In a world of cats on hot tin roofs, everyone knows how to scratch each other's eyes out...and they do just that. There is never a quiet moment in Cat; characters are always fighting tooth and nail (either with words or crutches) to get exactly what they want.
The word ferocious also makes us think of things like hissing raccoons, hyenas, wolves, and other scary creatures. The characters in this play are often described in stage notes as animals, and Maggie even tells Brick she feels like they share the same cage.
How can such a dog-eat-dog world be a soft world, you ask? What an excellent question. The softness, we feel, comes from the set (which Tennessee Williams describes as possessing a soft light) and the dreamlike setting of the play (suspended in an impossible, pre-Civil War era, detached from the reality of the 1950s), as well as from Brick, Maggie, and Big Daddy's vulnerabilities and desires that spill over when the ferocity of the Pollitt House becomes too powerful.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is just that—a play about a familial conflict over the wealth of the dying patriarch. We must remember when we read Cat that this is play, and meant to be performed on stage. We also must remember that, above all, we are scrutinizing the concept of family. Why do we care? Oh yes, because we all have families...and drama too.
We don't know about you, but for some reason, this title conjures up images of cats and heat – don't ask us why. Before we even start reading, or watching, we know this play is going to be hot and it's going to make us uneasy. If we were a cat, we'd probably want to be on a roof away from humans and life at large, just biding our time in perfect cat privacy. But if we were a cat on a hot tin roof, we'd probably know that tin is metal and metal conducts heat better than just about anything out there – even better than foil-wrapped chicken. So if we were that cat, on that hot tin roof, then it wouldn't be crazy to assume that our little cat feet would get burned pretty quickly. In fact, we'd probably want to jump off that roof fast.
Cats, cats, cats. As you might imagine, they feature largely in this play. In fact, Maggie is often referred to as Maggie the Cat. Whoa, that's some tricky title-character-symbolism stuff. It's almost as though Tennessee Williams would like us to associate Maggie with a...cat? Well, could it be that Maggie is the cat on that tin roof? And this "tin roof" is her marriage to Brick. She proclaims to Brick, "I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof." And Brick replies, "then jump off." Their marriage is hot, because it is full of anger, hatred, and argument incited by Brick, and it is full of Maggie's lust and, to put it mildly, sexual frustration.
Their marriage is like tin because it conducts heat from the ensuing emotion-firestorms. This roof of a marriage is also tin-like because it is flimsy, and it does not protect or cover the "house," or truths, beneath it. We think it's slightly akin to packing an entire Thanksgiving dinner, replete with drumsticks and pumpkin pie, into a Tupperware container, and trying to close the lid securely. We know that Maggie and Brick's marriage is basically a lie, because Brick doesn't really love Maggie and Maggie has basically made Brick marry her – it's kind of a flimsy union if you catch our drift. Also, tin roofs seem far, far away from the opulent Pollitt mansion, and they remind us of the bleak poverty away from which Maggie runs. Cats are also widely known to have nine lives, meaning they're tough cookies.
Tennessee Williams sure does like to compare his characters to animals. The children are monsters, Big Daddy is a wolf, Brick swings like a monkey on his crutch, and Maggie and Mae fight like cats. We open this play with the sound of an overheated hissing cat, whose claws are digging into a hot roof made of tin, which contains something (but what?!) below. All senses are at the ready. Ten hut.
Cat ends with Maggie entrapping Brick in their bedroom and insinuating that it's baby-making time, or else no more Echo Spring. It's strangely akin to a black widow ensnaring prey in her web. The house is quiet (finally). There is an eerie calm now that we know Big Daddy, patriarch extraordinaire, has cancer.
Remember those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure children books you used to read when you were little? You know, in the days before the Internet, when your third grade teacher thought she could trick you into liking books by giving you "interactive" time travel adventure stories about Thomas Edison? Ah, good times.
And they're here to stay apparently, because Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has two prominent endings, and has had several revisions. When it was first produced in 1955 on Broadway, Cat was directed by a famous director named Elia Kazan. Kazan and Williams were longtime artistic collaborators. Kazan liked to help Williams "shape" his plays (i.e., change them). Kazan, who was also a giant in the movie business, had the job of staging Cat for a mainstream, Broadway audience. He felt William's play needed to be tweaked in three ways: Big Daddy needed to stick around in Act III, Brick needed to have a more pronounced transformation after all the mendacity talk, and Maggie needed to be more likeable.
