Study Guide

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Language and Communication

By Tennessee Williams

Language and Communication

BRICK
Just keep your voice down! (I.33)

In a house where the doors are kept unlocked, and where guests are strategically assigned rooms to facilitate optimal eavesdropping, communication is a difficult process. Brick is constantly trying to silence Maggie or at least quiet her down, whereas Maggie believes in the power of words and the articulation of truths.

MARGARET
You just have to scribble a few lines on this card.
BRICK
You scribble something, Maggie
MARGARET
It's got to be your handwriting; it's your present, I've given him my present; it's got to be your handwriting! (I.34)

Maggie's insistence on having Brick write Big Daddy's card reflects her desire for authenticity. She wants to articulate truths and help others articulate truths; she knows the power of authentic (and not forged) communication of love and well-wishing. She knows the simple act of having Brick sign Big Daddy's birthday card would help her immensely in her quest to secure a piece of Big Daddy's wealth.

MARGARET
[…]
But I could make her hear me just by sayin' each word slowly, distinctly, close to her ear. I read her the Commerical Appeal ev'ry night, read her the classified ads in it, even, she never missed a word of it. (I.46.686-689)

Here again we further understand Maggie's ability to make people understand her as well as her desire to be understood perfectly. She does not run from truths, but seeks to articulate them in full color and detail.

MARGARET
Because it's got to be told, and you, you!—you never let me! (I.57)

Brick and Maggie's relationship breaks down when one retreats from life and the other runs towards it. Their marriage malfunctions when Brick suppresses or tries to quiet Maggie so as not to disturb his mind-numbing alcohol-binging experience. Maggie cannot be suppressed, but must tell the truth about her history with Skipper.

BIG DADDY
Why is it so damn hard for people to talk? (II.85)

Big Daddy and Brick talk in circles and come close to accomplishing nothing with their conversation. Only Big Daddy's insistence and his new-found strength afforded by his brush with death provide something meaningful to discuss. Talking is hard for Brick and Big Daddy because they are too afraid of what they might discover should they bring up real issues and latent truths. They might lose control if they were to discuss the truths that haunt them.

BIG DADDY
I've been quiet here lately, spoke not a word, just sat and stared into space. I had something heavy weighing on my mind but tonight that load was took off me. That's why I'm talking—
The sky looks diff'rent to me…. (II.89)

Death quiets Big Daddy and forces him into self-reflection. The release of death's shadow compels Big Daddy to talk constantly and affords him with a new strength to hunt down truths within both himself and his favorite son.

BRICK
Are you through talkin' to me?
BIG DADDY
Why are you so anxious to shut me up?
BRICK
Well, sir, every so often you say to me, Brick, I want to have a talk with you, but when we talk, it never materializes. Nothing is said. […] Communication is—aweful hard between people an'—somehow between you and me, it just don't— II.90

Almost worse than confronting truths through conversation and confrontation is the pain of trying to communicate -- and of coming to terms with the failure to do so. Brick and Big Daddy have a hard time talking because they are both so tied to their external identities and are not necessarily united by their love of self-reflection.

BRICK
But this talk is like all the others we've ever had together in our lives! It's nowhere, nowhere!—it's—it's painful, Big Daddy…. (II.99)

Whereas families are often very content to exist within their habitual frameworks, the lack of effective communication is one habit that Brick cannot stand. Family gatherings involve traditions and memories, but Brick winces at these cyclical activities and longs for the means to grow and move, to push past the same old roles and conversations that define a family dynamic. He can no longer live in this cyclical way.

BRICK
[…]
We talk, you talk, in—circles! We get no where, no where! It's always the same, you say you want to talk to me and don't have a ruttin' thing to say to me! (II.102)

Here Brick parses out the difference between saying something and saying something meaningful. Conversation can either carry the intent to maintain the status quo, or to move beyond, to learn new things, to point toward truths. Brick is already trapped in a kind of purgatory, and any conversation that helps him remain in that liminal (in-between) state is just devastating.

BIG DADDY
[…]
I don't know what, it's always like something was left not spoken something avoided because neither of us was honest enough with the—other…. (II.111)

Big Daddy and Brick are too afraid to be honest with one another, perhaps because they are more similar than we would like to believe. They are too afraid of hurting each other through honest conversation.