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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Tennessee Williams

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

What is the significance of the play's title?

The "cat on a hot tin roof" refers to a particular fantasy of femininity and feminine desire familiar to Williams's readers. The play's primary cat is Maggie, a hysterical, dissatisfied heroine who prostrates herself before a "brick" of a man. She jitters on her hot roof, ever uncertain of if she can stay on. Maggie's loneliness, a loneliness that lies in Brick's refusal to recognize her desire, has made her a cat—hard, nervous, and bitchy. The exhilaration of Williams's dramaturgy largely lies in the force of the audience's identification with his gorgeous heroine—a heroine desperate in her sense of lack, a heroine bound to a man who do not want her, a heroine who would appear all the more beautiful in her envy, longing, and dispossession.

What is Maggie's role in the triangle she shares with Brick and Skipper?

Maggie sketches the triangle between Brick and Skipper in her recitation in Act I. As this recitation makes clear, the only true love in Brick's life lies between he and his friend Skipper. Maggie has spent her life accompanying the two football heroes for the benefit of the public—she has been the consummate the trophy wife.

In contrast, Brick and Skipper's love assumes almost mythic dimensions. As Maggie relates, it was the stuff of Greek legend. For Brick, it remains the only true and good thing in his life. As Maggie notes, however, theirs was a love that dare not speak its name, a love that could not be satisfied or discussed. Brick's refusal to acknowledge this love led to Skipper's death.

Thus, in a strange shift in the triangle, Maggie and Skipper find themselves aligned in their longing for a man they both cannot have. Much to the jealous Brick's dismay, they pair off upon his hospitalization for a back injury. Note the ambiguity in Brick's confession of jealousy: it remains unclear which of the two he covets. Ultimately Maggie betrays the triangle's laws of silence and demands that Skipper either leave Brick alone with her or make him let him confess his desire. The two then sleep together to dream that Brick is theirs.

The final turn of the triangle excludes Maggie anew. Upon Skipper's death, Brick falls into mourning, withdrawing from the world in grief. His mourning is made all the more difficult by a desire he cannot avow. The dead man continues to intervene between husband and wife, and Maggie's protests that she is alive are in vain. Indeed, for Brick, Maggie's only place is as scapegoat. Maggie is to blame for disrupting the initial triangle and causing Skipper's ruin. She planted the idea of sodomy in poor Skipper's head. She led him to sleep with her. She ultimately caused his death.

Compare and contrast the endings of Williams' original Cat and the Cat produced for the big screen.

Cat borrows greatly from conventional melodrama, a genre consisting of stock characters and soap operatic plots that hinge on romantic intrigue and end in the restoration of the happy home. Though making use of melodrama's high emotionalism, exhilarating histrionics, and other devices often considered to be in "bad taste," Cat's rather dismal ending, involving the total demystification of the family, makes its departure from this genre clear. In this respect, Cat's cinematic adaptation diverges sharply from its original version.

At the end of the play, Mama invests all her future hopes in Brick fulfilling Big Daddy's dream and becoming a family man. The responsibilities of fatherhood would somehow stop his drinking, and the estate could go to the rightful heir. The idyllic fantasy of the family restored, and is yet another of the play's lies. This lie belongs to Maggie, who invents her pregnancy. Here, Maggie becomes her most desperate, bribing her husband with liquor to conceive a child. Brick has nothing to say in return, remaining a broken man, deep in mourning for his beloved Skipper, wracked with guilt over his friend's death and the unspeakable desire between them, disgusted by his inability to confront their love. He has withdrawn depressively from the world.

In contrast to this rather dismal ending, MGM's Cat shows a Brick reformed through a more extended, and rather trite, heart-to-heart with Big Daddy. Though in many ways Williams's text continues to assert itself in spite of the revisions, Brick's drinking comes to rest not in his love for Skipper but in his refusal to grow up and accept responsibility. In turn, Brick teaches Daddy that he has spent his life invested in accumulating things and never loved people enough. Upon this conversation, he presents himself as Daddy's rightful heir and husband to Maggie anew, ordering her upstairs so they can make love. Gooper restrains Mae and respectfully withdraws from the scene. Thus the restoration of family and marriage, sealed by the promise of a son, resolves the play. The lie of conventional mores is what makes the Hollywood ending possible.

Suggested Essay Topics

Consider the use of anecdote in the play. What is the thematic significance of the stories Maggie tells to Brick in Act I?

What fantasies of race appear in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? You may want to consider, for example, Daddy's memories of Morocco and Barcelona, the role of the house servants, and the children's Indian costumes.

In a stage note from Act II, Williams observes that Maggie and Big Daddy are the only characters with a sense and appreciate for the grotesque. Discuss the role of the grotesque in the play. What is its thematic significance? What is its relation to the play's use of humor?

Discuss Williams's use of off-stage sound. Examples include the telephone conversations, and the shrieks of the children.

Discuss Williams's use of the interruption. Who interrupts, when, and why? Consider in particular Brick's extended dialogue with Maggie and Big Daddy, respectively.

Consider Williams's use of lighting. How does color, for example, function in the play? Try not to read for lighting's symbolic significance alone (i.e. "the color green symbolizes").

Why does Williams cripple his hero? How does Brick's injury function in the play? Consider his recount of the event and how various characters make use of it.

More Help

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Misleading use of characters' names

by Jamesy777, April 19, 2014

It is disconcerting that you refer to Big Daddy and Big Mama as Daddy and Mama.

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1 out of 1 people found this helpful

Grammar makes this confusing

by meeacaroline, November 17, 2014

There are missing words, confusing statements, lack of punctuation, and more all throughout. I'm not saying I could or could not do particularly better, but it makes it incredibly difficult to figure out what is going on. I like to read the summary of each act (scene when possible) before reading it in the play because I have difficulty keeping up with the action in plays because I have trouble registering the characters and found that the summary here actually confused me more. Also, Act III: Part 2 is mislabled as Act IV: Part 2.

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