How do the writers present sexuality and gender in Tales Of Ovid?

Gender roles have been continually redefined throughout literary history. The evolution of sexuality and gender is presented in Behind The Scenes At The Museum, A Streetcar Named Desire and Tales Of Ovid as driven by context and in particular patriarchal society.
From Hughes’ classical presentation of a ‘human passion in extremis’[1], so strong that it ‘combusts, levitates, or mutates into an experience of the supernatural’[2] to Streetcar’s ‘succes de scandale’[3], dealing with sex to an extent, and in a manner not yet encountered on the stage and then Museum’s sterile and comical view of sex, the mutability of sexuality and gender has transcended generations but has been subject to contrasting literary perspectives. The degree of fluidity of gender can be clearly seen to mirror the context of societal and historical change within which the three works were created.
In the introduction of Ovid, Hughes describes the significance of the tales being written at ‘the moment of the birth of Christ within the Roman Empire. The Greek/ Roman pantheon had fallen in on men’s heads’[4] and Hughes makes a clear attempt to equate Adonis with Jesus Christ, describing him as ‘the miraculous baby’[5] and ‘perfection’[6]. For all its Augustean stability, Rome was at sea in hysteria and despair, caught in a tension between the sufferings of the gladiatorial arena and ‘a searching for spiritual transcendence’.

This era of volatility is reflected in the marked fluidity of sexuality in Hughes’ Ovidian world, where men and women becomes birds and trees. As such, identity itself is problematic; gender can no longer be exclusively prescriptive. According to Leo Curran, Ovid recognised the ‘fluidity, the breaking down of boundaries, due to the uncontrollable variety of nature and the unruliness of human passion. ’[7] Hughes unsettlingly explores this in the story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, where the carnal nymph Salmacis rapes the bashful boy Hermaphroditus.
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As he continues to struggle, she prays that ‘we never, never/ shall be separated, you and me’[8]. Her plea is hubristically answered and, ‘with a smile’, the gods look on as ‘the two bodies/ melted into a single body/ seamless as the water. ’[9] The conjunction of the two sexes seems incompatible as observed in the drowning of what a modern audience would recognise as a hermaphrodite. Hughes’ selection of this myth, with the same destructive conclusion as Ovid’s original, conveys the commingling of the two sexes as resulting in the debilitation of the male qualities, rather than their strengthening, thus presenting effeminacy pejoratively.
The dissolution of gender boundaries is reiterated by Hughes in his story of Tiresias. Tiresias’ passage through femininity, ‘having lived and love in a woman’s body…and also in the body of a man’[10] leaves him with the unique experiences of both sexes. His knowledge about feminine pleasure, that women do, as Jupiter contends ‘end up with nine-tenths of the pleasure’, angers Jupiter and his revelation proves damaging as she blinds him. It takes only one man, formerly a woman, to destroy the reassuring view that placed wives beyond the influence of pleasure.
Social upheaval was also explicit at the beginning of the 20th century. Two World Wars had, temporarily, shifted the gender power balance with women filling vacant male roles only for these to be reassumed in the 50’s. William’ Streetcar is an astute depiction of the continual metamorphosis gender roles were encountering in the struggle for supremacy, both at home and nationally between the Old South and the New America. In Streetcar, Blanche, as a manifestation of the antebellum, is taken away, leaving Stanley holding his new son.
The new decedent acts as a symbol of the end of the decaying Du Bois line and a sort of victory for the new Kowalski family. As the Cambridge Companion To Tennessee Williams states ‘Theatregoers… did not easily shake off lingering apprehensions that were born of the 1930’s depression and nurtured by the 1945 unleashing of nuclear weapons… in this climate, the loose structure and morale ambiguities of Streetcar struck a chord of truth. ’[11] Furthermore, when Williams describes Stanley shouting ‘Sttellah! [12] in a ‘heaven splitting voice’, we see the further power of the Kowalskis, who have rocked the status quo to the same extent as Venus’ ‘doomed love’[13] in Ovid, that means she has ‘neglected even Olympus’[14]. Ted Hughes’ exploration of gender fluidity is a more progressive one, in that a 21st century audience is much more open to transgender and sexual deviance than Tennessee Williams’ contemporaries. Williams’ homosexuality was illegal for the greater part of his life, but he found ways, open or oblique, of speaking of them in his plays.
