Friday, May 15, 2009

Sexual Tension? moi?

sexual tension--the charged atmosphere present when certain characters appear together in a scene; at-a-distance thoughts and feelings of one character for another; a potential source of hidden agenda; a lurking subtext between characters or between the reader and certain characters.

Sexual tension is the elephant in the living room, an elephant that is often not recognized much less spoken about. Powerful enough when the involved characters are aware of it's presence and actually preparing to act on it, sexual tension is often the force that drives seemingly comfortable, secure characters over the edge, from their comfort to a combustion that produces consequences.

Obvious instances of sexual tension in story must include that between Dolores Haze, aka Lolita, and Humbert Humbert. Don't forget, Humbert married Lolita's mother as a subterfuge whereby he could have access to Lolita. Don't forget, however young Lolita was, she was neither innocent of Humbert's intent nor did she wish to blunt it. Don't forget, Humbert was aware of a ticking clock in that Lolita would be growing beyond his area of interest.

Look back into the chemistry sparking between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre. Did that not create a powerful incentive for the reader to continue, hopeful of more glances and touches of the hand. And what about Charlotte's kid sister, Emily, so far as Wuthering Heights is concerned? Was there not profound unresolved sexual tension between Cathy and Heathcliffe, made even more agonizing when Cathy agrees to marry Edgar Linton? On a more contemporary level, many of the John Cheever short stories were larded with it, "The Country Husband" being a notable example of its magnetic power.

Shakespeare knew a few things about sexual tension, evident in Twelfth Night, where Viola feels it for her "boss" Orsino, and has it felt for her by Olivia. In Much Ado About Nothing, the audience is given a pretty strong signal in the tease and banter between Beatrice and Benedick, and the sexual tension between Romeo and Juliet is so powerful from the moment of their first encounter that they are figuratively if not literally screwed, because they are both dead within thirty-six hours.

Observation: When sexual tension is resolved, the story flattens until something comes along--jealousy, guilt, discovery--to lift it upward again. Thus observable, smoldering sexual tension becomes a prime mover, a powerful engine for causing characters to take steps either to consummate or to flee from temptation.

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