The Night of the Iguana

by Tennessee Williams

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Themes and Meanings

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That Shannon should find himself at the end of his tether in a tropical jungle, on the underside of the world, is appropriate to his personal conflict and its resolution. As most of Tennessee Williams’ plays are, The Night of the Iguana is centered on the crippling power of repressed sexual desire. Appropriate, too, are the embodiments of the two antithetical attitudes toward human sexuality in the play: Maxine and Miss Fellowes. The former is uninhibitedly sexual and comfortable with acting upon her desires; the latter is puritanically prudish and neurotically intent upon viewing the urges and expression of one’s sexuality as bestial and in need of repression. Hannah is the synthesis of these two extremes, and it is through communication with her that Shannon is able to arrive at a resolution of sorts between his conflicting tendencies.

During act 3, the audience learns from Maxine what kind of mother Shannon’s was, for she reminds him of something she overheard him tell her late husband several years earlier:You was explaining to him how your problems first started. You told him that Mama, your Mama, used to send you to bed before you was ready to sleep—so you practiced the little boy’s vice, you amused yourself with yourself. And once she caught you at it and whaled your backside with the back side of a hairbrush because she said she had to punish you for it because it made God mad as much as it did Mama, and she had to punish you for it so God wouldn’t punish you for it harder than she would.

Shannon’s decision to become an Episcopal minister was largely the result of his father and grandfather having been clergymen. His mother’s punishment of him also manifests itself now in his relations with women. After having sex with them, he beats them and forces them to kneel and pray with him for forgiveness. Repressing his sexual desires as often as he does, furthermore, causes them to break forth as indiscreet and uncontrollable advances. Miss Fellowes is clearly his mother’s double in the present; her threats to have him convicted for statutory rape, as well as her accusations that he was defrocked for being a degenerate, are almost as frequent in the first act as Maxine’s implicitly sexual advances are throughout the play.

Hannah, who at one time herself almost suffered a nervous breakdown, is an existential androgyne. Her sanity is secure in her sense of oneness with her art, and her sexuality is not an issue, for it neither helps nor hinders her empathic openness to others and their suffering. Shannon’s problem, she tells him, is that he is trying to find something or someone to believe in; what she has found to believe in is communication between people: “Broken gates between people so they can reach each other, even if it’s just for one night only,” such as this night when Shannon frees the iguana and the natural creature in himself.


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Sex and Sexual Desire Many of the characters and much of the plot of The Night of the Iguana is driven by the desire for and the consequences of sexual relations. Shannon is the primary focus of these tensions. He is a minister who has lost his church, and a tour guide who, during the course of the play, loses his group and his job. In both instances, Shannon acted inappropriately towards a young woman. In the latter, for example, Shannon had sex with a young Baptist girl who was part of the...

(This entire section contains 790 words.)

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group he was leading. Maxine, the padrona of the hotel, tells Shannon that many of his problems stem from the fact that his mother caught him masturbating as a child and beat him because she believed it was wrong. She believes that Shannon gets back at her by engaging in such behaviors.

Shannon is not the only character driven by lust. Maxine also engages in numerous affairs—and did so while married to her now-deceased husband. When Shannon arrives at the hotel, she immediately begins trying to seduce him with her body and rum-cocos. She wants to control Shannon through sex. Maxine becomes extremely jealous when Shannon shows interest in Hannah, the spinster from New England. Unlike Maxine and Shannon, Hannah is not motivated by sexual desire. She has only had two sexual encounters in her life. Hannah helps Shannon through his crisis, but refuses his sexual advances. After the worst has passed, Shannon decides to stay and live with Maxine, seemingly the only option, sexual or otherwise, that he has left open.

Alienation and Loneliness Underlying the theme of sex and sexual desire, is alienation and loneliness. Both Maxine and Shannon fear being alone, in their own way, while Hannah has a seemingly secure relationship with her grandfather that prevents true alienation from the world. Maxine desperately wants Shannon to stay with her and help her run the hotel that her recently deceased husband left her. She tries everything in her power to control him: leaving her shirt half open; plying him with rum-cocos, knowing he has a problem with alcohol; tying him up when he seems really crazy. She wins in the end because Shannon is just as alone as she is. He lost his church and his status as minister long ago. His job is not conducive to forming positive long-term relationships: the groups come and go, and he is left alone. Shannon has no real friends except Maxine and her now-dead husband. They join forces at the end because this is the only solution to their loneliness.

Hannah's fortunes turn counter to Maxine and Shannon's. Hannah's only companion is her elderly grandfather, the poet Jonathon Coffin. The old man is practically senile and requires her constant care. But, unlike Shannon and Maxine, Hannah is not really lonely. She has someone to take care of, someone who loves and depends on her. While she may be sexually alienated, she is not lacking what seems to be a permanent human relationship. However, Hannah's grandfather is old, and he dies at the end of play. Having already refused Shannon's offer to be traveling companions, Hannah has a future as uncertain as Shannon's was at the beginning of The Night of the Iguana.

Permanence Each of the characters in The Night of the Iguana lack permanence. Only Maxine desires it from the beginning, in her quest to convince Shannon to stay with her to run the hotel. The fact that the play is set in a hotel—a place filled with temporary residents—epitomizes this condition. Shannon has lived a transitory life since he was expelled from his church. Being a tour guide involves dealing with different groups of people, leaving him little opportunity for a lasting relationship. Even when Shannon tries to make a connection—by sleeping with one of his tourists—it is an impermanent gesture. He does not want to marry the girl, though she wants to marry him. Shannon refuses Maxine's sexual overtures throughout the play for similar reasons: he almost fears permanence. Hannah and her grandfather live an analogous life. Though they have an unspecified home base in New England, they choose to travel the world, living in hotels. They pay their way by selling Hannah's art and reciting Nonno's poetry to hotel patrons. They are an independent entity that does not seek or embrace permanence, except in each other. But even this situation is only temporary. Jonathon Coffin dies at the end of the play, leaving Hannah in a situation that is even less permanent than it was before. There is no indication of her next move, but Shannon chooses to embrace permanence by staying with Maxine and running the hotel.