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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Themes


Delusion and Artifice

The theme of delusion and artifice affects every main character in the play, each in their own way. For instance, Brick deludes himself about his relationship with Skipper, denying that their friendship had a homosexual element, at least for Skipper. Big Daddy has been immersed in delusion and artifice his entire life, including in his marriage to Big Mama and his relationship with Gooper, Mae, and their children. Also Big Daddy deludes himself about not having cancer. For her part, Big Mama wants Big Daddy to keep living, even though he accuses her of being eager to get control of the estate after he dies. However, Big Daddy's point of view is unreliable. Gooper and Mae present the facade of devotion for Big Daddy but really resent him and just want the estate.

Maggie appears to be the most honest character in the play. She does try to give the appearance of having a happy marriage, but she knows the family is aware of their troubles, and she breaks down and says she will say what she has to say in front of everyone just to have it said. Maggie has her own ambitions, namely for her and Brick to inherit the estate, but she doesn't hide the fact. For the most part, though, she tries to accomplish her goals directly. She clearly shows her hatred of Gooper and Mae and their attempts to persuade Big Daddy by presenting their children like "animals to display at the county fair." Also, she keeps on trying to communicate honestly with Brick to find out why he won't have sex with her. In a moment of dramatic irony, Maggie uses dishonesty and artifice to get what she wants. She pretends to be pregnant, and her lie works. Whether her love and persistence are capable of turning that lie into truth is a matter of interpretation.

The denial of death is one of the main motivations for the characters' delusion and artifice. Big Daddy wants to believe that he will live for a long time and so accepts the doctor's phony diagnosis, despite the pain in his gut that says otherwise. Brick uses alcohol to numb himself to the pain of Skipper's death and his own culpability. Raised without money, Maggie wants to inherit the estate to protect herself from poverty and the pain of death. Eventually, she lies to achieve this.

Lack of Communication

A lack of communication is closely linked to the theme of delusion and artifice. In fact, poor communication can be seen as the method that characters use to maintain their delusion and artifice. Brick tries to block out any meaningful communication with Maggie by getting drunk. Later, Brick continually tries to break off his conversation with Big Daddy to prevent his father from uncovering painful truths. Gooper and Mae want to maintain the artifice of caring and devotion to Big Daddy. Because of this, they fear overtly showing their dislike of Brick and Maggie. As a result, Gooper and Mae use indirect communication, reporting disparaging information they overhear about Brick and Maggie to Big Mama. They regularly grimace and poke each other, often without the desired result. Big Mama hides her hurt feelings by acting in a frivolous, foolish manner. She uses cheerful communication as a smoke screen for her pain. Big Daddy has apparently put up with a lack of truthful communication throughout his life. Big Daddy tells Brick, "Think of all the lies I got to put up with!" Eventually, Big Daddy gets fed up with all the lying and wants direct, honest communication with Brick. But when he tries to accomplish this, he and Brick are constantly interrupted by other family members, including Mae and Big Mama.


The theme of homophobia provides the cause for the play's conflict, thereby influencing the development of the entire work. Brick's internalized homophobia can be seen as something permanent and immovable. He suffers from homophobia consistently throughout the play. This condition never changes and, as a result, Brick doesn't change. Tennessee Williams wrote, "The moral paralysis of Brick was a root thing in his tragedy." Because Brick is unable to transcend his homophobia, he is unable to take any affirmative action. This theme's constant presence motivates all the other characters.

For example, Maggie fears not inheriting the estate because she doesn't have children by Brick; if Brick accepted being a heterosexual who also felt affection for Skipper, he would likely have a healthier relationship with Maggie and they would probably have children. Maggie's fear would be relieved. Big Daddy would have no concerns about Brick's drinking and would gladly leave his estate to his favorite son. Gooper and Mae would realize they have no chance of persuading Big Daddy to give the estate to them, so the entire charade of parading their children before Big Daddy would be useless. Therefore, the story would have no conflict.

On the other hand, if Brick is homosexual and accepts this fact, he would probably divorce Maggie. Big Daddy would realize that Brick could not provide him with grandchildren and so would regretfully leave the estate to Gooper and Mae. Again, the story would have no conflict.

Also through Brick's homophobia, Williams emphasizes how blindly accepting society's view of what is correct or moral behavior can have damaging results. Because Brick accepts these views concerning homosexuality, he becomes detached from himself and from others. While characters such as Gooper and Mae accept societal convention and play their designated parts, even though they look ridiculous doing so, Maggie shows an ability to break from convention. She rose out of poverty and was willing to admit the unusual nature of Brick's relationship with Skipper. Williams shows other examples of the damage caused by living according to what society deems as proper. For instance, Big Daddy got married and puts up with a wife he hates because he wants to be accepted in society. For the same reason, he goes to church and various clubs, even though he dislikes these activities. After his confrontation with death, Big Daddy vows to set those conventions aside. Unfortunately for him, it is too late. Again, it is a matter of interpretation whether Maggie, through the creation of a new life, will be able to push Brick to the same conviction.


If lack of communication is the method used to support delusion and artifice, cruelty can be seen as the result of delusion and artifice. Williams focuses on the cruelty of Brick toward Maggie, and Big Daddy toward Big Mama. Brick treats Maggie harshly through his detachment and refusal to have sex with her. Big Daddy treats Big Mama cruelly through his vicious remarks toward her and his humiliation of her in front of others.

Other characters also treat each other cruelly. For example, Maggie and Mae exchange many vicious comments. Gooper and Mae mock Brick and treat Big Mama callously. However, all of this cruelty comes as a result of delusion and artifice supported by a lack of communication. Because of Brick's refusal to communicate directly, he hurts both Maggie and Big Daddy. Big Daddy has built up anger and frustration over the years because of the artifice of his marriage and the constant lying or lack of honest communication. Finally, all his anger bursts out with harsh insults directed at his wife. Gooper and Mae try to use artifice to manipulate Big Daddy, which is in itself a cruel act. As they do this, Gooper and Mae refuse to communicate honestly with either Big Daddy or Big Mama.

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