Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams tells the story of one family during a single evening, with the result being that the events of that brief period portray a microcosm of the themes that characterize this group of people. Lies and deceit pervade the family life of the Pollitts, with the two central falsehoods being the family’s lying to Big Daddy about the state of his health, and the denial of Brick’s homosexuality. The story begins with Maggie and Brick in their bedroom, a scene that encapsulates many of the conflicts in the play: Brick’s rejection of his wife, his alcoholism, Maggie’s inability to experience desire from her husband and the continual rejection that this presents, her childlessness as compared with that of his brother and sister-in-law, and the resulting precariousness of the couples’ position in regards to inheriting the family estate.
The plot of the play follows a chronological structure, beginning with the scene in the bedroom and ending with another such bedroom scene between Maggie and Brick, although at this point in the plot they appear to have achieved some sort of reconciliation and are about to sleep together in order to create an heir. At least, that is what Maggie’s gentle and seductive words to her husband implies. The storyline takes place at night, and the darkness of the hour is a metaphor for the secrets that have been under the surface for this family. Ultimately, Brick leads his father to the truth about his terminal diagnosis, and Big Daddy also refers to the relationship that Brick has had with Skipper, and Brick’s feelings of love and grief that have accompanied his suicide.
There are several themes in this story, the aforementioned lies and deceit, as well as the issues of manliness versus homosexuality, success versus failure, and father-son relationships. Mendacity is, according to Brick, “the system in which men live–liquor is one way out an’ death’s the other” (Williams, 2008). There is a great deal of denial in these family dynamics that is based on lies, such as Maggie’s lie that she is pregnant, and the overall family myth that the family unity can be restored if only–if only Maggie and Brick have a baby, if only Brick stops drinking, if only Big Daddy is able to buy all of the riches he desires, and so on. The conflict regarding masculinity is embodied by Brick, since his masculinity has been disrupted by both the physical injury he experienced that ended his athletic prowess, and his repressed homosexuality, that is barely under the surface when it pertains to his old friend Skipper. Even his name reflects this irony, because the name “Brick” suggests a strong and solid core, when in fact, the character himself is presented as a broken man who is depressed and disengaged from his wife and family. This distance is only intensified by his drinking, which serves to both numb him from the pain of his loss and sexual confusion, and to create a wall between himself and his wife that frustrates her need for love and desire in addition to depriving her of having a child.
One aspect of the theme of success and failure is represented by Big Daddy’s wealth in contrast to his troubled family relationships, as he focuses on all of the things that he will and does spend his money on when just under his nose, his family life is completely fraudulent. He does not love his wife, and while he adores his son Brick, he has only contempt for his other son who is determined to please him in order to inherit the family’s treasures; Brick, on the other hand, treats his father with coolness and disdain. Big Daddy’s relationship with his much loved son has failed regarding the lack of honesty between them until the climax of this play, when son confronts father about his terminal illness and father confronts son with his feelings about Skipper.
The character of Maggie is a lonely, at times hysterical woman who is glamorous but is depressed because of the constant sexual rejection by her husband. The indifference of her husband causes her to shatter, and throughout the production she is constantly changing clothes, which symbolizes her restlessness and dissatisfaction. She feels like a failure as a woman because of her husband’s lack of attraction to her as well as her being childless. She has three motivations: she truly loves her husband, she has sexual desires, and she needs to produce an heir (Brantley, 2008.) Brick is a detached man who is no longer able to hold a self-concept that is stable, but is rather shattered and tormented by loss and sexual ambivalence. He appears to long for a more genuine relationship with his father, but his secret about his repressed sexuality serves as a barrier to that relationship which ultimately breaks down when his father permits him to reveal himself an open way. Big Daddy is a loud millionaire who is capable of deep love for his son Brick combined with contempt and indifference for his other son as well as his wife. He comes to see the shallowness of his wealth because of his impending death from illness, and he demonstrates wisdom and compassion when he helps Brick talk about his repressed feelings and contempt for “fairies.”
This story in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is characterized by Freytag’s pyramid in presenting its theme, which allows the drama to unfold in a coherent and intense way. The scene is set in the first part of Act I, when the dialogue between Maggie and Brick reveals so much of the action to come, family conflicts, and issues in their relationship. The inciting incident is the spontaneous birthday celebration for Big Daddy, which ultimately causes the family dysfunction to be revealed in many ways. There is rising action between the central characters via dialogue, when the climax occurs between Brick and Big Daddy, and the son brings his father to the truth about his illness (Hassapi, 2011.) The resolution also occurs between Brick and Big Daddy when their intense dialogue strengthens their bond: the issues of alcoholism, authenticity, and repressed sexuality are discussed. The dénouement occurs between Maggie and Brick, who retire to their bedroom where Maggie’s expectation is that she will conceive a child that will help to resolve their marriage and will cause Brick to recapture his masculinity and stop drinking.
- Brantley, B. (March 7, 2008). Yet another life for Maggie the Cat. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://theater.nytimes.com/2008/03/07/theater/reviews/07roof.html
- Hassapi, A. Cat on a hot tin roof. (2011). Retrieved from http://bookreviews.nabou.com/reviews/catonahottinroof.html
- Williams, T. (2008.) Cat on a hot tin roof. In Q. Miller & J. Nash (Eds.) Connections: Literature for Composition (pp. 495-568). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. (Original work published 1955.)