Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
In a play, characters are rarely isolated, as they must interact to progress. However, in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the protagonist, Brick, is indeed isolated. This isolation leads to self-knowledge and self-destruction. Self-knowledge is the understanding of oneself or one’s own motives. Self-destruction, on the other hand, may be defined as a process of causing irreparable damage to oneself. Brick, the prime focus of the essay, is an enigma. He possesses an inexplicable yet irresistible charm, while at the same time is irresponsible and indifferent. His characterization is portrayed as he develops from a quiet, aloof man with a quality of cool detachment to one openly discussing his disgust with mendacity and the truth behind his drinking. However, though he proclaims his distaste for lies, his isolation causes self-deception more than for anyone else. By drinking and distancing himself from others, he distances himself from the truth about his relationships with Skipper, Maggie, and his family. Throughout the play, his physical, social, and psychological isolation lead to both internal self-knowledge and self-destruction.
Brick experiences pronounced physical isolation in the course of the drama. The room, as a setting, is important in this sense, especially since Brick is crippled and is, thus, unable to leave. He is trapped, like a wounded animal. The room is a symbol of isolation, and as the play progresses, it feels increasingly claustrophobic and suffocating, reflecting the present condition. As tensions in the room grow, Brick finds it more difficult to physically isolate himself, but he does not cease in his efforts. He stays in corners or hides behind his drink. He chooses to stand in the doorway to the gallery, standing neither inside nor outside, but rather between the two rooms. This behavior reinforces the idea that Brick is stuck in purgatory and indecision. In fact, this metaphor can be linked to the epigraph, where the motif of purgatory is first introduced. In the epigraph, Williams uses a poem where the speaker wants his father to either curse or bless him before he dies; in both situations, the character is stuck. The fact that he is crippled makes it difficult for him to physically isolate himself. His broken ankle is a symbol for him being stuck. He can no longer do what he used to be able to do, and that scares him, but also leads to self-knowledge in that it makes him see himself as a failure. Because he is so honest with himself, he knows this to be true and does not deny it. The crutches are a symbol for the peace and security that alcohol brings him. He relies on them desperately and refuses to part with them like he refuses to part with his past. The theme that you must let go of the past arises, as Brick is haunted by the past, but cannot let it go. He is successful in his persona of cool detachment until someone, like Big Daddy or Maggie, brings up Skipper. He also uses his crutch as a weapon against Maggie, just how she uses the past as a weapon to hurt him and make him feel guilty for Skipper’s death. The crutches are an integral part of his self-destruction, as, by refusing the support of Big Daddy or Maggie, they lead him to isolate himself. The crutches are also symbolic of his impotency as they are the only things that allow the metaphorically and literally broken and defeated Brick to move. However, he also achieves self-knowledge. Because he is unable to successfully physically isolate himself from those around him, he realizes that the only way he can achieve peace is by finding other ways to isolate himself.
Brick learns to socially isolate himself. In the stage directions when we are first introduced to Brick, Williams writes, “a tone of politely feigned interest, masking indifference, or worse, is characteristic of his speech with Margaret”. The cool detachment and indifference in his tone is part of the persona he developed for himself to alienate himself from the rest. He does not want external conflict, yet he still has an internal conflict regarding Skipper and his failure in life. This conflict leads to actions, like deliberately alienating himself, that cause social suicide, a form of self-destruction. He removes himself so much from social situations that he destroys his own chances at happiness. The motif of lack of communication connects to the theme that human beings’ inability to communicate meaningfully with other individuals is one of the tragic situations in modern life. Brick’s social isolation shows how this theme manifests itself, and how it leads to self-destruction. For example, Brick and Big Daddy are unable to communicate with each other all their lives, and this causes self-destruction because Brick denies himself the love of his father. When the two finally communicate meaningfully, they better understand each other and are faced with the truth. Brick sees that his disgust with the world is actually disgust with himself and the fear to admit it, which means that self-knowledge is achieved only after ceasing to socially isolate oneself. Because Brick is always either absent or wry in his dialogue with Maggie, he isolates himself from her, but she is the one who could help him. Instead, he exhibits self-destructive behaviour by sabotaging this relationship, as well as his relationships with Big Daddy and Big Mama. These characters want something to change, but Brick does nothing. Social isolation also causes self-destruction in the form of failing to take action. He is aware that his marital relationship is toxic and his relationship with his family is not solid, yet he fails to take any actions to remedy the issues. A critical sign of self-destructive behaviour is substance abuse, which he exhibits by becoming an alcoholic after refusing to be helped by the people in his life.
