In a society where sex is consistently consumed in our daily media, it’s hard to conceptualize a time period when sex was a taboo conversation spoken only behind closed doors. From the late 1800s until the mid-1900s, sexual promiscuity was a subject not often spoken aloud. It was considered “dirty” and “perverse” to speak of such things, yet, authors, playwrights, and artists continued to use their works to portray sexuality in their own ways. Down south, in the heart of Louisiana, New Orleans was in the midst of creating its own reputation as a city that thrived on sexual transgressions. From the nineteenth century going into the twentieth century, New Orleans solidified their reputation with the combination of sexual promiscuity and interracial relations. From the creation of Storyville, a district of the New Orleans French Quarter that thrived on the containment of prostitution, to the New Orleans we know today, sexual desires have never been pushed into the shadows. Famous authors and playwrights came out of the city with their works highlighting on the debauchery of the city. While sexual liberations were often seen as positives, they could also lead to harmful effects. This ideology is also portrayed in literary formats. For example, Tennessee Williams, a famous 1900s playwright, writes “A Streetcar Named Desire” explaining the mental break of Blanche DuBois as a result of her sexual desire being detrimental to her mental stability, along with other outstanding circumstances. Similar to Tennessee Williams in his literary themes, Kate Chopin, author of the famous book The Awakening uses her literary voice to bring Edna Pontellier to life. Chopin writes about Edna’s life as she wills to become an autonomous woman without the constraint of society’s expectations. This story centers itself around the themes of self-discovery through Edna’s sexual liberation, correlating with her eventual death. Continuing, Lyle Saxon, a famous New Orleans author writes “A Centaur Plays Croquet” using symbolic messages to explain sex in a sexually repressed society. This paganistic story is centered around the theme of desire, similar to the other works mentioned. Ada’s desire is prevalent from the beginning, nearly identical to Blanche’s desire in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Based on analyzing the works mentioned, it can be hypothesized that sexual transgressions can be detrimental to the emotional psyche of female protagonists in late 1800s to mid-1900s literature. In order to come to these conclusions, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics will help give insight to certain female characters’ behaviors and how their characteristics help perpetuate the ideology that internalizing sexual desires is the causation for their mental instability. Through these works, the female protagonists continuously battle the patronizing patriarchal forces and as a result, this overwhelming notion breaks them down to their most vulnerable forms.
Published in 1969, author Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics focuses on patriarchy and how it is prevalent in sexual relationships. From a small excerpt of Chapter Two’s “Theory of Sexual Politics”, Millet conveys her argument through highlighting the ideological, biological, anthropological, and social hierarchies that surround sex and how the patriarchy defends male superiority. From an ideological standpoint, male superiority depends on the subordinacy and inferiority of females. This ideology along with multiple others, help provide insight to a late 1960s-early 1970s early ideas of the patriarchy. From here, Millet then uses her views to create an argument from a biological point of view. She starts with the social barriers that come from biological differences between men and women. Men have the biological capabilities to thrive in a civilization, whereas women are only seen for the reproductive organs and are defined as such. With both of these ideas, Millet uses them to explain the sociological repercussions to the patriarchy while also, using them to explain how a caste-like class structure infringes on the views and relationships surrounding sex. For example, the differences between the elite and working-class go farther than monetary values and instead lie in how far the masculine characters are willing to demand attention from their audience. To explain her anthropological viewpoint, Millet relies on metaphors to explain sexual phenomena and myths to further argue the theory of origin. From Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, it’s easy to apply these ideologies into famous works of literature where the main character’s sexual transgressions create a narrative that surrounds the patriarchal archetypes present in each work.
In the famous play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” playwright Tennessee Williams uses the characters Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski throughout the entirety of the play to convey different messages about sexuality and desire. In the mid-1940s, when this play was first written, sexual feelings and behaviors were often hidden and shunned away from the public eye. Overtly sexual desires and behaviors from women were condemned and women had the prospect of being institutionalized for their perverse thoughts. New Orleans, a city known for its sin and debauchery, was not exempt from this. “A Streetcar Named Desire” follows Blanche DuBois as she goes to live with her sister Stella in New Orleans. Blanche’s life has reached a downhill trajectory after the loss of her husband and home estate, Belle Reve. After losing everything dear to her, Blanche looks to start over, since her previous reputation was forever tarnished. Her sexual nature had changed once she lost her husband, but at other times, she behaves with a sensual air surrounding her behaviors. Blanche originally does not like the man Stella is with, but she acknowledges his sexual allure, “This is how I look at it, A man like that is someone you go out with, once, twice, three times when the devil is in you. But live with? Have a child by?” (Williams__) This quote, happening early on in the play, proves Blanche understands the sexual nature that feeds off of Stanley. In another occurrence, everyone is playing poker in Scene Three, stage directions state Blanche “takes off her blouse and stands in her pink silk brassiere and white skirt in the light through the portieres” (p. 53). Even when Stella mentions to her that the light shines through, she moves away, but is quickly drawn back to the attention she receives. Blanche DuBois’s dependence on the male opinion is the beginnings of her psychotic breaks and highlights her need for patriarchal approval. Once Blanche is forcefully raped by Stanley, her psyche truly begins to falter as Stanley only wanted to prove his superiority to Blanche; his only outlet to do so was to rape her. Following this horrible act, Stella prepares to send Blanche away and does not believe what happened to Blanche was real. From this, Blanche never truly understands what is happening to her and the audience truly sees Blanche’s true psychotic break. From these occurrences, it can be concluded that the direct reasoning for Blanche’s mental instability comes from the death of her husband, and later, comes from her constant need to be sexually desired by men. Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics states, “The large quantity of guilt attached to sexuality in patriarchy is overwhelmingly placed upon the female, who is, culturally speaking, held to be culpable or the more culpable party in nearly any sexual liaison” (Millet VIII). Millet also explains the patriarchal notions of sex and force, “Patriarchal societies typically link feelings of cruelty with sexuality, the latter often equated both with evil and with power” (Millet VI). Both of these quotes help support this claim due to the blame placed under Blanche’s name. Even when she is forcibly raped, the blame is centered on her and she is the one who gets sent away in the end. Stanley wanted to show his power over women and did so in the only way he knew how. Overall, sexual desire is a prominent theme throughout the play and based on the conclusions made, it is one of the reasons of Blanche losing her sanity.