There is, indeed, a real sense in which Williams is a product of his work. When he began to write he was plain Tom. The invention of ‘Tennessee’ was not merely coterminous with the elaboration of theatrical fictions; it was of a piece with it. In that sense it is not entirely fanciful to suggest that he was the product of the discourse of his plays. Indeed he created female alter egos, such as Blanche in Streetcar, before he began, as he did in later life, to dress up as a woman[15]. Where did his work end and his life begin?
The man who consigns Blanche to insanity later found himself in a straitjacket. As critic Hana Sambrook more explicitly notes ‘there are those who believe that the tragic figure of Blanche Dubois is a transsexual presentation of the promiscuity of Williams’ himself’[16]. Certainly, Blanche’s many ‘intimacies with strangers’[17], her unfeminine like licentiousness and charade of hypocrisy aligns Williams with his protagonist. For a man for whom the concealment of his true sexual identity was for long a necessity, the fragmentation of the self into multiple roles offered a possible refuge.
Blanche enters the play an actress and Williams creates her character as a series of roles, by using structural techniques to focus the audience upon her even when off stage; heard bathing ‘serenely as a bell’[18] whilst singing obliviously in ‘contrapuntal’[19] contrast to the lurid revelations of her past being detailed by Stanley in the adjoining room. Blanche’s desire for disguise is a phony pretension, using the smoke and mirrors of her alcoholicism and fine clothing, to concoct an elaborate alternative reality she can abscond to, enabling her to ‘put on soft colours, the colours of butterfly wings, and glow’[20].
This indirect, dramatic language and vivid imagery is typical of her escapism and her view of herself as ‘delicate’[21] reinforces the image of Blanche as a fragile moth that pervades Williams’ stage directions. Despite this, Williams does not wholly present Blanche as a ‘faded Southern belle’[22] as some critics claim, but rather sheds a favourable light on Blanche’s attempts to protect and preserve the genteel values of the old Southern civilisation.
Williams’ states that “Blanche was the most rational of all the characters [he’d] created”, evident in her contradictory wilful ignorance of the causes of the loss of Belle Reve, yet her understanding that the root cause was her family’s ‘epic fornications’. Williams also reveres Blanche as his ‘strongest character in many ways’[23] and her unique internal integrity of ‘Never inside, I didn’t lie in my heart’[24] has seen her resist the brutality and savagery of a relentless modern society. Thus, even to the very end of the play, Blanche has never yielded to any coarse violent actions and rude behaviour, crying “Fire!
Fire! ” during Mitch’s attempted rape and fighting Stanley to her physical limit with a broken bottle when eventually violated. When the big Matron tries to subdue her physically on the floor, she never stops resisting until the Doctor gently offers her his arm like a real gentleman. Blanche’s dignified leaving further indicates her spiritual integrity, as critic Robert James Cardullo[25] claims ‘Blanche’s ascension from crucifix pinioning on the floor and her spirited leading the way out of the hell of her sister’s home creates a moving tragic catharsis for the audience…
Blanche’s defeat has considerable aesthetic dignity’. Williams’ literature was strangely unmoved by the issue of gay rights and the issue of homosexuality that was so prominent in his private life, while clearly a strand in his work, was never a central theme and certainly never defended or promoted, neither publically nor politically. He seems to use Blanche as an expression of a conflict which clearly existed between his morality and sexuality, never to be resolved and never aired fully in his plays, despite its pertinence in the play’s political context.
By contrast, in Behind The Scenes many aspects of life seem constant and the stability of gender roles seems to reflect this. In Museum, the past permeates the present and the present is doomed to replicate the past. The shop ghosts and objects such as the pink glass button that goes rolling down the years act as chronological touchstones and history repeats itself through the lives of successive women. Sophia, Alice, Nell and Bunty all lead lives marred by misery, disappointment and domestic drudgery.
