Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Manliness and Homosexuality
Like many of Williams's works, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof concerns itself with the elaboration of a certain fantasy of broken manliness, in this case a manliness left stifled by the homosexual desire it must keep in abeyance.
Brick is the play’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 admit the desire in his relationship with his dead friend Skipper. Turning from his desire, he has depressively distanced himself from the world with a shield of liquor. He is reduced to the daily, mechanical search for the moments of peace that intoxication brings to him.
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 more difficult by the desire he cannot admit. 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 ugly epithets that he recites, his disgust at the gossipmongers about him, only points to a fear that they might be true.
Read more about homosexuality and masculinity as a motif in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.
The cat in the title refers to a particular fantasy of femininity and feminine desire. The play's primary cat is Maggie, a typically 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 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.
Dysfunctional Family Dynamics
In the play, 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.