Setting (Time, place, influence)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place in the 1950’s in Mississippi on a 28,000 acre plantation. The entire play is set in one room in the Pollitt’s house. The room is currently Maggie and Bricks bedroom, but formerly Jack Straw and Peter Ochello’s room, the supposedly gay couple that Bigdaddy inherited the estate from.
The play takes plays during a time where anything but a conventional relationship between ad man and a woman was considered extremely risqué and inappropriate. (MMcG)
All of the characters wander in and out of Brick and Maggie's room. Occasionally, they stop to chat. Act One is mostly Maggie talking. Act Two is mostly Big Daddy. Act Three ends with a resolution, but not really, especially if you read more than one version of the play. -ABL
Fundamentally, Brick is an enigma. In the same person, he possesses a certain inexplicable but irresistible charm while at the same time he seems somewhat puerile and irresponsible. He is one of the few characters in the play who eschews the manufactured appearances in the interest of social propriety, citing a higher allegiance to truth and honesty and a distaste for "mendacity." However, Brick deceives himself more than anyone else. By drinking, Brick distances himself from the truth, the truth about his relationships with Skipper, Maggie, and the rest of his family. By drinking Brick tries to escape the inescapable in order to achieve that transitory "click."
Not only is Brick a raging alcoholic, but he also lacks sincere relationships, in part because of his inability to communicate effectively. The strongest relationship Brick possessed was his relationship with Skipper, which failed in part due to Brick's inability to communicate and confront the "homoeroticism" that both Brick and Skipper feared. According to Brick, "any true thing between two people is too rare to be normal" (56). Through, Brick's loss of Skipper, Williams creates sympathy for Brick and adds to some of his charm. The reader identifies with the intense feeling of loss he feels and even sympathizes with Brick's inability to communicate effectively with Skipper.
While the reader understands Brick's reticence, his desire for truth, and the manifestation of his personal struggle in his alcoholism, Williams never gives a definitive resolution, or if you will, a final explanation of Brick's character. The very fact that Williams produced several endings, each with a different meaning for Brick does not make it any easier. Brick comes to terms with his self-deception, saying "I've lied to nobody, nobody but myself, just lied to myself" (62). However, the reader gets the sense that Brick will not recover fully because he does not remedy the underlying problem: his ability to communicate openly and deal maturely with his relationships. Brick seems doomed by a loveless marriage, the ghost of a lost friendship, and a broken family. (W. Almquist)
While Maggie is introduced to us in the first act as an overwhelmingly shallow, catty social climber who anyone would become annoyed with, as the play progresses, we learn of her basic sincerity and decency both to Brick and her family. Although she is the wife of Brick and clearly possesses a passionate sexual drive, she inherently recognizes and empathizes with Brick's "love [for Skipper] that could never be carried through to anything satisfying" (Williams 26). According to Mark Winchell, Maggie even "tries to show an understanding that he hysterically rejects" (183). Maggie eventually renounces (or at least appears to) her trivial obsessions in order to step up as a vital aid for the family, finally receiving the much sought after approval of Big Mama. As the wife of an alcoholic, Maggie recognizes in a somewhat sinister way, her authority over her husband; however, by becoming an "affirmation of life in the face of death… she is acting in Brick's best interests as well as her own" (185). In the play's conclusion, Williams presents Maggie's seductive, rape-like plan for Brick symbolically, suggesting that as she is attempting to instill a sense of newfound life within her husband, she will likewise conceive new life as a mother. (gaustin)
In the beginning of the play, Maggie seems like a calculating and manipulative woman who constantly urges her husband to take advantage of Big Daddy’s favoritism in order to inherit the plantation. Meanwhile, Williams reveals that the lack of intimacy between her and Brick is intensifying her anxiety which is why she compares herself with a “cat on a hot tin roof” (Williams 18). However, Williams portrays her with great determination to somehow hold her marriage and the family together through her yearning to have Brick’s child. Moreover, Williams reveals that she comes from a broken-up and relatively poor family compared to the Politts, which rationalizes her hope to gain some stability materialistically and emotionally through her husband. Also, Maggie accuses Skipper for being attracted to Brick, and although she wants Skipper out of her marriage, she shows an open understanding towards Brick’s ineffable affection for Skipper, which Brick himself fears to admit. Williams arouses sympathy for Maggie as she is