She's Come Undone: Understanding a Foil in Act I, Scene V

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SWBAT analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Big Idea

Blanche's world begins to unravel: Creating foils to enhance characterization.


This lesson examines some of the choices that Tennessee Williams makes in creating his characters.  In this lesson, we examine the foil.  Essentially, each character in the play has a foil: Stanley and Mitch; Stella and Blanche; Blanche and Stanley.  I ask students why Williams finds it necessary to create foils; what do they contribute to characterization?

What's in a Character?

30 minutes

Before we begin reading scene five, I would like to take a step back and review the four major characters in the play so far.  Essentially, what I want students to grasp are the physical, moral, psychological, and social characteristics of the characters.  It is important to see how they differ in these four areas since each character has a different motivation.  This activity will help students understand the motivations of the characters as we make our way through the remainder of the play.

To make this assignment Common Core aligned, the graphic organizer requires students to assign a quote to each of the four categories for each of the four main characters.  Students must indicate what this quote reveals about the character.

Read A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene Five

40 minutes

In reading scene five, students often question why Stella remains with Stanley despite the domestic turbulence that he often incites.  Students have difficulty envisioning how women were dependent on men especially in a marriage when they had no source of income.  Students view this scene through a twenty-first century lens.  I find that they are more apt to understand the logistics of Stanley and Stella's relationship when they have knowledge of the social roles of women during this time.  Therefore, I provide them with some historical context with regard to roles of women in the 1940s and how they changed in the 1950s.  To begin, I introduce the American icon Rosie the Riveter, who became a symbol of women's independence and economic stability during World War II.  Following this clip, I show the following YouTube clip  which discusses economic opportunities for women after the war. When we have concluded the scene, I ask students the following questions:

Why would Stella stay with Stanley when he obviously has many violent outbursts?  Is it just love that keeps them together?  How does the information revealed in the YouTube video relate to their relationship?  Students often note from Stella's reaction to Stanley that she is obviously physically attracted to him, but it is either unclear or doubtful that they have any other intimate or emotional attraction.  Secondly, students draw the conclusion that since both women, Blanche and Stella, have no source of income, they rely on Stanley for financial support and are tied to him and his outbursts.


Based on the character graphic organizer, students will write a reflection in which they identify contrasting characters in the play.  Why did Tennessee Williams make Blanche a foil to Stella and Mitch a foil to Stanley?  How does his decision add to the intensity of the scenes and the suspense in the plot?

Students may need to review the definition of a foil, which is two characters with opposite characterisitics.  These opposing characterisitics make the characters stand out more to the reader.