The themes and characters in “Atonement” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” Essay
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Compare and contrast the ways in which setting and place are used to reflect the themes and characters in ‘Atonement’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. The importance of the setting in the play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams and the novel ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan, is stressed in order to create a basis on which the characters can flourish, both emotionally and physically. Similarly, both texts use the setting and place to reflect the themes which feature throughout as they act as their visual representatives.
Both author and playwright set the scene from the beginning of their texts to echo the themes and characters. The setting in Williams’ play is described through the comprehensive use of stage directions, which enables the audience to envision the cosmopolitan nature of New Orleans – it aptly details the ‘white women…who occupies the upstairs flat’ and her ‘coloured neighbor’ thus solidifying how ‘easy’ the ‘intermingling of races’ was ‘in the old part of town’. Additionally, this correlates to the theme of the destruction of southern values as equality is tolerated in the city. Williams also uses the character of Stella, who ‘left her great big place with white columns’ for her ‘Polack’ husband Stanley, to show how outdated beliefs of the genteel South. Williams is innovative in his unconventional blending of realistic elements with an expressionistic style. In a similar way, McEwan also uses the setting in order to represent the situation of the characters. The description of the Tallis family mansion is unappealing, as evident through the alliterative phrase ‘bright orange brick’ and the metaphor, ‘a tragedy of wasted chances’ which foreshadows the ruined lives of Cecelia and Robbie. James Wood comments that by setting Part One in ‘in a country house in 1935’ is a ‘brilliant feat of storytelling’ where McEwan ‘manages both to sound like McEwan and not quite like himself’, and he suggest he does this so that the section can be revealed later, that it is, in fact, Briony as the author, foretelling the reader of the unreliable narrator. The home, whilst it is an emblem for wealth and prosperity which the upper class endured, it is also fragile just like the vase which Robbie and Cecilia broke – the shattered vase forebodes the ending of the novel as the characters’ hopes for the future are devastated as a result of both the War and Briony’s crime. Kermode writes that the ‘premonitory damage echoes’ what happens to other fragile objects that are highly valued but easily ruined, such as Cecilia’s virginity, and ‘indeed life itself’. Therefore, in both texts, the authors use their setting to reflect the characters’ actions and to foreshadow the events to come.
Both herald themes from the outset in order to mirror the setting and place of their stories. Williams develops various themes throughout the play, namely: illusion, appearance versus reality and desire and presents them through the setting and characters. From the outset, the protagonist, Blanche, utilizes the theme of illusion as she relies on the safety of fantasy as a means of self-defense. This contrasts this with Stanley’s realism, and as illustrated in the ending, realism will always endure. Fantasy is her primary means of self-defense, both externally to outside threats and internally against her own demons. As a result of her fragile mental state, Blanche’s deceit has become a prevalent flaw in her character. She is portrayed as a quixotic figure, one that sees the world, not as it is but as it ought to be. Her illusions carry a liberating magic that protects her from her tragic past. McEwan also establishes many themes throughout the play, such as deceit, mistrust, and war to compliment the setting and reflect the characters. Part One of Atonement presents us with a modernist style of writing which is reflective of the early nineteenth century. The idea of the Tallis home not being possible to conceal the ugliness of the house suggests that ultimately the truth cannot be concealed. The temple was ‘intended as a point of interest’ but it had a ‘sorrier look’ which carries through the theme that not all is as it should be, this is like the disappointing reality of Briony’s play, Robbie and Cecelia’s relationship and Briony’s overall hopes for redemption and atonement. Gioia writes that McEwan has ‘demonstrated in other settings his preference for clever and convoluted plots’ and that his ‘sheer mastery’ is the ‘description and detail, highlighting the telling incident within the incident, setting the balance between the physical and psychological aspects at hand’ suggesting that the setting reflects the characters and themes throughout through the descriptions.
