IDEALISM AND INSANITY: THE
SUBVERSION OF THE SOUTHERN BELLE THROUGH BLANCHE DUBOIS
No figure or idea symbolizes the antebellum American South quite like the Southern belle. The embodiment of Southern hospitality and charm, the perfect balancing of beauty and modesty, the highest achievement of Southern refinement and culture--the Southern belle is a means of identification with the Old South as familiar as grits, Tobacco Road, and King Cotton. But while these other images of the American South are very real, some scholars maintain that the Southern belle never really existed, that she is, in fact, a social and literary construction who "belonged more to literature than to life" (Lyons 7314A). The Southern belle was a way that Southerners constructed their sense of self identity and gender roles. "The fundamental reason for the belle's existence was that the early writers of the bellehood code wanted a personhood that sounded romantic but had to function as real . . . [she is] a pathetically weak and shallow yet physically alluring coquette, a creature of unsurpassed voluptuosity" (Lyons 7314A-7315A).
But if the Southern belle is but a construction, then what were the actual roles of upper-class Southern women in the Old South? In her book The Education of the Southern Belle, Christie Anne Farnham reveals that educational reform in the South prior to the Civil War was impressive, with many more colleges for women being established in the South than in the North. While some concerns about the quality of these colleges have been raised, Farnham points to what most today consider to be the progressive curriculum of Southern women's colleges, which focused on the study of modern foreign languages and the physical sciences in favor of a Classics-based education. This evidence suggests that upper-class Southern women were, in fact, better educated than their Northern counterparts, but most Southern women did not utilize this education after the completion of their studies. Southern women's education, however, did not end with academics. It also included instruction in how to be a proper lady; "Although the Southern belle was viewed, on the one hand, as the natural product and crowning glory of Southern slave society, on the other hand, it was clear to many that it was an ideal that needed cultivating. In addition to conversation in the parlor, institutions often held soirees for local townspeople" (Farnham 128). This sort social instruction underlies the Southern woman's educational experience, and explains why most women chose instead to stay on the plantation and assume traditional women's roles because a sense of duty to their race, society, and social standing.
Marianne Barnett, in her anthropological study of the Southern folklore heard through her mother, explains this sense of duty as a dedication and sensitivity to dignity. "Mother [and the stories she tells] instructs me carefully in the art of preserving dignity" (Barnett 212). Proper behavior and projection, even in the face of personal peril, is of the utmost importance. This point is crucial in understanding the motivations of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, a subject to which I will return later. Presentation of self, and personal awareness of this presentation, thus seems to lie at the heart of what it means to be a Southern belle.
Scholars deny that the Southern belle ever really existed, yet Southern women make a conscious effort to act as one. What exactly, then, is this cultural icon of such strength that it motivates women to forsake all personal ambitions in order to conform with the idealized model? Above all else, proper femininity is the concern of the Southern belle, for "feminine accomplishments were central to the image of the Southern belle" (Farnham 128). More precisely, Fascination was the essence of the Southern belle. She was thought to be pretty--not sexy, for that would have been incompatible with the image of her pure, unspoiled, innocent nature. All young Southern white women above the lowest classes were considered to be belles. Because they could not all be beautiful, friends and relatives insisted that feminine accomplishments, ladylike behavior, and high moral character would do just as well. Perhaps that accounts in some measure for the emphasis on "being fascinating." The Southern belle attracted scores of suitors by using her magical powers to cast her spell on them. Undoubtedly, this aspect of the image best accounts for its appeal to young women, whose futures depended on the marriages they made for themselves. (Farnham 127) The 'putting on the dog' by Southern women highlights the falsity, the constructedness of the Southern belle persona. The performance of an artificial self makes clear the significance of Lyons's earlier quoted comment that the Southern belle is more literature than reality. The farcical, artificially created portrayals of Southern belles, and what it means to be a Southern belle, are most easily seen in literature, so a shift from historical studies of Southern women to analyses of Southern women in fiction seems necessary in uncovering the Southern belle's true nature.
