Sexual Relations in ‘a Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Enduring Love’

Explore how Tennessee Williams and Ian McEwan explore sexual relations in ‘A Streetcar named Desire’ and ‘Enduring Love’ Both Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’(1947) and Ian McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’ (1997) explore changing sexual relation in individual characters and in cultures as a whole. Williams writes at a time when the male veterans of World War Two were returning, when the industrial North began to challenge the old values of the Old South.

Studies of other post war culture found that ‘government propaganda, popular magazines, and films reinforced traditional concepts of femininity and instructed women to subordinate their interests to those of returning males’1. McEwan also writes at a time of change, with ‘greater liberalism along with more conservatism on matters involving sexuality’2. Sexual relations are ‘a social phenomena’, and so ‘subject to social change’2.

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Hence while both Williams and McEwan explore themes of women’s sexual freedom, male sexuality, homosexuality, sexual violence and the impact of the outsider, their portrayals of these issues differ, as a result of the differences in context. Women’s sexual freedom is a key theme in both texts. In ‘Streetcar’, it is women’s lack of it. Blanche’s ‘many intimacies with strangers’ are ‘destructive’. The cruelty shown to her when her ‘intimacies’ are revealed aid her breakdown; it was a (metaphorical) ‘town ordinance passed against her’ that pushed her to Elysian Fields in the first place.

We further persecution of her sexual freedoms freedom in Mitch’s describing her as ‘not clean enough’. Williams use of ‘clean’ connotes contemporary abusive slang for a promiscuous woman, and draws upon associations with the expectation of a woman to remain virginal until marriage. The play is a realist drama. This realism is create by such accurate portrayals, such as this portrayal of the position of women in the late 1940’s. In other post war literature, ‘women who defied sexual convention were vilified as deviants’1 – see May in homeward bound.

By presenting his tragic heroine as the ‘sexual deviant’, Williams challenges the trend. It is the context of the play that lead to Williams’ presentation of women’s sexual freedom as so restricted. [1]McEwan’s female lead in ‘Enduring Love’ is presented as having far greater sexual freedom than the women of ‘Streetcar’. Where Blanche’s sexuality looses her respect, Clarissa’s sexuality empowers her. She often initiates sex; she jokingly threatens to ‘make [Joe] fuck [her] all afternoon’.

McEwan’s use of profanity, combined with the monosyllabic nature and plosive ending of ‘fuck’ shocks the reader, emphasising the statement and her sexual power. This denoted sexual domination, if joking, connotes to a greater equality in sexual relations than in ‘Streetcar’. Here, Stanley ‘bears Stella’ to bed, ‘whack[s]’ her on the thigh and finds the ‘opening in her blouse’ as she cries; the verbs describing the man’s actions are active, while the woman remains passive. This contrasts strongly to the forceful, active verb used by Stella in ‘make’.

Growing internet usage in the 1990’s lead to a faster spread of ideas, leading to a growth in ‘third wave feminism’. It can be argues that this lead to the growing sexual equality depicted in ‘Enduring Love’. Williams and McEwan portrayals women’s sexual freedom are ‘accurate representations of the gender stereotypes in the time they were created’3. The difference in culture between the 1940’s working classes and the 1990’s middle class is what gives rise to this differences in presentation. The authors also portray male sexuality differently.

In ‘Streetcar’, male sexuality is presented as primal and violent. The audience’s first sight of Stanley comes as he ‘heaves’ a ‘package’ of meat at Stella. The stage direction ‘heaves’ is one of his many violent movements throughout the play; ‘he performs his sexuality in gesture and movement’6. The imagery of the ‘red stained package’ immediately associates this sexuality with a primitive and abusive nature, the blood foreshadowing the violence and cruelty, a direct link to Williams’ own father.