often seen as an outsider by Mae and especially Gooper, who says “I’ve got the right to discuss my own brother with other members of my family, which does not include [Maggie],” thus explaining how desperate she feels about being left out (71). Part of Maggie’s anxiety also comes from the fact that she is childless while Mae has produced almost half a dozen little Politts, thus resulting in her cattiness towards Mae as well as her self-protective instinct whenever being questioned about her infertility. Perhaps “Williams grew to admire” Maggie because of her determination to keep her marriage and family intact (188). Moreover, the fact Brick comes to understand Maggie’s efforts shows that Williams believes that there is some greatness and respectability in her determination to preserve a family. (Tai)
Mae is the wife of Gooper and the Mother to six “No-neck monsters,” who she attempts to use as a liable reason to receive the 28,000 acres after Big Daddy passes away. Throughout the play she is constantly attacking Maggie with catty insults about her troubled relationship with Brick and her inability to have children, convincing herself that Maggie is jealous of her life when she, truly, is the jealous one. Mae’s own relationship with her husband is not perfect, however, as closer to the end of the play Gooper demonstrates his blatant disrespect for his wife when she attempts to make an argument, or even when she supports his views. Mae is bitter towards Maggie because she desperately wants to fit into the family that so easily accepts the “barren” wife who cannot bring her husband happiness, but is unable to welcome the wife who has given her husband six children and who does everything she can to please Big Mama and Big Daddy. (ElizC)
Mae is the self-absorbed woman in the play who desperately tries to portray herself as the paragon of motherhood in a traditional Southern family. As said before, she constantly tries to weasel in a conversation the fact that she is very fertile and that the “no-neck monsters” should be one of the main reasons that she and Gooper should receive the 28000-acre plot of land. Although she tries to assert her superiority over Maggie several times in the play by either calling her a liar or an unfertile, useless wife, it is interesting to note that she is also extremely subservient to Gooper. Her personality and actions are significant to the play because it helps highlight Williams’ views on gender roles in a Southern family like the Pollitts. (ZI)
Gooper is Bricks older brother, son of Big Mamma and Big Daddy, and husband of Mae. He is a lawyer and thinks since he is successful and has a large family he should inherit all of the plantation. Big Daddy favors Brick over Gooper and Gooper is very aware of it. Even Big Mamma accidentally calls Brick her only son, blatantly forgetting Gooper exists. Gooper and Mae often flaunt their children in front of his parents to try and gain favor with them. Gooper also sneakily tries to get Big Mamma to sign a legal document while Big Daddy is out of the room giving him and Mae all 28,000 acres. Over all Gooper is a foil of Brick and tries throughout the play to gain favor with his parents and make them realize he is the rightful heir to Big Daddy's fortune. (SBlack)
Gooper is underhanded and attempts to expose all flaws in Brick in order to achieve his goal of inheriting the plantation. He an his wife Mae share the room next to Brick and Maggie, the two listen each night to the goings on in the room next door and then report the fact that Maggie and Brick are fighting and not sleeping together to Big Mama. They also confront Big Daddy about the possibility that Brick is gay. Gooper’s frustration towards his parents and brother is manifested in his schemes, Though he and his wife have the most normal, heterosexual relationship in the play, Tennessee Williams makes them the most detestable characters. (Molly)
Big Daddy, who has made millions as a plantation owner after rising from poverty, is the patriarch of the Politt family and wants the others, particularly Big Mama, to know that too.
Though both Big Daddy and Brick are hesitant to discuss their feelings, Big Daddy is really the only person that Brick can open up to about his relationship with Skipper and subsequent degeneration since his friend’s death. It should be noted BD has a lukewarm acceptance of homosexuality after being essentially raised by a gay couple. Brick and Big Daddy speak to each other frankly, and are both angered by the mendacity that permeates around them—which forms the crux of Act 2. BD believes Brick should live with the mendacity surrounding him like he has, and aims to shake his favorite son out his alcoholic haze. Big Daddy is also dying of cancer. During the period BD thought he had narrowly escaped death after being lied to about the truth of his condition, he begins recognizing the superficiality of money through his experiences abroad on one hand, and wanting to be with many attractive young women before his time is up on the other hand. His brush with death causes him to reexamine his life, yet Brick’s brutally honest method of telling his father he is really dying lead him to curse the shallowness of his family.
