There is no piece of luggage quite like Blanche DuBois’s trunk in A Streetcar Named Desire. This object contains the life, or the life traces, of one of Tennessee Williams’s most enduring characters. Actors love Blanche for the same reason that they love Hamlet: she is an actor, and she understands what actors understand—that artifice is not the opposite of truth but a means of achieving it. And if she is the ultimate actor, she possesses the ultimate stage prop: her trunk. This object is baggage, furniture, and character all at once, a heavy and unwieldy onstage presence that mirrors Blanche’s own frail but nonetheless steely physicality.
In the opening scene of Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation—he had also directed the Broadway production of the play with Jessica Tandy as Blanche, which opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1947—Vivien Leigh’s Blanche emerges from the steam in the railway station carrying only a small purse and a large, round box (possibly a hatbox). She walks forward tentatively, as if afraid of something unseen. The soldier who helps her onto the streetcar passes the box up to her, and she clutches it as she walks through the streets of New Orleans, dodging people and noises. Blanche doesn’t travel with her trunk; it follows her. She travels light, and indeed, she is light—Mitch (Karl Malden) will refer to her as “light as a feather,” an observation that links her with the fluffy sartorial contents of her trunk. She boasts to Stella (Kim Hunter) that she hasn’t put on weight in ten years, but, as she will remind her sister later, she still feels a sense of heaviness: she carries the burden of the family’s plantation, Belle Reve. For Blanche, Belle Reve is a beautiful white Southern dream of an ancestral estate that has been reduced to ruin, lost.
Blanche repeats the word lost a number of times in reference to the family’s home: it is a lost place, a no place, like all nostalgic dreams. But its traces are not lost. They are hidden away in the compartments of her trunk. When the trunk appears in the film, strapped to the back of a car, Stanley and another man unload it, and the other man interprets its weightiness: “Looks like she’s fixing to stay a while.” Although the film tends to stay close to the play, the opening scene at the railway station and the arrival of the trunk by car are filmic elements that emphasize Blanche as a traveler—“just a visiting in-law,” as she calls herself in scene 1. Ultimately, Stanley demonstrates the most interest in the trunk’s contents. As Blanche bathes offstage in scene 2, he presses Stella for details about how Belle Reve was lost, and she insists that it’s best not to talk about it. She opens the wardrobe trunk, which stands like a small closet in the middle of the room, and takes out a dress for her sister. As Stanley demands information about a lost home, Stella helps Blanche to unpack in her new temporary home.
But Stanley isn’t interested in helping his sister-in-law settle in. Eight scenes before he will attack Blanche’s body, in the infamous rape scene, he attacks her trunk, throwing its contents all over the room. Blanche is not her baggage, but her baggage is Blanche, a transference he instinctively understands as he violates its contents and, by extension, her memories and her body. Later, in scene 10, he will refer to the rape as “some rough-house,” which is an apt description of how he treats her personal possessions in this scene too. Standing over the trunk, Marlon Brando’s Stanley grabs Stella’s arm and yanks her toward the trunk, ordering her to look through it and demanding to know how Blanche purchased such “fine feathers and furs” on a teacher’s salary. (The stage directions in the play indicate that he “pulls open the wardrobe trunk … and jerks out an armful of dresses” and “jerks open a small drawer in the trunk.” Moments later, he will kick the trunk partly closed when Stella begs him to close it before Blanche comes out of the bathroom.) His language tends toward hyperbole as he rummages through her clothes and jewels. In the film, he asks, “What is this article? That’s a solid-gold dress, I believe!” and identifies “a genuine fur fox a half a mile long.” Her trunk is “a treasure chest of a pirate,” and she is “a deep-sea diver.” Every object becomes more than it is, and all of them are suspect. He reads them as indications that he is being “swindled,” indications that something is not right, indications that Blanche is not who she seems to be. Of course, he is right in some ways, but he is also wrong, for he fails to see that what he identifies as signs of wealth are actually the opposite. Blanche’s clothing is not so much clothing as costume, the means by which she performs a version of traditional Southern-belle femininity that is both an asset and a burden.
The powerfully present contents of the trunk also become absences, as Stanley asks Stella, “Where are your fox-pieces? … Where are your white fox-furs?” Keenly aware that his disturbance of the trunk is a violation, Stella is desperate to replace the things that Stanley throws about. She wants to protect her sister, an instinct that will fade by the end of the play. She also provides a counternarrative of the trunk’s contents. She understands the material value of the objects to be meager. The trunk holds things that are real, including Blanche’s love letters and documents about Belle Reve, and things that are fake, such as her costume jewelry. This distinction is lost on Stanley. He forcefully pushes Stella away—she holds her wrist to indicate that he has hurt her—as he handles the strands of pearls, unable to see that they are just copies of the real thing. When Stella identifies the tiara as rhinestone, he asks, “What is rhinestone?” to which she responds, “Next door to glass.” His invocation of his “lawyer acquaintance”—“I have an acquaintance who deals in this sort of merchandise, and he’s coming in here and making an appraisal of this”—underscores his inability to understand that the value of the trunk is not material but sentimental.
