Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Tennessee Williams
Maggie (the Cat)
Maggie and Moolah
Maggie is, well, a cat. She is also a survivor. We learn that her father was an alcoholic and that her mother sewed her clothes when she was growing up. They didn't have things like cashmere sweaters. When she made her debut into Southern Society (a.k.a. went to a fancy party full of cats on hot tin roofs), she only had two dresses: one, a hand-me-down, and the other, sewn by her mother.
Now, doesn't it seem like Maggie knows a little too much about where clothes come from and about other people's business? Exactly. She likes to Gossip with a capital "G." While it is not certain how she hoists herself up into Southern society with so little, we know she pulls it off, because Brick tells his father that he and Gooper both married into society.
So when we put the pieces of the cat puzzle together, we get a sense of how hard Maggie has worked to make something of herself. She's college educated. She has married into wealth. And she comes from nothing. She is keenly aware of Mae Pollitt's background. Even though Maggie made her debut in Nashville, and Mae made hers in Memphis, she knows Mae's story by way of Memphis friends. She knows Mae's family lost all of their money and, as a result, climbed the proverbial social ladder to stay cool in the eyes of society.
Who the heck is "society"? What is it, and, as usual, why do we care? Maggie makes fun of the fact that Mae was a cotton carnival queen, telling the story of how a recent cotton carnival queen was spit upon by someone with a mouth full of tobacco juice. In telling this story, Maggie seems to be making some kind of point about the relevance of the much-loved beauty pageant. She also follows the social rise and fall of others more closely than TheSuperficial.com. It's a dog-eat-dog world, and she knows it.
Maggie likes money, and all her hollering makes us think her deepest wish is to have a baby with Brick, or at the very least to get busy with Brick. While he is disgusted by her, Maggie is…how can we put this delicately…very determined to sleep with him throughout the play. She has brought Brick to Big Daddy's birthday so that they might stake their claim in Big Daddy's wealth. Brick is on a ship to Echo Spring and he is no longer the breadwinner. Without a steady income and without a piece of Big Daddy's pie, she and Brick could drown in a sea of Echo Spring, and Maggie could find herself right back where she started. But do you really think Maggie the Cat would let that happen?
Maggie and Appearance
Let's be honest: Maggie's hot stuff. She knows how to work it too. She flaunts and primps herself in front of Brick to entice him, tells him Big Daddy has a "lech" for her, and relates the story of being pursued by a bachelor in a powder room. Brick's indifference only sharpens her desire to preen about her looks.
In the first act, we watch Maggie change out of a dress ruined by the no-neck monsters. She hopes her see-through slip will entice Brick, but when it's clear it does not and will not, she gradually dresses up as the act progresses. In this way, the audience watches her choose an outfit for an important event. Her looks are a weapon that she will wield in order to get what she wants. She flirts with Big Daddy in order to charm him and warm him to her cause.
Strangely, we realize just how much Maggie is using her appearance when she is all by herself. Directly following Big Mama's exit in Act I, we see Maggie look at herself in the mirror. Her shoulders hunch, she clenches her fists, and she shuts her eyes tight, "as a child about to be stabbed with a vaccination needle" (I.48.737-738); when she opens her eyes, she looks at herself and asks, "who are you?" (I.48.740-741). In this really weird moment that makes us just a little uncomfortable, we realize the extent to which she is "performing" when she is with others. It's almost like we meet her split personality here, Maggie the dog – the cool young woman who's just trying to get some direction or some sweet lovin'. We know we're watching a play, and that means there are actors involved, but we don't quite know what to do when actors act like people acting. That's like two layers of drama. So who is the real Maggie, then? Maggie the cat or Maggie the dog?
Maggie and Gender
Maggie's voice is ubiquitous in the first half of the play, but, as time goes on, we hear less and less of her. Tennessee Williams tells us her voice has range and music: "sometimes it drops low as a boy's and you have a sudden image of her playing boy's games as a child" (I.21.97-99). This may well be the coolest stage note of all stage note history. Why the h-e-double hockey sticks would Tennessee want us to know that her voice drops as low as a boy's, such that we are immediately compelled to think of a five-year-old playing with his Power Rangers action figures?
In light of Maggie's cat/dog conundrum (discussed above), the fact that her voice has such range and music is just plain interesting. She's like a chameleon or something, but a talking one. This stage note also likens Maggie to a boy. Hmmm. But she's so feminine! True, true. But she is also an aggressive woman, one who's trying to earn the bacon. Through efforts like flirting with Big Daddy, buying cashmere sweaters, and trying to make babies, Maggie ensures their survival. She's taking care of Brick. Brick's standing in doorways and singing to the moon. For the June Cleaver era, Maggie is kind of like Angelina Jolie. Stereotypical gender roles need not apply. The position has been filled by one Maggie the Cat/Dog, who is a boyish, girly woman.
Maggie and Hope
In a world in which everything is either rotten or bizarrely fertile, a world haunted by the horrors of slavery and the history of the Old South, Maggie is the outsider. She's an alien. She has married into the Pollitt family and therefore has nothing to do with all the creepy things that have gone on in the Pollitt household and on the Pollitt plantation before her arrival.
Unlike Mae, who also married into the family, Maggie is different for one major reason: she doesn't have children. She may be baby-less during the play, and she may want a baby more than anything in the world, but aren't you kind of glad she's not part of the Pollitt Mothers' Club? Maggie's inability to bring a child into the world makes her seem like even more of a Martian to the Pollitts. But that doesn't seem to be such a bad thing. She is able to bring a child into the world (well maybe not literally...yet) only when Big Daddy Pollitt, patriarch extraordinaire and symbol of American mobility, realizes he's dying for good. Maggie and her future baby, therefore, represent and herald a new era for the Pollitt family.