Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Manliness and Homosexuality
Like many of Williams's works, Cat concerns itself with the elaboration of a certain fantasy of broken manliness, in this case a manliness left crippled by the homosexual desire it must keep in abeyance.
Brick is Cat's broken man. The favorite son and longed-for lover of a wealthy plantation family, he possesses the charm of those who have given up and assumed a pose of indifference before the world. Brick—a "brick" of a man—embodies an almost archetypal masculinity. Brick's "enviable coolness," however, is the coolness of repression, a repression that keeps his desires at bay. Brick is an alcoholic who cannot avow the desire in his relationship with his dead friend Skipper. Turning from his desire, he has depressively distanced himself from the world with a screen of liquor. He is reduced to the daily, mechanical search for his click that gives him peace.
Brick mourns his love for Skipper, a love imagined in almost mythic dimensions. For Brick, it is the only true and good thing in his life. His mourning is made all the more difficult by the desire he cannot avow. As Maggie notes, theirs is a love that dare not speak its name, a love that could not be satisfied or discussed. Thus Daddy, assuming the position of judge, will force Brick to confront this love. Brick's attempts at dodging him are crucial to the way the play imagines manliness. As Daddy approaches what has been tenuously repressed, Brick empties his words of all significance. As he tells Daddy, their talks never "materialize" and nothing is really said. When Daddy presses him, Brick reveals why he yearns for "solid quiet."
Ultimately the revelation of the desire in his friendship with Skipper cracks Brick's cool. His horror at the thought of being identified with the litany of epithets that he recites ("Fairies"), his disgust at the gossipmongers about him, only points to a fear that they might be true.
As Brick pronounces to Big Daddy, mendacity is the system in which men live. Mendacity here refers to the mores that keep what Williams's dubs the "inadmissible thing" that is repressed at all costs. The two primary objects of repression in Cat are Brick's homosexual desires and Daddy's imminent death. After the men are forced to confront these secrets, Mama will desperately invest all her future hopes in the dream of Brick becoming a family man. The responsibilities of fatherhood would somehow stop his drinking, the estate could go to the rightful heir, and the perpetuation of the family line through Brick is Daddy's immortality. The idyllic fantasy of the family restored, however, is yet another of the play's lies or Maggie's invention of a coming child.
The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The cat refers to a particular fantasy of femininity and feminine desire. The play's primary cat is Maggie, a typically hysterical, dissatisfied Williams heroine who prostrates herself before Brick. Maggie's loneliness has made her a "cat," hard, anxious, and bitter. The exhilaration of Williams's dramaturgy lies in the force of the audience's identification with this heroine, a woman desperate in her sense of lack, masochistically bound to man who does not want her, and made all the more beautiful in her envy, longing, and dispossession.
Maggie's dispossession also rests in her childlessness. Certainly her childlessness calls her status as "normal" wife and woman into question. Without a child, moreover, her and Brick's place in Big Daddy's household is not assured. The child functions entirely here to assure their bid as Daddy's rightful heirs.
The Father and Son
In Cat, the father and son appear in a decidedly narcissistic relation. Daddy's narcissistic love for Brick is clear. As Williams notes, Brick bears the charmingly masculine indifference Daddy must have in his youth. As Mama will note at the close of the play, Daddy wants above all that Brick provide him a grandson who is as much like his son as Brick is like himself. Brick is his rightful heir, his means of immortality.
The mirror relation between the men becomes especially clear Brick and Daddy will "show-down" over their respective secrets. Both Daddy's sojourn in "death's country" and Brick's being "almost not alive" in his drunkenness make them "accidentally truthful." Thus, unlike the characters about them, they present themselves as the only ones who have never lied to each other. Both stand on polar limits of the system of mendacity that is life, Brick being the drunkard and Daddy the dead man.
Father and son will come to double each other in their roles as revealer and recipient of the other's "inadmissible thing." Thus Daddy will force Brick to confront the desire in his friendship with Skipper and receive his death sentence in return. In matching the revelation of his repressed desire with that of Daddy's death, Brick turns things "upside down." Daddy comes to stand in the place he just occupied. The revelation is a violent act, robbing Daddy of his second life. As Brick the duality of the exchange that has just ensued: "You told me! I told you!"
Brick and Daddy's final struggle marks the reverse side of the narcissistic love between them, the aggressive logic of "either you go or I go" between those who mirror each other too closely.
Against the beautiful, childless couple, the image of the family, and the mother in particular, will appear hilariously grotesque. Mae and Gooper have spawned a litter of "no-necked monsters" fit for the county fair; Mae, the cotton carnival queen besmirched by proxy, is a "monster of fertility"; and the sounds of the screeching children continually invade the scene. This side of the family will continually stage burlesques of familial love and devotion, such as Daddy's birthday party in Act II.
The Off-Stage Telephone
Cat makes great use of off-stage sound, marking the presence of spies in the household. The telephone recurs a number of times. Initially Mama and Maggie's conversations rehearse the lie that keeps Big Daddy and Mama ignorant of the machinations afoot, the lie that Daddy will live. The telephone will then return at Brick and Big Daddy's showdown to provoke the revelation of what has remained inadmissible until then. Here a phone call, as if a call from the dead, evokes Skipper's final confession to his friend. Upon Brick's revelation of Daddy's cancer, the telephone communicates Daddy's unspoken protest: "no, no, you got it all wrong! Upside down! Are you crazy?"
The Exotic Lands
Before confronting Brick on Skipper, Daddy takes a rather strange detour through his travels with Big Mama to Europe and North Africa. Daddy's memories of his travels introduce a motif familiar to Williams's readers: the Mediterranean/North Africa as a primal space, a space savagery, lawlessness, and sexual excess, all things that civilization would repress. These exotic locales and their inhabitants become ciphers for the desires that remain repressed at the home. It is not for nothing that later Brick tells of a fraternity pledge who flees to North Africa when the brothers discover that he is a sodomite.
We should note the following symbolic objects in Cat. First, Brick and Maggie's bed—the place where, as Big Mama will subsequently observe, the rocks in their marriage lie—belongs to the plantation's original owners, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello. As Williams writes, the ghost of the men's love haunts the stage.
Second a gloriously grotesque console, combining a radio-phonograph, television, and liquor cabinet, towers over the room. As Williams notes, it serves as shrine to the "comforts and illusions" behind which we hide from the things the characters face. Notice the moments when Brick will turn on the radio, refresh his drink, thereby raising a screen between him and the household.
Finally we should note Brick's phallic crutch. Its removal at the hands of Maggie and Big Daddy symbolize Brick's castration, a castration concomitant with the revelation of his unmanly homosexual desires. This crippling of the most masculine of men is crucial to Brick's "sexiness." The crutch's continuous restoration and removal—in a sort of game of "now he has it, now he doesn't"—appeals to the fetishistic one.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!