f i l m c r i t i q u e l a u r i e c a l h o u n
In Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Blanche Du Bois goes to New Orleans to “visit” her sister, Stella, and her husband, Stanley Kowalski, after having exhausted her opportunities, occupational and otherwise, in her former town of residence. Soon after her arrival, Blanche asks her sister if she can move in with them, since she lacks the means to support herself. Stella lovingly permits her to stay, although the apartment is very small and does not easily accommodate both the couple and a guest. Stanley is annoyed from the beginning by the presence of Blanche, whom he regards as an intruder, and his perturbation is exacerbated when he learns that Belle Rive, the estate shared by the two sisters, has been “lost.” From the outset, Blanche is ill-disposed toward Stanley, and during their second encounter she says directly to his face, “You’re simple, straightforward and honest. A little bit on the, uh, primitive side, I should think.” Throughout the duration of her stay, Blanche continues to make derogatory remarks about Stanley, calling him “a pollack,” “primitive,” “a pig,” etc. She also tries to make Stella feel guilty for having abandoned her ten years earlier for this man, whom she seems to regard as beneath contempt. Blanche even attempts to convince her sister that she is too good for Stanley and that she should leave him. Horrified that Stella should actually have forgiven Stanley after he had, in a state of drunkenness, hit her the previous night, she asks, “May I speak plainly?. . . If you’ll forgive me: he’s common.” Stella replies, “Suppose he is?” Blanche continues:
He’s like an animal. He has an animal’s habits. There’s even something subhuman about him. Thousands of years have passed him right by. And there he is: Stanley Kowalski, survivor of the stone age, bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle. And you, you here waiting for him. Maybe he’ll strike you, or maybe he’ll grunt and kiss you. That’s if kisses have been discovered yet. This “poker night” you call it. This party of apes? Baby we are a long way from being made in God’s image. But Stella, my sister, there’s been some progress since then! Such things as art, as poetry, as music. . . . Don’t! Don’t hang back with the brutes!
Although she believes herself to be talking in privacy, the layout of the apartment and building is such that Stanley actually overhears this and probably other such conversations.
When Blanche becomes engaged to marry Mitch, a co-worker and friend of Stanley’s, Stanley apprises him that, far from being “old-fashioned” and “straight-laced,” as she has always pretended whenever Mitch has attempted to become physically intimate with her, Blanche has a most colorful past history of affairs and debauchery, and this is well known to all throughout her former place of residence. As Stanley relays the story to Stella:
She’s as famous in Laurel as if she was the president of the United States. Only she’s not respected by any party.... The trouble with Dame Blanche was that she couldn’t put on her act any more in Laurel because they got wised up and after two, three days they quit, and then she goes on to another one. The same old line, the same old laugh, the same old. . .
Stanley has also learned and reveals to Stella and Mitch that Blanche left her position at the school where she taught English not, as she claims, because the superintendent suggested that she take a leave of absence due to her nervous exhaustion. Rather, she was dismissed because of her scandalous liaison with a seventeen-year-old student.
Mitch is understandingly alarmed and disillusioned by this revelation, which he verifies to be true before deciding to end the engagement. His change in attitude first manifests itself when he fails to show up for dinner on Blanche’s birthday and does not even call to excuse himself. Later he confronts Blanche with the reports about her former life, and she admits that they are true, excusing her comportment by appeal to the story of how she was devastated by her one true love, her first and only husband, who committed suicide. When Mitch demands that he be allowed to look at her in the light, so that he can see her “good and plain,” Blanche speaks truthfully to him, explaining:
I don’t want realism. . . . I want magic. Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truths, and if that is sinful, then let me be punished for it. Don’t turn the light on!
But Mitch’s pride has been irreparably wounded by Blanche’s earlier duplicity: “I thought you were straight. . . . You lied to me Blanche! . . . Lies, lies, inside and out! All lies!” Blanche vainly attempts to rectify the hopeless situation by crying: “Never inside! I never lied in my heart!” When Mitch kisses her, Blanche believes that this is because he is so compassionate as to be able to forgive her for all of her transgressions, and she pleads, “Marry me, Mitch.” But he responds, “No, I don’t think that I want to marry you anymore. . . . No, you’re not clean enough to live in the house with Mom.” Now he is only interested in adding his name to the list of all the other men she has had.
Stanley’s continually abusive treatment and Mitch’s rejection have a thoroughly devastating effect upon Blanche, who eventually loses all touch with reality and invents fantasies about a man who will come to rescue her from the place where she now feels trapped as a result of her insolvency. Blanche even dresses up in party clothes and claims that Shep Hartley, a rich oilman, is going to take her away on a Caribbean cruise. She talks out loud to herself, and finally loses the ability to distinguish reality from fiction. Her emotional roller coaster ride of quixotic dreams and dashed hopes plummets and crashes, leaving her derailed, never again to return to the tracks of conventionally delimited reality.