Despite his efforts, he can never fully isolate himself physically or socially; however, he does psychologically isolate himself by drinking till he feels the ‘click’. The click is symbolic of achieving complete peace, which is Brick’s motive. He desires to be in his own world, detached from reality, so alcoholism is symbolic of his internal conflict. He struggles to deal with the day-to-day world, and he knows he has successfully escaped when he is drunk enough. Yet, drinking, as a mental escape, causes self-destruction. In the first scene, Williams writes, “his liquor hasn’t started tearing him down on the outside”, implying that it has on the inside. He was broken long before the liquor affected him, but the liquor does not help. Brick might be able to put up a front, but he is broken inside, an example of self-destruction caused by isolation. This persona he created is meant to show he has given up the struggle of everyday life and lives only for those moments of peace the alcohol brings him. Arguably, the most important theme of the play is: if one deserts others, there is still hope, but if one deserts oneself, he is utterly forsaken as a human. Brick is able to socially isolate himself, and though the isolation does affect him, his psychological isolation is what ultimately will lead to his downfall (though, in some respects, it already has). He puts himself in an unhealthy mindset by confining himself in his problems and housing self-defeating thoughts. However, by confronting himself with the truth that he is a failure, he achieves self-knowledge. Honesty is one of the major motifs. By drowning out the lies and focusing on the truth, Brick can make his life more bearable, as he is aware of the lies that bred him, raised him, and sustained him. He understands how entangled he has become in lies, and how mendacity surrounds him. Therefore, Brick knows why he drinks and that he must drink, an aspect of isolation that leads to self-knowledge. He was unable to confront himself when Skipper did, but after successfully psychologically isolating himself, he comes to realize his self-deception, saying, “I’ve lied to nobody, nobody but myself”. By isolating himself physically, socially, and psychologically, Brick gains self-knowledge, but the isolation also leads to self-destruction. The interesting aspect of his character is that, unlike most characters in the play and people in real life, he chooses to be isolated. Maggie or Big Mama, for example, are isolated because of external forces. However, Brick is the one who deliberately isolates himself, despite the consequences of self-destruction. This idea proves he is unhappy and, like the metaphor of jumping the hurdles, yearns for the days in which he had it all, in which he knew who he was, and in which he was accepted and lauded by society. Though Maggie is a cat on a hot tin roof, constantly moving around, Brick is a cat on a hot tin roof, staying in place and burning. His lack of motivation to change his situation and leave the roof is proof of his self-destruction caused by extreme isolation. The way he does manage to leave the roof is by getting drunk enough to feel the ‘click’, but that is only a short-term solution, as he always ends up back on the roof. As the theme of the work suggests, to truly leave the roof, he must stop isolating himself, and face his problems. He must communicate and be honest with others. Most of all, he must not abandon himself. Instead of numbing the pain, he must let the pain be felt.
By isolating himself physically, socially, and psychologically, Brick gains self-knowledge, but the isolation also leads to self-destruction. The interesting aspect of his character is that, unlike most characters in the play and people in real life, he chooses to be isolated. Maggie or Big Mama, for example, are isolated because of external forces. However, Brick is the one who deliberately isolates himself, despite the consequences of self-destruction. This idea proves he is unhappy and, like the metaphor of jumping the hurdles, yearns for the days in which he had it all, in which he knew who he was, and in which he was accepted and lauded by society. Though Maggie is a cat on a hot tin roof, constantly moving around, Brick is a cat on a hot tin roof, staying in place and burning. His lack of motivation to change his situation and leave the roof is proof of his self-destruction caused by extreme isolation. The way he does manage to leave the roof is by getting drunk enough to feel the ‘click’, but that is only a short-term solution, as he always ends up back on the roof. As the theme of the work suggests, to truly leave the roof, he must stop isolating himself, and face his problems. He must communicate and be honest with others. Most of all, he must not abandon himself. Instead of numbing the pain, he must let the pain be felt.
