The Ravages of Time
Tennessee Williams wrote in an essay, "Time it is short and it doesn't return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition." Williams frequently portrayed this view of time in many of his works by revealing the struggle between principal characters and the "ravages of time" (Londre 57). Among his masterpieces, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire are clearly creations reflective of the period in which they were written. In The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, Amanda Wingfield and Blanche DuBois possess a "desire for illusion in opposition to the harsh realities" that perpetuate their existence (Londre 57). Both Amanda and Blanche are prime examples of "a recurrent character in Williams' work, one of the fugitive kind, who are too fragile to live in a malignant world" (Ganz 52). These women face "the tragedy of indulging in the kinds of behavior and thinking that negate the possibilities of living fully and honestly in the present" (Davis 384). As time ticks away, Amanda and Blanche become engulfed in a sea of loss, and in it lay both mental and physical loss. Through careful examination of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, it is apparent that Williams attributes extraordinary similarities to Amanda Wingfield and Blanche DuBois. It is evident within these two plays that Williams' interpretation of modernity is that of an experience of loss. Therefore, it is no surprise that Amanda and Blanche struggle to escape the realities of time. As the seconds tick away, these two women find that the modern world becomes an inescapable scene of ruin.
"In William's moral system the rejection of life is the greatest crime" (Ganz 52). Both Amanda and Blanche are guilty of this crime. They are unable to accept reality. Therefore, each woman "retreats into a time appropriate to her individual fantasy" (Davis 381). This is a time characterized by Southern ideals and traditions. A major theme in both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire is "southern womanhood helpless in the grip of the presently constituted world, while the old world of social position and financial security is a Paradise Lost" (Gassner 48). Consequently, Amanda and Blanche find themselves in unavoidable conflict with time and the harsh realities it has brought. These two women find that the present is too painful and depressing to accept; therefore, each engages in destructive illusions about her Southern past. Amanda and Blanche are representative of the larger group of modern Southerners. After the Civil War, many Southerners found that their wealth and their enormous plantations had been destroyed by the war. Therefore, they were forced to participate in a new way of life unfamiliar to them. They were lost during this period. Amanda escapes into an illusion of the past as she recalls a day when she had had seventeen gentlemen callers:
Sometimes they come when they are least expected! Why, I remember one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain–One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain–your mother received–seventeen!–gentlemen callers! Why, sometimes there weren't chairs enough to accommodate them all. We had to send the nigger over to bring in folding chairs from the parish house. (1238)
She continues repeating the story her children have heard numerous times before. "It wasn't enough for a girl to be possessed of a pretty face and a graceful figure–although I wasn't slighted in either respect" (1238). Amanda finds security within these illusions of her past, which allow her to retreat into an earlier time when she was young, beautiful, and admirable. She is unable to accept the circumstances of her present life in a St. Louis tenement. Williams describes the tenement as "one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population." The setting for The Glass Menagerie is reflective of the modern period in which it was written. During this period, urbanization resulted in numerous groups of individuals migrating from the countryside to the crowded cities in search of employment offered following technological advancement. During this period in history, many families found themselves in the same situation as Amanda’s family. These people worked long, tiring hours for little pay just to see their capitalist bosses get rich. The setting is also a means of Williams’ portraying modernity as an experience of loss. Time brings Amanda a series of hardships. She is "a victim of an illusory way of life–that generated by her beloved plantation South" (Davis 384).
