The central conflict in A Streetcar Named Desire occurs between two people representing disparate social backgrounds, incompatible natures, and opposing approaches to life. Blanche DuBois is a descendent of an aristocratic, decadent family of plantation-owners, and she is sensitive, cultured, and devoted to manners and appearances. Her antagonist, Stanley Kowalski, is a “common” descendent of Polish immigrants, brutish, domineering, and carnal. In a larger sense, the major conflict occurs as Blanche, a self-proclaimed “soft” person, tries to survive as her resources—both tangible (money and family) and intangible (youth and beauty)—dwindle. Stanley personifies the difficult world that, with mounting intent, smashes Blanche’s ideals.
Streetcar unfolds as a series of encounters between Blanche’s world and Stanley’s world. Their confrontations begin almost immediately, with the characters meeting in the play’s first scene. Although superficially civil, this meeting includes a significant exchange, with Blanche mentioning that she is an English teacher and Stanley remarking, “I never was a very good English student.” These words establish the fundamental difference and incompatibility between them. Their first true clash occurs a day later when Stanley interrogates Blanche over the loss of the DuBois family home, Belle Reve. Blanche’s coquettish behavior—her effort to handle and defuse the situation—antagonizes him. The battle is thus begun, and tension and hatred between the pair escalates with every subsequent encounter as both try to win other characters (namely Stella) over to their side.
Blanche consistently loses ground in the ongoing war. Appalled by Stanley striking the pregnant Stella during a poker game, Blanche begs her sister to leave, categorizing Stanley as an ape-man—only to see Stella run to embrace her husband. Three months after that, Blanche is left shaken when Stanley alludes to a man who knows her from Laurel and presumably slept with her. Blanche appears to win a small victory when Mitch proposes marriage to her, but the victory is short-lived. Only a few weeks later, Stanley has gained full possession of the sordid facts about Blanche’s life in Laurel, which he shares with Stella and Mitch. His revelations result in another blow for Blanche: Mitch breaks off their engagement, though he indicates he still wants to sleep with her, and only her hysterical screams stop him.
The climactic confrontation occurs shortly after Mitch’s unwanted advances on Blanche. With Stella in labor at the hospital, Blanche and Stanley are alone in the apartment for the first time. Blanche is drunk, entertaining imaginary guests, pretending she’s gotten an invitation from an old beau, and calling Stanley and Mitch “swine.” Enraged and aroused, Stanley rapes her. As the play’s final scene reveals, Stanley has “won” their war by physically violating Blanche. Blanche eventually goes to a mental institution after being committed by Stella. Stanley has not only driven Blanche away, he has driven her insane. Appearing almost completely detached from reality, Blanche departs with a doctor and nurse for the asylum, unsure of who they are but confident she can rely on the kindness of strangers.