The "soft people" in Tennessee Williams plays

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 1999 39 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of contents

2. Introduction

3. The character categories in Williams’ plays
3.1 Southern Belle
3.2 Rebel dreamer-failer
3.4 Naive, healthy yea-sayer
3.5 Brutal and coarse man
3.6 Average American

4. The image of the world in Williams’ plays

5. Characterization of the category of soft people
5.1 The inner selves of the soft people
5.1.1 Soft people and their need for help
5.1.2 Soft people and other characters
5.2 The outward appearance of soft people

6. Specified analysis of different “soft people”
6.1 Laura
6.2 Tom
6.3 Blanche
6.4 Brick

7. Comparison
7.1 Illusion and mental disposition
7.2 Abuse of alcohol
7.3 Dispel of problems and lying
7.4 Isolation
7.5 Youth and time

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography
9.1 Literature used for the paper
9.2 Further reading

2. Introduction

In this written paper I am going to deal with the topic of soft people in Tennessee Williams’ dramas. First I will give a general introduction to the quality of soft people. It will be explained what kind of characters are described with this term. A general characterization of them, of the other characters and the general idea and image of the world which is created in Williams’ dramas will be given. Afterwards the results will be specified at the examples of four characters belonging to the category of soft people. At the end of this paper I will give a personal evaluation of the conception of the soft people.

3. The character categories in Williams’ plays

Francis Donahue[1] gives a very helpful listing of character types in Tennessee Williams’s plays. She differentiates between five different character types. Two of them are subcategories of the so-called soft people. The other character types represent the soft people’s antagonists in Williams’ dramas.

3.1 Southern Belle

The first type Donahue lists is that of the fragile, pathetic Southern woman (Belle) who is marked by a gentle soul and the inability to cope with her problems of living. The typical Southern Belle was brought up according to the traditions of the Southern States of the USA, a tradition which is dead at the time the plays are set. Therefore the characters of this type all try to live in the past and they crack up when confronted with the stress of their everyday life.
The Southern Belle belongs to the category of soft people. Examples for figures belonging into this category are Blanche and Laura.

3.2 Rebel dreamer-failer

The second variety of soft people Donahue calls the rebel dreamer-failer type. Characters belonging to this category are revolting against the demands put on them by society or their family. As the term ‘failer’ implies, their rebellion usually fails in some way or other. Like the Southern Belle they are dreamers who (want to) live in a world of illusions. Examples for this category are Brick (Cat on a hot Tin Roof) and Tom Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie).

3.4 Naive, healthy yea-sayer

The third character type is the naive, healthy yea-sayer of the universe. An example for this category is Stella who despite her traditional Southern education chose a life with her brutal, uneducated husband and who finds compensation for her husband Stanley’s brutality in his sexual potency.

3.5 Brutal and coarse man

Stanley, on the other hand, belongs to the fourth category of character types. He represents the brutal and coarse type of a man, a male animal dominated by sexual potency and marked by physical strength. Another character fitting into this category is Big Daddy who was reckless in his craving for power and accumulating richness (Cat on a hot Tin Roof).

3.6 Average American

The last character type is the average American who conforms to the dictates of society. Mitch (A Streetcar named Desire) and Jim O’Connor (The Glass Menagerie) belong to this category. In comparison to other characters in the plays they appear to be rather uninteresting. Concerning the aspect of strength or weakness they are in between the soft (and weak) people and the strong characters in Williams’ plays.

As said before type one and two belong to the category of soft people. Later on, a more accurate outline of the character features of the soft people will be given. But first, we will have a look at the world those characters live in in Williams’ plays.[2]

4. The image of the world in Williams’ plays

We already got an overview of the different types of characters that appear in Tennessee Williams’s plays. We will now try to find out, what the world in Williams’ plays looks like. Principally we can divide the Williams-world into two main sections. On the one hand we have the world of illusions and its representatives, namely the soft people. On the other hand we have the so-called real world or reality and its representatives. These are the antagonists of the soft people.

As a principle the world of illusions and the real world are incompatible and collide when soft people and their antagonists get into contact with one another. The concept of the real world always proves to be the dominant one. The soft people have to try to fit into this world. They can either be successful in their efforts to do so or – which is more often the case - they fail.