This powerful ‘primal’ ‘violence’, when juxtaposed to the portrayal of limited women’s sexual freedom, leads the audience to challenge the double standard of the society he portrays; the society his contemporary audience lives in or alongside to. In ‘Enduring Love’, male sexuality is presented as more submissive, and less ‘primal’, than in ‘Streetcar’. This is seen Clarissa’s aforementioned suggested sexual dominance (or if not dominance, sexual equality. ) The differences between the two texts’ portrayal of male sexuality can be seen in the writers’ use of phallic symbolism.

Williams’ play is full of them; from Stanley’s bowling pins to the streetcars on the ‘L & N tracks’. Williams uses them to further his presentation of male sexuality as ‘primal’ and ‘violent’; it is the ‘approaching locomotive’ that frightens Blanche, and foreshadows the rape scene, a display of violent and primal male sexuality7. Indeed, in the 1951 film adaptation it is another phallic symbol, a fire hose, used to represent the rape itself. Particular significance to this symbolism may be noted as the playwright himself said that ‘symbols are nothing but the natural speech of drama… he purest language of plays’8. McEwan, on the other hand, uses the phallic symbol of the gun to almost satire the traditional thriller plot line. Rather than ‘save the day’[9] and impress Clarissa, Joe ends up ‘in a police station’ with Clarissa ‘staring at the gun’ with ‘repulse’. As in some of his other novels, such as ‘A Boy Stepped Out’, McEwan is ‘concerned with issues of masculinity and appears caught in an ongoing battle against male complicity’[10] – he continues this in his twisting of the traditionally phallic symbol, the gun.

McEwan wishes us ‘to side with Clarissa’[11] in this ‘battle’. Williams, on the other hand, wishes us to fear ‘the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate by the savage and brutal forces of modern society’[12]. Both writers wrote both texts in response to issues facing the cultures they were written in. It is the difference in culture that leads to the difference [2] in response, and hence the difference in representation of [3]male sexuality. Homosexuality is also a theme explored by both writers. In ‘Enduring Love’, homosexuality is presented as a [4]challenge to masculinity.

While Jed’s love lacks obvious [5]libido, he addresses Joe as a ‘tease’. This is contemporary colloquialism for ‘a woman [6]who behaves like a coquette’[14]. This puts Joe ‘in traditionally feminine position of the object, rather than the subject of desire’[14], feminising him and challenging his masculinity.. By presenting Jed’s homosexual love as a challenge to Joe’s masculinity, the author suggests a fragility in masculinity itself. McEwan’s portrayal of homosexuality is removed from sexual desire. While some suggest the Joe enies he has any [homoerotic] urges, many critics agree that ‘the homoerotic subtext ’ is ‘an aspect of its representation of masculinity in crisis’[10] that McEwan feels had arisen. However, his association of homosexuality and psychosis suggest to the reader that this portrayal of homosexuality is not intended to be that of the average homosexual in the 1990’s, for whom which tolerance was growing again after the association with the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. These factors of context are what lead to McEwan’s presentation of homosexuality as a challenge to masculinity.

In contrast, in ‘Streetcar’ homosexuality is portrayed as an inescapable fault of sexual ‘desire’ in a person. While Jed’s homosexuality is portrayed as not ‘about sex’, it is (Blanche’s late husband) Allan’s sexual ‘desire’ that dooms him. We see this in Blanche’s romanticised and long eluded to description of his homosexual copulation in a room she ‘thought was empty…but had two people in it’. Full of both literary and literal silences – literally in the ellipses which hang the audience in suspense – the account satisfies the need for cloaking of the then illegal homosexuality, while also providing a tragic depiction of it.

Such ambiguities – the audience does not even catch sight of a homosexual character – contrasts sharply with the brutal nature in which homoerotica is dealt with by McEwan’s Joe. He asks if ‘this is about sex’. His unambiguous spelling out of the matter in almost purely monosyllabic diction destroys any romance in the scene, as McEwan does not wish the reader to sympathise with Jed. Allan, on the other hand, follows a trend of ‘Williams’ homosexual men’ to be ‘figured by tragic characters that are’[6] ‘too good for this world’.