BD wants would rather entrust his property to Brick than Gooper, so when Maggie mendaciously tells the family she is pregnant with Brick’s son, BD buys into the illusion and signs his plantation over to Brick and Maggie. (Aashna)
Big Mama, the controlling wife of Big Daddy and mother of Brick, demonstrates loyalty and love towards her husband above all as she remains devoted to him despite his cold rejection of her affections and efforts. Big Mama, in constantly making a scene of her emotions, from laughing to crying hysterically, embodies the stereotype of the sensitive woman, which serves to contrast against Maggie’s tougher persona. After the news comes that BD only has a spastic colon, Bid Daddy repudiates his wife’s good intentions to assume responsibility in the household and passionately asserts his supremacy over her by proclaiming, “An’ you thought I was dyin’ an’ you started taking over; well, you can stop takin’ over, now, because I’m not goin’ to die” (37). Big Mama keeps herself busy from facing the grief of Big Daddy’s impending death by quickly believing in the good news of the spastic colon, by laughing to herself continuously, and by butting into Brick and Maggie’s marital life. She lives an empty life concocted by delusion and uncontrollable mendacity as seen when she blames Big Daddy’s temper towards her on “too much devotion,” rather than the lack of communication and unstable relationships that plague their family nucleus (63). While Big Mama ironically tirelessly tries to hold her family together, she pushes them farther apart. At the news of Big Daddy’s cancer she exclaims, “I don’t need nobody to hold my hand…Since when did Big Daddy or me need anybody?,” hoping that she can continue to cultivate a life in willful ignorance (66). Eventually, the overwhelming realization of the power of mortality hits each character and leaves the audience wondering whether the family will continue fostering mendacity or reevaluate their relationships. (CChiaroni)
Rev. Tooker and Dr. Baugh
Both Rev. Tooker and Dr. Baugh attend Big Daddy's birthday party. They contribute to the atmosphere of mendacity over Big Daddy's cancerous condition as Rev. Tooker talks about donating new stained glass windows for the church (assuming BD's death is approaching) and Dr. Baugh dances around the subject several times, not revealing the truth until the family pushes him to. (HW)
Themes/Meanings of the Work
“Time goes by so fast. Nothin’ can outrun it. Death commences too early – almost before you’re halfway acquainted with life – you meet the other.” A theme throughout Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the concept and passage of time. Time does go by too fast. As teenagers you blink and your childhood is a thing of the past. You spend your whole life wishing you were older. Until you are older. And suddenly it is all a little less glamorous. In Big Mama’s case, she is smacked in the face with the realization that Big Daddy is dying, and she is overwhelmed with the inescapable immediacy of the situation (to the point where she is in denial of the truth). Similarly, it seems that the only times when we allow ourselves the luxury of reflection is after the subject of our consideration has passed. But why not reflect when the time is ripe? (Cue Big Daddy quote). When we can change something instead of regretting our incapability to do after the fact. When we can modify the way we are living in order to make that unavoidable change come with less pain and a little more welcoming spirit. KWatts
Throughout the play, Brick presents the key theme of nostalgia through his inability to let go of his past. After the death of his best friend, Skipper, Brick spirals into a state of drunkenness and isolates him from the world surrounding him. By resorting to alcohol as an escape from reality, Brick obviously attempts to create a false state of perpetual youth where he can forget about the fact that life is naturally progressing. Skipper’s death symbolizes the end of Brick’s prime, which is embodied in his inability to jump over the hurdles he used to conquer. Therefore, the dangers of being overly nostalgic are presented in the play as Brick lives in his past to such an extent that it prevents him from progressing to the future. Specifically, the fact that he doesn’t want children. Dr. Mott
Male relationships are omnipresent in this novel, as in the vast majority of Tennessee Williams playwrights as according to Ms. Labrie. Williams remains ambiguous about the homosexuality of the relationship between Brick and Skipper throughout the play, but he leaves a few things very clear: true, deep relationships are hard to come by, and when they do, the emotional connection leaves outsiders awestruck. The purity of a deep relationship often is tainted and marred by the judgment from those on the outside who simply cannot fathom the emotional intensity and connection between the two. (BMITT)
