Sexual Tension in Fiction
Updated: Jan 2
My curiosity in erotic fiction began with early women's literature when it was bold to explore sexuality in an age of refinement. Out of the many great pieces, I want to address Kate Chopin's "The Storm" and Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence.
From the close readings, I will point out the value of intimate descriptions when used for non-sexual situations. It may seem strange to treat a mundane moment with perverse adjectives and verbs, but it acts as a great primer for tension and developing the reader's expectations. There will also be an exploration of how other characters and your fictional society can play a role in emphasizing the desire between your love interests.
In "The Storm", Chopin places a lot of sexual emphasis on the word choice of certain actions. In an early event, Calixta is waiting for her husband, Bobinôt, and son, Bibi, to return home. Then a storm rolls in. She is on the porch trying to retrieve the drying clothes just as Alcée (what can be assumed was a former love interest) appears. When isolating these phrases and words, the nature of the narrative unfolds:
His own voice startled her as if from a trance, and she seized Bobinôt's vest. Alcée, mounting to the porch, grabbed the trousers and snatched Bibi's braided jacket that was about to be carried away by the sudden gust of wind. He expressed an intention to remain outside, but it was soon apparent that he might as well have been out in the open: the water beat in upon the boards in driving sheets, and he went inside, closing the door after him. It was even necessary to put something beneath the door to keep the water out.
"...It's good two years sence it rain like that," explained Claixta as she rolled up a piece of bagging and Alcée helped her thrust it beneath the crack.
Adjoining was her bed room, with Bibi's couch along side her own. The door stood open, and the room with its white, monumental bed, its closed shutters, looked dim and mysterious.
Alcée flung himself into a rocker and Calixta nervously began to gather up from the floor the lengths of a cotton sheet which she had been sewing.
(The Norton Anthology: American Literature 1865-1914, Volume C, 8th Edition, pg. 558-559)
The description of an empty yet expectant bedroom and the visual hint of Calixta gathering a sheet nervously provide a glimpse of what is about to happen. Now the sexual tension becomes more obvious:
Alcée clasped her shoulders and looked into her face. The contact of her warm, palpitating body when he had unthinkingly drawn her into his arms, had aroused all the old-time infatuation and desire for her flesh.
(The Norton Anthology: American Literature 1865-1914, Volume C, 8th Edition, pg. 559)
The love scene is an extremely erotic read. The tension and the climax are not technical in the operations of lovemaking, more so it is stimulating and sensual and tender:
The generous abundance of her passion, without guile or trickery, was like a white flame which penetrated and found response in depths of his own sensuous nature that had never yet been reached.
When he touched her breasts they gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy, inviting his lips. Her mouth was a fountain of delight. And when he possessed her, they seemed to swoon together at the very borderland of life's mystery.
(The Norton Anthology: American Literature 1865-1914, Volume C, 8th Edition, pg. 560)
Now, when we look at high society in Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence, it is important to note that this and Chopin's work appeared during the transition of Realism to Modernism. Realism was an attempt to depict true nature in fiction. This is reflected in Wharton's protagonist, Newland Archer, who is utterly infatuated with the cousin of his betrothed - Countess Olenska (Ellen).
With the pressures of society, indulging in desires express intense longing, one that motivates the character enough to act upon despite the consequences. Forbidden love adds a special touch to sexual tension and is easy to establish, even nonparticipating characters can observe the tension and bring it to the forefront of the narrative.
In this scene, Newland comes to Olenska's defense in a conversation with Mr. Jackson. This flirts with the idea of Olenka having lived outside of convention and arouses a connection of ideals Olenska shares with Newland:
He stopped and turned away angrily to light his cigar. "Women ought to be free-as free as we are," he declared making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.
Mr. Sillerton Jackson stretched his ankles near the coals and emitted a sardonic whistle.
"Well," he said after a pause, "apparently Count Olenski takes your view; for I have never heard of having lifted his finger to get his wife back."
(Age of Innocence, p.26)
There is a nod of chemistry that Jackson unknowingly reciprocates by associating Newland with Olenska's husband, Count Olenski.
Ultimately, there is some foreplay available in creating a desire between characters and more importantly, the reader's desire to see it transpire. It is important to note that this advice is for fiction in general. Of course, there are various genres for erotica that have different thresholds. In the treatment of chemistry, I personally enjoy the slow burns and the gradual developments between well-developed characters.