In her famous novel, The Awakening, author Kate Chopin uses the main protagonist Edna Pontellier’s awakened psyche to explain how sexual desire can be detrimental to one’s overall mental stability. When this novel was written, many overlooked it; it was not until the 1970s when people took notice of the feminist themes and motifs this novel is centered around. Women in the late 1800s, were supposed to live a life following their husbands orders, bearing children, and being the perfect housewife. Edna Pontellier, a woman of an elite class, craves the release from this strict normative lifestyle. Edna uses her artistic abilities as the beginning factors to her ‘awakening,’ but it is not until she meets Robert Lebrun that her full sexual awakening begins to start. Starting in chapter six, Edna is beginning to sense feelings for Robert, but she does not allow herself to acknowledge them. These feelings start a chain reaction of Edna trying to prove her individuality. This sexual awakening Edna feels is what leads her into the most important awakening she feels throughout the entire novel, the awakening of herself. This awakening for Edna has helped her to come to terms with the fact that she is her own individual person. When she reaches peace in her decision, she begins to understand her abilities to make her own decisions. Once she is aware to her own desire, sex has a meaning to her and is no longer a senseless act and she no longer wants to engage in it with her husband. In order for the audience to get a clue-in on what Edna’s thinking and feeling, Chopin uses the motif of the sea being her subconscious mind. “She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam, she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself” (Chopin 71). It was due to the sexual liberation Edna felt that she began to start her trials of self-discovery, which would eventually lead to her death. Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics helps prove the point that “the females were to assume the function of serving as the male’s conscience and living the life of goodness he found tedious…” (Millet IV). But Kate Chopin uses Edna to reject this ideology and prove herself to be her own person. Unlike Blanche from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Edna treats love like a business transaction and thinks more into the practicality of it all. From the start of her newly found sexual awakening, Edna’s psyche begins to degrade, eventually leading to her death by suicide. Edna Pontellier’s quest for self-discovery through sexual liberations directly correlate to the breaking apart of her psyche and her eventual suicide.
In the famous New Orleans story, The Centaur Plays Croquet, Lyle Saxon uses a nonnormative sexual relationship to perpetuate the ideas of myth and sex in literature. This epistolary story is told about a woman named Ada Weatherford Calendar and her mystifying relationship with a centaur named Horace. From the beginning, Ada was not a normal woman. She spent a suspicious amount of time in the woods and had an inconclusive past. Ada, then becomes overly infatuated with a centaur she meets named Horace. Ada’s relationship with Horace was not supported. The people of Mimosa, often referred to their relationship as “abnormal” or “perverse.” It is hypothesized Ada’s relationship with herself and with the centaur alludes to Saxon’s relationship with himself. There is a strong possibility of Saxon being a gay man and using his literature to portray his own feelings, this conception happens also with Tennessee Williams. If this were to be proven, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics has a section directly based on the mythological viewpoints of this story. Putting Lyle Saxon’s likelihood in the shoes of the main protagonist Ada Calendar, “This notion itself presupposes the patriarchy has already been established and the male has already set himself as the human form, the subject and referent to which the female is “other” or alien” (Millet VII). Saxon uses the creation of the centaur to perpetuate and explain his own personal desires. Pertaining to the emotional stability of Ada Calendar, Ada makes the decision for herself to run away with the centaur, it was said she was last seen naked on the back of a horse, which calls into question her emotional psyche.
After analyzing three formative works in early New Orleans literary history, sexual transgressions are proven to be detrimental to the emotional stability through the female protagonists. In “A Streetcar Named Desire” Tennessee Williams uses Blanche DuBois’s sexual desire proved itself to be detrimental to her mental psyche. Similarly, Kate Chopin uses Edna Pontellier in The Awakening to explain her sexual liberations were in direct correlation with her cause of death, as she became accustomed to the sublime. And finally, Lyle Saxon’s “A Centaur Plays Croquet,” focuses on the sexual inclinations of Ada Calendar. Her mythological relationship with the centaur Horace can be hypothesized as an allusion toward Saxon’s own personal relationships and sexual transgressions. While researching all three sources, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics proved itself to be of great assistance when coming to conclusions about patriarchal standpoints Through all of these works, a commonality all three sources had were internalizing sexual desires and inclinations was proven to be harmful to the mental states of all the female protagonists leading to a break in their mental and emotional psyche.