Depictions of the Southern belle in literature--Southern literature, in particular--is the focus of Kathryn Lee Seidel's book The Southern Belle in the American Novel. The shifting role and function of the Southern belle over time is important in understanding how the Southern belle model arose and how Blanche DuBois operates in relationship to it. "The literary portraits of the southern belle in antebellum novels emphasize aspects of the belle that reflect several concerns and ideals of the social and literary milieu in which these novels were written. The milieu that produced the first literary southern belles . . . blended a number of social and literary factors" (Seidel 4). Most notable of these concerns is a need to react against a world in decline because of the corrupting influence of the Industrial Revolution. "The southern belle as an ideal woman would be sanctioned by Victorian morality and by southerners' image of the home as a persistent standard of order and decency. Southerners' notions of their aristocratic origins assured that the belle would be protected from reality, championed, and wooed as befits a princess in her realm" (Seidel 5-6). In the wake of the Civil War, "the belle was portrayed as a spokeswoman for the South after the war" (Seidel 18). However, this pristine image of Southern-ness darkened significantly during the Southern Renaissance1, many of whose authors criticize southern society's traditional emphasis upon the beauty of the belle, its insistence that she be innocent, its denial of her sexual desire, and its forbidding her to have sexual experience. They contend that society's emphasis on the beauty of the belle can produce a selfishness and narcissism that cause her to ignore the development of positive aspects of her personality. Taught to see herself as a beautiful object, the belle accentuates only her appearance and is not concerned with any talents that do not contribute to the goal her society has chosen for her: winning a man. (Seidel 31-32)
The reshaping of the Southern belle in the hands of Southern Renaissance did not limit itself to mere social commentary on the unfairness of the current order of things. Southern women who fit the Southern belle mold, already victims to the patriarchy in their social position, become victims again because of male licentiousness. "These authors also show that the sheltering of the belle leads to a harmful innocence; she cannot adequately interpret the behavior of men who do not believe in the code of southern chivalry that respects the purity of women" (Seidel 32). Once the Southern belle has been sexually tainted, she cannot resist her lustful urges, a condition augmented by the sexual freedom of the 1920s. Southern authors utilized new attitudes about sex and sexuality to further undermine the traditional presentation of the Southern belle. Moreover, they condemn the repression required by the "ethic of purity" which leads to a variety of physical and mental disorders, including frigidity and exaggerated subservience. Authors of the period also began to be aware that the new morality of the twenties lessened taboos on women's sexual activity; some belles were suddenly without rigid guidelines. As this repressed aspect of their personalities was released, they became hypersexual. (Seidel 32) The Southern belle we inherit after this period of transformation is quite different than the pristine image of Southern glory that she once was.
Tennessee Williams utilizes transformation to great advantage in his enormously successful and acclaimed drama A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche DuBois is an excellent example of the post-Southern Renaissance Southern belle, a fact that is most obvious from the moment she steps onstage and the audience sees the woman outlined by Williams:
Her dignity and refinement, made obvious by her dress and manner, mark Blanche as a Southern belle. This initial impression sets the stage for how other characters perceive and interact with Blanche, and how the audience understands her role in the drama before them. The passage of time will reveal that Blanche may exude her status as a Southern belle, that she strictly adheres to the persona and dignity of the antebellum Southern Belle when in public view, but that this personal dignity and modest behavior are incongruous with her past actions and present tendencies. Driven nearly insane by her homosexual husband's suicide and her guilt (Williams 114-115), and forced to leave her childhood home in Mississippi because of her ensuing sexual proclivity (Williams 120-123), Blanche comes to New Orleans to visit her sister, Stella, and her husband Stanley. Blanche makes it very clear to everyone she meets that she is a Southern belle of the first order, but this presentation of self, her social standing, and her sanity are all compromised as Blanche's checkered past and ravenous sexual appetite come to light. Just as the Southern belle became neurotic and hypersexed, so becomes Blanche, with the implications that her extreme efforts to preserve her personal and social dignity are undone by her psychological and moral corruption.
Blanche's undoing stems from the fact that she is confined in almost every way imaginable. Her sex, age, finances, and memories all limit her. She is uncomfortable in the working class urban neighborhood in New Orleans in which she takes up residence with her sister and brother-in-law. The apartment the three live in is an extremely close space that offers little privacy and often results in varying degrees of modesty-challenging nudity of one in the presence of the others (most often seen in Stanley's inclination to remove his shirt). Most of all, Blanche is trapped by her own status as a Southern belle, which limits her ability to act, and the repressive nature of which has led to her emotional instability, intellectual frailty, and sexual proclivity. In discussing the various factors that influence Blanche's psychology, critic Lindy Melman states that "fundamentally, she [Blanche] is confined by her inability to break out of her past and the internal cage in which her upbringing and her experience have incarcerated her" (126). Blanche's neurotic qualities are not immediately seen, in part because she explicitly claims in scene three that she does, in fact, possess a mental resiliency and the ability to adapt to whatever she may face. In her conversation outside with Mitch, Blanche asks him to put a paper cover on a light bulb for her, and the ensuing conversation reveals Blanche's overt presentation of morality and refinement, and her claim to personal strength.
