Under mysterious circumstances, Blanche DuBois, an aging highschool teacher, leaves her home in Auriol, Mississippi to travel to New Orleans to live with her sister, Stella Kowalski. She arrives on the train and boards a streetcar named “Desire” and reaches her sister’s home in the French Quarter where she discovers that her sister and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, live in a cramped and dilapidated two-room apartment in an old New Orleans tenement. Blanche and Stella are all that remain of an old aristocratic family. Blanche discloses that the family estate, Belle Reve, has been lost to creditors, and that she wants to stay with Stella and Stanley for a while. Blanche seems lost and broke, with nowhere to go. Stella welcomes her with an open heart.
From the start, Blanche and Stanley are wary of each other. Blanche is soft-spoken and mannerly; Stanley is rough and loud. His mere presence seems to threaten her. Struggling to be polite, Blanche says that she was married and widowed at a young age. She says that she has taken a leave of absence from her job due to her nerves. To satisfy Stanley’s skepticism about the loss of the estate, Blanche hands over her papers pertaining to Belle Reve. But Stanley grabs at some of her private papers that she is holding back, and they cascade to the floor. Weeping, she gathers them all back, saying that they are poems from her dead husband. He defends himself by saying that he was just looking out for his family, and then announces that Stella is going to have a baby.
Soon after her arrival, Stanley has a poker night with his friends where Blanche meets Mitch. His courteous manner sets him apart from Stanley’s other friends. They like each other right away. This is the start of their romance. But Stanley explodes in a drunken rage, striking Stella, and sending his friends running, while Blanche and Stella flee to the upstairs neighbor, Eunice. When his anger subsides, Stanley cries out remorsefully for Stella to come back. “Stella, Stella, hey Stella,” he bellows, until she comes down, and Stanley carries her off to bed. In the morning, Blanche tells Stella that she is married to a subhuman animal. In an emotional monologue, she urges her sister to leave Stanley. Stella is mortified at her sister’s bluntness and assures Blanche that all is well, and that she does not want to leave.
As the weeks pass into months, the tension rises between Blanche and Stanley. But Blanche has hope in Mitch, telling Stella that she wants to go away with him and not be anyone’s problem. She is on the verge of mental collapse, anticipating a marriage proposal from Mitch. Finally, he tells her that they need each other and should be together. But Stanley, still skeptical, begins to research her past and discovers a closet full of skeletons. He tells Stella what Blanche has been concealing from them, that she has a reputation for mental instability and sexual promiscuity that got her fired from her teaching job in Auriol and practically run out of town. He then says that Mitch will not be coming around anymore. Stanley has tattled to Mitch about Blanche’s past and has sabotaged the romance. Stella erupts in anger that Stanley has ruined Blanche’s chances with Mitch. But the fight is cut short, as she tells Stanley to take her to the hospital; the baby is coming.
As Blanche waits at home for news of the baby, Mitch arrives and confronts her with the stories that Stanley has told him. At first, she denies everything. Then, she breaks down in confession, describing, in a lengthy monolgue, her troubled past. As she speaks to Mitch, she gives up the Southern belle façade; her voice grows weary and deep; her face becomes drawn and old; she pleads for his forgiveness. But Mitch is hurt and humiliated and rejects her. Blanche starts screaming, and Mitch runs away. Later that night, while Stella’s labor continues, Stanley returns from the hospital to get some sleep, only to find Blanche dressed up in a tattered old gown pretending to be departing on a trip with an old admirer. She disdainfully antagonizes him, asserting her sense of superiority over him, spinning tale after tale about her plans for the future. He sees that she is delusional but he feels no pity for her. Instead, he seeks to destroy her illusions. They become engaged in a struggle which ends in rape.
Weeks later, at another poker game at the Kowalski apartment, Stella and her neighbor, Eunice, are packing Blanche’s belongings. Stella and Eunice have told Blanche that she is going on a vacation; but, in truth, Blanche is being committed to a mental hospital. She has suffered a complete mental breakdown. She has told Stella what happened, but Stella cannot believe Blanche’s story. Stella, under obvious stress, does not know what to do. An older gentleman and lady come to the door; it is the doctor and nurse come to take Blanche away. Blanche does not recognize them and resists going; she collapses on the floor seized with total confusion. Mitch, present at the poker game, breaks down in tears. The doctor approaches and helps Blanche up. He offers his arm gently to her, and she goes willingly with him, saying, “whoever you are, I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” As the car drives away with Blanche, Stella takes the baby upstairs to Eunice’s, and says she is never coming back to Stanley again.