Williams took some, but not all, of these suggestions to heart. As a result, there are two very distinct endings to this play. For Shmoop purposes, however, we've stuck with the original text. Williams seems to enjoy leaving us hanging on cliffs, with only the power of our imagination allowing us to wonder what happens to the Pollitt family. In any case, we leave Cat wondering how in the world we are ever going to approach Thanksgiving dinner in the same way again.
The play takes place on one of the largest cotton plantations in the Mississippi Delta during the 1950s. It is summer, and man is it hot. The play is centered in Brick and Maggie's bedroom, a bedroom that once was occupied by the plantation's ancestors, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, who we discover were lovers.
Williams describes the style of the bedroom as "Victorian with a touch of the Far East" (15.10-11), and tells us it has not changed much since Straw and Ochello lived there. This is strange, because we don't really know what the Far East has to do with a plantation in Mississippi. However, this detail does make us think that the set may have trinkets and ornaments that would suggest other un-American places.
Williams says there is the "quality of tender light on weathered wood," inspired by a reproduction of a photograph he once saw of Robert Louis Stevenson's home on a Samoan Island. The tenderness and softness of this weathered wood is an important quality for the set to possess, when the story that unfolds "deals with the extremities of emotion" (15.27-29). Again, we hear a reference to a land far, far away (Samoa - a country-island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand) and we are not quite sure why, except that it seems to act like coordinates on a map, orienting the Pollitt Mansion within America and within the world. The set almost becomes maternal, softening the blow of the hurtful words and mud-slinging that ensue.
At the center of the bedroom is, well, a bed. And that, if you were paying attention to Big Mama, is the root of all marriage troubles. Maggie and Brick's bedroom is a transitory place, like a busy intersection, for on one end it is lined with doors and windows that lead out to the gallery, and on the other end a door leads into the hallway of the Pollitt mansion where phones are always ringing and where children are always screaming. We know that the doors to this room are rarely locked, at Big Mama's request, and we know that people are constantly eavesdropping to catch the juicy gossip being discussed inside. People are constantly moving in and out of the room, and the summer heat compels everyone to wear deodorant and to keep windows open.
The Pollitt mansion is also couched in a moment in American history that is more turbulent than a plane ride through a thundercloud. Jim Crow laws were still in full effect, mandating a "separate but equal" status for African Americans. This meant that there were separate public schools, public transportation, restaurants, public drinking fountains, restrooms, lodging, and more for whites and blacks living in America. Black Americans were subjected to racism and acts of intolerance daily, especially in the South.
After World War I, the Great Migration gained momentum. This historical movement saw black Americans fleeing the racial intolerance rampant throughout the South, and moving to great northern cities like Chicago and New York. Following World War II, American soldiers returned home. The economy saw a huge boost as American industry grew, and the baby boom was taking the country by storm. The American South also turned toward the trend of industrialization and became more like the North.
Big cotton plantations, the likes of Big Daddy's, were few and far between. In fact, many Southern farmers turned toward soybeans, corn, and other delicious things instead of to the fabric of our lives. In many ways, the virility and success of the Pollitt plantation is kind of an impossibility in the true context of the economically strained South of the 1950s. In this way, the Pollitt household seems dreamlike, impossibly suspended in a pre-Civil War era, detached from the real poverty that struck other Southern farmers and landowners.
Just like Big Daddy is dying of cancer, we know the Old South (a time of slavery, corruption, economic growth, and opulence) is dying as well, giving way to the temptress called Industry and to the powerful call of freedom and equality incited by the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. Keeping in mind all of this weighty history, we know to take Big Daddy's millions with a grain of salt.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light!
– Dylan Thomas
Like warm chocolate lava cake, Cat's epigraph is so rich and delicious, we almost want to ask for the check and call it a night. And that's before the curtain rises! Tennessee Williams employs Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' poem, "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" as the epigraph, or appetizer if you will, to Cat. He chooses the final stanza of this villanelle (see definition below), written in 1951, to set the tone for what's to come.
