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Sexual tension in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Atonement” Essay

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Compare how far and in what ways Williams and McEwan present sexual tension in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Atonement’. Ian McEwan and Tennessee Williams explore and present sexual tension in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Atonement’ in many different ways. McEwan makes use of setting in order to heighten the sexual tension throughout the novel. Heat hangs over the first part of the novel massively, and McEwan reiterates the hot weather and makes sure the reader knows the heat is a contributing factor to the events.

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It shapes its actions. As Emily Tallis is nursing her migraine on her own she comments that “the vast heat rose above the house and park, and lay across the Home Counties like smoke, suffocating the farms and towns”. The use of the word ‘suffocating’ suggests to the reader that it is not a good thing. ‘The heat’ mentioned is intended to be a direct cause of sexual tension and desire as it “encourages loose morals among young people” which Mrs. Tallis also mentions.

By Mrs. Tallis saying this early on in the novel, it builds the sexual tension as the audience then begin to anticipate that there will be a climatic ending involving the young people and sexual activity. Unbeknownst to her, the sexual tension was brewing and she was right to assume something big is coming. The use of hot weather fascinates English novelists as it is known to most that heat does tend to undo repression. John Mullan say’s when discussing the heat used in ‘Atonement’, “[heat] transforms or saturates European characters, overcoming their defenses and perhaps releasing them from inhibitions”. This suggests to us that the mention of heat is to in some ways provide a reason or excuse for some of the characters, somewhat, ‘looser’ morals. We also see William’s make use of setting, in particular, lighting, in certain scenes to increase the level of sexual desire and tension between characters. For example, in Stella and Stanley’s apartment, there are lots of shadows and dark corners which can heighten the tension and highlight the sexual desire between characters, mostly Stanley and Blanche. We are told through the stage directions that when Stanley looks at Blanche, she is usually standing in a ‘shadowy doorway with slight light shining on her midriff and face’. This description increases the suspicion we have that Stanley has a sexual desire for Blanche. The fact the light only shines on body parts that can be considered as seductive exposes the sexual desire Stanley has for Blanche; he’s only focusing on sexual and attractive parts of her.

We see William’s make use of clothing and props in order to foreshadow future sexual encounters and to also build a forbidden sexual desire between certain characters. Within the first few encounters with Blanche, it is made clear that Stanley and Blanche have a large amount of sexual tension between them. Blanche wears a red satin slip in front of Stanley which is her trying to establish her sexuality to him. Red is known as a promiscuous colour and is associated with sexual insinuations as women who were prostitutes were known as scarlet women, therefore associating them with the colour red. The fact she would allow herself to be dressed in this way around a man she has no spoken relationship with tells us she feels sexually comfortable around him and doesn’t care if he sees her in this half-naked state. The audience also get a ‘red rag to a bull’ imagery which shows parallels to Stanley as he is later described to have animalistic sexual qualities and could foreshadow his later violent nature toward Blanche and other women. Stanley also removes his shirt whilst in the presence of Blanche which causes her to feel ‘flustered’ and she begins ‘stuttering’ which we are told in the stage directions. By her reacting in this way it highlights her attraction towards him as she can’t conceal her initial thoughts. Shirley Galloway believes that “[Blanche] wants a cultured man but is often subconsciously attracted to strong, basic male characters, no doubt a reflexive response since her marriage with a cultured, sensitive man ended in disaster”.

This could explain the fact that she wants to give Mitch a chance but yet ends up being mostly attracted to Stanley and even engages in sexual activity with him. She doesn’t actually give consent to it but we can’t help but assume there is part of her that wanted to do it just not under those circumstances. Despite all this sexual tension that Stanley and Blanche clearly have, it is morally obvious that nothing should happen between them as Blanche is Stella’s sister. Blanche’s morals are questionable throughout the play, however we do see a glimpse of them shining through when she admits to Stella that she has been flirting with her husband and appears to be rather shaken by the ordeal. She knows that this sexual tension is forbidden and we see her panic in scene 5 as to what her actions might mean for her future. She needs to maintain her “lily-white” reputation in order to keep the love of her sister and to secure her promising future with Mitch.

We see a similar type of forbidden sexual desire between Robbie and Cecilia in ‘Atonement’ portrayed through props (Robbie’s letter). It is clear that there is a sexual connection between them and they want to pursue it. This is evident when Robbie writes the inappropriate letter to Cecilia in whom he lays out his thoughts and intentions towards her. It does eventually happen between them in the library after a very sexually tense and dramatic lead-up. The fact that it takes them a while to actually admit to each other that they feel this way and they don’t take part in anything sexual with each other straight away, shows that they both knew it wasn’t allowed and it wouldn’t work out. The lighting in the library when it happens is very dark and it is hard to see completely clearly. This could be McEwan showing through the setting and lighting that what is going to happen is not a good idea. It is this essential impulse action from the young pair which leads to Robbie to spend time in prison. The dark atmosphere that it takes place in could perhaps be foreshadowing Robbie’s life for the next few years; dark and lonely. This shows parallels to when we previously saw the dark lighting alluding to the sexual desire between Blanche and Stanley. Despite the immense sexual desire that’s evident between Robbie and Cecilia, when reading about their interactions, the reader does also get the sense that there is something more between them and they do genuinely have feelings for each other. Peter Rainer say’s “Cecilia has large reserves of feeling at her disposal but her lips seem permanently pursed” which tells us that Cecilia does actually feel great love for Robbie but due to the time period, she is forced to stay silent about it. This is where their forbidden attraction differs to Blanche and Stanley as theirs actually has meaning and heart in it. Stanley and Blanche’s attraction is just pure lust. However, it is Briony that describes the sexual desire between the couple so this metafiction encourages the reader to not actually trust this perception.

