Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams: Summary, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson summarizes Tennessee Williams' play, ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'', and explores the play's most important themes. These key themes include family relationships, the disappointments of aging, and the terrors of mortality.

American Classic

Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which premiered in 1955, has since become a classic of the American stage. Through the creation of such iconic characters as the wealthy southern patriarch, Big Daddy, his middle-aged football hero son, Brick, and Brick's beautiful but frustrated wife, Maggie (a.k.a. Maggie-the-Cat), Williams examines the bitterness that comes with being untruthful, the complexities of family life, the disappointments of aging, and pain of confronting one's own mortality.

Play Summary

Williams' play centers upon a single evening in the life of the Pollitt family, which has converged upon the family plantation to celebrate the birthday of its patriarch, Big Daddy. It's evident from the very first scene that all is not as it appears in the lives of the Pollitt family, nor is the occasion as joyous as it would initially seem.

First, the audience quickly learns that Big Daddy has just returned from a round of intensive medical treatment for an unnamed but serious condition. Second, Big Daddy's celebration is marred by the almost hysterical attention paid to him by his oldest son, Gooper, Gooper's wife, and their brood of rowdy children. Rounding out the family reunion are Brick, Big Daddy's younger son, and Brick's beautiful wife, Maggie.

As the action of the play evolves, tensions between family members quickly rise to the surface. Brick and Maggie's marriage is in trouble: the couple is childless and there are indications that Brick refuses intimate relations with his wife. Ultimately, the audience learns that the tension is rooted in the relationship between Brick and Skipper, Brick's childhood friend with whom Brick had sought to lead a semi-pro football team.

Though the text never outright identifies Skipper as homosexual, it does imply that Skipper's feelings for Brick were more than platonic and, when Brick was unable to reciprocate, Skipper had sought to 'prove' his masculinity by making sexual advances to Maggie. When Skipper was unable to perform, however, he took his own life. In guilt and despair, Brick withdrew from Maggie and turned to alcohol, leading to the estrangement that characterizes the couple's relationship as the play begins.

In addition to the tensions between Maggie and Brick, relationships between the rest of the Pollitt family are similarly fraught. Gooper is motivated by more than familial love as he celebrates his father's birthday. Seemingly compelled by his greedy, and 'monstrously' fertile wife, the motivations underlying Gooper's solicitous attention to his father are soon revealed: to secure a sizeable piece of the millionaire's inheritance for himself and his many children. This intention gains increasing urgency once the truth of Big Daddy's medical condition is revealed--he is dying of cancer, a fact the family seeks to hide from Big Daddy, and Big Momma, throughout the play.

Analysis of Major Themes

Mendacity: At the core of this play is the theme of 'mendacity,' or deception, which serves as a sort of refrain for each of the characters. They deal with the lies they've told and those that have been told to them for various reasons--to save face in a Southern society in which appearance is all, to serve their own selfish motives, and even to protect themselves and those they love. For instance, Big Daddy must deal with the truth that he is dying; Brick must deal with the reality of Skipper's sexuality and his own role in the suicide of his friend; Gooper must acknowledge the ramifications of his own greed and that of his wife; Maggie must reconcile herself to the tenuous state of her marriage.

Family Relationships: Let's face it, relationships are never easy. Add to that the blood ties and long histories that make up family relationships, and this only magnifies the challenges. Williams' play explores family relationships in its myriad manifestations, exploring the difficulties between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and even among siblings.

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