In the first two lines, the speaker begs his dying father to either curse or bless him before leaving this earth. He uses the final two lines of the poem entreat his father to fight death at all costs. Actually, the last two lines implore his father to RAGE. Hardcore. The speaker wants his father to live life to the fullest until the very last moment. In Cat we see a father fighting against death and giving neither curse nor blessing to his son before disappearing from the play completely. Or so we think. You may disagree with us.
The command, "rage, rage," is reminiscent of the naked Shakespearian King Lear, who wanders the heath (read: tundra) in the middle of a storm and commands the elements to "rage! blow!" When he says these words, Lear has been driven mad by the cruelty of his daughters who have turned against him after he's given them all of his riches. Cat commences with this royal ghost's words bellowing in our ears and the play tells the story of progeny laying claim to a dying father's riches. Lear's storm and Thomas' raging plea become the soundtrack for the play, and we know it to be a play about fighting death, even before we begin.
Oh, and also, villanelles are pretty honkin' cool. A villanelle is a form of poetry in which there are only two rhyming sounds. "Booooring," you might say. Au contraire, we reply. Because of these forced and limited repetitions, a villanelle often possesses a cyclical motion that mirrors the guts or content of the poem. "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" is about fighting death and the poem itself seems to fight its own ending by continuing to repeat itself.
It's hard to escape the Southern drawl that is built into Cat's language, and don't pretend like you don't hear a certain Southern, butter-loving gourmand when reading this play. Add to that the stage notes that are like little books leaking lightening in the belly of a great beast of a play, and you have a jam-packed work of art. In fact, between the fireworks, the hootin' and hollerin', the throwing of crutches, the stage notes describing the ever-shifting color of the sky, and the unrelenting animal imagery, our heart rate is jumping by the time we exit the Pollitt world, and we feel as though we've been either running from alligators or preying on lions. It's that hardcore.
Crutches are used when things, namely bones, are broken. This crutch is a multi-tasking, Swiss-army knife of a tool – it's a means for Brick to move, get to his Echo Spring, and escape when he feels trapped. He also uses it to strike at people; in this way, it becomes a weapon. Critics have also likened Brick's crutch to a phallic symbol, a sign of his impotency, for Big Daddy and Maggie sure do know how to render the man immobile by taking his crutch away from him. When this happens, he really is stranded.
Diana is the goddess of the hunt and of the moon. Hmm...do we know any hunters in this play? Aha! There certainly are some treasure hunters. What the hay do you think Maggie, Gooper, and Mae are doing all day long? Shooting the breeze at the Pollitt mansion just for kicks? No way. They are each hunting Big Daddy's fortune. When Mae delivers Maggie her trophy, asking her to keep it well out of reach of the kiddies because of the danger it presents, Maggie says, "Why, Sister Woman—that's my Diana Trophy. Won it at the intercollegiate archery contest on the Ole Miss campus" (I.36:461-462), and in this way, Maggie is instantly associated with Diana, goddess of the hunt; she is thus the favored poacher in the play, graced with a divine association.
The European treasures in the cellar, the ghost of Skipper haunting Brick, the stain of slavery on the history of the plantation, Big Daddy's kidney/liver cancer…as we've said before, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. As Big Daddy crumbles, so does the Pollitt family. These various forms of cancer eat away at the characters and structures that hold them, and thus, despite the theme of fertility exuded by the large number of children and by rich farmland, we are left feeling like the Pollitt Plantation is not such a healthy place.
Brick often stands in the doorway to the gallery, neither inside nor outside, but just chillin' in between the two. This behavior reinforces our idea that Brick is stuck in purgatory and indecision, not knowing whether to watch TV or listen to Wagner, to sip his drink or chug his Echo Spring, or whether to dump Maggie or maintain their marriage. Why is this whole idea of purgatory so familiar to us? Why do we care? When have we visited purgatory before? Aha! You can't fool us, silly; purgatory is in the epigraph! Remember all that raging, when the speaker of Dylan Thomas's poem wants his father to either curse or bless him before he dies? Well, Brick is also without curse or blessing. The doorways he likes to frequent accentuate the fact that the man is just plain stuck.