The soft people are sensitive, fragile people who need a warm and comforting environment. Accordingly the world of illusions they create is a world of romance, shelter, arts, beauty, love and friendship.

The real world is dominated by people who are strong, reckless, sometimes even coarse and brutal. There are two main categories of values: Materialistic values and sensual values. Money and career are the primary aims for many of the Williams characters. For some (like Stanley) sexuality is of equal value or even more important.

Accordingly, the real world in Williams’s plays is marked by values such as financial success, sexual potency, health, willpower and also values like family and children. It’s a demanding and reckless world which has no mercy and understanding for people who do not fit into this world.

5. Characterization of the category of soft people

5.1 The inner selves of the soft people

What does the expression soft people mean? First of all, one has to say that it does refer as well to the outward appearance as to the soul of the figures. The expression soft could be replaced by weak, as well. For the soft people are actually also weak people. Their souls are fragile and gentle. They are dreamers, failer-types, unable to cope with the real world. Esther Merle Jackson[3] calls them anti heroes (p.68), non-beings (p.69) and negative saints (p.72). She describes them as figures who suffer from an inner division, a fragmentation of the character, which reduces them to un-beings caught in a destructive life process which is marked by a fusion of pessimism and mysticism. They are objects of pity and terror and emotional, spiritual and moral cripples. Link calls them weak and helpless creatures who suffer from and fail to cope with the reality of their lives. Therefore they are forced to live in a world of illusions.[4] Köhler[5] describes them as lonesome, neurotic individuals who are on a tightrope walk between reality and phantasy, who live in a constant contradiction between society and individual and whose contact with the real world eventually breaks them.[6] This corresponds to a remark that Maggie (“Cat on a hot Tin Roof”) makes about the soft people. According to her they have the “charm of the defeated”. The question that now appears is why are they thus inwardly divided, helpless and neurotic? On the one hand they certainly have a character with a weak, neurotic disposition. Köhler claims that they are passive and enduring people with a strong tendency towards self-deception. He thinks that their psychical disposition makes them basically unable to tackle the problems they have with their environment. He has the opinion that they are already defeated when entering the play.[7] Consequently their psychical disposition does not allow them to fight. Therefore, the only possible reaction soft people can show to social pressure is escapism.

In addition, this basic disposition is supported and enhanced by the traditional Southern education those people get and which determines their values and morals. Soft people reach for higher values, superior things of the mind and the spirit like arts, literature, languages and refined manners and they despise people who merely follow their basic instincts and who lack higher education. Soft people dream of ideals. These ideals, of course, are based on their traditional Southern values and morals.[8]

5.1.1 Soft people and their need for help

As mentioned before, these ideals, morals and values which the soft people possess due to their education are incompatible with the real world, as the tradition of the old South is descending and dying. The world the soft people are confronted with in Tennessee Williams’ plays has no sense for the demands of the soft people.[9] Therefore they are outsiders, doomed to fail in the real world, at least when they remain on their own. In order to escape this trap of life the soft people find themselves in, they need somebody to hold them and protect them, someone who is more down to earth than they are and who can cope with the real world.[10] In all the plays of Tennessee Williams there is but one “soft man” (Brick) who succeeds in finding such a helping and guarding person (Maggie). All the other soft people fail to do so and suffer strong psychic damage. Therefore Köhler claims that Tennessee Williams’ view of the world, as it is presented in his plays, has strong pessimistic features.[11]

5.1.2 Soft people and other characters

The other characters in the plays are very important to the soft people as they need someone of them to protect them. The problem is that the figures in the plays who would be capable of protecting the soft people and helping them to live in the real world are like the real world themselves. They are but selfish, materialistic, sometimes brutal and animal-like, sometimes mean and scheming (like Gooper and May in Cat on a hot Tin Roof). Others are just average, inconspicuous Americans who conform to the dictates of society. Some of them are likeable (e.g. Mitch), some not the least (e.g. Stanley). But as a matter of fact, they all have in common that they get along with the real world and its living conditions. And, as protection is an essential element in the soft people’s lives, they are in urgent need of someone of this group to take care of them. They need protection from these comparatively strong or hard people. They cannot get protection from other soft people with the same problems. So, how do they manage to “catch” one of the “hard” people, when those people are that selfish and materialistic?