Stella is deeply troubled by her sister’s degeneration, and, recognizing that her condition is only worsening, she decides to have her committed to an insane asylum. In the end, Stella leaves Stanley, so his efforts to win back her total devotion, by ridding their household of Blanche, fail. There is a sense in which Stanley’s actions contribute to the destruction of Blanche, whose tenuous psychological stability had been depending upon being saved by Mitch, who would both believe the illusory interpretation of her own life which she wanted and, indeed, needed so desperately to cling to, and marry her, preventing her from spiraling further and further into the dark depths of old age and loneliness. But, reciprocally, Blanche irrevocably damages Stanley, since his marriage, the most important part of his life, is unsalvageable now that Stella has seen this cruel side of her husband, whom she had formerly adored. The film ends with Stella proclaiming: “I’m not going back in there again, not this time. I’m never going back! Never!” Stanley wails like a child in the background, trying desperately to persuade her to return to him.
Before Blanche arrived, Stanley and Stella’s marriage was physically satisfying, and both of them were perfectly happy, even living in the conditions which Blanche relentlessly criticizes as sordid. Blanche’s presence disrupts the marriage by stifling the couple in their physical relationship, since they are constantly in the company of Blanche, who resides in the next room, separated only by a thin curtain, which permits every sound to pass through. Blanche is continually injecting ideas into Stella about Stanley’s being “common” and “primitive.” But when Stanley tells Mitch about Blanche’s past, thereby destroying the couple’s plans for marriage, and then, as a final coup, presents her with “a birthday remembrance,” a one-way ticket back to her home town, he himself effectively confirms in Stella’s mind the hypothesis which Blanche has for months been attempting to persuade her to believe, that he is grossly barbaric. She insists to Stanley, “You didn’t need to do that. You didn’t need to be so cruel to someone who’s as alone as she is.”
From Stella’s perspective, it could not possibly harm Mitch never to find out the truth about Blanche, and their marriage would have been an optimum solution for all of the parties involved. Blanche would have left to live happily ever after with Mitch, a man who accorded her the type of respect which she needed and which would give her happiness. At the same time, Mitch would have been happily married to a woman of what he takes to be Blanche’s cultivation and refinement.
In Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), when Nurse Ratched finds the ward which she governs in shambles, having been the scene of carousing and debauchery throughout the previous night, she is incensed at what she interprets to be her patients’ disobedience and disrespect. When she finds Billy Bibbit lying naked in bed with a woman with whom he has obviously been sexually entangled, she confronts him with the fact that his mother will not be pleased by the news that he has conducted himself in such a way. The man is anguished by Nurse Ratched’s claim that she will relay the story to his mother, despite his plea: “You don’t have to tell her.” He leaves in hysterics, in effect begging her not to tell his mother, and a few minutes later he is found dead, having committed suicide.
It is clear that Nurse Ratched is outraged by the usurpation of her authority by McMurphy, who has turned her ward upside down, and her reaction is to lash out at Billy. Her treatment is interpreted by McMurphy as gratuitous cruelty, which is why he reacts by leaping on top of her and attempting to strangle her. He very nearly succeeds, and, as a result, she ends up in a neck brace, while he is “treated” with a lobotomy. The reason why McMurphy is so angry as to attempt to take Nurse Ratched’s life is that he knows, as do all the patients who have participated in group therapy discussions, that Billy’s primary problem, the reason why he came to a psychiatric hospital for treatment, is that he has been unable to have healthy relationships with women, apparently in large part due to his mother’s domineering and jealous nature.
When Nurse Ratched threatens to tell Billy’s mother that he has spent a night of debauchery in bed with a woman of ill-repute, all of his negative feelings and memories of the frustration he experienced the last time that he attempted to have a relationship come rushing back to him. But Nurse Ratched, even more than McMurphy himself, knows what a source of anxiety this problem has been for Billy. So for her to attack him in this way is, to McMurphy’s mind, unforgivable. He views her as directly responsible for Billy’s death. Only a few minutes before, Billy is perfectly fine, even seemingly cured of his former problem of inhibition, as is evidenced by the fact that he no longer stutters during the first moments of the conversation after emerging from the bed where he has spent the night with a woman. It is only when Nurse Ratched mentions his mother that he reverts to his former timid behavior and begins stuttering once again.
The outcome is tragic: McMurphy ends up lobotomized (and ultimately dead, because Chief suffocates him, being unable to bear the thought of McMurphy walking around as a vegetable), Billy is dead, and Nurse Ratched returns to her position of authority over the ward. Furthermore, from her own perspective, Miss Ratched has been the victim, first, of the disruption of the order of her ward and, second, of an attempted murder by McMurphy.