Fireworks erupt at all the right times, punctuating the fury of Big Daddy and the rage of Brick as they unpack the mendacity in their lives in Act II. The fireworks also evoke the sounds of a battle, giving weight to the family crisis, and also recalling the war that debilitated the Old South. Through the fireworks, we hear also the battle cry initiated by Cat's epigraph.
We never see the phone, since it is somewhere offstage in the hallway of the Pollitt house. The constant ringing and calls from distant relatives help to punctuate the steady encroachment of death upon the household. Every time the dratted thing rings, we recall the famous Skipper phone conversation that continues to torment Brick. The phone calls are from relatives inquiring after Big Daddy's medical condition, and, throughout the majority of the play, we hear the lie surrounding Big Daddy's health being perpetuated. The phone, a product of modernity and a symbol of the facility with which people can connect, is a means by which mendacity is kept alive.
The clock, bought in Europe by Big Daddy and Big Mama, says that yes, you've got time. It chimes, and Brick says, "nice peaceful-soundin' clock, I like to hear it all night…" (II.85.515); in this way, we hear death's approach yet again. Its presence in the household evokes the memory of Big Daddy's trip to Europe and the corruption he found there, but to Brick it tolls the peaceful march of time.
The emphasis on time is also important because, as play watchers, we are much more concerned with when this play will end or at least when there'll be a break so that we can go and get more milk duds. We get a little anxious with all the references to and attention placed upon time, and we sense the end of the play in perhaps the same way that Big Daddy senses death. Also, a strategically placed clock in literature always compels us to pay attention to the time throughout the play, both on stage and in the historical context.
Though all works of literature present the author’s point of view, they don’t all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature does not have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story.
In Booker's falling stage, we see the hero fall "under the shadow" of a power that is "mysterious" and "outside" of himself. It is the hero's "immature state and limited awareness" that make him unable to battle this shadow. Similarly, by not confronting or acknowledging this shadow, Brick aids in its continued tyranny and only helps it to make it a more mysterious and powerful force.
Though made largely immobile by a broken ankle, Brick embarks upon a journey towards peacefulness through alcohol. He diligently drinks glass after glass, content to be on a quest for "the click" of peacefulness that arrives when he's had enough to drink. The family leaves him alone for a time as they fuss over Big Daddy's birthday. Brick is able to drink in peace.
The shadow or ghost of Skipper returns, having been invoked by Maggie, who believes that not talking about Skipper is like "shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning" (I.377-380). Brick tries to separate himself, to sever his ties to Maggie even more by urging her to take a lover, to jump off the hot tin roof of their marriage. Soon after, he retreats into the bathroom.
Maggie continues to confront the shadow when Brick comes out of the bathroom, by telling the story of how she came to understand Skipper's love for Brick. Brick becomes increasingly violent, striking at her with his crutch. Soon after, the rest of the family comes up to their room, and Brick retreats into himself, playing music and drinking.
Like Maggie, Big Daddy invokes the shadow that haunts Brick. Big Daddy uses alcohol in order to tempt Brick into explaining why he feels the need to drink. When Brick tells Big Daddy he drinks because of the mendacity in his life, Big Daddy presses on, wanting to know what Brick means by "the mendacity in his life." Eventually this talk leads to another discussion of Skipper. This time, however, Brick becomes more volatile than ever, demanding to know who told Big Daddy, who insinuated that he had had an "improper relationship" with Skipper, that he was "queer."
The more Big Daddy pries into Brick's relationship to Skipper, the angrier Brick becomes. He condemns the world for sullying a friendship that was good and pure at its heart. Finally, he tells Big Daddy he hung up on Skipper's profession of love, thus bringing on Skipper's death. Throughout, Brick is violent, throwing his glass across the room and yelling. Directly following this last confession, Brick tells Big Daddy that his spastic colon is really malignant cancer and that he is dying. In this way, the shadow passes from Brick to Big Daddy.
Brick hates Maggie. So how does Cat's ending conform to the final rebirth stage of Booker's plot analysis? Maggie saves Brick. She tells him she loves him, and she musters all of the forces and bargaining powers that she can to find a way to get pregnant by Brick. In doing so, she ensures their financial survival. We don't know whether Brick will continue to sail down the Echo Spring river, but we do know that he has, in many ways, exorcised the ghost of Skipper by unlocking and opening the doors of communication that were previously locked and bolted.
