Study Guide

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Mortality

By Tennessee Williams


Hell, do they ever know it? Nobody says, 'You're dying.' You have to fool them. They have to fool themselves. (I.51.126-127)

Maggie makes a complex point here about how people come to understand their own death. She seems to say it's not enough just to tell someone he is dying. People have to be tricked into reckoning with and understanding this fact. Death complicates things so much that comprehending it takes cunning and sophistication .

It's malignant and it's terminal. (I.51.824)

With these words, Maggie heralds quite boldly and clearly the unavoidable death to come. Her treatment of death reveals a strong woman who does not fear it, but sees it as a fact of life.

But Brick?!—Skipper is dead! I'm alive! (I.60.1144)

In a world full of three ghosts, a dying patriarch, a deteriorating family, a crumbling society, and a man hovering between life and death, Maggie is the outsider, and she glows with life. She beckons Brick out of his shadows and tries to help him see how he can live his life with truths instead of lies.

I 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.616-619)

Big Daddy can't stop talking about his new-found appreciation for life. The world is transformed before his very eyes, and things like the sky look different to him (though that's not surprising since the sky changes colors more often than an everlasting gobstopper in this play). Big Daddy is very scared of dying. He isn't ready, perhaps because he hasn't found "life everlasting" yet on earth.

When you are gone from here, boy, you are long gone and no where! [...] Yep. I thought I had it. The earth shook under my foot, the sky come down like the black lid of a kettle and I couldn't breathe!--Today!!--that lid was lifted, I drew my first free breath in--how many years?--God!--three.... (II.862-871)

It's just a little bit weird that, in a play where things are dying left and right, no one speculates as to what happens after you die. Even the reverend, the spiritual man, and the man that we would usually turn to for guidance in through hard times, is about as shallow as a kiddie pool. He talks about air conditioners and fancy stained glass windows, but that's about all. Here, we catch a glimpse of Big Daddy's understanding of what happens when you die, and it is depressingly bleak. Big Daddy believes nothing happens when you die. You are simply "no where." No wonder everyone's clamoring to stay alive.

Ignorance—of mortality—is a comfort. A man don't have that comfort, he's the only living thing that conceives of death, that knows what it is. The others go without knowing which is the way that anything living should go, go without knowing, without knowledge of it […] (II.91)

Big Daddy is obsessed with death. He cripples mentally when trying to understand or cope with his mortality. He fears death and the unknowns it heralds. He is not a man of faith or religion. He lives in the here-and-now and is obsessed with wealth.

It took the shadow of death to make me see it. Now that shadow's lifted, I'm going to cut loose and have, what is it they call it, have me a—ball! (II.93)

Death holds a power over characters in the play, forcing them to come to terms with certain truths in their lives. Big Daddy perhaps does not want to confront these truths. The first time he thinks he is going to die, he is so distraught that, when alone with Brick after being told he's going to live, Big Daddy tells him all the truths that his flirtation with death had dredged up: the corruption he saw when traveling through Europe, his experimentation with other men, and his only two loves: Brick and the plantation.

Maybe that's why you put Maggie and me in this room that was Jack Straw's and Peter Ochello's, in which that pair of old sisters slept in a double bed where both of 'em died! (II.115.1164-1166)

Here we see just how much death reigns in the Pollitt household, such that Maggie and Brick are staying in the very room where the plantation's ancestors died. The bedroom is therefore the fulcrum of the plantation and the tomb that encloses two dying men. Death permeates everyone and everything throughout the play.

Well, I have come back from further away than that, I have just now returned from the other side of the moon, death's country, son, and I'm not easy to shock by anything here. (II.120.1250-1252)

This is the first time we ever hear Big Daddy, or anyone for that matter, discuss the afterlife or what happens after death. That Big Daddy locates death's country on "the other side of the moon" becomes significant when we remember that Brick often sings to the moon throughout the play. We don't know about you, but the moon doesn't seem like such a deathly place. However, at the time of the play's publication, a human would not walk on the moon for another ten years. The moon, therefore, is unknown, foreign, and scary. However, it is also a real place, and not a fantastical or biblical imagining of what death would look like. This perhaps reflects the interest of Americans at the time on science and on space exploration.

[…] here, tonight, in this place that death has come into… (III.165.772-773)

In saying this, Maggie not only recognizes the dying patriarch, but she also reminds us of the fact that Straw and Ochello both died in each other's arms in the very bed where she will sleep with Brick. In this way, Maggie is about to stop the cycle of death and lies.