While one can understand her interpretation of what transpired, the viewer is still left with a nauseous feeling. In treating Billy in the manner in which she did, Nurse Ratched assumed that he was a normal, psychologically robust person, the type of person with whom one interacts as a matter of course “on the outside.” But, within the milieu of a mental institution, a different attitude is appropriate. It would seem reasonable to treat the inhabitants of a mental hospital with more compassion and tolerance, since they are in such a place due to their inability fully to function in the real world precisely because they are hypersensitive. These people are incapable of deflecting verbal assaults in the normal way and are peculiarly vulnerable to harsh judgment by others. This point is illustrated over and over again in the film, by interactions between the patients which highlight their hypersensitivity. The scenario involving Miss Ratched and Billy immediately preceding his suicide is deeply ironic, because a mental health professional, one who has been trained to assess the appropriateness and inappropriateness of the behavior of other human beings, acts inappropriately and, as a result, effects the destruction of two others.
The case is deeply tragic because, while on the one hand we want to hold Nurse Ratched responsible, on the other hand, her conduct betrays nothing less than her irrationality, or her simple failure to remember that the man with whom she is dealing is special, that he is affected more profoundly by harsh words and judgment than are normal people, and that he is particularly disposed toward inhibition and embarrassment in matters regarding intimacy. Beyond this instance of irrationality, there are no obvious grounds for exculpating Nurse Ratched. She is considered by all to be a person of authority and, therefore, entirely responsible. If a person were truly irrational, then, we have been trained to believe since childhood and often naïvely suppose, he would not occupy such a position of authority and power.
This case illustrates how persons who are functional and sane may have moments of irrationality and failures of memory which cause them to act in ways which we find regrettable. We are torn between our desire to hold them responsible and our recognition that their behavior is purely irrational. On one level, we either believe or want to believe that if Nurse Ratched had only thought more about the possibilities which become real for a person of Billy’s fragile constitution, then she would not have acted in the manner in which she did. However, there are also some grounds for believing that Nurse Ratched senses even in Billy a threat to her own position of authority and power, as she is visibly bothered by his and the other patients’ reactions to her when she discovers her ward turned into a nightclub.
Both Nurse Ratched and Stanley Kowalski most likely view themselves as antagonized by the people whom they victimize. If so, then their behavior is best interpreted as self-defensive. Both want to avoid the further usurpation of their power and regain the position of prominence that they formerly occupied in their respective domains.
It might seem that Stanley simply fails to see that the best way to get rid of Blanche is to facilitate, not hinder, her marriage to Mitch, since then at last she will not be inhabiting one of the two rooms of Stanley’s home. Most likely he does not think that Blanche’s marriage to Mitch will solve the problem, since she will still be in the same town as Stella and will no doubt continue to infect her with ideas about how vulgar and primitive he is. This would explain why Stanley buys Blanche a bus ticket back to her home town for her birthday present, indicating that he wants Blanche not only out of the house, but out of the city, indeed, as far away as is possible. He ends by having his wish fulfilled, but the victory is Pyrrhic, for he also loses the most cherished part of his life, his formerly adulatory wife. In defeating his enemy, he adversely and irrevocably alters his wife’s perception of him. Stanley might have interpreted Blanche’s attitude and behavior as a cry for help, as the expressions of a truly anguished soul. However, because she attacks him where he is most vulnerable, by attempting to undermine his up until now successful marriage, he is blinded to alternative interpretations. Stanley’s own comportment serves to confirm Blanche’s interpretation of him in Stella’s eyes.
There is a sense in which Blanche could be interpreted as the victor of the battle, since she also gets what she wanted most of all, the opportunity to finally live in a fantasyland, in which, to her mind, all of her illusions are veridical pictures and all of her delusions are truths. In her private world, Blanche is a cultured, sophisticated lady for whom dashing and wealthy men of taste and refinement pine. Blanche’s final state reveals that her need to hold onto this fictional image is so strong that eventually it becomes necessary to forsake altogether her grip on reality. She escapes to another world, a world of pure illusion, far from the cruel words and harsh judgment of real people living in the real world.
One wonders whether Blanche would not ultimately have succumbed to the seduction of her fantasy world anyway, even if she had married Mitch. From her description of what happened many years before, between her and Alan, her “one true love,” one gathers that she has a difficult time not imposing her idealistic dreams upon others. When her lover exposed what she interpreted to be his faults to her, she judged him most harshly. She relays the story of her husband’s suicide to Mitch as follows:
I loved someone once, and the person I loved I lost. . . . He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl. . . . But I was unlucky, deluded. There was something about this boy: a nervousness, a tenderness, an uncertainty, and I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand why this boy, who wrote poetry, didn’t seem able to do anything else. He lost every job. He came to me for help. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know anything except that I loved him unendurably.