5.2 The outward appearance of soft people

A key element to the answer of the question raised above is the outward appearance of the soft people and their charm, their charisma. The soft people in Williams’ plays are all marked by their exceptionally good looks. With their beauty and their charm they can enchant other people. In general, others are strongly attracted by the beautiful outward appearance of the soft people. This effect the soft people have on others is but directly linked to their youth. With the loss of their youth (the age of 30 is determined by Tennessee Williams to be the magical border) their charisma and attraction to others fade away.

BLANCHE. [...] But on the other hand men lose interest quickly. Especially when the girl is over – thirty. They think a girl over thirty ought to – the vulgar term is “put out.”...

(p. 85)[12]

Thus, Blanche (A Streetcar named Desire) tries to pretend still being young and beautiful, in order to maintain her magical aura and to attract people who are able to help her.

In some cases the beauty of the soft people has a fragile quality. Blanche’s beauty is described as “delicate”.[13] Laura is compared to the pieces of her glass collection and described as “exquisitely fragile”.[14] Brick is a former tough football player, but in the play he has a broken leg and cannot move without his crutches. So, in general, the psychical delicacy and weakness is correlated by a similar fragility of the body.

6. Specified analysis of different “soft people”

So far we got a general outline of the character profiles of the soft people. But despite all the features they have in common they show remarkable differences.

As examples for the following analysis I chose Laura and Tom (The Glass Menagerie), Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar named Desire) and Brick (Cat on a hot Tin Roof). I chose those characters because they do not only belong to the category of soft people, but they also show obvious differences from one another. Those differences will become clear in the analysis and will be summed up, finally.

6.1 Laura

Laura is the central character in the play “The Glass Menagerie”. Together with her mother Amanda, a former Southern Belle, and her brother Tom, who works at the local shoe factory, she lives in an alley apartment in St. Louis. Laura is still quite young. Her body is rather fragile and she is slightly physically crippled. As a result of a disease called “Pleurosis” from which she suffered as a child, one of her legs is a bit shorter than the other. Her outward appearance is further compared to a “piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting”.[15] This simile also draws a comparison to Laura’s most distinctive attribute, namely her collection of glass animals, the glass menagerie. This collection is of decisive meaning. Not only is her physical delicacy mirrored in her collection of fragile glass animals, but also her delicate mind. Laura has withdrawn from reality completely and lives in a hermetically cut off dream world. Her collection of glass animals is this dream world. The animals are the only things which Laura is really interested in.

JIM. Now how about you? Isn’t there something you take more interest in than in anything else?

LAURA. Well, I do – as I said – have my – glass collection –

(p. 100)

She washes and polishes them carefully, she plays with them and personifies them.

“...Hold him over the light, he loves the light! You see how the light shines through him?” (p. 110)

The delicate beauty of the animals, which becomes visible only when the light illuminates the glass, resembles Laura’s delicacy. Laura’s favourite glass animal is the unicorn. She identifies herself with this mystic figure which, on the one hand, is something special because it is unique. But, on the other hand, for the same reason it is also a lonesome outsider – like Laura.[16]

LAURA. I shouldn’t be partial, but he is my favourite one.


JIM. Unicorns – aren’t they extinct in the modern world?

LAURA. I know!

JIM. Poor little fellow, he must feel sort of lonesome.

LAURA (smiling) . Well, if he does, he doesn’t complain about it. He stays on a shelf with some horses that don’t have horns and all of them seem to get along nicely together.

JIM. How do you know?

LAURA (lightly) . I haven’t heard any arguments among them!

(p. 110 f.)

Laura’s remark, that she thinks she should not be partial hints to the fact that she considers the glass menagerie as something like a family, like a group of children who become jealous, when they feel that someone (the unicorn) among them receives more love from the mother (Laura) than the others.

