Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Act 1 | Summary



In a bedroom, Brick Pollitt takes a shower as Maggie Pollitt complains about "no-neck monsters" hitting her with a biscuit. Brick turns off the shower. She accuses Gooper Pollitt (Brick's brother) and his wife, Mae Pollitt, of displaying their five no-neck monsters in front of Big Daddy Pollitt (Brick's father). Also according to Maggie, Gooper and Mae always drop hints about her and Brick not having kids. Brick comes out of the bathroom, wearing a cast on his ankle, and listens to Maggie in a disinterested manner. Maggie mentions the medical report about Big Daddy having cancer. She claims that Gooper and Mae are displaying their kids to convince Big Daddy to cut Brick out of the estate before he dies. She says Brick has been helping the ambitions of his brother and sister-in-law by drinking so much, thereby showing he is unfit to inherit the estate. Brick even made a fool of himself by attempting to jump hurdles the other night and breaking his ankle.

Even so, Maggie asserts that Big Daddy really loves Brick and dislikes Gooper, Mae, and their children. Brick occasionally inserts disinterested comments as Maggie rambles on about the financial difficulties of Mae's family. Maggie suspects Brick of thinking she's become a hard, cruel woman and suggests that Brick's lack of love for her has caused this change. Maggie wishes Brick's drinking would make him fatter and thus less attractive to her. Even though Brick used to make love with Maggie in a calm, disinterested manner, he now shows no interest sexually. Maggie wonders if Brick is thinking about his friend Skipper, which gets Brick upset. She sees this as a good sign—a crack in his armor. Brick says he just hasn't drunk enough liquor yet to get the click in his head that makes him peaceful. Maggie reminds Brick about today being Big Daddy's birthday and tries to persuade her husband to sign a birthday card. Brick refuses, saying he doesn't want to fool his father.

Mae enters and starts to brag about her children. When Maggie makes a joke about Mae's kids, Mae gets insulted and leaves. Maggie says her jealousy about Mae and Gooper having children and her longing to have sex with Brick makes her catty. Maggie wonders how long Brick is going to punish her and says she feels like "a cat on a hot tin roof." Brick tells Maggie to jump off the roof and take a lover. Maggie claims she wants only him. Brick reminds Maggie about the conditions she agreed to about their living together. Maggie gets hysterical, saying she can't accept these conditions.

Brick's mother, Big Mama Pollitt, enters, but Brick avoids her by going into the bathroom. She says loudly that Big Daddy's laboratory report is negative. He apparently does not have cancer. Big Mama asks Maggie if she satisfies her husband in bed. Maggie gets upset, saying Big Mama's accusation is unfair. After Big Mama leaves, Brick comes out of the bathroom. Maggie tries to make Brick jealous, telling him about other men showing interest in her. Brick encourages Maggie to leave him. She says Brick won't have any money for alimony after Big Daddy dies from cancer. Maggie says the doctors are lying about the cancer to avoid breaking bad news. Brick seems stunned by this. Maggie explains her concern about getting Big Daddy's inheritance because she grew up poor.

Maggie says she once made love with Skipper because they both wanted to be closer to Brick, but couldn't. Brick tells Maggie to stop. She remembers when she and a female friend double-dated with Brick and Skipper; it was like a date between the two men. Brick threatens Maggie with his crutch and accuses her of portraying his friendship with Skipper as dirty. Maggie denies this. She knows Brick had no sexual desire for Skipper. However, Skipper did have this desire and Maggie called him on it. To prove that Maggie's accusation was untrue, Skipper tried to have sex with her. Brick swipes at Maggie with his crutch but misses. After the events between Skipper and Maggie, Skipper began to drink heavily and died. Maggie yells repeatedly that she's alive. Again, Brick swings at Maggie and misses, falling to the floor. Brick gets to his feet and pours himself a drink. Maggie tells him that now is a good time for her to conceive. Brick wonders how she's "going to have a child by a man that can't stand [her]." Maggie hears people approaching their room for Big Daddy's birthday celebration.


In Act 1, Tennessee Williams uses the lack of communication between Maggie, Brick, and other characters as an overarching theme that encompasses other themes. Williams shows how almost all of the characters' interactions suffer as a result of poor communication, which is situationally ironic because they clearly live in such an intense proximity with one another that they cannot attain a single moment of privacy. The act opens with Maggie having to yell so that Brick, who is taking a shower, can hear her. Even so, Brick doesn't hear her very well. When Maggie gives her long speeches, Brick often seems to be in another world. Her impassioned words have little effect on him. In fact, at one moment when Maggie offers an extensive explanation of why she's become catty, Brick asks, "Did you say something?"