When Mitch expresses bewilderment about her husband’s suicide, Blanche explains: “It was because on the dance floor, unable to stop myself, I said: ‘You are weak. I’ve lost respect for you. I despise you.’” It is Mitch’s very sensitivity to the tragedy of what he takes to be Blanche’s plight that leads him to ask her hand in marriage: “You need somebody, and I need somebody too. Could it be you and me, Blanche?”
Supposing that they had married, would Blanche have been able to sustain a relationship with Mitch, who, after all, leaves much to be desired, according to Blanche’s own lofty standards? Mitch is a co-worker and friend of Stanley, whom she regards as primitive and base. Their conversations are banal, his grammar is atrocious (and Blanche is extraordinarily sensitive about and adept with language), he is inordinately attached to his mother, with whom, amazingly enough, he still resides, and he obviously lacks self-esteem. Moreover, Mitch, unlike Stanley, is so obtuse as actually to have been duped by Blanche. One suspects that Blanche might have eventually turned on Mitch as well, pointing out his stupidity and naïveté, once she had secured what she was really looking for in this relationship: financial stability. There can be little doubt that Blanche is concerned above all to find a home for herself, as is evidenced by her response to Stella’s question, “Darling, do you want him?” Blanche explains: “I want to rest. I want to breathe quietly again. Yes, I want Mitch very badly. . . . I can go away from here and not be anyone’s problem.”
Nurse Ratched might have interpreted Billy’s actions in a positive way, as a stage in his healing process. She knows that his first suicide attempt succeeded a woman’s rejection of his marriage proposal, and it seems that what he needs more than anything else is to learn to adopt a somewhat less grave attitude toward others’ opinions of him. Billy is sensitive in the way in which Blanche’s husband was, and this sort of sensitivity about others’ opinions leaves one vulnerable to abuse and attack, even when it is best explained and most easily interpreted as purely reactive, as in the case of Nurse Ratched. Billy’s death is a form of collateral damage in a war between Nurse Ratched and R. P. McMurphy, as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest brilliantly reveals. The real issue irking Miss Ratched is not Billy’s sexual involvement but, rather, the way in which this represents a divestiture of her power by McMurphy, who, she believes, has insidiously infected her ward by provoking the patients to be more daring and outspoken and to stand up to her and assert their own opinions, rather than submitting meekly to her every dictate. Upon McMurphy’s arrival on her ward, Nurse Ratched immediately perceives in him an antagonist. And McMurphy views himself in this way as well. He says to the other patients:
God Almighty, she’s got you guys coming and going. . . What do you think she is, some kind of a champ or something?. . . You wanna bet?. . . One week. I bet in one week I can put a bug so far up her ass she don’t know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch.
When McMurphy requests that the ward schedule be changed so that the patients can watch the World Series, Nurse Ratched permits the residents to decide the issue, saying that the majority vote will rule, but she knows full well that exactly half of the men on the ward are completely incognizant of what is happening and therefore cannot possibly be persuaded to vote. Then, when McMurphy miraculously gets Chief, believed by everyone on the ward to be deaf and dumb, to vote for the ward policy change, she responds, “The meeting was adjourned, and the vote was closed. . . When the meeting was adjourned, the vote was nine to nine.” McMurphy later reports to the hospital administrators that “She ain’t honest,” and “She likes a rigged game. You know what I mean?” But Dr. Spivey defends her, saying that “Miss Ratched’s one of the finest nurses we’ve got in this institution.”
When McMurphy steals the hospital’s recreation bus and drives his fellow patients to a wharf to go fishing on a boat which they illegally borrow for the afternoon, his girlfriend Candy warns him, “You better quit on this. They’ll throw you back in the can again, you know?” But McMurphy jubilantly responds, “No they won’t. We’re nuts! They’ll just take us back to the feed farm, see?” What McMurphy has not realized up to this time is that there are harsher measures available to the authorities of psychiatric institutions than those of prisons, where the limit of punishment is solitary confinement, and the duration of one’s sentence is always externally pre-delineated.
When a panel of doctors meets with Dr. Spivey and Nurse Ratched to decide what to do about McMurphy, she persuades them to leave McMurphy on her ward:
Gentlemen, in my opinion, if we send him back to Pendleton or we send him up to disturbed, it’s just one more way of passing on our problem to somebody else. You know we don’t like to do that. So I’d like to keep him on the ward. I think that we can help him.
Later, one of the orderlies explains the terms of his confinement to McMurphy, who has threatened him by saying: “I’ll be seein’ you on the outside. You know what I mean?” The orderly replies, “By the time you get out of here, you’ll be too old to even get it up.” McMurphy smiles, “Sixty-eight days, buddy. Sixty-eight days.” The orderly counters, “What the fuck you talkin’ about, sixty-eight days? That’s in jail, sucker. You still don’t know where you’re at, do you?” McMurphy asks, “Yeah, where am I at, Washington?” And Washington informs him: “With us, baby. You’re with us. And you’re gonna stay with us until we let you out!”