This trend may be due to both Williams’ life as an oppressed homosexual in early 20th century America, and ‘his devotion to’ ‘the poet Hart Crane’[17]. Williams’ character Allan is similar to Crane in their shared ‘love for poetry’, suicide, and failed attempts at ‘heterosexual romance’[18]. The differences in presentation of homosexuality is again a result of both writers responding to issues of the cultures within they are set; the persecution of homosexuals in 1940’s America and the perceived ‘masculinity in crisis’[10] of 1990’s Britain.

In ‘Streetcar’, Williams presents sexual violence as a normalised part of the culture of the industrial North in the 1940’s. Both of the Elysian Fields couples are ‘trapped in a cycle of domestic abuse’[19]. The men use sex both as a means of violence (rape – seen in Stanley’s rape of Blanche) and ‘as a way to pacify and dominate’[5]. This cycle consists of a ‘tension building phase’, ‘the acute battering incident’ and a ‘honeymoon period of loving contrition’[20]. This cycle occurs continually throughout the play; for instance, tensions build as Steve and Eunice fight with ‘terrible wrath’. The acute battering incident’ is heard in an offstage, ambiguous ‘crash’. Later the audience watches them ‘go slowly upstairs’ in ‘a tight embrace’. The ‘roll of thunder’ that accompanies this denotes both violence and orgasm. In this use of pathetic fallacy the playwright creates both a suggestive and an ominous tone in the theatre, exacerbated by the ambiguities of their disappearance. The audience is aware of its normalisation as these events occur in the background of the main scene; Stella and Blanche joke ‘lightly’ about it, telling us ‘a drink’ is ‘more practical’ than the police in such a situation.

This attitude echoes that of Williams’ mother, who ‘stands by and takes it’[5]; again, Williams uses personal experience to emulate in ‘Streetcar’ perceived realities of the culture within which it was written. McEwan uses similar technique in his representation of – or lack of – sexual violence in the British middle classes in the 1990’s. For instance, the narrator begins a sexual sequence by describing Clarissa’s ‘hands…working lightly across [his] buttocks’.

Compared to the passion and violence created for the audience in Williams’ ‘roll of thunder’, McEwan’s description of ‘buttocks’, with its plosive flavours and medical connotations, is relatively un-sexual, but interweaves with Joe’s frank narrative to create a naturalistic tone; the reader feels their sexual relationship is healthy. This difference in presentation comes from McEwan’s couple’s class. Their love is ‘of the conventional, secular, bourgeois and heterosexual kind’[21], in the late 20th century when sexual violence is not ‘accepted’ by ‘middle-class values’[22].

Williams, on the other hand, is seeking to represent a working class, post war culture in which sexual violence is the social norm. The difference in representation is a result of the differing attitudes towards sexual violence in the context and setting of both texts. In both texts, the presence of an outsider is portrayed to disrupt couples intimate lives. In Enduring Love, the outsider is Jed Parry. The reader feels this in McEwan’s description of Joe’s fear that talking will lead to him and his lover ‘letting [Jed] into [their] bed. This metaphor creates strong imagery of a close proximity between stalker and victim, breaking the physical barrier between crazed stalker and loving couple. This strengthens the author’s portrayal of the outsider’s destruction of the couple’s intimacy. It has been suggested that the effects are further reaching; that it is also in the aforementioned compromising of Joe’s masculinity that Jed ‘puts an end to the sex that [the couple] …found so comforting’[9]. By presenting the outsider’s impact on a couple’s sexual relations in such a way, McEwan leads the reader to further sympathise with the couple.

Williams portrayal of the outsider’s effects on sexual relations is similar to that of McEwan’s. Stanley describes his and Stella’s first copulation as him ‘pulling [her] down off them columns’. This gaudy metaphor not only further exposes his violent sexual domination over Stella, but also the obstacle Stella’s higher social status presents to their intimacy. This is perhaps due to the power it gives Stella. ‘Dame Blanche’ with her ‘airs and graces’ reminds Stanley of this, and encourages Stella to ‘talk back’. Blanche’s ‘perfume, steamy baths and paper light shades intrude into Stanley’s territory’[23].