The concept of the truth versus mendacity ("a system that we live in" (59)) is explored throughout the work. The entire birthday party is in itself a lie, as Big Daddy is celebrating his life under the false assumption that he is a healthy man. Mendacity is first introduced when Brick cites his disgust with it as the reason for his drinking, referring to "no one single person an' no one lie" (51). The entire family is mendacious, with no person's intentions what they claim to be (with perhaps the exception of Brick). All of the relationships seem to be forced, and it isn't until the end of the play that several characters reveal their true thoughts, thus dissolving some of the mendacity. However, with Maggie's final lie about her pregnancy, Williams leaves his audience with a sense that mendacity can never fully be eliminated. CBerk
Alcoholism is a dominant theme that Tennessee Williams deals with in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In the greater picture, Brick’s alcoholism is used to highlight his family problems. Because he can’t express to his pain over Skipper’s death, Brick turns to alcohol as his crutch. It’s also interesting that Williams created Brick physically crippled so that he had to use a crutch, this nicely paralleled with his emotional crutch-alcohol. The first time in the play that Brick had a meaningful conversation was with Big Daddy about his special friendship with Skipper. Strategically, Big Daddy steals Brick’s crutch from him in this scene to make him honestly express his emotions. That suggested that in order for Brick to think clearly, he had to be stripped of his alcohol crutch. AsedaGT
Throughout the play, the theme of greed and avarice is constantly reiterated; however, this theme is portrayed by the measures the characters go to in order to get what they want as well as the various types of greed possessed by each character. Some characters have a want for more control over their lives and the way their lives seem to others- this type of greed is not conventional, yet continuously appears in the play. Other characters have a greed for money or the appearance of a loving, stable family, but their greed often deceives them because they convince themselves that their lives are acceptable when in fact they are living a lie. (CarolineKelly)
I don’t know if you would call it a motif, but the sound cues throughout the play are definitely something symbolic that constantly reappear throughout. By the end of the play the audience has been drawn in by about thirty sound cues. Like the dramatic background music of modern soap operas, these sound cues amplify action, point out important moments, and add fuel to the fire that is the Pollitt family. From bird calls and clock tolls to thunder strikes and storm crashes, there always seems to be a sound cue when things are getting spiciest. In this way, the sound cue bursts into the scene much like the way unwanted characters bust into the room to interrupt the important conversation between Big Daddy and Brick. All in all, the sound cue proves to be yet another way for Tennessee Williams to further emphasize certain things to his audience beyond his extremely explicit stage directions. (WHolt)
Brick's crutch is a symbol in the play which represents his dependence on alcohol (parallels to the theme of alcoholism). Without the crutch Brick will lose his balance and is prone to stumble. Likewise without alcohol Brick cannot bear the burden of life. Alcohol acts as Brick's crutch; without it he is metaphorically crippled. Maggie and Big Daddy are the only characters in the play who come in contact with Brick's crutch, and ironically both characters are the only family members who act on Brick’s reliance on alcohol. While Big Daddy attempts intervention, Maggie chooses to toss all of Brick's "aids" out the window. Just as Brick relies on his crutch for support, alcohol acts as an anti-depressant which allows him to build up a higher tolerance for life. (EBush)
Another motif/ symbol is the 'cat' on a hot tin roof. This 'cat' is most often refering to Maggie, sometimes implying her cattiness towards Mae, sometimes the cat-like feminity of her character, but most often to her determination. The final lines in the play state, "nothing's more determined than a cat on a hot tin roof" (81). Maggie was determined in her persistance to make Brick love her back and have a baby with him. Williams repeats this idea of a cat on a hot tin roof in a conversation between brick and maggie too. Brick asks what the victory of a cat is and maggie replies, "just staying on it… as long as she can." This again refers to the determination. Maggie will stick with Brick as long as she can bear it, just as a cat will stay on the roof until the pain of the heat becomes too much. Furthermore, the Williams uses cats as a metaphor in a diffrent way when Brick says he and maggie were never more than "two cats on a fence humping." (LL)