McMurphy is understandably disconcerted by this news, and raises the issue at the next group therapy session: “I’d like to know why none of the guys never told me that you, Miss Ratched, and the doctors could keep me here ‘til you’re good and ready to turn me loose. That’s what I’d like to know.” When he learns, to his amazement, that most of the people in the ward are voluntary patients, he exclaims:
Jesus, I mean, you guys do nothin’ but complain about how you can’t stand it in this place here, and then you haven’t got the guts just to walk out? I mean, what do you think you are for Christ’s sake, crazy or somethin’?! Well, you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walkin’ around on the streets, and that’s it! Jesus Christ, I can’t even believe it!
Nurse Ratched explicitly acknowledges, “Those are very challenging observations you made, Randall.” The sense in which they are challenging to her position of authority is illustrated by the tenor of the subsequent discussion, when the patients begin asserting themselves and demanding that their rights be respected. It is McMurphy’s pointing out to them that they are “no crazier than the average asshole out walkin’ around on the streets,” which seems to awaken in them a new-found or long-suppressed self-confidence.
In the end, Miss Ratched wins the game and gets precisely what she sought, the re-establishment of the power structure that she had worked so hard to secure before McMurphy’s arrival, which, to her eyes, had a disruptive effect upon the ward, long before the night of revelry immediately preceding Billy’s suicide. Through indirectly causing that tragedy, Nurse Ratched incenses McMurphy to the point of losing control and attempting to take her life. McMurphy is quite far from insane and purposely conducted himself in prison in ways which led to his displacement to an institution for psychiatric evaluation in order to get out of work detail. But it is his location at the time of his attack which leads to his ultimate demise. Since anyone undergoing evaluation in a psychiatric hospital is already suspected of being psychologically aberrant, McMurphy is summarily lobotomized, in the name of psychiatry and within the bounds of the law, and thus rendered eternally impotent.
Although we can understand Nurse Ratched’s behavior as purely irrational, a sort of primitive territorialism, we nonetheless come away from the film with strong feelings of antipathy toward her. Not everyone loses, only McMurphy, Billy, and the other members of the ward. Nurse Ratched gets what she had before McMurphy’s arrival, a position of absolute power and authority, which are obviously a source of no small amount of satisfaction to her.
It might seem difficult to believe that someone would actually derive satisfaction from controlling a group of people who, as is evidenced by the fact that they are in this place, cannot cope and are devoid of the sort of self-esteem which prevents normal people from being hopelessly and ruthlessly manipulated by others. Indeed, the very fact that Nurse Ratched does take pride in and derives satisfaction from this position of power provides some reason for thinking that she herself is not all that suitably constituted to judge the appropriateness of others’ behavior. Certainly the type of “rigged game” that she plays, and to which McMurphy objects, is not deemed acceptable on “the outside.” The very fact that she must resort to these sorts of tactics would seem to betray none other than her own weakness, since if she were even moderately powerful, she could use fair means to dominate these already hyper-impressionable people.
What is most regrettable is that the satisfaction of one person’s desire to retain her position of power should have necessitated the destruction of two human beings. It may be the simple intuition that these two men’s lives are every bit as important as her own which explains part of our strong emotive reaction to the case.
Both Nurse Ratched and Stanley Kowalski assault their victims with the truth, which, under the circumstances, becomes a dangerously powerful weapon. Ordinarily, we praise honesty in our dealings with others and criticize individuals who conduct themselves in duplicitous ways. Do these cases then show that we are not so much interested in truth or lies but rather the nature of the intentions motivating their deployment?
Our reactions to these cases may indicate that, while we do value truth, there are other factors which weigh into our overall moral assessment of an individual’s conduct. While we would uniformly condemn the duplicitous sullying of Blanche’s character by Stanley’s fabrication of a story about her supposedly dissolute past, or Nurse Ratched’s making false statements to Billy such as that he would be subjected to excruciatingly painful corporal punishment for his behavior, we do not think that truth in and of itself can excuse what amounts to gratuitous cruelty.
In her defense, Nurse Ratched could point out that all she did was to make true statements to Billy, and there is certainly no crime in doing that. Far from it, she could insist, we expect honesty in our dealings with one another. Along similar lines, Stanley explicitly tells Stella that he could not have on his conscience the fact that Mitch had been lured into marrying Blanche by having “the wool pulled over his eyes.” It is indisputable that the truth is on his side, so to speak, and he can defend his conduct on the grounds that such a marriage might well lead to Mitch’s destruction, given Blanche’s generally destructive bent, which Stanley has amply witnessed for several months by the time he reveals the facts about her past to Mitch.
