Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Tennessee Williams
Tools of Characterization
Names do some crazy gymnastic work in Cat, helping to flesh out or make fun of the characters. Brick's name is strong, masculine like a building brick, and it reminds us of a brick of gold as well. It is also widely known that the most successful little pig of the renowned Three Little Pigs had a house made out of bricks. Thus, we know brick things to be awesomely strong, and we know that if we ever come in contact with a huffing, puffing wolf, we shall turn into a pile of bricks.
We've already discussed the similarities between Maggie and her feline association, but it also important to note how Maggie's name is a shortened version of Margaret. In its shortened form, the name Maggie conveys a youthful, creative woman rather than the depth, maturity, and elegance more readily apparent in her full name.
Gooper's name reminds us of the eye goop that finds its way into our eyes every night. Someone once had the delicacy to christen this phenomenon sleep, but we prefer eye goop. While you may think we're floundering to come up with substantive things to say about the name Gooper, we assure you we have this one in the bag. We notice that there are two big fat gaping holes in the middle of his name that look strangely like zeros to us. Gooper may want all of Big Daddy's money, but it certainly doesn't look good if all he has are two zeros to his name.
Mae, or Sister Woman as she is called, is sweet, kind, full of sunshine, hopeful, and warm as a May day...NOT. Mae is the complete antithesis of her own name. She is stormy, cloudy, malicious, selfish, and greedy. She gives the fifth month of the year a bad rap, even if she spells her name differently. The only thing she and that month have in common is fertility. April showers bring Mae no-neck monsters.
In case you forget that Big Daddy and Big Mama are the big cheeses in the Pollitt family, their names are eager to remind you. While these names are really nicknames, nobody really ever bothers to call Big Daddy and Big Mama by their real names. As such, the patriarch and matriarch are literally larger than life characters, almost like caricatures of themselves.
At one point, Big Daddy refers to Big Mama by her first name, Ida, and that just strikes as a little bit funny. After much deliberation, we realized Ida sounds to us like the Ides of March, or the day when Julius Caesar was betrayed by Brutus and stabbed to death. The names Big Daddy and Big Mama also seem to come straight out of a children's cartoon or fairytale, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. There's a folklore-like quality to these names.
Knowing what we know about the weakened Southern economy (see "In A Nutshell" and "Setting"), we are fascinated by what these characters actually do for a living and by what role they play in society. A wide variety of occupations are represented throughout Cat. In addition to the servants and field hands, who are characterized by language steeped in racist stereotype and about whom we are given little information, there is the female occupation of wife/mother/monster-breeder. Each occupation seems to have broken down, and each character seems dissatisfied in some way with his/her job.
Big Daddy is a plantation owner, a cultivator of fertile earth and cotton. However, we never actually see him cultivating, nor do we detect any concrete language that would convince us that he has picked up a hoe within the last ten years. His plantation thrives on rich fertile land and has a history of slavery, and it seems odd that this farm is doing so well. Big Daddy is, therefore, the grower of life. He's the character whose occupation brings him closer to the circle of life than just about anyone else. However, he's also the character closest to death.
Brick is a sports announcer, stuck in a sweaty glass box, passively watching and commenting on the plays and actions of others. Whereas he once served the role of athlete being watched and commented upon by men in glass boxes, Brick has been demoted and now works as a cog in society's wheel, a wheel he abhors because it views his relationship to Skipper as being abnormal.
Gooper is a lawyer, defending and working with the laws that uphold society. So why is it that we distrust him more than anyone else in the play? Again we see an example of a character who plays an essential role in society, but who uses his power and his knowledge of these laws to swindle his way into Big Daddy's fortune.
The Reverend is a religious man, who has dedicated his life to cultivating the spirituality of others, but who, in the end, is more concerned with material gains and air conditioners. He constantly puts his foot in his mouth, discussing the niceties dying people have bequeathed to other neighboring churches. The Reverend provides no moral guidance or spiritual advice during the course of the play; he simply seems to be doing what Gooper, Mae, and Maggie are doing: hovering over Big Daddy's dying body.
The Doctor is a healer by trade, but, in the context of Cat, he is predominantly the messenger of death, quietly and reservedly confirming the reports of Big Daddy's cancer. He doesn't say much, and doesn't even feel like engaging in a conversation about vitamin B. In this way, the world of Cat is devoid of any true means of healing itself. The cancer in Big Daddy's gut and the cancer of the Pollitt household are at this point too advanced to be helped.