The Night of the Iguana

by Tennessee Williams

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Critical Evaluation

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In most of Tennessee Williams’s major plays, the fear of dispossession looms before the major characters. Even in the affluent setting of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Brick and Maggie are threatened with disinheritance. In The Night of the Iguana, the themes of dispossession and homelessness run high and are sustained throughout the play. Larry Shannon, Hannah Jelkes, and Nonno are all wanderers, wandering without means. One can hardly envision a more hopeless situation than that of Hannah: Penniless, she spends her life pushing a ninety-seven-year-old man, a fourth- or fifth-rate poet, around Mexico in his wheelchair.

Despite this, Hannah emerges as a unique female character in the Williams canon. She is almost a reverse image of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), although she faces similar problems. Whereas Blanche lives in the shadow of a checkered past, Hannah has always lived within the socially established moral boundaries of her society.

Hannah’s celibacy does not make her judgmental of those who do not practice her restraint. In the two romantic episodes of her life that she reveals to Larry Shannon in the play, she has sympathy for the men who tried to have their way with her, the first a youth who pursued her in the balcony of a darkened movie theater, the second, years later, a man who took her out on a sampan one evening when she was in Singapore and, requesting one article of her clothing, used it as his fetish while he masturbated. Hannah averted her eyes and was not disgusted by the encounter because, as she says, nothing human disgusts her.

In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche’s impending homelessness leads her to the desperate state of having to depend upon her sister or public charity. She is a victim of her circumstances. Hannah, on the other hand, is at peace with herself and deplores neither her life nor the circumstances that have caused it to be as it is. When Shannon questions her situation and reminds her that birds build nests because they want at least relative permanence, Hannah replies without rancor that she is a human being, not a bird, and that she is building her nests in her heart.

This bit of dialogue shows not only the reconciliation that Hannah has reached with her lot but also something about Shannon’s values: Permanence means more to him than it does to Hannah. When Maxine offers him the opportunity to stay at Costa Verde and help her manage the hotel, hope glimmers that he eventually will find with Maxine the kind of life that will lay his “spooks,” as he called them, to rest.

Maxine is a good person, one capable of genuine love. She probably is in love with Shannon, but she realizes that she cannot force him into a situation in which he will feel as trapped as the iguana beneath her veranda. The implication with which Williams leaves his audiences in The Night of the Iguana is that things will likely work out for all the principals in the play, a first for a playwright whose previous endings were usually darkly pessimistic.

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Critical Context


Critical Overview