However, what we sense even more strongly is that Stanley revels in the truth about Blanche not because it is the truth, but because it is denigrating to this woman who has been assaulting him and posing a threat to his marriage for a number of months. Blanche has a powerful effect over her sister, which causes Stanley to fear Blanche and the possibly long-term consequences of her stay in their apartment. Stanley gloats over the facts about Blanche and relishes conveying them to Mitch and Stella because they show that she, the person who has been judging him extraordinarily harshly for so long, is far from irreproachable. Indeed, by conventional standards, Blanche’s own character is tarnished by the verifiable facts about her past. Next to this less pure image of Blanche, Stanley, far from being some sort of lowlife, looks like a perfectly decent and respectable husband. He does not cheat on his wife, and he earns an honest living. He is simple and “common,” but he is morally upright by the standards of society, something which Blanche, it emerges, cannot claim.
Our reactions to the case are, again, mixed. On the one hand, we sympathize with Stanley, whose life is disrupted by the presence of Blanche, who seems intent upon winning back her former place of prominence in her sister’s life. On the other hand, Blanche is so pathetic that we have a difficult time understanding how someone could fail to have sympathy for her. She is completely obsessed with her looks and age, and even goes so far as to avoid allowing others to view her in daylight for fear that they might discover how wilted she truly is. But the fact remains that Blanche, though pitiful, does exert a control over her sister, as is amply evidenced in a scene during which Stella herself coldly snaps at Stanley when Blanche observes his lack of interest in the joke which she is in the process of telling: “Mr. Kowalski is too busy making a pig of himself to think of anything else. Your face and your fingers are disgusting and greasy. Go wash up, and then help me clear the table.” Stanley explodes:
Don’t you ever talk that way to me. Pig, pollack, disgusting, vulgar, greasy, . . . those kind of words have been on your tongue and your sister’s tongues too much around here. Who do you think you are, fair queens? And just remember what Huey Long said, that “Every man’s a king,” and I’m the king around here. And don’t you forget it.
From Stanley’s perspective, Blanche is a despicable creature, but she is not piteous, so long as she is capable of influencing her sister, which she is, up until the time when she goes completely mad. However, Stanley never ceases abusing Blanche, even when it is evident to all that she has lost touch with reality. During the scene when she is being taken away to a hospital, Stanley continues to treat Blanche as though she were a healthy and responsible adversary, and this is what Stella finds unforgivable, in the end. But, once again, the very fact that Stanley is so harsh with this diminished woman, in front of both her sister and his friends, all of whom have already concluded that she is undeniably insane, betrays his own irrationality. He is utterly unable to abandon his interpretation of Blanche as an enemy to be vanquished and reveals himself to be brutish and insensate, just as Blanche has always maintained, during their final exchange.
Like Stanley, Nurse Ratched does not seem terribly concerned with the truth for its own sake. Rather, she invokes it as a weapon against Billy who she interprets as having rebelled against her and succumbed to the influence of McMurphy. But the truth sometimes has a cutting edge, which is why she chooses this moment to make these factual statements: “You know, Billy, what worries me is how your mother’s going to take this,” and “I don’t have to tell her? But your mother and I are old friends. You know that.” When Billy implores her, “Please don’t tell my mother!” She coldly retaliates, “Don’t you think you should have thought of that before you took that woman in that room?” When all is said and done, Nurse Ratched can live with herself without ever entertaining the possibility of moral responsibility for the destruction of these two men, Billy Bibbit and R. P. McMurphy, because all she really did was to utter truths.
It is because of the nature and vehemence of her reaction, that we recognize that Nurse Ratched feels threatened not only by McMurphy, but by Billy’s own newfound power, his ability to respond to her question, “Aren’t you ashamed?” by looking her in the eye and asserting, “No, I’m not.” Up until Blanche’s break with reality, the relevant distinction between her case and that of Billy is that the latter’s place of residence, in a mental institution, is an indication that, though he might seem at a given moment confident and self-possessed, in reality, his apparent equanimity may be ephemeral and easily disrupted. And, in fact, Billy is immediately and devastatingly disarmed by Nurse Ratched’s allusion to his mother. But even more crucial is the fact that Nurse Ratched is presumably an expert about matters of mental health. We expect more of Nurse Ratched than we do of Stanley Kowalski, since she is in the business of treating people such as Blanche.
When we look at the conduct of Nurse Ratched and Stanley Kowalski, we can only regret that they failed to notice some of the relevant features of the situations in which they treated Billy and Blanche with such cruelty that calamitous consequences directly ensued. While it may often be tempting to exculpate such agents for their abominable conduct on the grounds that they were, in the moment of action, temporarily insane, forgetful, or irrational, this would be tantamount to saying that no one is ever morally responsible.
