Study Guide

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Themes

  • Truth

    Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a play about the destructive, fatal power of lies, about how people lie in order to maintain societal harmony and to not disturb preconceived notions, and about the difficulty families have with telling the truth. Brick Pollitt is stuck in a constant state of disgust and discontent due to a lie he perpetuated, and to a truth he suppressed in the service of adhering to proper societal codes. We find that a family functions in much the same way that society does: it possesses strict definitions of what one should or should not be. The lie that eats away at the heart of the play is Brick's denial of Skipper's love for him.

    Questions About Truth

    1. If Brick were not so hung up on Skipper, would things be different?
    2. What happens when Brick tells Big Daddy about Skipper?

    Chew on This

    The encroachment of death in Cat inspires honesty and truth-telling.

    In order for characters to tell the truth in Cat, they must be willing to deviate from society's vision of "normal" and "appropriate."

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, dreams are essential, and each character dreams differently. Some perceive money to be the carrot that they pursue. Others crave love and physical affection. Still others want invincibility and everlasting life. We watch what happens when characters realize that their dreams are too distant to be real. We watch characters wake up to the absence of their dreams. Some fight, while others drown in this absence. In each case, dreams are made of either money, love, or death. Failed dreams and plans compel characters to act in strange ways, employing Survivor-like tactics. At the end of the play, we see a hope come to fruition via a lie. In this way, we wonder whether dreams can come true any other way.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Does each character have a hope, dream, or plan?
    2. Is any character successful in achieving his or her hopes, dreams, or plans?
    3. Do hopes, dreams, or plans have anything to do with religion or spirituality in the play?
    4. What role does money play in characters' hopes, dreams, and plans?

    Chew on This

    Maggie is successful in achieving her hopes, dreams, and plans.

    Mendacity kills Brick's dreams.

  • Visions of America

    Through the presence of the African-American maids and field-hands and through the discussion of slavery, we are reminded of the horrors upon which the Pollitt household and, indeed, upon which much of America was built. The Pollitt plantation and household, which have amassed wealth and fertile land based with the benefit of slavery, are relics of America's dark past. Nearly a century after the Civil War, the plantation and family alike are degenerating.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. What role does the TV console play?
    2. How are African-Americans portrayed in the play?
    3. How is the Civil War discussed?
    4. What role do the radio and music serve in the play?

    Chew on This

    The vision of the Old South in Cat is one of a decaying world.

    If Big Daddy embodies the Old South, Maggie embodies modernity.

  • Mortality

    Death is the reason why the family has come together. Death brings out the worst in the family. It gives renewed spirit and perspective to Big Daddy at first, but it also steals them from him and makes him disappear from the play. Death is the cause for unhappiness in Brick, and it is the thing he most desires. On the contrary, Death is what Maggie runs from, and is the block upon which she sharpens her tools of survival.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Who dies or has died in the play?
    2. What is the nature of the ghosts in this play?
    3. How does each character relate to his/her mortality?
    4. Aside from humans, is anything else dying in the world of the play?

    Chew on This

    The death of the patriarch, Big Daddy, signals the end of an era.

    The presence of death in Cat forces characters to be honest.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    We see Brick struggle with his sexual identity in a time when American society does not tolerate anything deviating from a heterosexual relationship.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. What do we know of each character's relationship to his/her sexuality?
    2. How is sexual identity complicated in Cat?
    3. Is Brick more concerned with his sexual identity than with the mendacity in his life?
    4. How does the sexuality in Cat comment on depictions of the Old South?

    Chew on This

    Sexual Identity is presented as an ever-shifting, fluid concept in Cat.

    In the world of Cat, characters must act in accordance with the sexual identity assigned to their individual gender roles.

  • Memory and the Past

    In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, we hear several characters retell the past, leaving us with several versions of a story. In this way, we see how memory is a creative process, and that the truth of a matter is never fully captured.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What memories are recounted in the play?
    2. Do any characters remember the same thing or event, and, if so, how do their memories differ?
    3. What role does the past play in Cat?
    4. Are memories good things?

    Chew on This

    Retelling memories is a creative process in Cat.

    Recounting a memory in Cat is very different from confessing a truth.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Alcohol functions in this play as a means of numbing the pain of living with lies. Brick drinks incessantly in search of a "click" of peacefulness, and, in some ways, to usher himself closer to death. Alcohol is his means of coping with world, when Brick can no longer deal with societal expectations for him. Alcohol functions as an escape from reality.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Who drinks and under what circumstances?
    2. What role does alcohol play?
    3. Does alcohol affect communication?
    4. What commentary do the presence and use of alcohol provide on the time-period in which the play is set?

    Chew on This

    Alcohol serves as a means of both temporary escape and suicide in Cat.

    Alcohol allows the Pollitt family to function.

  • Wealth

    Wealth is a corrupting force in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Wealth is the only force capable of bringing the vultures, er the Pollitt family, together, and it the force that divides them as well. There is much tension and anxiety around affluence, as several characters in the play know acutely what it means to be poor. Wealth is closely linked with social standing, and is the means by which a person of disreputable past can elevate herself and earn the respect of the society around her. When faced with the prospect of losing wealth, characters go mad. Ultimately, we learn that money can’t buy you love. Can’t buy you loooo-ove. Everybody tells you so. We also learn that a person can sit on a gold mine, but all that golden goodness will not keep death at bay. Gold, while a powerful societal weapon, is futile and useless in the face of death.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. From where did Big Daddy get his money?
    2. What is the nature of Big Daddy's wealth?
    3. How does each character relate to wealth?
    4. Is everyone in Cat greedy?

    Chew on This

    The wealth in Cat is indicative of the excess that characterizes the Pollitt plantation.

    Wealth and fertility have negative connotations and repercussions in the context of the play.

  • Gender

    The protagonists in Cat struggle against the stringent and nonporous definitions of gender employed by society. As each character works to successfully fulfill the role and expectations attributed to his/her gender, the boundaries between masculinity and femininity are blurred.

    Questions About Gender

    1. What does it mean to be a woman, and what does it mean to be a man, in the world of Cat?
    2. Does society play a role in how we understand gender in Cat?
    3. How does gender translate into other aspects of the play, like the set and setting?
    4. Who is most successful in the play at being a woman? A man?

    Chew on This

    The characters in Cat fight against society's stringent definitions of gender, and as a result they end up transgressing gender boundaries.

    Each character in Cat possesses both masculine and feminine characteristics.

  • Language and Communication

    Lies may be perpetuated by an inability or unwillingness to communicate truths. Language then becomes a means of manipulating others, of making a show of following social codes, and of getting what one wants. When characters try to communicate or connect with another, language breaks down and they almost cannot speak.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Do characters communicate differently when they are with certain characters or in certain situations?
    2. What forms does communication take in Cat?
    3. How is language used in the play?
    4. When, if ever, does communication break down between characters?

    Chew on This

    Language is a tool of power in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

    By omitting the voices and words of the African-American characters in the play, Tennessee Williams leaves a noticeably gaping hole that would otherwise comment on the Old South.