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

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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. 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...
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