Cat on a Four Post Bed
Space is an important element in drama and is embodied by the stage itself as a representation of a space where action is presented. Plays differ significantly with regard to how they present space and how much information about space they offer the audience. The analysis of place and setting in plays can help the audience get a better feel for characters and their behavior as well as for the overall atmosphere. In the script of a play, the layout and overall appearance of the set is usually described in stage directions or descriptions at the beginning of acts or scenes. The dichotomy between extremely detailed and sparsely mentioned stage sets in the secondary texts of plays is another crucial starting point for further analysis, since the preponderance or lack of setting description tells the reader something about more general functions of settings. The significance of scene descriptions is very apparent in Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The extensive descriptions introduce the reader to the setting for the entire play, namely Brick and Maggie’s bed-sitting room in Big Daddy’s Southern Mansion. Though all of Williams’s stage notes merit careful consideration, it is undeniable that certain elements of the setting have strong symbolic associations. Through these symbolic elements, greater insight into the both the emotional composition of Brick and Maggie and the overriding homosexual tension of the play can be unearthed.Williams explicates some of the symbolic elements of his play;,including the console that holds a radio-phonograph, television, and liquor cabinet, in the secondary notes. The significance of this console is to serve as a shrine to the “comforts and illusions” (6) behind which people hide from the things and, throughout the play, offers the characters auditory and (with alcohol) sensory distraction. However, a more passive symbolic set element of the play is the large double bed which Williams instructs the actors to make a “functional part of the set as often as possible” (6). This large furnishing is the focal point of the set, and setting the entire action of the play in Maggie and Brick’s bedroom makes sense because a major plot point concerns whether or not Brick will resume sleeping with Maggie. When Brick and Maggie fight openly, the bed serves as a point of refuge for each, in turn. When Maggie confronts Brick with her own vitality in the face the death of his true love, Skipper, Brick throws his crutch at her, over the bed behind which she takes refuge. This is a symbolic action in that Maggie is crouching behind an object loaded with sexual tension; literally hiding behind that the setting where Brick would have to perform sexually with her in order to refute her claim of his homosexuality. To get to Maggie, then, Brick literally has to overcome the thing that is keeping them apart. This is why Brick must throw something over the bed – it is a metaphorical attempt at overcoming Maggie’s accusation. When his throw misses Maggie, Brick refills his drink and sits on the imposing “great four-poster bed” (44). His pathetic return to the formidable piece of furniture is the ultimate failure. Brick has been forced to return at least temporarily to their detested love nestWilliams makes a point of revealing that Brick and Maggie’s room formerly belonged to the plantation’s original owners, Jack Straw and Peter Ochello. These two bachelors apparently shared an “uncommon tenderness” (5) and, as Williams writes, the ghost of their love haunts the room. Ironically, the bed was once shared by a homosexual couple, a concept that would clearly be abnormal to the sensibilities of Brick and Maggie’s culture. A second, related anomaly is that the bed remains unshared by Maggie and Brick because of Brick’s struggle with his latent homosexuality. When Brick and Big Daddy finally cut through the mendacity of their relationship and have a true conversation, Brick accuses his father of thinking that he and Skipper “were a pair of dirty old men” (92), making a veiled reference to Straw and Ochello. Brick is literally crushed by the confrontation. He “loses his balance and pitches to his knees…he grabs the bed and drags himself up” (93). It is symbolic that Brick uses the bed where the men slept and where he and his wife are supposed to sleep, to try to regain his advantage both physically and emotionally. Ironically, the only thing that brings Brick back up to his feet is the very fixture that has contributed to his emasculation in the eyes of his father, wife, society and self.Maggie’s dissatisfaction rests in the bed as well, in that it stems from her childlessness and having “a big beautiful athlete husband [who] won’t go to bed with her” (121). 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. As Big Mama deduces from Brick’s alcoholism and Maggie’s childlessness, “when a marriage goes on the rocks the rocks are [in the bed]” (33), a fact that Brick’s continuous rejection of her conjugal embraces never allows her to forget. Even in her slip and at her most seductive, Maggie is unable to lure her husband’s desire, or even get him to take his pillow to the bed and not the couch.Tennessee Williams fills the setting of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with subtle nuances that enrich the theatrical experience. One of these elements, the four-post bed, can be mistaken to a casual observer as a useful prop and staging tool. Upon closer inspection however, it becomes obvious that the bed makes both literal and metaphorical revelations in the play, especially in regards to Brick and Maggie’s character and is a necessary element in facilitating the movement of the plot.