Consider, once again, Nurse Ratched. It is certainly tempting to conclude that she is pathetic—indeed, just as is Blanche in her diaphanous efforts to wrest control of Stella from Stanley. However, Nurse Ratched wins this round of the power game, by regaining her former position of authority, having at last defeated the enemy with which she perceived herself to have been faced. The very fact that she should feel thus victorious provides us with all the more reason to write her off as beyond judgment, due to her own self-delusion and irrationality.
However, in spite of the fact that we feel tempted on one level to exonerate her, she has a control over this tiny domain at one point in the space and time coordinate system of human commerce, just as many other petty tyrants in history have had and will in the future as well. The dynamics of human commerce dictate that if Nurse Ratched is responsible enough to hold this enormously powerful position of being able to judge the appropriateness of the behavior of other human beings, then she is responsible enough to remember and consider crucial facts about her patients, in this case, that Billy is inordinately sensitive about issues involving women, he has attempted suicide before, and this problem seems to stem largely from his mother’s overbearing influence over him.
While we also find some of his actions cruel, we are perhaps less apt to hold Stanley Kowalski culpable for Blanche’s demise, since she herself attacks him in a most directed and incisive way over a period of several months before he finally locates some ammunition, the facts about her past, and thus the opportunity to retaliate. So long as Blanche shares the real world with other human beings, we have to assume that she is responsible for her own behavior, making it less reproachable that Stanley should deploy facts against her own barrage of facts, those which she has deployed in her own merciless attacks. Up until the end, Blanche and Stanley are engaged in a battle, with neither doing more, strictly speaking, than to tell the truth. When Blanche repeatedly points out to Stella that her husband is “common,” “primitive,” devoid of any appreciation for higher human aspirations such as art, music, or literature, she speaks the truth. Stanley knows that what Blanche says about him is true, and he fears the effects that her pointing out these facts will have upon his marriage. It is for this reason that he jumps at the opportunity to counterattack, by exposing Blanche’s hypocrisy.
The reason why Stella excuses Blanche’s manner is that she knows how deeply she has suffered and how she ended up in this state of needing to elevate herself by stepping upon any person whom she can interpret as being beneath her. The reason why Stella cannot forgive Stanley in the end is that she has felt all along that Blanche warrants special treatment, the sort of tolerance and sympathy that one would accord someone who has suffered severe psychological traumas, as Blanche has. She attempts to explain this to Stanley: “You didn’t know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody, was as tender and as trusting as she was. But people like you abused her and forced her to change.” However, once again, from Stanley’s perspective, the only thing visible is Blanche’s hard outer shell and haughtiness. She relentlessly attacks Stanley’s values and the type of life which he has to now happily shared with Stella, whom he reminds, “Wasn’t we happy together, wasn’t it all okay `til she showed up here? Hoity-toity, describing me like a ape.” Stanley never knew Blanche as an innocent child, before encountering the harsh realities of the world, so he can see no reason whatsoever for treating her with tenderness or compassion.
At one point Blanche lunges at Stanley, obviously referring to his destruction of her possibilities for marriage to Mitch: “Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the one unforgivable thing, in my opinion, and the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty.” But the degree to which Stanley feels threatened, and Blanche’s utter refusal (or inability) to consider his feelings at all, is ironically expressed by the interaction in which Stanley complains about Blanche’s having steamed up the bathroom again, and Blanche replies, “I take hot baths for my nerves. ‘Hydrotherapy,’ they call it. You healthy pollack without a nerve in your body, how could you possibly know what anxiety feels like?” Stanley yells at the top of his lungs:
I am not a pollack! People from Poland are Poles! They are not pollacks! But what I am is one hundred percent American! I’m born and raised in the greatest country on this earth, and I’m proud of it! Don’t you ever call me a pollack!
Blanche is apparently incognizant of the painful effects that her words have upon Stanley, and can defend herself as can Nurse Ratched and Stanley himself, by pointing out that all she has done is to “speak plainly” about Stanley. It is only much later that Blanche’s fragility emerges, when she reveals herself to have been most tenuously poised at the very edge of reality, what Stanley clearly could not have known when he conducted himself in the manner in which he did. Indeed, the very fact that Stanley actually believes Blanche’s story about receiving a telegram from a rich oilman in Texas reveals that he has no idea how psychologically unstable she truly is. And even after Blanche has gone mad, Stanley cannot surrender his defensive posture, having been so thoroughly wounded by this woman whom he appears still to fear may one day recover.
If Stanley had been perceptive enough to grasp the true nature and severity of Blanche’s problem, then he might not have acted in the manner in which he did, since he most likely would not have cared what she thought about him at all. He could have ignored her insults in the way in which one ignores the opinions of someone whom one already believes to be insane.