During the 1940’s, America and Britain were developing exponentially as countries. The customs of the past were becoming more outdated and a modern and liberating society was prevailing. Williams’ chose to set his play in New Orleans as it was one of the first areas to trade in the old-fashioned customs for the new conventions. The city was located in the heart of the South which nurtured the outdated ideas. Blanche serves to emphasize the departure from tradition. The Kowalski’s apartment is nestled in a neighborhood where the sky is ‘a peculiarly tender blue’ which ‘gracefully accentuates the atmosphere of decay’. The street has a charismatic charm despite the flaws of the overall poverty and deprivation. The setting of the apartment still manages to portray a sense of pride and community due to the city’s effervescent nature. We see that Blanche is superior in this particular place, her language is more sophisticated whilst her antagonist, Stanley, has a limited vocabulary selection. Blanche’s character represents the old aristocratic South through her mannerisms. She is bound by heritage to Belle Reve and is a cultivated and intelligent woman. Stanley, on the other hand, represents the working class, with his use of slang and his ignorance of traditional values. With the war just ending, the inevitability of the new south overpowering the old is a prevailing ideal. This contrast with the setting of Atonement as the Tallis home was in the countryside where it was not diverse or exciting, but rather mundane, which reflects upon the character’s boredom and seldom views. McEwan also deploys the use of metafiction in which as Dahlback says the ‘line can be distorted’ between what is real and not.
Light is an important feature throughout both texts which encapsulates the setting but also reflect the characters feeling and emotions. Throughout the play, Blanche avoids appearing in direct light and refuses to reveal her true age for fear of being seen as a single spinster without any redeeming qualities. Generally, light also symbolizes the reality of Blanche’s past. She is haunted by her past and by what she has lost: her innocence and purity. It is evident that Blanche covers the exposed lightbulb in the Kowalski apartment with a Chinese paper lantern, and she does not seem to go out in daylight, for the fear of being seen when she is ‘past her prime’ whilst McRae describes Blanche as a ‘desolate character’. Her overbearing power is by no means appreciated by Stanley, who sees her actions as trying to undermine his apartment and overall, his authority. Moreover, when Mitch addresses the issue of never seeing Blanche in the light, he aggressively forces her to stand beneath it, telling her he does not care for her age, only for her deceitfulness. Blanche believes that magic, rather than reality, represents what life ought to be and her inability to tolerate light illustrates that her grasp on actuality is running thin. The avoidance of light relates to the overall city of New Orleans; it is a multi-cultural, vibrant and lively city full of new and exciting prospects. To show one’s true self and ability and to express yourself by any means frightens Blanche, as she cannot emulate her true being for fear of rejection. Williams also uses Plastic Theatre to convey a parallel between the characters’ state of emotions on stage, he does such as when he uses shadows to depict Blanche’s descent into madness. The correlation between themes and setting are similar in Atonement regarding the concept of light. McEwan’s representation of light is a constant throughout the novel. The Tallis household is viewed as a repulsive building by Cecelia as she expresses that ‘morning sunlight, or any light, could not conceal the ugliness’ of her home. This is interesting, as particularly morning sunlight, is regarded as beautiful and pure, however, Cecelia sees her home in this form, as distasteful. Likewise, during all important events, the light is described, which is emulative of expressing the mood and ambiance of the characters. It is a subtle way of telling us about their inner emotional lives, especially when looked at through the different perspectives. When Robbie realizes he has sent the explicit note to Cecelia, the air is ‘saturated’ and the dusk is ‘fading’ and ‘reddish’. Yet on the same trip, the light becomes a ‘soft yellow’ and makes the house ‘seem almost grand and beautiful’. This conveys Robbie’s confused feelings and the precautious attitude he must take if confronted about the letter; it also emulates a sexual advance about the prospect of Cecelia finally knowing Robbie’s true feelings, and the uncertainty of how she will react, but also the agonizing fear and questioning whether Briony read the letter.