Mendasculinity: Keeping Up Male Appearances with Big Daddy, Goober, and Brick
The men of the Pollitt family suffer a great deal throughout Cat On A Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, but they would rather die than let anyone know of their pains. This disastrous trait was established in them as children, by the men who raised them, teaching the characters, as most in the society and age Williams writes of were taught, that they must save face, must present themselves to society as men of steel, men of strength, men who could not be touched. This concept of hypermasculinity forces Brick, Gooper, and Big Daddy to never ask for help, never let those who love them know of their feelings, their desires, or their ailments. Hypermasculinity forces the men of the play to not accept their pain, and consequently self medicate in order to be free of their hurt. Through the use of alcohol, reckless obedience, and a combination of denial and morphine, the men of this tale find ways to numb themselves to the realities they live in, they, out of necessity, fall into the act of mendacity.
The most obvious form of self medication is seen in the use of alcohol by Brick. The sound of ice being dropped into a glass is a near constant soundtrack to the play, the smell of Echo Springs wafts through every page. Brick becomes an alcoholic after the death of his dear friend and companion Skipper, and he now cannot be at peace until he drinks enough to have his “click” in his head, “This click I get in my head that makes me peaceful, I got to drink till I get it. It’s just a mechanical thing, something like a switch clicking off in my head, turning the hot light off and the cool night on and all of a sudden there’s-peace!”(Williams, 84) . This click permits Brick to be utterly numb, to not think of his guilt or to feel the disgust he feels every other moment of every day since he lost Skipper.
Things at the Pollitt house go sour when Big Daddy forces Brick to confront why he drinks, why he can only find peace after several glasses of Echo Spring. Originally Brick claims he does not know, his sense of pride and his masculinity force him to deny any issue even exists, much less provide a reason for the alleged issue. Eventually, out of desire for a drink, he claims disgust is the reason he drinks, and while this has a semblance of truth to it, he states that he feels disgust towards an outward force, towards mendacity (“Lying and liars” (Williams, 92)), instead of admitting and accepting that the person he is truly disgusted by is himself, and his actions. It is ironic that Brick uses that which he claims to hate, lying, in order to protect himself and his sense of pride, his masculinity. It takes Big Daddy a long time to break down the wall separating Brick’s emotions from the rest of the world, a wall built at a very early age out of need to be as distant and untouchable as he thought Big Daddy was. But when Big Daddy finally breaches Brick’s wall, he releases a flood. “I’m ashamed, Big Daddy, that’s why I’m drunk. When I’m drunk, I can stand myself.”(Wlliams, 116) Brick’s emotions, which have been bottled up for long, feelings towards Big Daddy, towards Skipper, and especially towards himself, rush out in waves that crash into that cold bedroom that is the only set in the play. The truth about Skipper, Brick’s guilt and disgust over what he’d done, or rather what he didn’t do, and his rejection of Maggie, all come pouring out of Brick, so catastrophically so that Maggie enters the room, asking, “Why is everybody yelling about the truth?!”(Williams, 121).
All of Brick’s emotions are legitimate, and could have been felt and then understood and accepted if they had been properly talked through, if he had sought solace, embraced the love those around him felt for him, but the hypermasculinity inside him and the other male characters caused Brick to hide his feelings, to run from those who loved him, to only feel when he was drunk and pushed up against a wall, to seek comfort from the bottom of a bottle. Brick’s true emotions showed when he could not find his click, when his self prescribed remedy failed him, and afterwards he was a better man for it, but still he would rather die than admit to that.
In contrast to hs drunk, disobedient, and beloved brother, there is Gooper Pollitt. Gooper is the archetypal “Man’s man” in this story, with his white collar job, his loving and almost disturbingly fertile wife, and his myriad of “talented” children, who love their mother, father, and grandparent dearly (if not so much their aunt and uncle). But while he seems to have it all, Gooper suffers just as much as his other family members, for there is still one thing Gooper does not have and desperately desires, Big Daddy’s love and approval.
