AN IMAGE sticks in my mind from the last time I saw Tennessee Williams. It's an image of a voice coming from shadows.

We had had a conversation that stretched over the better part of a hot afternoon, sitting in the living room of a seaside villa where he was staying on Kiawah Island, near Charleston, S.C. As the sun got lower in the sky, the shadows lengthened in the room -- and on the dunes and ocean crest outside the huge windows. Williams grew tired, his voice became slow and even more Southern, and eventually he was not much more than a silhouette in the billowing couch. The only real light came from the two lenses of his large eyeglasses that mirrored the seascape outside. Flashes of furiously live sea -- blue-black motion, with darting red and orange streaks -- sparkled from them. My final moments with him that day, as he slipped into a nap, produced the image: a voice coming from the shadows, the voice of a seer of currents and motion and light, as true, as active, as troubled as the sea.

Even at the risk of romanticizing the moment, and Tennessee Williams too, that's the image I hold still.

From his own imagination he flaunted the conventions of standard theater fare, serving up the hard-to-take plots of "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Summer and Smoke," "Suddenly Last Summer," "Sweet Bird of Youth" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Our own imaginations, provoked and jostled, alternately made room for the seer's iconoclastic inventions and, when they were too arcane, shied away from them and called him addled or extreme -- or worse.

For Williams' part, we were his public -- and he did think of us that way, as his public. We were both courted and rejected, much as he felt his sometimes beloved, sometimes despised, critics courted and rejected him. When things went well -- when in the first 20 years of his career, he was delivering a spate of successful plays after successful plays -- he semed to care for nothing but the reaction of New York audiences and critics. He luxuriated in their esteem and their praise.

When things soured -- when, after 1962, New York began its 20-year-long rejection of him -- he countered by affecting a disdain for anything but regional audiences. No one was deceived by the pose, except maybe Williams himself. At his most tame or at his most flagrantly neurotic, it was hard to tell what he did think of himself, of his work or of his reputation. As early as 1947 he had reminisced, "The sort of life which I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created."

Scratch and claw he did. And when you met him, talked with him, loved him, pitied him, venerated him, worried for him, you wished he didn't think he had to scratch and claw quite as much as he did. At the same time you knew that, as he saw it, scratching and clawing was about as automatic as a reflex can get.

THE ENIGMA of the man in the shadows is resolved only if you accept inconsistency. There was the oracular Williams, climbing boldly into his pulpit and lecturing us on everything from the proper way to school the heart to the global consequences of excessive nuclear armaments, and there was the confessional Williams, drawing us into a corner and whispering us personal, embarrassingly intimate secrets about his mother, his lobotomized sister Rose, his seamy one-night stands or his 15-year love affair with Frank Merlo. There was the solitary Williams, the brooding loner, banging away at his typewriter in Key West before dawn, oblivious of anything but the tapping of the keys and the wrangling images in his head, contorting into a stream of gorgeous words. There was Williams he magnetically social raconteur, able to infect a vast audience with his cackling laugh and bring them to their feet in adoration. And there was Williams the desperately, pathologically sad and afraid drug-taker and drunk, washing down his Nembutal with Chateau Lafite Rothschild '66 in anonymous hotel rooms scattered across the Western hemisphere.

No one of these personae leaned out of the shadows enough to dominate the others. The critics, the philosophers -- the public -- had the convenient distance from Williams that the public always has from its lionized eccentrics. They could take what they wanted of him, and, as whim or moment prompted, revel in his joy, sentimentalize his anguish, patronize him in his innocence, be flattering when he succeeded, be savage when he failed. And they did all these, with at least as strident an inconsistency as his.

True, he offered the opportunity. In a 1950 essay, he wrote, "The artist is not a man who will advance against a bayonet pressed to his abdomen unless another bayonet is pressed to his back, and even then he is not likely to move forward. He will, if possible, stand still." As far as some of his critics were concerned, he offered this not as information, but as an invitation: He wouldn't be content unless the bayonets were at his front and back, and even then he would indicate the most strategic place to stab.

The accumulated commentary on Tennessee Williams is a history rife with illustrations of how callous and mean a literary giant's critics can be and how pious they can be in justifying their baseness at the same time.

A particular example that comes to mind, particular because it was so public and so reckless, is the full-page ad that Life magazine mounted in the New York Times in June of 1969. A massive headline, "COME TO LIFE!" was accompanied by a photograph of a somnolent-looking Williams, holding his profile as though he were posing for his own death mask. The subhead, "Played out?" was followed by a quote from Life's then recently published review of Williams' play "In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel." The text began, "Tennessee Williams has suffered an infantile regression from which there seems no exit." Life went on lavishly to denounce the play and equally as lavishly to congratulate itself for being so astute and brave as to print what it called "that kind of stuff." Reader reaction, however, showed that Williams had more than a few loyalists left.

IT IS PROBABLY only academic to try to guess whether the smoke ever will clear enough for there to be general agreement on Williams' actual stature: Was he the greatest or just a very good American playwright? Do his plays more deserve the accolades or the denunciations heaped on them? Was he a genius who was out of step with his own times or a significant but momentary talent who peaked too early for his own good?

What is not academic, though, is that he stood for a few shatteringly clean values that he was right in believing we had to be forced to look at. He packed his best plays with exhibitions of the root-stability of those values: compassion, kindness, gentleness, decency. When Blanche DuBois smashes the beer bottle on the kitchen table and holds its jagged neck in Stanley Kowalski's face, daring him to violate her further, we see Williams at the point of his most sure and his most immaculate rage.

Blanche standing there, exquisitely pathetic in her defiance, waving the broken beer bottle in Stanley's leering face, is the quintessential Williams hero, the fragile, thoroughly vulnerable guardian of fundamental values. If we allow our imaginations to wander even slightly -- and certainly this is what Williams encouraged -- we can see Blanche joined at that moment by others of Williams' characters who share the same awful station, by Laura Wingfield, b Alma Winemiller, by Hannah Jelkes, by Catharine Holly.

Williams has left us these characters as one leaves a legacy. Separately and together they carry his voice out of the shadows, they stamp indelible imprints upon the imagination, and they keep retestifying. To select one over the others, to select the one that Williams himself favored: compassion. Without it, all else is pretense, charade, perversion.

And that's not a private interpretation. That's what he said. He said it repeatedly throughout the canon of his plays. He said it that afternoon from the shadows on Kiawah.

He was probably too insecure to know he'd said it well enough.