If Stanley had more self-esteem, then it would not have bothered him to be barraged by Blanche’s incessant insults regarding his “common” nature, since he would have been proud enough of his positive qualities that he would simply have deflected her words. He would not have cared whether Stella found his lack of appreciation for art and poetry to be a demerit, and he might have told Stella that if she didn’t like him as he was, then they could get a divorce.
If Blanche were sensitive and open-minded enough to recognize that there are other fulfilling lifestyles beyond that of her own favorite fantasyland world, then she might have refrained from attacking Stanley. But then Stanley would not have reacted in the cruel manner in which he did.
If Blanche had known that her husband was so sensitive, then she most likely would not have insulted him in the manner in which she did, and perhaps he wouldn’t have committed suicide. Then she probably would not have been catapulted into a series of destructive and degrading affairs which generated the need for her to make her dream world become reality.
If Nurse Ratched had other sources of pleasure in her life beyond the control of the patients on her ward, then she most likely would not have felt so threatened by McMurphy’s presence. In that case, she might not have interpreted the night of carousing in her ward as representing a divestiture of her power, but rather as a form of frivolity on the part of a group of people looking for light in their tunnels of darkness.
We could speculate until the end of time about how events might have transpired differently had certain features of a world—whether real or fictional—been different. But, ultimately, if human beings are free agents, then they have the choice of viewing worlds—whether real or fictional—and its other inhabitants through a moral lens or not. Once we have made the decision to do so, we have to accord the respect of moral judgment to all those who count as moral persons and interact with us. So long as Nurse Ratched, Blanche Du Bois and Stanley Kowalski are responsible enough to live in society at large within their respective worlds, they must be held accountable for their actions. This is not to deny that certain considerations, such as those discussed above, sometimes render this extremely difficult. But to deny cognizant and rational agents the respect of responsibility for their actions would be tantamount to an abandonment of a moral interpretation. It may be that our reactions to cases such as those of Blanche Du Bois and Billy Bibbit reveal our inner struggle both to embrace and to spurn a moral interpretation.
Near the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stella tells her neighbor, Eunice, “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley. I, I couldn’t!” She is alluding to Blanche’s report that Stanley played “rough-house” with her while Stella was away in the hospital. But the point can be generalized: Stella cannot remain faithful to both Blanche and Stanley, since both demand her absolute devotion, and their values and ways of life are incompatible. Stanley and Blanche present an exclusive disjunction to Stella because neither will compromise in such a way as to permit the other to occupy a prominent place in her life. Their values are deeply in conflict.
Similarly, Nurse Ratched’s position of authority on the ward is incompatible with McMurphy’s insistence upon challenging her and exposing her vulnerabilities and the illusory grounds for her supposed expertise about what constitutes appropriate behavior. While it is implausible that she is fully conscious of her motivations for having persuaded the hospital administration to retain McMurphy on her ward, Nurse Ratched senses that she is losing her hold over her patients and therefore takes positive steps toward regaining their loyalty. Here, again, the patients are presented with a dilemma: to remain respectful of Nurse Ratched or to admire and emulate McMurphy. The two choices are exclusive of one another because the admiration evinced by the patients toward McMurphy is precisely due to his boldness and daring, his willingness to stand up to and reject the sort of authority that Miss Ratched represents.
When in a battle no one wins, or any victory is purely Pyrrhic, then we have tragedy at its depth, where victims and aggressors alike end up in worse conditions than those in which they started. Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest graphically illustrate the extraordinarily complex nature of our moral dealings with one another, that it is not always obvious where to locate responsibility nor why it is that we feel the way in which we do. The cases of Blanche Du Bois and Billy Bibbit are tragic because they leave a residual conflict behind. We are torn between desires both to exculpate and to blame Stanley Kowalski and Nurse Ratched. To the extent that we hold them responsible for the plights of Blanche and Billy, we reveal our intuitions that morality and law diverge, and that truth, in and of itself, is not unquestionably good. We may think that falsehoods should not be deployed to the destruction of other human beings, but we seem also to believe that, even in the form of truths, gratuitous cruelty is best avoided. An inability to find a resolution to conflicting feelings about these cases, and to render a univocal judgment of innocence or guilt upon Stanley Kowalski and Nurse Ratched, may reflect competing intuitions that truth and honesty are intrinsically good, while mercy and compassion are as well.
In response to the dilemma posed by Stella when she exclaims, “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley,” Eunice exhorts Stella to stand by Stanley: “Don’t you never believe it [Blanche’s story].” We may or may not agree with her choice, but her defense is every bit as generalizable as is Stella’s articulation of the dilemma: “We gotta keep on goin’. No matter what happens, we all gotta keep on goin’.”