On "The Night of the Iguana"


Tennessee Williams From LOC via Wikimedia Commons In The Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams explores the realm of human sexuality and caring. The cardinal points of his compass are asexuality and concupiscence along the one axis and vindictiveness and compassion along the other. The explorers on this expedition are a defrocked man of God, a predatory quail with her eagle-eyed chaperone, a traveling artist, and a hotel owner. Together they cross the burning sands of la tierra caliente to arrive at last in a new Eden. The defrocked priest, "the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon," has reached the nadir of his existence: to be a tour guide for his present employer, Blake's Tours. He began his descent when, as a priest, he was found to have carried on an affair with a young church secretary. Coincidentally, this discovery also ended his career as a priest. His career as a tour guide is now in jeopardy because he is suspected of trying to take advantage of one of his passengers, a Lolita-like teenage girl by the name of Charlotte Goodall. The person harboring these suspicions is the girl's chaperone, a lesbian-like choral director from a women's Baptist College, Ms. Julia Fellows. The chaperone harbors her current suspicions because Shannon had turned up in the girl's hotel room through "some mix-up with the keys." Suffering the torment of the soon to be damned, Shannon detours the tour to the hotel of a friend in hopes of finding refuge and also of delaying Ms. Fellows in contacting his employer with her suspicions.

Shannon's beliefs about the sexual mores by which he has been weighed and found wanting are revealed in the opening scene, where he confronts the people of his church over accusations of his liaison with a young secretary. Shannon takes the view that sexuality is good because God would not have given mankind urges had He not meant us to act on them. Like his ancestors, he has fed his appetites. He disdains the more prevalent church view that sexual urges are to be resisted and overcome as the rants of a senile delinquent unworthy of worship. Shannon has proven himself unable to resist his attraction to young women. That he has run into trouble before his encounter with Charlotte and after he was ousted from the church is insinuated in the scene where the widow Faulks asks him, "how come you always pick the young ones?" The raw power of the attraction between Shannon and the girl is shown in a scene on the road to Puerto Vallarta.

In this scene, the bus has gotten a flat that the driver must fix, and Shannon goes into the water to escape the heat of the day, of the girl's ardor, and of Ms. Fellows henpecking. Nevertheless, Charlotte follows him into the water, and Ms. Fellows discovers them swimming together. They return from the water at Ms. Fellows' insistence, and we see them walk back together. Their wet clothing does not so much diminish as enhance the sense of their sexuality. The girl's pursuit of Shannon continues at the hotel at Puerto Vallarta. She enters his room and, despite the lurking doom of Ms. Fellows, he is unable/unwilling to escape. This inability to walk away is revealed as a character flaw through the symbolism of Shannon cutting his feet on broken glass. On her part, she is attracted to him both sexually and romantically. She dwells in a fantastic realm where her rich daddy can fix everything. She romanticizes her feelings for Shannon and the potential of their relationship, promising him a pulpit back home and the full support of Daddy's wealth and power. The fantastic is the only plane on which she can exist; the impracticality of her wants never intrudes itself there.

Ms. Fellows is an unhappy woman. She hates the heat of this journey, she hates the nascent womanhood of her charge, and she hates Shannon for violating her hunting ground. Shannon, she feels, is the author of her woes, and she would have his head on a lance. Her hostility and resentment emerge after Shannon and Charlotte return from their swim. She slaps Charlotte, calling her a dreadful girl. When Shannon questions her outrage, she turns from him, calling him a beast. Each time Charlotte arranges to thrust herself upon Shannon, Ms. Fellows intervenes and grows more determined to destroy Shannon. At the first opportunity, she complains to Blake's Tours about Shannon's failings as a tour guide. She also contacts her brother, a judge. She thus uncovers the truth of Shannon's departure from the Church and denounces him before the others as a seducer of young women. Blake's Tours fires Shannon, and he feels there is no place left for him on earth on the realistic level. He confirms Ms. Fellows description of him as a beast by urinating on her luggage. Shannon's life here reaches its lowest ebb, and he sees no choice except to take the "long swim to China."

The second pair of women prominent in Shannon's life are the itinerant artist, Anna Jelks and the hotel owner, Maxine Faulks. While Mrs. Faulks is as lusty as Charlotte, she knows, "the difference between loving someone and going to bed with ‘em." Ms.Jelks is at the sexual antipodes to Mrs. Faulks and Charlotte. Despite this difference in temperament, both women are compassionate and loving. Maxine allows Shannon to persuade her to take in the artist and her decrepit grandfather. She repays this kindness by helping Maxine prepare a meal in hopes of mollifying the vengeful Ms. Fellows. Together they attempt to shield Shannon from Ms. Fellows' attacks. Maxine counter-attacks against Ms. Fellows by trying to show her the truth about her own feelings for Charlotte. She decries her protectiveness as jealousy. Ironically, Shannon stops Maxine's attack before Ms. Fellows can understand its meaning. He believes that Ms. Fellows would be destroyed by the knowledge of what Maxine has started to reveal. He fulfills the Christian precept of returning good for evil out of his own goodness and tender heartedness. The artist's intercession on Shannon's behalf is in the form of an entreaty. Nothing offends the artist's sensibilities except that which is cruel and violent, and she gently opposes Ms. Fellows attack on Shannon.

Once the tour has departed, the two women are left to care for the despondent and spooked Rev. Shannon. Maxine's raw boned roughness contrasts with Ms.Jelks quiet gentleness. Maxine's approach becomes grating, and she surrenders care of Shannon to the artist. The power of her feelings for Shannon are revealed on the beach. Her beach boys come to her, but she rejects them because she cannot bring herself to use them with Shannon there. This is especially revealing because the presence of her late husband had never stopped her with the beach boys. The depth of her feelings causes her to sacrifice herself for the sake of Shannon and Ms. Jelks. She announces her intent to give them her hotel so they can be secure together. However, Ms. Jelks recognizes the fantastic nature of such an arrangement and moves on. She nurtured Shannon through his dark night, for which he feels obligated out of a sense of gratitude. However, she is asexual, and there is no magnetism to bind them together. This leaves Shannon and Mrs. Faulks in a position to draw close through their mutual caring and need. Shannon goes to her and accepts her offer. He confides his sense of weakness; she offers him her strength.

So Shannon ceases his journey, arrives in a new Eden and settles in with his Eve. As Shannon listens to the rain patter on the roof and the thunder echo through the hills, the reader is left to ponder what lessons were there to be learned. The lessons echo with the thunder of Eliot's Waste Land and its triple message. The lesson of his experiences with Ms. Goodall and Ms. Fellows was "be restrained." As natural as sexual urges are, the price of unrestraint can be too great to bear. His inability or unwillingness to avoid temptation has cost Shannon his dignity, at least two jobs, and nearly his life. Ironically, he displays compassion toward Ms. Fellows, sparing her ego an unendurable blow. The true embodiments of compassion, however, are Ms. Jelks and Mrs. Faulks. Shannon calls Ms. Jelks "the thin, female, standing up Buddha." And she is Buddha-like, displaying compassion dispassionately. Like the itinerant monk, Cane, in the t.v. show Kung Fu, she imparts the wisdom of the east and moves on. Maxine has been waiting for Shannon all along. She had offered herself to him when her husband, Fred was alive, but he had demurred out of a sense of loyalty to Fred. From both of these ladies, he learns the third lesson: give. When the woman of the parable gave her last farthing, it was counted as a greater gift than those of her rich neighbors, for it was all that she had. Ms. Jelks and Maxine give a greater gift still: themselves. Ms. Jelks for one night. Maxine for always.