But this is all a facade. Blanche's memory of her husband's homosexuality and suicide slowly drive her insane. During Blanche's telling of the story to Mitch--in which Blanche details her husband's shooting himself in the head at a dance after she told him that she thought him disgusting for the homosexual sexual act she had witnessed his committing--polka music plays, music which seems to be heard only by the audience and in Blanche's mind. Later in the play, Blanche is haunted by this music, which drives her into a delusional state in which she slips out of the present reality to the reality of the past in her mind. During an encounter with Mitch in scene nine, Blanche's strange behavior--a response to her hearing the music played the night of her husband's suicide--causes Mitch to act with apprehension towards Blanche. Concerned that she may lose the man she worked so hard to get, and on whom her hopes of respectability and a normal life rest, Blanche attempts to put Mitch at ease, but she slips deeper into her neurosis instead.
Blanche's mental instability grows until, finally, we see her at the beginning of scene ten, wishing to find peace from her inner turmoil and social failings. Blanche has drug out her trunk of clothing and has dressed up like a princess, complete with tiara, who is surrounded by an admiring throng at an imagined social engagement. The comfort Blanche finds in this performance of her imagined persona quickly fades, and she begins murmuring to herself. Although she never explicitly states her intention to commit suicide, Blanche's drunken musings hint that she may be planning to follow her late husband's example. Alone and gazing at her aging image in a hand-held mirror, in which she sees that she is no longer capable of being the young, fair, and beautiful Southern belle, Blanche speaks to herself; "How about taking a swim, a moonlight swim at he old rock-quarry? If anyone's sober enough to drive a car! Ha-ha! Best way in the world to stop your head buzzing! Only you've got to be careful to dive where the deep pool is--if you hit a rock you don' t come up till tomorrow" (Williams 151). Blanche is extremely vulnerable to psychological harm in this scene (scene ten), which serves to increase the effect that Stanley's raping her in this scene has on her.
The rape is what finally breaks Blanche. No longer young and beautiful, no longer of any financial means whatsoever, no longer modest and sexually pure, and no longer able to contain her own sexuality or contend with the sexuality of the men who seek to violate her, Blanche goes completely insane. Even though she has lost all sense of reality, Blanche still cushions her psyche by maintaining her Southern belle image as staunchly as ever. This unhesitating and seemingly immovable performance of her Old South ideal allows Blanche to carry on, even if her sense of reality and her sanity are sacrificed in the process; " By so theatricalizing herself, she [Blanche] can retreat into history . . . Striving for tragic closure, Blanche wants her life to be embedded in a larger, historical context" (Kolin 27). Seemingly completely unaware of her being carted off to a mental institution, Blanche is concerned only with making sure that the necessary items for her continued status as a Southern belle come with her, saying:
Even after she has lost everything--home, wealth, husband, pride, morality, dignity, and personal safety-- Blanche still unquestioningly clings to the Southern belle ideal that she will never reach.
Through Williams's depiction of a woman desperately striving for and holding to an outdated and impractical model, a model that prohibits Blanche's ability to deal with the present, the figure of the Southern belle is corrupted. What was once a symbol for the pride and success of the Old South becomes a site of failure and despair. What was once seen as the very pinnacle of Southern refinement is reduced to nothing more than a psychological shield for a woman whose upbringing and social entrapment lead to her going insane. Blanche's sister, Stella, is not restricted by the Southern belle persona, and she is able to face reality and the passing of history effectively. But Blanche's longing for the past and the former glory it holds reveals the problems inherent in being a Southern belle and reveals the Southern belle to be a rather detrimental and despicable ideological construction.
Barnett, Marianne. "The Southern Belle: Personal Narratives in the Negotiation of Identity." Folklore Forum, vol. 21:2 (1988): 194-215.
Farnham, Christie Anne. The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
Kolin, Philip C. "Cleopatra of the Nile and Blanche DuBois of the French Quarter: Antony and Cleopatra and A Streetcar Named Desire." Shakespeare Bulletin 11:1 (Winter 1993): 25-27.
Lyons, Anne Ward. "Myth and Agony: The Southern Woman as Belle." Dissertation Abstracts International, vol. 35 (1975): 7314A-7315A. Bowling Green State University.
Melman, Lindy. "A Captive Maid: Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire." Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, vol. 16:2 (1986): 125-144.
Seidel, Kathryn Lee. The Southern Belle in the American Novel: Her Fall from the Pedestal in Fiction of the Southern Renaissance. Tampa: University Presses of Florida, University of South Florida Press, 1985.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1980.
1. The Southern Renaissance is a title applied to the body of writing generated by Southern authors during the early and early-mid twentieth century. Most consider this period to be the shining moment of "Southern literature."
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