Other characters also experience difficulties communicating. For example, when Big Mama enters the bedroom, she also has difficulty being heard by Brick, who is hiding in the bathroom. Later, when talking with Miss Sally on the phone, Big Mama has to shout to communicate and even then has trouble being heard. Maggie, though, communicates successfully with Miss Sally by enunciating very clearly. Indeed, Maggie is the one character so far in the play who shows a desire to communicate directly. Because of this, she explains in detail her feelings about Mae and Gooper's ambitions and her loneliness. However, Brick's detachment makes her attempts at communication futile.

The lack of communication between Maggie and Brick ties in directly with the theme of delusion and artifice, and the theme of homophobia. The basis for Brick's distance from his wife is self-delusion. He refuses to deal with his feelings for his friend Skipper and, because of this, refuses to communicate these feelings with Maggie. As a result, Skipper has formed a wedge between Brick and Maggie. Brick fears the close friendship he had with Skipper will be viewed as homosexual. Brick accuses Maggie of doing this when he says, "I had friendship with Skipper.—You are naming it dirty!" Most likely, Brick fears that he really did have homosexual feelings for Skipper but is too afraid to even consider this.

While Williams leaves no doubt that Brick loved Skipper, he leaves unanswered the question of whether or not Brick is homosexual. The author provides hints for either interpretation. For example, Maggie describes double-dates with Skipper and Brick as being more like dates between two guys with girl chaperones. On the other hand, when Maggie and Brick had an active sex life, they found it satisfying. Maggie says, "We were blissful, yes, hit heaven together ev'ry time that we loved." If Brick were not homophobic, he could accept his own homosexuality and thus separate from Maggie; or Brick could understand that his feelings of closeness, even love, for Skipper do not necessarily make him homosexual, even if Skipper were gay. But because Brick refuses to explore these feelings, he also refuses to discover whether he is gay or not. Instead, he keeps elevating his relationship with Skipper as something clean and noble in an effort to avoid dealing with the issue. Brick seems to be scapegoating Maggie for Skipper's drinking and death, thinking she pushed Skipper over the edge. He insists that he and Skipper had something pure and beautiful, but he fails to see that brutal honesty could lead to something similar between himself and Maggie, regardless of his sexual orientation.

Because of her love for Brick and her desire to get Big Daddy's estate, Maggie accepts a life of pretense and artifice with her husband. They pretend to be sexually active despite signs that they are not. Big Mama suspects trouble beneath this artifice when she accuses Maggie of not satisfying Brick in bed. In reality, Big Mama has the truth of the situation reversed, which Maggie alludes to when she asks, "Why don't you ask if he makes me happy in bed?" This artifice at times makes Maggie hysterical. When Brick reminds her of the conditions of their marriage, namely not having sex, Maggie yells, "I can't! Can't!" The play is revolutionary as much for its exposure of the dangers of homophobia as for its exploration of female desire.

Other characters also accept and use artifice. For example, Mae and Gooper pretend to be devoted to Big Daddy. They parade their children before Big Daddy to convince him how deserving they are of his estate. After all, if Mae and Gooper inherit Big Daddy's wealth, they can pass it on their children and perhaps their children's children. Brick and Maggie have no children to pass the estate on to. In reality, though, Mae and Gooper have no deep love for Big Daddy but instead just want to gain control of the estate. Therefore, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams uses children as symbols of trickery and deviousness.

In her relationship with Brick, Maggie shows determination to break through any artifice as she confronts her husband about his grasping brother and sister-in-law and his relationship with Brick. To show this, Williams uses the symbol of the cat on a hot tin roof for Maggie. The heat of such a roof would make a cat nervous and agitated. For Maggie, the heat or agitation of being in a frustrating marriage makes her nervous. Even so, she remains determined to stay on the roof (or stay in the marriage) to get Big Daddy's inheritance and to win back Brick's love. In the process, Maggie becomes a catty, cruel woman.

Throughout Act 1, Williams uses Brick's crutch as a symbol of how Brick deludes himself. Brick does not have the strength of character to deal with painful issues, so he uses the crutch of alcohol to cope. He drinks to obliterate any uneasiness or pain concerning his relationship with Skipper. Also, getting drunk deadens Brick to the pain he is causing Maggie. Brick's actions toward Maggie are cruel. He allows her to stay with him while giving her no love or affection, thereby leaving her in a constant state of torment. At one point, Maggie complains, "Don't continue my torture. I can't live on and on under these circumstances." Also, when Maggie confronts her husband about Skipper, he tries to defend himself by using his crutch as a weapon. Brick takes several swipes at his wife but misses. Brick's passive-aggressive attempt to block out Maggie by using the crutch of getting drunk has not started to work yet, so he has to resort to using his actual crutch aggressively. In the next act, Williams will further explore the theme of cruelty through Big Daddy's relationship with Big Mama.

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