This shift in power balance away from ‘the King’ (as Stanley calls himself) disrupts the ‘cycle of domestic violence’[19] in which Stanley has Stella. While McEwan’s metaphor prompts the reader to envisage an almost disturbing physical proximity of outsider and couple, Williams’, in his gaudy violence repulses the audience, seeing the physical proximity of the outsider as protecting Stella from Stanley’s sexual tendencies. McEwan’s metaphor aids his exploration into the psychology of relationships, a more common theme for post modernist novels.

Williams’ metaphor aids his portrayal of female sexual suppression in the home during the 1940’s. Hence the writers utilise the different cultures to explore similar ideas about the impact of ‘the outsider’ on sexual relations. In post World War Two working class America, gender stereotypes were pushed back to their old extremes in a response to the upheaval of the War. These ‘ultra masculine and ultra feminine forces’ lead to the continued limited sexual freedom for women, dominance of masculinity, sexualisation of domestic violence and persecution of homosexuals. 0 years later, in Britain the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s still had sexual repercussions, while a rise in internet usage lead to a faster spreading of ideas. This lead to continued increasing equality in sexual relations, which some argue was met with an ‘enduring’ ‘harmful masculine idealism’[8]. Both Williams and McEwan ‘inscrib[e] [their] own stories within and in response to a national grand narrative’ [11], allowing us to compare the two different cultures through reserved sexual relations of Joe, Clarissa and Jed, and the violence of Blanche, Stella, Stanley, Steve and Eunice’s. 019 words. 257 words of quotations Bibliography 1. ‘Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in the Postwar America, 1945-1960’ edited by Joanne J. Meyerowitz 2. ‘Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society’ By Margaret L. Andersen, Howard Francis Taylor 3. ‘A History of Modern Drama’ By David Krasner 4. ‘Gender Roles in A Streetcar Named Desire’ By Joanna Stickler 5. ‘Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire’Edited by Harold Bloom 6. ‘Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama’, By Carla J. McDonough 7.

A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion 8. ‘Introduction to ‘Camino Real’ by Tennessee Williams (1953)’ By Tennessee Williams 9. ‘Thefreedictionary. com’ 10. ‘Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love’ by Roger Clarke and Andy Gordon 11. ‘Posting the Male: Masculinities in Post-War and Contemporary British Literature’ edited by Daniel Lea, Berthold Schoene-Harwood 12. ‘Critical Companion to Tennessee Williams’ by Alycia Smith Howard and Greta Heintelman 13. ‘The Question of Literature: The Place of the Literary in Contemporary Theory’ edited by Elizabeth Bissell 14. Terminating the Postmodern: Masculinity and Pomophobia’, Modern Fiction Studies, Thomas Bynes 15. Michelle Roberts in her review for The Times, paraphrased by Roger Clarke and Andy Gordon in ‘Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love’ 16. – Harvey Porlock in his review for the Sunday Times , paraphrased by Roger Clarke and Andy Gordon in ‘Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love’ 17. ‘What Was He Reading? ’2005 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival 18. www. poetryfoundation. org 19. Director Elia Kazan quoted in ‘Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire’ Edited by Harold Bloom 20. ‘The Battered Woman’ by Lenore E.

Walker 21. ‘Death-drive: Freudian Hauntings in Literature and Art’ By Robert Rowland Smith 22. ‘Wrightsman’s Psychology and the Legal System’ By Edith Greene, Kirk Heilbrun 23. ‘ Tennessee Williams: A Tribute’ J. M McGlinn 24. Cliffnotes. com 25. Women in literature: reading through the lens of gender edited by Jerilyn Fisher, Ellen S. Silber ———————– [1] ‘Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in the Postwar America, 1945-1960’ edited by Joanne J. Meyerowitz 2 ‘Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society’ By Margaret L. Andersen, Howard Francis Taylor [2] [3] [4] 1

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Sexual Relations in ‘a Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Enduring Love’. (2016, Sep 16). Retrieved from