Tennessee Williams And The Southern Belle Mary Ellen P. Evans Dana Smith THEA 393 11/23/99 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 …