Like Amanda, "Blanche possesses a strong desire for illusion in opposition to the harsh realities that surround her" (Londre 57). Upon Blanche’s arrival at Stanley and Stella’s slum apartment in New Orleans, she exclaims to her sister:
You sit down, now, and explain this to me! What are you doing in a place like this? Oh, I’m not going to be hypocritical, I’m going to be honestly critical about it! Never, never, never in my worst dreams could I picture–Only Poe! Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe!–could do it justice! Out there I suppose is the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir! Why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t your write me, honey, why didn’t you let me know? (17)
Blanche’s disapproval of the apartment suggests that she "is very much aware of the contrast between the present and her Southern-aristocrat past" (Adler 2572). Blanche is shocked by the extreme contrast between Stella’s apartment and her own previous mansion, the "great big place with white columns" (14), Belle Reve. Yet "Belle Reve has crumbled. For Blanche it was the remaining symbol of a life and tradition that she knows in her heart have vanished, yet to which she clings with desperate tenacity" (Nelson 394-395). Blanche has been sheltered from the "real" world for some time now. As a result, she wishes she had the power to reverse time because she finds the "real" world awfully cruel. Like Amanda, Blanche finds security within her previous way of life in the South. Both Amanda and Blanche "cannot function adequately outside the safe, aristocratic world of the past" (Adler 2572). Life and time have not followed their plans, and they are at a real loss.
Amanda attempts to relive her Southern past by dressing up in old gowns she had worn decades before while entertaining her daughter’s gentleman caller. She prepares herself for the arrival of her daughter’s caller:
I’m going to make a spectacular appearance! Possess your soul in patience–you will see! Something I’ve resurrected from that old trunk! Styles haven’t changed so terribly much after all. [. . .] Now just look at your mother! This is the dress in which I led the cotillion. Won the cakewalk twice at Sunset Hill, wore one spring to the Governor’s ball in Jackson! See how I sashayed around the ballroom, Laura? (1264)
Amanda’s remarks not only display her desire to escape into the past but show the extent to which she values the beautiful appearance now lost to her.
Like Amanda, Blanche also places great value on beauty. She too likes to escape reality by donning her old Southern dresses. Stella explains to her husband, Stanley, as Blanche is preparing herself for a night out with her sister: "And admire her dress and tell her she’s looking wonderful. That’s important with Blanche. Her little weakness!" (34). Blanche takes great pride in her appearance and escapes reality through the old dresses she wore while living luxuriously at Bell Reve.
Amanda and Blanche both believe that wealth solves problems and that it brings security and material comfort. During this time period, Americans were realizing the value of money. With the increasing technological advancements of the day, the question was, "How can I afford these luxuries with my pay from the factory?" Amanda successfully displays this attitude: "My callers were gentlemen–all! Among my callers were some of the most prominent young planters of the Mississippi Delta–planters and sons of planters!" (1238). After naming several wealthy gentlemen callers, she proclaims:
And there was that boy that every girl in the Delta had set her cap for! That beautiful, brilliant young Fitzhugh boy from Greene County! That Fitzhugh boy went North and made a fortune–came to be known as the Wolf of Wall Street! He had the Midas touch, whatever he touched turned to gold! And I could have been Mrs. Duncan J. Fitzhugh, mind you! But–I picked your father! (1239)
Amanda fantasizes about what her life would have been like had she married a wealthy man from her past. Time has resulted in her poverty-stricken way of life.
Blanche is consistent with Amanda in that she, too, finds money the answer to her misfortunes. Blanche attempts to persuade Stella to go along with her plan involving a wealthy man in the hope that he will be generous with his fortune.
We’ve got to get hold of some money, that’s the way out! Listen
to me. I have an idea of some kind. Do
Blanche wants to convince Stella to persuade Shep Huntleigh to invest money in a store for the two sisters to run. To Blanche, Shep Huntleigh symbolizes hope. She believes that his wealth can save her from the disastrous life she is left with. Like other Southern sufferers of the Civil War, Amanda and Blanche attribute their previous happiness to the wealth they once enjoyed. Time has brought them many misfortunes.
Amanda and Blanche are deceptive women. Amanda portrays a deceptive personality to her daughter’s gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor. She pretends to be a joyful woman while he is visiting when, in reality, she is quite miserable. She also insists on going to extremes to create a marvelous appearance for her poor apartment. She exclaims to Tom: "You just don’t know. We can’t have a gentleman caller in a pig-sty! All my wedding silver has to be polished, the monogrammed table linen ought to be laundered! The windows have to be washed and fresh curtains put up. And how about clothes? We have to wear something, don’t we?" (1258). It is clear that Amanda wants to hide from Jim the way things usually appear in her home. Over time, she realizes that her tenement is, in fact, a scene of ruin.