As we said before, Laura is completely withdrawn in her dream world. She has no longer any direct contact with the real world outside her home. Her attempt to get along in the real world failed. She enrolled in a business school but became violently ill, when she was to take her first examination. From then on she has gone for a daily walk in the park instead of visiting the school, trying to hide her failure from her family. As the real world thus has proved to be too much for her, she has consequently more and more withdrawn into her dream world.[17]

Society and its demands mean a threat to her which she cannot cope with. As a consequence, Laura started building up her own imaginary world. She began to project her wishes and dreams into this phantasy world and has managed to put this world in a concrete form on a material level, namely in her glass menagerie. By her withdrawal from reality into a kind of individualism, which locks out any relationship and contact with other people, she has eliminated the conflict with reality.[18]

Link and Köhler claim that the awareness of her physical deficiency has increased into a pathological shyness[19] or that at least the psychic defect is a result of the physical defect.[20] Barbara Vahland has a different opinion. In her view, Laura’s physical defect is merely an excuse. She thinks that the true reasons for Laura’s social problems have their origin in her very special psychological structure which is such as to let her react to the least demands with the feeling of insufficiency and overtaxing. She thinks that Laura’s present estrangement from her environment, her introversion and reticence have been present in a latent disposition in Laura’s character right from the beginning.[21] This would correspond to the opinion that Jim O’Connor articulates in the play:

JIM (abruptly) .You know what I judge to be the trouble with you? Inferiority complex! Know what that is? That’s what they call it when someone low-rates himself! [...] You dropped out of school, you gave up an education because of a clump, which as far as I know was practically non-existent! A little physical defect is what you have. Hardly noticeable even! Magnified thousands of times by imagination! [...]

(p. 107 f.)

Laura urgently needs help, in order to overcome her estrangement and isolation and to re-establish contact with reality and other people. With the introduction of Jim, a colleague of Tom, there seems to be a chance that such help might be offered. Laura’s willingness to accept such help can be seen in her calm reaction when Jim accidentally breaks off the unicorn’s horn.

JIM. Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken?

LAURA. Now it is just like all the other horses.

JIM. It’s lost its –

LAURA. Horn! It doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.

(p. 113)


[1] Donahue, Francis, The Dramatic World of Tennessee Williams, New York, 1964.

[2] Donahue, Francis, p. 229 f.

[3] Jackson, Esther Merle, The Broken World of Tennessee Williams, Milwaukee, 1966.

[4] Link, Franz H., Tennessee Williams’ Dramen: Einsamkeit und Liebe, Darmstadt, 1974.
p. 19

[5] Köhler, Klaus, “Psychodiagnose und Gesellschaftsanalyse im Bühnenwerk von Tennessee Williams”
in: Brüning, E., Köhler, K. , Scheller, B. (eds.); Studien zum amerikanischen Drama nach dem zweiten Weltkrieg, Berlin, 1977.
(p. 54-104)

[6] Köhler, Klaus, p. 35 f.

[7] Köhler, Klaus, p. 101

[8] Link, Franz, p. 26 f.
Köhler, Klaus, p. 101

[9] Köhler, Klaus, p. 96

[10] Link, Franz, p. 20

[11] Köhler, Klaus, p. 55

[12] Williams, Tennessee, A Streetcar Named Desire, Reclam, Stuttgart, 1988.
(all following quotations from the play refer to this edition)

[13] Williams, Tennessee, The Glass Menagerie, Reclam, Stuttgart, 1984. (p. 9)
(all following quotations from The Glass Menagerie refer to this edition)

[14] ebenda, p. 6

[15] Williams, Tennessee, The Glass Menagerie, Reclam, Stuttgart, 1984. (p. 76)

[16] Link, Franz, p. 23

[17] Donahue, Francis, p. 23 f.

[18] Vahland, Barbara, Der Held als Opfer. Der Aspekt des Melodramatischen bei Tennessee Williams, Frankfurt, 1976. (p. 34)

[19] Köhler, Klaus, p. 57

[20] Link, Franz; p. 24

[21] Vahland, Barbara; p. 34


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Tennessee Williams Hauptseminar Modern American Drama



Title: The "soft people" in Tennessee Williams plays