Study Guide

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Memory and the Past

By Tennessee Williams

Memory and the Past

It hasn't changed much since it was occupied by the original owners of the place, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello, a pair of old bachelors who shared this room all their lives together. In other words, the room must evoke some ghosts. (I.15.11-17)

Cat is as much about Straw and Ochello as it is about the Pollitt family. The Pollitts refer to Straw and Ochello almost as though they were ancestors, and the two ghosts haunt the family throughout. They are the proverbial pink elephants in the room in every moment of the play. Williams includes the detail that the house has not changed much over the years. In this way, the memory of the past is alive, vivid, and unavoidable. While the console with its television, radio, and liquor cabinet herald the modern age, this modernity is overpowered by the memory of the past.

This may be irrelevant or unnecessary, but I once saw a reproduction of a faded photograph of the verandah of Robert Louis Stevenson's home on that Samoan Island where he spent his last years, and there was a quality of tender light on weathered wood, such as porch furniture made of bamboo and wicker, exposed to tropical suns and tropical rains […} (NOTES.15.17-23)

Here we see the many layers and frames of memory. Williams' inspiration for the set of Cat is based on a reproductionof a "faded" photograph of Robert Louis Stevenson's home on a Samoan Island. He is several times removed from the point of inspiration, and we can only assume that he added to, embellished, and recreated his memory of this reproduction as time went on. It is the emotion around "the light on weathered wood" that he remembers and that has stayed with him.

When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don't work, it's just like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is still burning. But not facing a fire doesn't put it out. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant. (I.31.376-381)

While the act of remembering and retelling memories can be dangerous for the details that are edited or lost, Maggie reminds us how equally dangerous it is not to articulate memories, especially considering there is so much emotion around them. Here also she draws a direct connection between the memory of Skipper that haunts Brick and the cancer that infects Big Daddy.

[…] Look, Maggie. What you're doing is a dangerous thing to do. You're—you're—you're—foolin' with something that—nobody ought to fool with. (I.55.934-935)

While Brick warns Maggie not to touch something as sacred as his relationship with Skipper, Brick also warns her not to tell any stories about Skipper, not to remember the past. He calls the act of remembering "dangerous," and reminds us that in conceiving of the past, Maggie is also the editor and the storyteller. As such, her memory of the past may not be the exact truth, and Brick's memory of Skipper may not be the exact truth. As audience and readers, we must be content with never knowing fully what has gone on between Brick and Skipper, and we are compelled to focus our interest on what Brick and Maggie do with their memories of Skipper, rather than examining the memories themselves.

I'm not naming it dirty! I am naming it clean. (I.58.991)

By invoking her memory of Skipper, by articulating Brick and Skipper's love, Maggie hopes to purify it and make it real. However, doing so involves telling the story of her love from her own perspective, which may not be the most successful way to honor and purify their relationship.

Why, half that stuff she bought is still crated up in the cellar, under water last spring! (II.86.527-529)

Big Daddy's memories of his trip to Europe and the corruption he found there (in the form of wealthy priests, starving children, and child prostitutes) form the foundation of the Pollitt household. Mementos from the trip are molding in boxes in the cellar. In this way, the Pollitt plantation is haunted not only by the horrors of the Old South, but also by horrors elsewhere in the world.

That Europe is nothin' on earth but a great big auction, that's all it is, that bunch of old worn-out places, it's just a big firesale, the whole ruttin'thing […] (II.86.531-533)

Big Daddy's summation of Europe (a continent whose history of western civilization extends much farther back into time than that of America's) as one big auction, whose goods he dutifully bought for his wife, enhances the crumbling antiquity at the heart of the Pollitt household.

Something's left out of that story. What did you leave out?
You!— dug the grave of your friend and kicked him in it!—
Before you'd face the truth with him!
His truth, not mine!
His truth, okay! But you wouldn't face it with him!
Who can face truth? Can you? (II.124.1354-1374)

Big Daddy points here to the big problem with memory: it's so easy to leave out important details when telling a story and the storyteller can edit the story.

Tonight Brick looks like he used to look when he was a little boy, just like he did when he played wild games and used to come home all sweaty and pink-cheeked and sleepy, with his—red curls shining…. (III.156.589-594)

The Pollitt Plantation is presented as a kind of intact and false Utopian vestige of the Old South. Drunk on this false Utopia, Big Mama gets stuck in her memories too of Brick as a little a boy. She remembers very superficial details about his appearance and his manner, but does not offer more concrete stories of her relationship with him. In this way, we are reminded that Brick has been raised by a family and society that loves him for his appearance and athletic ability.