Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton

by Tennessee Williams

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Themes and Meanings

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Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton presents a curious mixture of thematic elements. On one hand, it is a play about moral misdeeds and poetic justice. It also analyzes an unstable marriage and unhealthy emotional relationships. Tennessee Williams accomplishes the former by representing the South through the characters of Jake and Flora, who are depicted as boorish southern rustics. Jake, dishonest and malicious, naïvely assumes that only opportunistic profit will result from his blowing up the gin. Although the “foreigner’s” gin has been burned, his retaliation by raping Flora leads audiences to feel little sympathy for his role of the helpless outsider. Jake may stand for the violent masculinity of the South, but his failure to recognize his cuckoldry at the play’s end leaves him emasculated and vulnerable.

Williams’s tone regarding the brutal sexuality should be seen as nonjudgmental. Flora virtually seems to thrive on abuse; her resistance to both Jake’s and Vicarro’s treatment is meek. Williams’s drama occasionally focuses on the bestial, violent nature of relationships, and some of his work, like the short story “Desire and the Black Masseur,” depicts sadomasochism in very erotic terms. Whether such relationships are autobiographically inspired has been the source of incessant speculation. Perhaps Williams is simply acknowledging that what seems repugnant for some is pleasurable for others.

The other idea—of the alien confronting the power structure—appears throughout Williams’s drama. Unlike other outsiders, however, Vicarro seems triumphant at the play’s end. Granted, he has lost his gin, but he has abused his adversary’s wife, impregnated her, and made her happy in the process. Whether Flora will leave Jake (or indeed be invited to do so) is unresolved, but retribution has been enacted, and Jake is the only one oblivious.

Although Flora may actually enjoy abuse, there is a pathos in her predicament that should not escape a close reader or sympathetic theater-goer. Those who receive gratification from being mistreated harbor a twisted view of what constitutes need. Flora’s “ravaged” appearance at the play’s end, combined with her somewhat deranged frame of mind, suggest that she is not mentally equipped to realize what would be best for her: keeping her distance from such abusive men.

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