forget your past (Williams, Streetcar 25). Also like Amanda she refuses to accept the reality of her life and attempts to live under illusion. She has a false sense of gentility, which is contradicted, by an equally false sense of promiscuity. The conflict between these two modes of behavior leads her to her destruction (Roudane 173).
Blanche is, like Amanda, an aristocrat who has lost her social status and is unable to break from her past. Unlike Amanda, she attempts to escape from, not into, the past, with its sordid reality. Stanley’s revelations about her many deceptions both prevent her escape and show her more complex entanglement (Bloom 69). She retreats into the prison of madness, where finally she takes refuge from both past and present.
As representative of the Old South, Blanche dissipates her power; far from failing to recognize her cultural (and personal) past, she is bound to it. Caught in a neurotic limbo, she combines in herself the opposites of John’s exaggerated physical urges and Alma’s culture, pretense and affectation; Blanche cannot reconcile them, nymphomania and prudery, love of the past and hatred of the past, genuine culture and pretensions fakery exist at the same time (Dillman 155). She remains frozen in a time that stands still for women of culture and breed and intelligence can enrich . . . and time can’t take them away (Williams, Streetcar 53). Blanche represents one way the South could take: unable to face the contrast between the romantic past and realistic present, Blanche violently betrays her code while desperately trying to maintain it.
Ironically, the escape of these characters becomes a prison, confining and degrading the prisoner and sometimes others with her. Blanche DuBois’ sense of propriety clashes with her repressed sexual drives when she confronts Stanley who lives outside the code of southern chivalry. He is a man whose overt sexuality is simultaneously desirable and repulsive to her. Unfortunately, her narcissistic coquetry induces her to entice the one man who can destroy her. She cannot reconcile her divided personality in the face of the violent passions of the modern world; consequently, she withdraws into a world of illusions and madness (Jackson 126). While representing the South further, the modern world after World War I cannot carry the conflicting idles of the past and the present reality of war.
Even though Stella, the star married to the brute, offers Blanche an example of synthesis, and even though Blanche herself is considerably more free than Alma, Blanche is like Alma is succumbing to the sensual at the expense of her ideals and her own well-being (Kolin 84). Alma and Blanche are a movement toward sensuality representing mental if not physical destruction. And a spiritual person in a physical world is impossible.
The idealism is illusionary; Alma is unable to translate it into positive action. Her mother leads her to self-pity. She is bitter because she has not gotten anything for her self-sacrifice, not even recognition. Her life tied to duty; Alma has a dream about what she would do if things were different (Bernhard, Southern Women 74). She says to John, Most of us have no choice but to lead useless lives! But you . . . have a chance to serve humanity. Not just to go on enduring for the sake of indurance, but to serve a noble, humanitarian cause, to relieve human suffering (Williams, The Theatre 154).
This need of escape branches from Alma’s ancestry is Cavalier and Puritan- her mother wears a plumed hat; her father is a preacher. She cultivates social graces, romanticizes sex, and in a manner dictated by her genteel code immediately sets out to satisfy her desire for John. At the same time, she admires Gothic cathedrals, has faith in the everlasting struggle and aspiration for more than our human limits have placed in our reach (Williams, The Theatre 197). Culture and power in both traditions have produced Alma- and the South. At the end of the play she has not so much tempered beautiful illusion with mundane reality as she has shown herself ignorant of any historical perspective. Her decision to take what gratification this earth has to offer- giving little though to the consequences- is a playback of the South’s history (Kolin 184). So long as the soul of the South refused to face reality, it had no future.
Illusion may be a world of reality these southern belles are forced to live in, but this illusion can come from or grow more intense as a result of rape or conquest. Rape stood for ultimate domination and subordination. It is a symbol of power encompassing that onto the belle and onto the South. In a male-dominate society, women were a weaker class. After the Civil War, however, plantation owners had to adjust to an economic order no longer based on slavery (Stokes 23). The patriarchal South had made white men the dominant group in terms of their superior status, their access to lucrative economic roles, their autocracy in sexual roles, and their aggressive temperament. Women and blacks, on the other hand, were deemed subordinate in status, role, and temperament. A woman’s status depended upon her father or husband, her economic role was that of a marriageable alliance maker before marriage and a homemaker after marriage, her sexual role was that of a chaste maiden or faithful wife (so that the legitimacy of the male’s line could be preserved (Bernhard, Hidden Histories 65).
