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Atonement and a Streetcar Named Desire

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We see chaos, in various forms, affecting the societies of both ‘Atonement’ and ‘A         Streetcar Named Desire’. Discuss this view of the texts.

In both texts, the role of chaos acts as the constant around the characters and the societies that they live in. The presentation of the settings echoes that of the characters within both texts, further pushed by the rigid class systems in both Atonement and A Streetcar Named Desire. Both authors use the theme of illusion and fantasy to show the chaotic nature of their characters’ lives and the false hope that is created from their lack of lucid dreams.

The way that both authors show the rigid class systems in Streetcar and Atonement are indicative of the ensuing chaos through the way that the socio-economic borders are set at the start of both texts. In Atonement, McEwan shows the influence of upper class status on perception of character and the preconception that class equates to trust, as seen in the arrest of Robbie, not Paul Marshall. The same can be seen in Streetcar, where ‘the Kowalskis and the DuBois have different notions’, reinforcing the difference between their family’s backgrounds, not dissimilar to Emily Tallis’ dismissal of Robbie as a suitor to Cecilia. Both Stanley and Robbie act as the representation of outdated ideas in 1940’s Britain and America, as they show the new ways of living and climbing up the social ladder; Robbie through education and Stanley through labour and financial independence. Both Stanley and Paul Marshall show the power of money in their ability to treat people how they wish. McEwan takes a Marxist interpretation of society that class clouds perceptions of people, with Robbie not Marshall, outed as a rapist. As the upper class, his nature as a sexual predator was not displayed to the Tallis’, much the same as how Blanche’s aristocratic values mask her true feeling of wanting to feel needed in the New South society. Gassner commented that ‘Blanche’s previous life is nothing but a decayed society, one that has become extinct’. Her inability to dominate through class is representative of the chaos that presides over Streetcar, much the same as Cecilia’s inability to find a purpose for her life and resorts to the comfort of cigarettes to fulfil her existential ennui. Class acts as a spark to ignite the chaotic tension of both texts, with Robbie’s branding of a ‘maniac’ leading Briony to ‘know it was him’. Robbie’s upbringing as the outsider is similar to the way that Blanche treats Stanley, despite her being in his house. Her description of him as a primal creature, a ‘Polack’ shows the total disregard for him as a human showing the chaotic reactions caused by class and the upper class’ distaste for those in the lower class. On the whole, both text show the prevalence of the class society to cause the ensuing chaos in the plot.

The settings of both texts are also used to echo the societies that the characters live in. The chaotic nature of Streetcar is detailed from the outset with Blanche being said to be ‘incongruous to this setting’, with everything in Scene 1 appearing divergent to her. Similarly in Atonement, the appearance of the Tallis household is incongruous to the era in which the novel is set. Its description as a metaphorical ‘tragedy of wasted chances’ foreshadows the ruined lives of Robbie and Cecilia as well as the life of guilt that Briony faces. The foreshadowing of chaos is also shown in the description of the estate as a ‘crumbling, stuccoed temple’. Despite the mansion being a symbol of wealth, is shown as a fragile item much like the vase which was broken. This forebodes the ending of Atonement in the result of the War and Briony’s decision tearing Robbie and Cecilia’s lives apart. The critic Kermode said that the ‘premonitory damage [to the vase] echoes the later fragilities’ in the novel and thus leads to the chaos of the Tallis family and the arrest of Robbie. Although the novel is set in 1935, the Victorian elements of the house being ‘lead-panelled baronial Gothic’ show the outdated and anachronistic nature of the Tallis family in their ideals, much the same as Blanche’s when she enters the New Orleans environment. Her inability to comprehend Stella ‘[leaving] her great big place with white columns’ for a ‘Polack’ of a husband shows her ideology as a Southern Belle, with the critic Tapp stating that she is ‘a victim of the mythology of the Old South’. I think it is what causes her downfall as she is unable to adapt to the new chain of command and thus causes the chaotic nature of her society: Stanley’s apartment. Overall, the settings of both texts cause chaos and therefore affects both societies.



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