None of these women marry for love and all encounter marital strife. Alice, an impoverished widower marries Frederick in order to give up teaching, Nell marries Frank out of desperation, her two previous fiances having been killed in the war, and Bunty marries George when abandoned by her American fiance Bick. Thwarted in potential, trapped and unhappy, the women share a sense that they are ‘living the wrong life’[26].
Parallels between past and present create a sense of historical inevitability that is endorsed by a series of echoes between the lives of different women. Nell falls for Jack who has ‘high, sharp cheekbones… like razor clam shells’[27] and by the end of the novel, Ruby has fallen for a strikingly similar Italian with cheeks ‘as sharp as knife blades’[28]. Bunty looks like Nell and Ruby looks like Alice. The latter pair both believe in ‘destiny’[29] and embrace it in the mistaken form of men.
Alice, Bunty and Ruby have all ‘had enough’[30]. With typically perceptive narration for her tender age, Ruby accounts for this hereditarily as ‘one of those curious genetic whispers across time dictates that in moments of stress we will all (Nell, Bunty, my sisters, me) brush our hands across our foreheads in exactly the same way that Alice has just done’[31]. The reference to genes by Atkinson implies that behavioural patters are inherent and inescapable.
Even Adrian, as the sole gay man in the novel, is presented in cliched terms as having an interest in hairdressing, his intimate conversation with a barman prompting a dramatically ironic exclamation of ‘that’s queer’[32] from the unwitting Uncle Clifford. Gender roles within all three texts are enforced through the sexual dominance of men over their female companions. Critic C. W. E Bigsby noted that ‘the shock of Streetcar…lay in the fact that this was the first American play in which sexuality was patently at the core of the lives of all its characters, a sexuality’[33].
Williams presents sex as having the power to redeem or destroy, to compound or negate the forces, which bore on those caught in a moment of great social change. The ‘gaudy seed bearer’[34] Stanley is a bestial representation of the new South and he uses his intense virility and sexual power to great effect. His sexual magnetism is exemplified by the symbolic package of meat thrown to a visibly delighted Stella in the opening scene. The connotations of his sexual proprietorship over Stella and her sexual infatuation with him are not lost on the watching Negro woman.
In stark contrast, Bunty feigns deafness at the butcher’s ‘innuendo laced conversations’[35], exposing him as a ‘bluff parody of himself’[36]. Her caustic description of him as ‘a pig…smooth shiny skin stretched tightly over his buttery flesh’[37] is both comical and telling in her uptight rejection of his smutty behaviour. This mordant tone continues into the awkwardly comical depictions of male sexual supremacy in Behind The Scenes’ fornications.
Ruby’s conception by a typically tipsy George and equally typically stoic Bunty who is ‘pretending to be asleep’[38], summarises well Atkinson’s presentation of a tired female submission to male virility in the repressed society of 40’s England. George’s demise is with his trouser round his ankles, a less than dignified ‘epileptic penguin[39]’, as the World Cup final ‘carries on regardless’[40] in another typically callous death of Behind The Scenes. This dominance leads to a trapping sexual dependence of women upon men, symbolically reflected by Williams in the eponymous streetcar, ‘bound for Desire, and then for the Cemeteries’[41].
The streetcar stands for Blanche’s headlong descent into disaster at the hands of her lust. Like the streetcar’s destination, Desire, the stop called Elysian Fields is an obvious symbol; an ironic fantasy however, as the Elysian Fields – the abode of the blessed dead in Greek mythology – turns out to be a rundown street in New Orleans. The very same symbol of the ‘rattle trap streetcar’[42] is used by both sisters in scene 4, as a euphemism for sexual experience. They speak explicitly of the ‘blunt desire’[43] that decides their choice. In answer to Stella’s question ‘haven’t you ever ridden on that street-car? [44] Blanche’s bitter riposte of ‘it brought me here’[45] displays both self-knowledge and self-condemnation of her current destitution. Ominously the matter-of-fact Stella offers no words of self-criticism prior to the only fleeting moment that she confronts her guilt; ‘oh god, what have I done to my sister? ’[46]. Moments later, in the middle of her ‘luxurious’[47] sobbing, she yields to Stanley’s lovemaking, compounding her guilt. This dependence is echoed in ‘Tiresias’ from Ted Hughes’ Ovid where women are said to take “nine tenths of the pleasure”[48] during sex.
