Art & Identity in New Orleans

HNRS 109 Spring '18

Desire or Duty?

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A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, and Belocq’s Ophelia by Natasha Trethewey tell the tales of two different women in very different circumstances, yet who each are driven to make similar choices. Their choices however, do not offer what was perhaps expected, they yield different results.

The main character of A Streetcar Named Desire is Blanche DuBois, a formerly wealthy woman who falls from her station in life and enters into the life of prostitution. Her choice to do so allows her a certain release at first, but her actions force her to leave town. Her past soon catches up with her and she realizes that she cannot escape the life she left. In the end, both her internal and external struggles give out. Coming to terms with her fate, she finds a certain peace and as she is led away to a mental institution and to a new life where she will perhaps feel as trapped as before, haunted by her past once more.

The young woman in Belocq’s photograph, and the subject of Natasha Trethewey’s book, was also a prostitute. The character of Ophelia, brought to life in Trethewey’s words is a light skinned woman of color, who hopes that her skin will pass her off as white in order to secure a job. When this fails, not because of her skin color, but because her skills are not needed, she is forced to enter a life of prostitution to support herself. Despite her brief spell of relative freedom from who she is, it circles back to loom over her once more as she becomes an “exotic beauty” in a “colored brothel.” And yet, she can support herself, although she is relegated to remain in the brothel and the red-light district. Thus she achieves a freedom of sorts from a life she left behind, but she cannot entirely escape it, and she trades one captivity for another.

The two women in these stories both feel trapped by their pasts. By escaping their former lives, they seek to build new ones and start anew, but their pasts remain close behind them. As they both realize this, they must come to terms with the reality of their positions, and accept the “freedoms” that accompany their new lives. What freedoms? Blanche’s “freedom” is that she ultimately chooses not to fight back, with some coaxing from the doctor, and while this is not “free” as one might normally define the word, her freedom of choice is one of her only remaining choices. She may see it as a freedom from the life she’s been living, although she is not being released from anything. Ophelia’s “freedom” is that she is free from the uncertainty that she once held about her ability to support herself. She no longer has to worry about where her next meal will come from, and so, in a way, although she put herself in captivity, she can live free of at least that worry.

While neither Blanche nor Ophelia ever truly escape from their past lives, they change their lives, for better or for worse. Do you believe that they achieved a type of freedom?

 

Trethewey, Natasha. Belocq’s Ophelia. Graywolf Press, 2002.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2017.

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