Williams includes several references to animals throughout the play. Most frequently we see the comparison of Maggie to “a cat on a hot tin roof.” Used primarily by Maggie herself, who is tortured by her unrequited sexual desire for Brick, this motif describes the instability of their relationship and Maggie’s desperate attempts to hold the marriage and family together. While this is specifically directed towards Maggie, it appears that all of the characters resemble cats on a hot tin roof as they each, through their use of mendacity, jump around the heated situation surrounding Big Daddy’s cancer, Brick’s mysterious relationship with Skipper, and Maggie’s desire for a baby. Big Daddy also describes “the human animal” in his explanation of how people will desperately use money as an attempt to achieve the victory of life everlasting, perhaps in the same way a cat will do everything it can to remain atop a hot tin roof. (RFL)
Significance of Opening Scene
The first act is overwhelmingly dominated by Maggie and serves to introduce the relationships and themes throughout the play. Maggie goes on long rants against Mae and Gooper, not to mention their "no-neck monsters", and is only answered with short, uninterested statements by her husband Brick. Maggie introduces the fact that Big Daddy is dying of cancer, a revelation that only earns the response of "Oh" from Brick and reveals his detachment and numbness regarding his loved ones (8). Mae is also characterized somewhat accurately by Maggie as a "monster of fertility" who thinks that her children give her and Gooper the right to Big Daddy's land (9). Maggie's cattiness is also expressed in act one as she talks so badly about her main competition in the family, Mae, and Mae's family.
Maggie also shows her affectionate side, however, and makes it abundantly clear that she wants Brick to love her. While this comes across kind of pathetically, it shows how Brick has the "charm of the defeated" which attracts everyone around him without even the slightest effort on his part (13). This is evident throughout the play as Brick never really tries to be involved in anything but his parents and Maggie continue to treat him like he is the only person in the world. The superficiality of the play comes out in Maggie's speeches in the first act, especially when she tells Brick about how "You can be young without money but you can't be old without it" (25). This comes after Maggie introduces the theme of deception in the play when she talks about how they are tricking Big Daddy into thinking he is cancer free even though they know his cancer is malignant. Maggie finally introduces Brick's late friend Skipper in the final pages of Act 1, and tells about how Brick is unable to move on from his glory days and his friendship with Skipper. (RLucas)
Significance of Closing Scene
Depending on which version you read the closing scene's meaning will vary. In our version, after Brick supports Maggie's lie about being pregnant, the scene ends with the two characters talking. Maggie and Brick decide to make their lie become the truth. Brick's support of this lie violates his demand for truth and condemnation of the living for lying. So does this mean that Brick is returning to dwell among the living?
Or, the Brick’s agreeing to make Maggie’s lie true (have a kid), can be taken as the ultimate sign of his apathy and ambivalence for anything other than his drink, rather than a willing betrayal of his earlier valuing of truth. (Luke Hedrick)
As the scene ends, Maggie bribes him with promises of liquor and Brick turns to her saying "I admire you Maggie". This leaves the viewer hopeful for a changed relationship. Only in other versions of this play is the ending more hopeless.
Basically, the significance of the closing scene lies in the fact that there are multiple scenes. As Luke and ECL have said above, Williams leaves us not only with ambiguity, but with contradiction. Each ending is already ambiguous and raises a host of questions: will Brick keep clinging to his apathy despite agreeing to Maggie's plan? Will Brick stop drinking and will everything go back to normal? Does Brick want to have a child or does he just want his liquor back—or both? But the fact that there are more than one present us with entirely different kinds of ambiguity, and some very different questions and concerns. Endings are supposed to be relatively ambiguous, simply because there is something imperfect inherent in endings. But Williams fails because he cannot make up his mind, because he is incapable of crafting an ending that can at least complete the play, even if it is not perfect, without calling the rest of the play into question. Well, that's what I think at least. (pbowman)
This book is not fun.