Blanche is deceptive in that she wants to hide her age from others, especially Mitch. She often gives commands to turn off lights. She is fearful of being seen in the light. After Mitch proclaims that he has never had a look at Blanche under the light, she bursts out, "I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell them what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!–Don’t turn on the light!" (87). Blanche cannot deal with the deterioration of her physical appearance, brought on by progressing time. Blanche consistently lies when she protests that she rarely drinks liquor. The fact is that she indulges in it frequently. She also lies to those around her about her past because it is too shameful for her to admit. For Blanche, time has brought a series of hardships.
Amanda and Blanche have suffered great loss: They have lost the men they so dearly loved. They are unable to deal with the loneliness time has brought them. Amanda’s husband has abandoned her and her children. As a result, she continually nags her children to succeed. She is desperate for Laura to marry because she cannot bear to think of Laura as forever devastated as she herself is. Blanche has lost the love of her life, and, since his death, she has engaged in a destructive lifestyle. She began to have a lustful desire for men and brought them to her hotel room. It was during that time that Blanche began "bringing men to her constructing web of desire" (O’Connor 102). Her husband’s death occurred at a young age. As a result, Blanche engages in the seduction of young boys. She wants to find someone to fill his place in her heart.
The gentleman caller in both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire symbolizes a last hope for Amanda and Blanche. He is hope for Amanda in that she wishes for him to fall in love with Laura and marry her, assuring Amanda that her daughter will fare much better than she. Her mother knows that Laura is incapable of living independently. The gentleman caller for Blanche is a symbol of final hope. She desperately wants Mitch to marry her. Marrying Mitch would provide her with security, love, and an escape from New Orleans, where she seems destined to stay. Their hopes and wishes are banished.
Amanda and Blanche are extremely individualistic. They are survivors. Amanda is a single mother who has been responsible for the well-being of her children as they have grown up. Their father has disappeared and left Amanda to struggle with raising her two children alone. She has no other choice but to be an individual. Blanche is also an individual. She is alone and is in search of a place to rebuild a better life for herself. She too has no other choice than to be an individual, for her life depends upon it. These two women are reflective of the period in which people were forced to possess individualistic qualities in order to survive in the newly competitive world.
Amanda and Blanche are also similar in that they are not part of a traditional family. During this period, traditional values came into question. The importance of the traditional family was under scrutiny. Williams suggests through the portrayal of Amanda that the traditional family is not necessary for survival. However, by revealing her psychological deterioration, he suggests that the traditional family provides greater mental benefits to its members than does a disengaged family. Furthermore, religion was a topic of question during this period. Williams addresses this question by omitting religion from these two plays. Neither Amanda nor Blanche participates in organized religion. It is evident that Williams places no great value on religion or traditional values.
It is no coincidence that Amanda and Blanche share many of the same qualities. Williams was aware of this resemblance between the two women. Blanche possesses "that grotesque and terrible refinement that Mr. Williams has carried over from his portrait of the mother in The Glass Menagerie" (Gibbs 388). Critics agree that Williams wrote about what he knew best, his own life. He also reflects the period from which he was writing. If he writes from personal experience, it is no wonder that he suffered a tragic life and a terrible ending. It would be an understatement to say that these two women suffered. Amanda and Blanche, like Williams, suffer from a force that they cannot control, time.
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"The Ravages of Time" was written for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 2131 class
during spring 2003 semester by Shanna Bearden, then a sophomore majoring
in Nursing. Among her accomplishments, Ms. Bearden has been on the Dean’s
"The Ravages of Time" was written for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 2131 class during spring 2003 semester by Shanna Bearden, then a sophomore majoring in Nursing. Among her accomplishments, Ms. Bearden has been on the Dean’s List.