Gender Question in O’Connor and Williams’ Novels

Introduction

To fully understand the underlying theme and sentiments that both Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams tried to bring out in their respective writings, Revelation and A Streetcar Named Desire, it is necessary to understand the time and location of the novel and the social milieu in which the characters existed. Though there are many who support their views and aver that the characters would have behaved in similar fashion, if they existed now, there are critics who disagree very strongly. At a time when America was trying to cope with the internal strife and problems associated with its civil war, their upheaval was not just political or nationalistic. It was more of a turmoil that caused a questioning and a rethink of what was socially accepted hitherto. It became quite difficult for those living in the South and the North to understand the reasons behind the changes in social stratification and sensitivity that led to political changes with far-reaching consequences.

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Stanley Kowalski – epitome of masculinity, albeit presumed

Not known for exhibiting any kind of niceties, Stanley has an image of himself and all other men that to most might reek of male chauvinism. It is not easy for a person like him to come to terms with the temerity of his wife’s sister, Blanche Dubois, around whom the whole plot of the story A Streetcar Named Desire is centered. For a person who has spent practically his whole life, slogging in a factory, he is very conscious of the fact that there are people around him who do not succumb to the pressures of their financial status, but on the contrary, find ways to circumvent it.

Since the whole plot has a very Roman Catholic background to it, there is no way one can avoid the influence of the Church on its characters. Stanley does try to help his sister-in-law, but there is a defiance in her that he finds both repelling as well as attractive. She is not as docile as his wife and hence he finds her to be a challenge, one that he finds fairly difficult to tackle. At the same time, she is not ugly, which makes it difficult for him to ignore her. There is a way in which she seems to get under his skin, a feeling that agitates him to a great extent.

Being a man, with no lofty feminist or liberal views, he is determined to make her and the rest of the world look up to him and his (presumed) power. When he realizes that there is no way he can really ensure this, he tries to force himself on her in an ultimate act of subjugation – he rapes her, leaving her shattered more mentally than physically.

Ruby Turpin – selfishness personified

The portrayal of this southerner with extreme right leanings might not be perfectly indicative of the society she moved in, but it is certainly a good example. A person who has spent all her life, looking down at colored people cannot be expected to think and act very differently. There is a concerted effort on her part to ignore the misery of others and concentrate on the betterment of herself.

The fact that she sees herself as a blessed person merely because of her color and her financial security is best exhibited in her eulogy to Jesus Christ:

If it’s one thing I am, […] it’s grateful. When I think who all I could
have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything and a
good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, “Thank you, Jesus,
for making everything the way it is!” It could have been different!

Pride, they say, goes before a fall. When her daughter Mary Grace hurls a book at her in disgust, it shows a conscious dislike that the girl has for her mother’s hypocritical ways and ideas.

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Is it femininity or masculinity or just plain chauvinism?

As a student, this is probably the question that requires a critical study of the book and the period in which it was written. Both Williams and O’Connor, the creators of Stanley and Ruby portray intense feelings of one-upmanship that are revolting to almost all those who are around them. Both books reflect the social mores of their times, vis-à-vis the treatment of those who were not as financially sound or racially similar to them.

Stanley’s treatment of Blanche smacks of a contempt that he shows for her sex. He exemplifies a male-dominated society where a man works hard and expects complete servility from a woman, whether it is his wife or her sister. In like manner, Ruby does not see anything wrong in her attitude toward those who are below her in the social ladder. She is not able to comprehend that there needs to be a sea change in her thinking; this is the reason for her surprise and distress when her own daughter condemns her to hell.

Conclusion

With prayer, supplication and the Church being key ingredients of both books, both authors have tried to bring out the evil in the minds of these characters with relevant imagery in their writings. For instance, when Mary Grace insults her mother and then has a seizure, the whole episode is made to look almost prophetic (epilepsy was looked upon with awe in that period and had a similar history as well). There is a poetic justice of sorts when Blanche Dubois becomes mentally unstable after the ultimate attack of vandalism on her person, by her brother-in-law, Stanley. Where does one look for justification? There are those who would believe that Blanche richly deserved all that she suffered; but there are those who would say that no man or woman had the right to stand in moral judgment of another.

In conclusion, one could say that both the femininity and masculinity of the characters in both novels is subjective to a very large extent. In reality, violence and discrimination are born and exist because of more than just one cause. Society, religion and financial security contribute to a large extent in mitigating the two.

References

  1. Paquet-Deyris, Anne Marie. “Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Revelation’ – ‘Some vast construction work.’ [Wise Blood 18],” Cercles Occasional Papers Series 3 2005: 1-11.
  2. Williams, Tennessee. “A Streetcar Named Desire.” London: Methuen, 1984.
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StudyCorgi. (2021, September 12). Gender Question in O’Connor and Williams’ Novels. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/gender-question-in-oconnor-and-williams-novels/

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Gender Question in O’Connor and Williams’ Novels'. 12 September.

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