Rape as the ultimate act of domination results when the male feels denied the privileges he assumes are his right. The right to copulate whomever he pleased was long assumed; restrictions placed on him by societal taboos or laws were in no way as severe as those placed upon white women. During and after World War I, the North began to dominate the South, imposing industry and materialism as well as greed, inflicting an emphasis on money. It is reminiscent of the not-forgotten Civil War (Abbott 34). To no avail, Blanche (the Old South) threatens Stanley (the North) and screams, So I could twist the broken end in your face! (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 130). After proclaiming let’s have some rough-house! He springs toward her, overturning the table. She cries out and strikes at him with the bottle top but he catches her wrist . . .We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning! She moans. The bottle falls. She sinks to her knees. He picks up her inert figure and carries her to the bed (130). It is implied and not directly stated that she is raped.
If it is assumed that Blanche is representative of the Old South, she is being conquered metaphorically by the North as they did in the Civil War and again in the Industrial Revolution. The belle herself is presented as the repository of the southern values; the rapist is an outsider who represents the antithesis of these values. The rape of Blanche and other southern belles is a symbolic action that represents the violent disordering of a harmonious society (Kolin 137).
Obviously, Alma was not raped, but conquered– by John Buchanan Jr. After the tables have turned, yes, the tables have turned with a vengeance, Alma has compromised her spiritual side, her soul, for the sensual side of John (Williams The Theatre 247). She has to an extent faced reality, but at a price. His sensual side conquers Alma who died last summer- suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her (243).
Buchanan, despite his upper-middleclass status, is another Stanley, a man who believes in the fundamental morality of a primitive existence. Like Stanley, he expresses contempt for the abstractions of the historical, cultural, and traditional past. Later though, John finds love and hope through Nellie (Bloom 67). Alma is forced to begin to turn her head away from her windows that lead to the Buchanan house, and towards other men, so we are able to keep on going? (Williams, The Theatre 254).
Friction evolved from two opposing clusters of images. One of rural, semi-rural life enriched by tradition, religion, stable and predictable social behavior, and feeling of individual worth. And the other a chaotic, frenzy of industrial way of life. This is the atmosphere of the South following World War I. The violence and exploitation existed side by side with the genteel refinement of the South. According to Ms. Abbott, southern myth disintegrated for several reasons whether it be the failure of individuals to pursue their ideas or the inability of southerners to resist contamination by materialists who do not believe in the southern code of behavior, the southern belles, the South, lost. (77).
Amanda, Blanche and Alma are vehicles for views of Tennessee Williams of the South. Common themes exercised through not only Tennessee Williams’ plays, but through much of southern literature are narcissism, memory/illusion and rape. They illuminate the reader of common themes of the South’s history and present state. From George Bagby to William Faulkner, the belle represents a human ideal, now regarded as antique while eliciting a paradox between living in the past and present congruently. Although, this way of life should not be encouraged in the real world, as a literary figure, her day is not over.
Abbott, Shirley. Womenfolk: Growing Up Down South. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1983.
Avia. Southern Belles WebRing. 1997. 1 Nov 1999.
Bernhard, Virginia Eds. Hidden Histories of Women in the New South. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994.
Bernhard, Virginia Eds. Southern Women. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.
Bloom, Harold Ed. Modern Critical Views: Tennessee Williams. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Bynum, Victoria E. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South. Chaphill Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Dillman, Caroline Matheny Ed. Southern Women. New York: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1988.
Jackson, Esther Merle. The Broken World of Tennessee Williams. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.
Jacobus, Lee A. Ed. The Bedford Introduction to Drama Third Edition. Boston: Bedford Book, 1997.
Kolin, Philip C. Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Roudane, Matthew C. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Signet Book, 1947.
Williams, Tennessee. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams Volume Two. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1971.