Men are vital for women to experience any sexual satisfaction and female desire ultimately renders them reliant and weakened. Their dependence is compounded by a financial reliance. Marxist feminist theory argues an economic dependence on men deprives women of the right to dominate their own fate, reducing them to existence by male affiliation. On “a teacher’s salary…barely sufficient for her living expenses”[49], Blanche ‘had to come [to New Orleans] for the summer’ as ‘[she] didn’t save a penny last year’[50].
In the wake of her husband’s suicide and the ‘epic fornications’[51] of her ‘grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers’[52], she is forced again to turn to men for financial support, depending, as is her mantra ‘on the kindness of strangers’[53]. Her attempted allurement of Stanley is based on the recognition that ‘maybe he is what we need to mix with our blood now that we’ve lost Belle Reve’[54]. Her spiral of desperation turns to Mitch and finally the nebulous millionaire Shep Huntleigh who comes to stand as a symbol of material strength of dependence and guarantee for women, more exactly for Blanche.
Blanche recognises that Stella could be happier without her physically abusive husband, Stanley, yet her alternative of Shep still involves complete dependence on men. When Stella chooses to remain with Stanley, she chooses to rely on, love, and believe in a man instead of her sister. Williams does not necessarily criticise Stella—he makes it quite clear that Stanley represents a much more secure future than Blanche does. That Shep never materialises strongly suggests that if women place their hope and fortune on men, their oppressed and subordinate status can never be changed.
Bunty, like Stella, who has to request that her husband “better give [her] some money”[55], confirms her reliance on George in having “no intention of working after her marriage”[56]. Bunty’s quest for stardom and self-discovery conflicts with a mode of motherhood that requires service, sacrifice, and selflessness. As she moves into adulthood during World War II, Bunty tries out a series of different quixotic identities in the search for selfhood; Deanna Durbin[57], Scarlett O’Hara[58] and Greer Garson[59].
However, as her family grows, her dreams diminish, and Bunty is forced to forgo a self she has not yet fully realised. The erosion of self is symbolised by the abbreviation of her name for Bernice, to Bunty, which George truncates to ‘Bunt’[60]. Ironically, George marries Bunty only because ‘he thinks she will be a big help in the shop’[61] and thus Bunty is comically presented as trapped in the role of the ‘Martyred wife’[62] despite her belief that marriage to George would free her from the graft that she imagines herself to be ‘above’.
Ruby’s mock expression of pity in her narrative gives an account of Bunty’s woes in a sardonic tone; her tranquilisers are ‘Bunty’s little helpers’[63] and Atkinson’s pathetic portrayal of Bunty as put out but ultimately accepting of her role as a married woman contrasts with Williams’ poignant subdual of Blanche and Stella. Sexual and financial dominance coalesces in another tool for the subjugation of women; rape. Hughes presents his women in terms of capital value; Philomena is a ‘priceless gift’, available to ‘cash in your whole kingdom for’[64].
As a result of rape in Streetcar and Ovid, the victimised females are presented as devalued and diminished in ‘worth’ in the views of patriarchal society. Myrrha, ‘utterly disgusted with her life’[65] is described as ‘polluted’[66] and ‘contaminated’[67] in the wake of her incestuous act, which ‘removes [her] from life and death… in some nerveless limbo’[68]. Male exploitation of Blanche’s sexuality has left her with an equally poor reputation.
This notoriety makes Blanche an unattractive marriage prospect, but, because she is destitute, Blanche sees marriage as her only possibility for survival, trapping her in the cycle of submission to men. It is telling that Blanche’s rape is not condemned, and it can be argued that Williams portrays her violation as inevitable in patriarchal culture and also self-inflicted by her provocative behaviour, a controversial thought for a modern audience. In her ingratiation of Mitch, she uses all kinds of strategies to “deceive him enough to make him-want”[69] and conceals her true age, because “Men don’t want anything they get too easy.
