Tennessee Williams and the southern dialetic : in search of androgyny

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Bak, John Steven
Habich, Robert D., 1951-
Issue Date
Thesis (Ph. D.)
Department of English
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Blanche DuBois marked the most significant literary achievement of Tennessee Williams. Though her rape functions dramatically as a powerful climax which has troubled critics and bothered audiences, it is more a thematic culmination of Blanche's inability to sequester her sexuality. In fact, nearly everything Williams wrote prior to 1947 was building toward Blanche's rape; nearly everything that came after was a thematic attempt to resolve that issue left incomplete in her character--the southern dialectic, the preponderant theme and unsolved riddle of Williams's long career.The southern dialectic--a model developed from the joint theories of southern historian W. J. Cash, theorist Allen Tate, novelist William Faulkner, literary critic C. Hugh Holman, and playwright Tennessee Williams--is the internalization of opposites virulent in human nature which seeks to synthesize its disparate traits. Williams juxtaposed onto most of his characters this metaphysical debate between antinomies, most notably flesh and spirit, past and present, and miscegenation. Although he explored each with precise attention to balance, Williams returnedto flesh and spirit and its teleological (as opposed to theological) assessment of the human condition as his thematic touchstone.From his first performed play in 1935 to his last works of-the Eighties, Williams harnessed the dialectic in himself --between his innate desire for flesh and his learned duties to spirit--and generated from it the art that was as much his career as it was his exercise in psychotherapy. By placing both traits in his characters and dramatizing their interaction through two key images--the cat and the bird, whose own timeless battle reflected the same attraction/ repulsion nexus of the flesh-spirit dialectic--Williams could search for the one-androgynous hero who, like Christ, would successfully integrate them.Androgyny, for Williams, was not strictly hermaphroditism, though he was drawn to the asexual, but the ideal state of human existence--the integration of paradoxically repellent and attractive forces created by the dialectic. Though his Grail-like pursuit led him to discover different ways to end or survive this dialectic (denial, then death, then endurance), Williams's search for his androgynous hero would ultimately be in vain.