In Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton, Tennessee Williams presents characters with vastly different worldviews who are pitted against each other. The play’s physical environment is extremely limited, as the entire play takes place on the porch of the Meighans’ house. The playwright gives little information about their attitudes to the house. He does present the characters in relationship to their broader environment in largely favorable or challenging terms. Their attitudes encompass their conviction that they can, on one hand, succeed in changing that environment or, on the other hand, that they remain at the mercy of their surroundings and situation. However, through the course of the play, these attitudes shift somewhat.
Jake Meighan is portrayed as a selfish, domineering man who feels entitled to control his environment. This control extends to his business, his prominence within the region, and his domination of his wife. Jake does not take well to any perceived threat, as indicated by his aggressive action in burning down the rival cotton gin. Jake’s attitude toward Flora is shown by his constantly demeaning her, ordering her around, and physically abusing her. When Jake returns from ginning the cotton, his attitude toward his dominant position is clearly stated. He is both extremely pleased that he made a lot of money by doing “a man-sized job” and that he forced the Black employees—whom he considers brainless bodies—to work hard.
The job I’ve turned out is nothing to laugh at. I drove that pack of n-----s like a mule-skinner. ... You got to drive, drive, drive.
Jake is so busy congratulating himself and so unimaginative about the possible repercussions of his arson that he cannot imagine what has taken place in his house in his absence.
Flora Meighan is initially shown as dependent on Jake, which includes staying close to their house, as they have only one car. Her attitude toward her environment is generally positive, although she indicates she has had numerous but minor experiences. She recounts getting badly sunburned and other summer-related mishaps but still claims to have had fun at a nearby lake.
I fell in the lake once, too. ... Once sunburned. One time, poison ivy! Well, lookin’ back on it now, we had a good deal of fun in spite of it, though.
By scene 3, after she has apparently had a sexual relationship with Vicarro, the audience gains the impression that such “fun” often includes being mistreated by men. She now has come to realize that her knowledge can give her some leverage over Jake.
When the audience meets Silva Vicarro, he is unhappy because his cotton gin has burned down. He views his situation in negative terms. Williams describes the way he regards the fields on a sunny day.
Vicarro stares gloomily across the dancing brilliance of the fields. His lip sticks out like a pouting child’s.
As he begins to realize that Flora has as much as admitted to Jake’s arson, Vicarro’s overall philosophical attitude and ability to make the best of a situation become apparent. He tells Flora,
It’s no use crying over a burnt-down gin. This world is built on the principle of tit for tat.
Although initially Vicarro seems more pleasant than Jake, it is soon revealed that he also approaches his environment as something to be dominated, and he quickly comes to regard Flora as part of that environment.