But men lose interest quickly… when the girl is over-thirty”[70]. This represents the internalisation of patriarchal society that her behaviour has precipitated. Her trunk, symbolic of her own displaced and materialistic identity, is full of the flashy pretension of fake finery that she perceives men to desire, and the Chinese lampshade softens the glare of the Mitch’s gaze on her fading beauty and adds to the ‘magic’ Blanche desires; the dressing up of ugly reality. However, both are ultimately violated with a strong sense of dramatic irony.
When first Mitch and then Stanley tear off the paper lantern, she cries out as in pain. The opening of the trunk becomes a divesture of interiority – Stanley’s question ‘what is them underneath? ’[71] becomes a central one as the trunk functions as a metonymy for some unchartered territory about to be fundamentally disrupted, but to no condemnation from the playwright. Similarly, even when the male hunter Actaeon is punished upon inadvertently offending the nakedly bathing goddess Diana with his sight, Hughes suggests that Actaeon’s crime was one of fortune: ‘Destiny, not guilt, was enough/For Actaeon.
It is no crime/To lose your way in a dark wood’[72]. Hughes suggests here that Actaeon’s death is the necessary ordeal to lead him through hell to paradise. When sexual aggression or rape is exhibited by females however, the result and portrayal are markedly different. Salmacis and Blanche are remarkably alike in this respect. Salmacis is a naiad (a nymph who presided over springs and brooks) and as such is described in typically natural imagery as ‘perfect / as among damselflies’[73], ‘gathering lilies for a garland’[74].
This peaceful language of the natural world is tinged however with a more foreboding aggression in the ‘viper’[75] like elegance of her ‘sinewy otter’[76] like body, which portends her sexual experience in contrast to the innocent young boy Hermaphroditus, who blushes at the naming of love. Hughes places the emphasis on the feminine snares of the lascivious water nymph, who is aggressively sexual in a very Blanche like manner. She knows ‘she had to have [Hermaphroditus]’[77] and proceeds to unashamedly flirt, ‘checking her girdle… her cleavage’[78].
Her sensual language is heightened by its inference of a taboo love with the incestuous reference of ‘what a lucky sister! As for the mother/ Who held you, and pushed her nipple between your lips/ I am already sick with envy’[79], exemplifying her sexual command over the boy, who refuses her advances without really knowing what she wants. He desires only to bathe and his obliviousness to her advances are indicative of his youth and inexperience but also his male gender precluding him from the experience of passion, as echoed in the ‘nine tenths of the pleasure’[80] that the female takes in Tiresias.
Thus he becomes an easy prey and ‘Like a snake’[81] she ‘flings and locks her coils/ around him’[82], a ‘tangle of constrictors, nippled with suckers’[83] – the disturbing organic metaphors further exemplifying her atypical literary position as the female aggressor of rape. Throughout this scene however, Salmacis is never rendered as in sexual control; Hermaphroditus ‘will not surrender/ or yield the least kindness/ of the pleasure she longs for/ and rages for, and pleads for’[84]. Hughes’ implication of their demise as a result of their unnatural union is clear – the only way in which a woman can rape a man is if he is not clearly male.
To conclude, in the words of an anonymous critic ‘gender roles figure so prominently in literature that they begin to take on a life of their own, whereas to become fluid in the mind of the writer and reader alike… it is evident that when working with ambiguity, man and woman, whose boundaries are few and far between, become locked in a dimension of transmutation’. These words said of Ovid, offer a concise summary of the three works, applicable mainly to Hughes’ characters such as Salmacis and Tiresias, and Williams’ Blanche.
Ultimately however, despite the differing time periods in which they were written the role of gender is an inextricable fibre in ancient, southern and modern literature. The three writers posit sexuality and gender contrastingly; Williams’ uncompromising ‘personally and socially powerful’[85] play, Hughes’ matter-of-fact narration and Atkinson’s comically cliched bildungsroman. A prominent similarity in the treatment of gender by all three authors is the ability of each to manipulate and intertwine not only their ideas of the gender line but also those of their contextual popular culture in order to effectively and complexly examine its role.

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