Gooper numbs the pain caused by Big Daddy’s lack of love by doing everything Big Daddy asks of him. “ Big Daddy wanted me to become a lawyer. I became a lawyer. He said to get married, I got married. He said to have kids, I had kids. He said to live in Memphis, I lived in Memphis. Whatever he said to do, I did.” (Williams, 136) He lives in reckless obedience, doing all that his father suggests, being the hypermasculine man he was told to be, without a thought of what he wants from life. But this still does not grant him his satisfaction, he still feels anger towards Brick for being the favorite, despair and confusion towards the lack of pride in Big Daddy’s eyes when he sees all Gooper has done, has become, for him. Again irony is present, because it is due to Gooper doing everything Big Daddy tells him to that Big Daddy favors Brick, the rule breaker, the independent man. Gooper hides his pain behind his five children and successful career, but he, like all the characters in the play, uses mendacity as a shield to hide behind too, as he claims, “I don’t give a goddamn if Big Daddy likes me or don’t like me or did or never did or will or will never!”(Williams, 140).
Gooper’s form of self medication is far more subtle than Brick’s, alcohol is easier to see than intentions and plans, but just as present, and more tragic, because Gooper never gets the release, the acceptance, that Brick received, he probably continued to live on in his unsatisfying life with his unsatisfying wife after the final curtain closed, living his life of reckless obedience, telling himself his father would one day be proud, but knowing in his hearts of hearts the mendacity of that statement.
And throughout all these struggles with identity, throughout all the fear over pride and masculine images and hidden emotions and intentions, stands Big Daddy. The boy who created a name for himself, who used to not have a dollar to his name but now owns “twenty-eight thousand of the richest acre this side of the Valley Nile”(Williams, 184). This man, who his children looked up to as an inspiration for their hyper masculine views, has been able to be this way for so long because of mendacity, money, and straight denial.
Gooper and Brick learned from a master how to hide behind mendacity. Big Daddy is able to maintain his image by faking near everything he does, for the sake of appearances. “ Having for instance to act like I care for Big Mama!…Pretend to love that son of a bitch Gooper and his wife Mae and those five screechers out there …Church!-it bores the bejesus out of me but I go!… Clubs!-Elks! Masons! Rotary!-crap!” (Williams, 94) Big Daddy hides who he is and his real emotions behind this manly exterior, created out of lies and a need to be at the top of his society.
Another way Big Daddy numbs himself is through his extravagant use of money. Instead of ever showing love or care for his two boys, he throws gifts and money at them. And while they do grow up never wanting for anything physical, both grow up willing to live without a penny from Big Daddy if only he would show them love. Big Daddy never has to confess any of his emotions if it looks as if he has none, but he still feels an instinctive need to provide for his sons, to give them what he never had, riches and things, but a distant, seemingly loveless, masculine man as a father.
Finally, when money and lies cannot hide the truth, Big Daddy simply refuses to accept the reality of his situation. He denied the existence of Brick’s alcoholism for quite some time, as well as his feelings towards most of his family, but most importantly, he denied that which he was feeling on the inside, physically, Big Daddy is dying of cancer, but hides his fear of death behind the shaky notion that his condition is merely a spastic colon, despite the pain wracking through his whole body. Big Daddy is so desperate to seem strong, to live a long, hard working life as a man should, that he rejects his own body’s signals, rejects what doctors and his gut are telling him, and claims he is perfectly fine. As Maggie put it, “Nobody says ‘You’re dying’ You have to fool them. They have to fool themselves.”(Wiliams, 12)
Brick, Gooper, Big Daddy, all men of the same family, all men who value masculinity and outward appearance above all else, all men who have to find ways to numb themselves to simply live their lives. The hypermasculine image all these men desire causes them to suppress their true emotions, and therefore live lives they are unhappy with, lives full of self prescribed remedies that don’t heal their maladies, merely hide them from view. But on Big Daddy’ birthday, all of their raw and suppressed emotions came rising up, and they saw the light of day for the first time. Expressing their emotions led to understanding between these three family members, and they became better men for it. Perhaps the Pollitt family can now live a life free of mendacity, for as they all well know, “There is nothing more powerful than the smell of mendacity.”(Williams, 187)
Williams, Tennessee. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” The Bedford Introduction to Drama, 3rd Ed. Jacobus, Lee A. Bedford Books. Boston, MA. 1997.