The play takes place in a poor section of New Orleans named Elysian Fields. Blanche Dubois, a delicate and refined woman, has arrived to visit her sister Stella, who is married to the muscular and uncouth Stanley Kowalski. Blanche and Stella come from an old aristocratic French family and had grown up on a huge plantation named Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi. Blanche is surprised by the poverty of her sister's neighborhood and apartment, but she announces that she will be staying with the Kowalskis for a while. Stella, who is much quieter and less nervous than her sister, is willing to allow her to stay, but Stanley seems less tolerant of Blanche's quirks and insincerity.
Blanche begins to date one of Stanley's friends, Mitch, who is charmed by Blanche's fine manners and feels grateful for her attention. During the time that Blanche is living in Stanley and Stella's apartment, Blanche tries consistently to break them up because she believes that Stella, who is pregnant, is too beautiful and refined for Stanley. Once, after she witnesses Stanley beating Stella, she tries to persuade her to leave him, but Stella refuses to divorce Stanley because their sexual relationship is so satisfying that she is willing to overlook his flaws. Blanche tries to escape their household by desperately trying to contact a wealthy old boyfriend of hers, even though she doesn't have his telephone number or address. She admits to Mitch that she had once been hurt by her young husband, who had shot and killed himself when she had discovered him having sex with an older male friend of his. Blanche has never recovered from the isolation, depression, and hurt that had resulted from this betrayal.
On Blanche's birthday, Stanley reveals that he has been digging up dirt on Blanche and has discovered that she had had many affairs with men in Laurel while her mother had been sick and after she had died. After Blanche had lost Belle Reve, she had resided in a seedy hotel named the Flamingo and become the town whore, welcoming any man who offered her comfort. She had been dismissed from her job as a high school English teacher because she had had a relationship with a seventeen-year-old student. Stanley reveals his discoveries to Mitch, who breaks up with Blanche, and Blanche begins to increase her drinking and descends more quickly into a state of mental depression.
Stella goes into labor one night, and Stanley and Blanche are left alone in the apartment. After arguing, Stanley rapes Blanche, who is physically and emotionally powerless and cannot fight him off. When she tells Stella what Stanley has done to her, Stella decides that she cannot believe her sister and chooses to send Blanche off to a mental institution. When a doctor and a matron arrive at the Kowalskis' apartment to take Blanche to the institution, Stella sobs and regrets her decision to betray her sister, but Stanley soothes her by taking her to the bedroom and easing her emotional pain with physical pleasure.
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