A Streetcar Named Desire

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Paper Lantern and Paper Moon Symbol Analysis

Paper Lantern and Paper Moon Symbol Icon
The paper lantern over the light bulb represents Blanche’s attempt to mask both her sordid past and her present appearance. The lantern diffuses the stark light, but it’s only a temporary solution that can be ripped off at any moment. Mitch hangs up the lantern, and Blanche is able to maintain her pose of the naïve Southern belle with him, but it is only a façade. After Stanley has told Mitch about Blanche’s past, Mitch angrily tears the lantern off so he can see Blanche’s face, and she cries, “I don’t want realism––I want magic!” At the end of the play, Stanley takes off the paper lantern and presents it to Blanche. A paper world cloaking reality also appears in the song “Paper Moon.” While Stanley tells Stella about Blanche’s sordid history, Blanche sings this saccharine popular song about a paper world that becomes a reality through love. Blanche feigns modesty and a coquettish nature, but behind the veneer, she hides a much darker past.

Paper Lantern and Paper Moon Quotes in A Streetcar Named Desire

The A Streetcar Named Desire quotes below all refer to the symbol of Paper Lantern and Paper Moon. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Sexual Desire Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the New Directions edition of A Streetcar Named Desire published in 2004.
Scene 3 Quotes

I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.

Related Characters: Blanche DuBois (speaker)
Related Symbols: Paper Lantern and Paper Moon, Shadows
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

Blanche puts up a paper lantern to cover the harsh light of the naked light bulb, both because she wants to soften the physical light so that she appears more beautiful, and also because she wants to take symbolic control over the setting so that she can have control over her flirtation with Mitch. Blanche uses the paper lantern to make herself appear to be an innocent young woman in front of Mitch. By declaring that she has no stomach for rudeness or incivility, Blanche paints a picture of herself as an aristocratic woman with high standards who lives an impeccable, well-mannered life.

However, Blanche does not just dislike the uncovered light bulb because she finds it to be cheap or in bad taste. Rather, her fear of the naked light symbolically represents her fear of truth. Blanche never wants to face the harsh light of day, but instead would rather make everything look more beautiful and more appealing, and to live in the world of fantasy and beauty rather than the crude world of facts. By putting a paper lantern over the naked light bulb, Blanche also symbolically replaces reality with illusion.

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Scene 5 Quotes

Young man! Young, young, young man! Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights?

Related Characters: Blanche DuBois (speaker)
Related Symbols: Paper Lantern and Paper Moon
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Blanche flirts with the boy who comes to collect money for subscriptions to the newspaper, which is called the "Evening Star." By calling him a prince from the Arabian Nights, Blanche sweeps the boy into her world of fantasy and illusion. Blanche wants to create a fairy-tale world around her so that she doesn’t have to face any consequences of her actions, but Blanche is also very aware of her seductive powers throughout her flirtation with the paper boy, deliberately turning his innocent words into sexually charged statements. When the boy reveals that he has just had a cherry soda, Blanche lingers on the flavor, drawing attention to its sensuality. Her emphasis on the word “young” also foreshadows the information Stanley reveals about Blanche later in the play, that is, that she was exiled from her hometown for her sexual relations with boys. (And her attraction to youth is presumably also connected to her fear of her own aging self.)

The idea of the Arabian Nights contrasts with Blanche’s slurs against Stanley. Although she refers to Stanley as a “Polack” in a condescending way, she uses the illusion of foreignness to deepen her fantasy of the young boy. The name of the paper, the "Evening Star," is another symbolic name that becomes both a real-life signifier and an allegory throughout the play. Blanche far prefers the night to the day, and starlight to sunlight, because she never wants to face the full truth. The Evening Star also riffs on the “Paper Moon” song that Blanche sings throughout the play: the Star paper and the paper moon form a false, alternate reality. 

Scene 7 Quotes

It’s only a paper moon, Just as phony as it can be–But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!

Related Characters: Blanche DuBois (speaker)
Related Symbols: Bathing, Paper Lantern and Paper Moon
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

“It’s Only a Paper Moon” is a jazz standard written in 1933 that became popular in the 1940s, with versions sung by Ella Fitzgerald and the Nat King Cole Trio. In the context of the play, the song becomes a symbol for the delusion that Blanche attempts to live in, rather than facing reality. Blanche sings “Paper Moon” from the bathroom offstage, while onstage, Stanley tells Stella the true story that he has discovered about why Blanche had to leave Laurel, Mississippi.