When Maggie returns to the bedroom to change her clothes, she infawms (it's so much better to say that word aloud) Brick that Big Daddy is sick and dying and that Gooper and Mae are pulling out all the stops to seem the deserving recipients of the Pollitt fortune. Bottom line: the vultures are hovering above the dying beast that is Big Daddy. Each party is trying to win him over. Maggie is childless and, therefore, at a big disadvantage in the great race toward a piece of Big Daddy's ten million dollar pie.
Maggie needs a baby to win this race, but Brick can't stand her. She tells him she's lonely from want of his love, and Brick asks her if she would like to live alone, threatening momentarily to do away with their marriage. This is the last thing in the world Maggie wants, because, even more than Brick's love, Maggie needs Big Daddy's dough.
The S-bomb is dropped. Mayday mayday! Maggie accidentally brings up Skipper, Brick's recently deceased and much beloved friend. Later, she forces Brick to discuss Skipper further, and we discover that the friendship between the two was actually romantic love. Brick has not dealt with, nor does he want to deal with, the memory of Skipper or with the nature of their relationship.
As Maggie tells her version of the Skipper story, Brick becomes volatile and lashes out at Maggie. Maggie's campaign to have a baby with Brick and to secure financial stability by showing Big Daddy the love between her and Brick is going very poorly at this point. Brick tries to hit her several times. Their marriage feels irreparable and doomed to die, and Brick seems incurably haunted.
At this moment, we discover the precise reason for Brick's disgust and for his need to drink excessively. As a result of Big Daddy's persistence, we discover that Skipper did confess his love for Brick when drunk over the phone one night, but that Brick hung up on him. Brick lives with the guilt of having helped bring on Skipper's death and at having dealt with Skipper's confession so coldly. This guilt debilitates Brick.
Gooper and Mae come very prepared to the family conference, having done their homework extensively. They produce a draft of a will that they have parsed together. At this point, Maggie seems in grave danger of losing a chance to secure a piece of the Pollitt pie. If Gooper and Mae are made sole caretakers of the Pollitt estate, they will make sure Maggie and Brick get very little in the way of inheritance. However, just when we think Gooper and Mae have conquered, Big Mama's internal lion roars and she puts them in their place.
After observing Big Mama derail Gooper and Mae's attempt to craft a specific will for Big Daddy, Maggie watches Big Mama fawn over Brick and realizes she still has a fighting chance to win the race for Big Daddy's moolah. She announces to the family that she and Brick are going to have a baby. This pleases Big Mama beyond belief, as though all worries have been lifted. She tells them it is Big Daddy's dream to see Brick and Maggie have a baby.
After bartering alcohol for sex, we infer that Maggie intends to get pregnant that night by Brick, to make her lie true, and to ensure their financial security. However, we're not quite certain of what will happen next. We are left to employ our own imaginations in order to understand Brick and Maggie's fate. The play doesn't so much conclude as it does end. We are left staring into a big expanse of uncertainty, akin to the Drop Off in Finding Nemo.
In this first act, we watch the distance grow between Brick and Maggie like two ships pulled by two separate winds. Alone in their bedroom at the Pollitt house, they discuss everything from Big Daddy's cancer to the conditions of their marriage to Skipper and Brick's relationship to Skipper. The act ends in violence as Maggie relentlessly pursues a conversation about the love that existed between Brick and Skipper. Brick strikes at Maggie with his crutch, and in the heat of the moment, a no-neck monster appears shooting a toy gun. Brick and Maggie's marriage ruptures further.
The second act is devoted to truth digging, as Big Daddy insists on having a private conversation with Brick, and not just any old conversation, but a real conversation in which they discuss those taboo topics that never get discussed. As a result, Big Daddy coaxes Brick into telling the story of his last contact with Skipper in which he hung up on Skipper's love confession, and Brick informs Big Daddy of the truth of Big Daddy's medical condition: he is dying of cancer.
Everything seems to slip out of Maggie's hands as Gooper and Mae tell Big Mama that Big Daddy is dying and as they try to swoop in and lay claim to Big Daddy's fortune. Resolution comes when Big Mama tells them to pipe down; when Maggie informs everyone she is going to have a baby; and when she finds a way to get Brick to sleep with her.