In both texts we see a particular character create an uncomfortable and awkward atmosphere through their lust and want for those a lot younger them. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ we are told that Blanche had to leave her old town due to her having a relationship with one of her students. This automatically flags up warning signs in our heads as we can denote from this information, as it was one of her students, that there was a significant age gap between her and her sexual partner. This causes the audience to feel rather uncomfortable as we can tell she has a sexual desire for younger boys. Although we are told that she does this we do not fully grasp the concept of how inappropriate it is until we actually witness her acting in this manner when she is talking to the young boy outside Stanley and Stella’s home. The nature of her actions makes the audience feel highly uncomfortable. After Blanche tries to flirt with the young boy she tells him to “run along, now, quickly!” and we can sense her urgency and eagerness for the boy to leave through the use of an exclamation mark and the fact she says ‘now’. This tells us that the boy may be at some sort of risk and should be wary around her as she can’t control her actions. Blanche clearly wants the boy to stay and potentially do what she did in her old town. She explains to the boy why she cannot do what she truly wants to do by saying she has to be “good and keep [her] hands off children”. This is a rather tawdry and sleazy thing to admit to and begins to make us look at Blanche in a whole new light. Blanche says this in such a tone that it suggests she thinks the boy may actually be feeling the same way she is, which is totally absurd and sick, as how can, as she said herself, a ‘child’ genuinely feel those type of desires and feelings for someone who could potentially be as old as his own mother. She also says that it would be “nice to keep” the young man which insinuates she looks at younger boys as objects that she can own and use at her disposal. The audience can conclude from this statement that she has clearly had interactions with younger boys before and knows how ‘nice’ it would be to visit that side of her again. The fact she had to move towns and start a whole new life after her inappropriate encounters with previous students and yet still flirts with minors and considers making that mistake again, shows the sheer scale of the attraction she has to younger boys and the sexual tension she feel she has with them, which we as a modern reader find disturbing.

We see a similar type of sexual desire in the eyes of Paul Marshall in ‘Atonement’, however it is a slightly more vulgar and graphic subject and not only creates an uncomfortable atmosphere, but actually horrifies us. Our suspicions and opinions about Marshall are never outright confirmed so therefore the audience can never be totally certain as to what his intentions are when it comes to young girls. Marshall is found thoroughly spying on Lola as she plays the role of mother figure in a game with her younger siblings. There were later reports of screaming coming from the nursery where only Lola and Marshall had been present and Lola emerges with some scratches and bruises. When later talking about Lola’s bruises Marshall tells her “it’s okay to cry” which is quite calculated so that he seems innocent, knowing he isn’t. Lola had always tried to act and think older than she actually was and this game she was playing was a chance for her to show her maternal jurisdiction over her brothers. Now that it has been announced her parents are getting a divorce, Lola felt set herself a personal mission and task to keep the family together and ensure they always seem perfect from an outsider’s perspective. This could explain the reason why Lola never actually told anyone what happened in the nursery with Marshall as she didn’t want her family name to be brought into anymore bad publicity. Perhaps the fact she was acting in a more mature way than any usual 15 year old may have blurred the line in which Marshall should never have crossed; he may have viewed her as older than she is. Nonetheless, the fact Marshall spots and watches Lola in a nursery, should demonstrate that she hasn’t fully reached a full level of maturity that is sufficient for Marshall to engage in an adult conversation with her, let alone do what we can only imagine in our nightmares he tried to do to her. Marshall was a successful businessman who had a vast amount of respect from others. This unfortunately meant in these times that it was unlikely he could ever be accused of a crime such as this. Even if he were to be caught it is not likely that anyone would be brave enough to do anything about it as he would have power of most people to be able ruin someone’s life. No one would even think to accuse a man like Marshall of a crime like this as we can see when Briony is being questioned by the police and she simply says she knows it was ‘him’. Without her mentioning a name the police and everyone around assume she is talking about Robbie due to his lower class and status in society.

Sexual desire is clearly a very important and prominent theme throughout ‘Atonement’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Both authors show how sexual tension and desire has influenced their texts differently, sometimes using different techniques, but also sometimes using the same. It is evident in both texts that sexual desire leads to destruction no matter how they are presented. There are no examples in either text where sexual tension between certain characters has led to a positive outcome. We even see Cecilia discussing her sexual desire for Paul Marshall and how it would be “deliciously self-destructive it would be, almost erotic, to be married to a man so nearly handsome, so hugely rich, so unfathomably stupid”. This quotation is Cecilia saying outright that for her to follow her sexual desire would result in destruction. This description of Paul Marshall may also be the reason Lola is attracted to him. We see sexual desire lead to destruction massively in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ also, however in a number of different varieties, including physical violence, mental regression, and to an extent, financial ruin. Clearly Stanley’s sexual desire for Blanche leads him to rape her which in turn has a hand in Blanche’s submission to a mental institution, subsequently causing destruction to her life.

To conclude, McEwan and William’s use a variety of techniques to present sexual desire throughout their texts. Through these techniques, sexual desire is a prominent and important theme to the development of the plots.

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