The sentimental song is used as a counterpoint to Stanley’s rant against Blanche. The lines are interwoven, as though the two are singing a duet, yet the narratives of this duet run directly in counterpoint against each other. While Blanche sings this sentimental song about living in a paper world, waiting for love, Stanley reveals to Stella the sordid realities of Blanche’s life. As Blanche sings and Stanley rants, the lyrics come to seem more and more ironic. The song presents the singer as an innocent person caught in a false world who can only be saved by being loved. Yet Blanche, Stanley’s tirade reveals, is the one who has been creating these falsehoods.

Scene 9 Quotes

I don’t want realism. I want magic!

Related Characters: Blanche DuBois (speaker)
Related Symbols: Paper Lantern and Paper Moon
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

When Mitch rips the paper lantern off the lightbulb, Blanche cries out against this action. She pretends to be making a melodramatic joke in the moment, but her outcry portrays Blanche’s fear of reality and the make-believe world she clings to more and more desperately as the play proceeds.

Blanche claims that she doesn’t want Mitch to see her in the light of day because she is ashamed of how old she actually is. Blanche cloaks herself in shadows and wears makeup to act as though she is younger than she really is, but she is not the maiden that she pretends to be. However, Blanche’s outcry against Mitch goes deeper than a literal request made about the lightbulb. Blanche is terrified of facing the truth, both about her sordid past and her future prospects. Ultimately, Mitch’s and Blanche’s worlds are incompatible with each other. Mitch lives in the real world, and though he might be charmed by Blanche’s flirtations, he is too firmly grounded in the light of day to be taken in by her magic forever. 

Scene 11 Quotes

You left nothing here but spilt talcum and old empty perfume bottles–unless it’s the paper lantern you want to take with you. You want the lantern?

Related Characters: Stanley Kowalski (speaker), Blanche DuBois
Related Symbols: Paper Lantern and Paper Moon
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Blanche attempts to stall her trip to the asylum, which signifies her forced acceptance of reality, by desperately pretending that she has left items behind. Stanley yells at her roughly, asking if she wants the paper lantern that she has placed over the bare bulb. Stanley’s question is literal, on the surface: Blanche bought the paper lantern, so the object does belong to her. But the line is less important for its literal than its symbolic meaning. On one level, the lantern shows how far Blanche has fallen: she's gone from a wealthy, cultured upbringing to owning nothing but a piece of paper. Furthermore, throughout the play the paper lantern has signified Blanche’s mania for hiding reality in illusion and cloaking the harsh truth with fanciful stories. By thrusting the paper lantern at her, Stanley rips off Blanche’s final delusions and fantasy life.

The talcum bottles and paper lantern also symbolize the false effects of the theater itself. A stage set is created through illusions and magic, and it provides an escape from the real world. When Blanche exits, the play ends: she is the glue that holds the illusion of the play itself together. 

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Paper Lantern and Paper Moon Symbol Timeline in A Streetcar Named Desire

The timeline below shows where the symbol Paper Lantern and Paper Moon appears in A Streetcar Named Desire. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Scene 3
Sexual Desire Theme Icon
Interior and Exterior Appearance Theme Icon
Femininity and Dependence Theme Icon
...sonnet. Blanche claims to be younger than Stella, and she asks Mitch to hang a Chinese lantern over the naked electric bulb. Stanley, in the kitchen, seethes at Mitch’s absence from the... (full context)
Scene 5
Fantasy and Delusion Theme Icon
Interior and Exterior Appearance Theme Icon
Femininity and Dependence Theme Icon
...cope properly with the loss of Belle Reve, and she cloaked herself in half-shadows and Chinese lanterns to make herself attractive. (full context)
Scene 7
Fantasy and Delusion Theme Icon
Interior and Exterior Appearance Theme Icon
...soothe her nerves, which Stanley mocks. Throughout the scene, Blanche’s singing of the popular song “Paper Moon” is heard in counterpoint to Stella and Stanley’s conversation. (full context)
Scene 9
Sexual Desire Theme Icon
Fantasy and Delusion Theme Icon
Interior and Exterior Appearance Theme Icon
...that he’s never seen Blanche in the daytime or in the light. He rips the paper lantern off the light bulb. Blanche gasps, crying, “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” (full context)
Scene 10
Sexual Desire Theme Icon
Fantasy and Delusion Theme Icon
Interior and Exterior Appearance Theme Icon
Masculinity and Physicality Theme Icon
Femininity and Dependence Theme Icon
...attire, saying that he’s been on to her from the start: powders and perfumes and paper lanterns couldn’t fool him. Lurid, grotesque shadows and reflections on the wall surround Blanche. (full context)
Scene 11
Fantasy and Delusion Theme Icon
Interior and Exterior Appearance Theme Icon
Masculinity and Physicality Theme Icon
Femininity and Dependence Theme Icon
Stanley says that the only thing Blanche could have forgotten is the paper lantern . He rips it off the bare bulb and holds it out to her. Blanche... (full context)