The use of color in terms of setting is presented all the way through the two texts to reflect both the themes and characters. In A Streetcar Named Desire, it is used to emphasize the conflicts between classes; Stanley and his acquaintances are described as wearing bright, bold colors which contrasts to Blanche, who is dressed predominantly in pale colors. This suggests that the upper class is declining whilst the working class is growing stronger. Moreover, color is used to demonstrate the contrasting views of appearance versus reality. Blanche uses color to glamourize her dream world, such as when she uses the Chinese colored lantern to face the harsh light in the apartment. By her changing the appearance of objects which reveal the truth, we see that she wants to romanticise everything around her. Blanche’s name is also ironic as it translates to ‘white’ in French, which is connotative of purity, innocence and virtue, all of which contrast starkly to the corrupt lifestyle Blanche leads. Colour is also implemented throughout Atonement, Wiegant said it was ‘vibrantly colored and intense’ however, not in as much detail because Williams’ had to create his vision through a set whilst McEwan leaves more room for imagination for his readers.
The writers use symbolism in the setting and place to mirror the characters and themes throughout. Williams describes the Streetcar, which takes Blanche to New Orleans, as being ‘an ideal metaphor for the human condition’. The play’s title symbolically represents the power of desire as the driving force behind the characters’ actions. Blanche’s journey on ‘Desire’ through ‘Cemeteries’ to ‘Elysian Fields’ is both literal and allegorical. The dichotomy is present in all elements of the play, with the contrasting characterization of Blanche being a romantic whilst Stanley being a realist. Every moment of Blanche’s life is entangled with death and destruction. Desire acts as a controlling force which drives Blanche to her demise. Galloway suggests that ‘Williams infuses Blanche and Stanley with the symbols of opposing class, and differing attitudes towards sex and love’ and then leaves it to the characters to figure out whom will win, which prevails to be Stanley. Williams also uses Plastic Theatre to convey a parallel between the characters state of emotions on stage, he does such as when he uses shadows to depict Blanche’s descent into madness, the shadows symbolize the tense, poignant and mad atmosphere that emulates her long-escape from reality. Moreover, Blanche seeks refuge within the shadows to conceal her true self, however, as the play progresses, the shadows frighten her and eventually, just before Blanche is raped, the shadow of Stanley’s overcomes hers and foreshadows the terrible incident. Similarly, McEwan also uses symbolism in the setting to reflect the characters and themes throughout his novel. The Vase which was broken whist Cecelia and Robbie flirtatiously argue are described by Thomasson as symbolizing ‘Cecilia and Robbie breaking away from the family which happens as a result of Briony’s false accusations’. It is also foreshadowing the end destruction of the Tallis family and the ruin looming from the threat of World War II. Another critical interpretation would be from Quinn who said that the ‘symbols represent both the figurative and the literal’ meaning the author uses his symbols to not just show the reader a physical element of the story, but ‘often to hint at foreshadow’, and to draw the line between what is real and the fantasy his characters desire to believe, such as what Briony wishes, but never receives, so she writes the book to ‘atone’ for her ‘crime’
To conclude with, both Williams and McEwan utilize their settings in order to reflect the themes and characters on which their texts are centered around.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Vintage Books. 2001
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. 1947
Wood, J. ‘London Review of Books’ 2009
Kermode, F. ‘Point of View’ lrb.co.uk
Gioia, T. thenewcanon.com
Dahlback, K ‘Fictional and Metafictional Strategies in ‘Atonement’’ diva-portal.org
McRae J ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ lectures in London 2015 titled ‘Sexual Tensions’
Wiegand, D San Francisco Chronicle
Galloway, S, ‘Last Stop: Blanche’s Breakdown’, ipl.org
Thomasson, K ‘Relationships in Pieces: The Symbol of the Vase in Atonement’, pse.edu
Quin CA, ‘Symbolism in the Literary Works of Ian McEwan’ caquinn.wordpress.com