Blanche’s entrance into the room from the steaming bathroom mirrors the train station at the beginning of the film, suggesting that she is in a perpetual state of displacement, a figure without a home. Indeed, her last home was a hotel; she was a paying customer. Now she is a guest, robbed of all agency and entirely dependent on her hosts, a dynamic that resonates tragically with her famous last line. That Stanley has rummaged through her trunk is the first sign that she is not welcome and that he views her as a threat. Her distress is visible as she surveys the trunk, observing that “it looks like my trunk has exploded,” to which Stanley responds that he and Stella were “helping you unpack.” Her attempt to control, and deny, the hostility of the scene by flirting with Stanley is unsuccessful as he deems himself immune to her version of “Hollywood glamor.” (Stella, meanwhile, has gone to fetch Blanche a “lemon-coke”). Blanche insists that the clothing and jewelry were gifts from men, establishing the trunk as proof of her own desirability, as well as her status as a lady—virgin, not whore—even without her estate. Stanley’s characterization of these objects as “Hollywood glamor stuff” takes on a metafilmic resonance that redirects the viewer’s attention to Blanche as actor, a role she accepts in her assertion that “a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion.” The trunk is both a material reality and an unreality, a thing that embodies illusion, that allows for illusion, that is illusion.
The trunk represents not only Blanche’s complex relationship to artifice and performativity but also her lost home. It is Belle Reve on stage, in debased form, and to Stanley, the papers it contains promise an explanation of what happened to that ideal place. When he asks to see them (to prove that he has not been cheated out of his wife’s fortune), Blanche says, “Everything that I own is in that trunk,” delineating not only the limits of the trunk’s contents but also of her life. He starts to open its compartments, but she intercedes, producing a tin box filled with “thousands of papers stretching back over hundreds of years,” which she hands over to him angrily. “Here all of them are, all papers! I hereby endow you with them! Take them, peruse them—commit them to memory, even! I think it’s wonderfully fitting that Belle Reve should finally be a bunch of old papers in your big, capable hands!” The house is no more than a pile of papers, and Blanche knows that the reader of these papers will not understand them.
She sees Belle Reve as a legitimate and legitimating heritage that stands in opposition to her sister’s husband and his friends. And while the trunk contains the story of Stella and Blanche’s family history—a history of how “our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications”—it also holds her own romantic history with her “boy” husband whose ghost shadows the play. The estate is lost, and so is her husband, but she is far more protective of his textual traces: her “love-letters, yellowing with antiquity.” This romantic history is connected to what Stanley eventually discovers about her professional situation: that she was deemed “morally unfit” and fired from her job for engaging in a sexual relationship with a student. This student doubles not only as her “boy” husband but also the young man who comes to collect for the Evening Star. But this history with the student is gossip. Stanley learns about it by word of mouth. Like her time at the Hotel Flamingo, it leaves no paper trail.
In scene 11, which opens with Stella packing Blanche’s things, the trunk becomes a crucial prop in Blanche’s ultimate performance: her preparation for her imagined trip with Shep Huntleigh, a man who never appears and is replaced by the Doctor. As she contemplates which dress to wear, she worries that her clothing has become crumpled in the trunk, or marked by her mobility. “That cool yellow silk—the bouclé,” as she says to Stella. “See if it’s crushed. If it’s not too crushed I’ll wear it and on the lapel that silver and turquoise pin in the shape of a seahorse. You will find them in the heart-shaped box I keep my accessories in.” The seahorse pin prefigures Blanche’s vision of her own death several moments later: “I’ll be buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard—at noon—in the blaze of summer—and into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes!” Here, she transforms herself into luggage: a clean white sack, a shroud. This future is a doubling of the past and the white sack a double of the trunk itself. In the rape scene just before, Stanley blocked and limited Blanche’s movement as she cried out, “Stay back!,” attempting to defend herself with a broken bottle. Her trunk is an enclosed space. The apartment is an enclosed space. Blanche is trapped in, defined by, enclosed spaces. But in her vision of her death, she sets herself free, released in annihilation. No longer dressed and powdered to perfection, she becomes a kind of nothing, her “clean white sack” not a tragic love letter or estate document but a blank page.
At the end of the film, when the Doctor leads her away, her trunk is left behind. Blanche seems to have forgotten something, but Stanley assures the Matron that “we can send it along with the trunk.” But this promise rings hollow. It is unlikely that Blanche will see her trunk again. In the end, her secrets—and her self—aren’t really in the trunk. Even if one were to go through all of its contents, all the letters and documents and fake jewelry and cheap furs, these things wouldn’t tell the whole story. This is what Blanche means when she says to Stanley that she has “all these treasures locked in my heart.” Unlike her trunk, her heart is something she can lock, something she can keep safe. It is private, and indeed privacy is what Blanche wants. Leigh understood this preoccupation with interiority, I think. Blanche’s real secrets are behind her eyes, in the demure look that is one of her signature moves: a vision of wide-eyed, ladylike innocence that hides a true self under layers of artifice. This look is meant to manipulate, to control. But this is not the most interesting thing about it. More than anything, Leigh’s look is opaque, and this is how her Blanche protects herself, or tries to, in a way that she cannot protect the contents of her trunk. The trunk can be violated. Blanche’s body can be—and is. But Leigh’s look hides the past. It hides the self. It is what secrets look like.
Susan Harlan is an associate professor of English at Wake Forest University. She is the author of Luggage and Memories of War in Early Modern England.