Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Internal Guilt

Tennessee Williams’ three-act play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, tells the story of a dysfunctional family celebrating the patriarch’s birthday. What is typically a time of celebration, instead becomes a very uncomfortable self-discovery for multiple characters. Many conversations are present throughout the play such as ageism, homosexuality, and feminism. However, what is most interesting is the way each individual character deals with the struggles of shame and remorse. While Margaret is reminded that she is not related to the family by blood, her marriage to Brick brings her own complications.

Considered THE cat on the hot tin roof, we are introduced to Margaret complaining about Brick’s brothers’ children and their terrible behavior. Ironically, she complains about their five (one on the way) children throughout the play while she is childless. The absence of a child is used as evidence to demonstrate Brick and Margaret’s suffering marriage. Let’s remember this is the mid-1950s in the American south, where the family dynamic is very much traditional. This is Margaret’s first personal denial. Immediately there is a sense of tension from Margaret’s consistent nagging and Brick’s ignoring of her, which begs the question why are they childless? We learn that the two of them haven’t been intimate with each other for some time, and Brick is even sleeping on a couch. By commenting on Mae and Gooper’s children, Margaret is using it as an excuse to show how she is above that and they are inferior to her. However, it appears she is in denial of not having children because she and her husband are disconnected by their sexual preferences.

Movie poster of Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play.

To continue with the comparison between married couples, Margaret is in denial thinking Brick still loves her. She strangely dismisses his discomfort when attempting to seduce him and be friendly after he declines all her notions. Brick is guilty and denying his sexuality from Margaret, his family, and most importantly, himself. However, Margaret is still very much invested in Brick when she lies to everyone in the family announcing her pregnancy. She is so in denial that she ignores his drinking problem and even encourages it to achieve her “want”. When Big Mama sees the glass next to the bed and questions it, Margaret responds with “hm?”, as if she’s completely unaware of its true meaning. It’s similar to Big Mama’s denial of Big Daddy’s health. While she is not expecting cancer, they both are well into their adult life. Old age sometimes is harder to come to terms with because there is no cure or preventative measures.

What is so fascinating about Tennessee Williams’ play is that all these characters are unique and well-described. Through their strained and emotionally violent conversations, we learn that Brick has a difficult time trusting his wife, perhaps afraid his secret will be revealed. Skipper was a friend of Brick’s who was pressured by Margaret to demonstrate his masculinity. So Margaret had an affair with Skipper. What is surprising and revolutionary about this play, is that Margaret assumed, perhaps knew, Skipper had feelings for Brick. Brick later tells his father that they were only friends and that’s not normal because their friendship was so pure. Similarly to the tradition of marriages including children, homosexuality is discouraged in this American family. Yet it breathes through Brick and everyone in contact with his character. Margaret is living with the notion that Brick is upset that she cheated on him. She is in denial and unaware that he is more upset with the loss of his friend and the sabotage from Margaret.

Margaret calls herself a cat that is sitting on a hot tin roof, waiting patiently for Brick to forgive her and love her again, physically and metaphorically. However, Brick tells her that the cat needs to jump off the roof. Visually, if a cat is sitting on a hot tin roof, it is in pain burning itself. What is more interesting is why the cat is putting itself through the pain of staying on the roof. Perhaps the cat is too high and afraid to jump off. Margaret very well might be afraid to leave Brick and love someone else. She does throw threats at him that other men look at her and she can be with anyone, including his father! I think she is living in denial of her own feelings because Brick tells her she can leave. We understand Brick’s frustration with his father through his emotional conversation with Big Daddy. These characters help us validate Margaret’s self-denial with thinking her marriage to Brick will work out.

Margaret is one of the most important characters in the play because she begins and ends by trying to justify her insecurities and guilt. To be in denial is to be unaware of the truth. Nearly every character in Tennessee Williams’ play lives their life in denial of something. As the evening plays out, we are entertained by the way they handle their personal denials of themselves and each other. Margaret was worried about her marriage and Brick’s sexuality that she had to seduce his friend to feel better. She was surprised to learn Skipper told Brick, which demonstrates her internal denial. While looked at as a piece highlighting conversations of homosexuality, Tennessee Williams creates a platform for a difficult and conflicted strong female character. Margaret’s interest with Brick’s opinions of her best defines the internal guilt and denial she has towards herself.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Studied film to be a director before realizing screenwriting was my outlet. MFA student at DePaul University. @EmilyKalash
Edited by Ryan Errington.

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  1. Sherley

    This play is massively stocked with various situations that feminists should explore in depth.

    • The 1950s was a time of growth for women and their sexuality, even though popular culture tried to force women to fit into a mold of virginity and strength through marriage children.

    • He tests the boundaries of women’s sexuality pretty well in this one.

  2. It is interesting how critics love Shakespeare even though some plays are not as good as others, yet some critics wish to discredit Williams due to his less successful work.

    • His later works reflect a man who lived an emotionally painful life often feeling overwhelmed by his fame and relishing the spotlight at the same time.

  3. Excellent analysis Emily. An enjoyable read.

  4. It is about dealing with the past and exposing the falsehoods in people and in life.

  5. This is one of Williams’s most powerful plays.

  6. cocoman

    Nothing really happens in the entire play, plot-wise, until that last moment when Maggie claims to be pregnant.

  7. I would consider this play very postmodern in terms of its exploration of the impossibility of truth and constructions of selfhood based on untruthfulness.

  8. Williams’s prose is colorful and imaginative.

    • My favorite: Maggie tells her husband Brick in Act One, “I’m not living with you. We share the same cage.”

  9. Leanna Royal

    The issues that this play revolves around transcend time and region. That’s what makes it special.

  10. Really like this play. It is heavily biographical for its author.

  11. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    An interesting discussion that summarises the text well. I would have been interested to know, as Donald above comments, how much the author’s own experiences could be aligned to the narrative. I think some further analysis is in need for such a worthy play.

  12. Brilliant play!

  13. Anjelica

    Williams uses his craft to entertain, enlighten and bares men’s soul.

  14. Slaidey

    A short and to-the-point look at the relationships in the play. Well done.

  15. Williams’ plays always push the boundaries of what was acceptable. From what we can tell of popular culture in the fifties, women were boxed into conservative lives as daughters, or housewives. Williams here uncovers the potential for female sexuality; even if, in this case, it results in messy manipulation and denial. Ahead of its time.

  16. Yvonne Tapia
    Yvonne T.

    For many people who did not grow up in the era the play was writen, this play may come as a surprise. I found it very interesting to see how this play reflected the issues of its modern day. These topics, while they may have made some progress, still need further movements to change them.

  17. Fascinating perspective! One could argue that an overarching exercise in denial is that of change within the south, more specifically fear of change and maintenance of the status quo. A Streetcar Named Desire also explores that theme through the symbolism of Stanley–young, most-likely of Eastern European descent, and of a lower socioeconomic status–seemingly “invading” the old southern family represented by Stella and Blanche.

  18. This is one of those famous plays that I knew of, but knew next to nothing about until reading your article. A nice examination of how relationships unravel and how people unintentionally hurt one another because of unresolved issues that only grow bigger and more unmanageable over time.

  19. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. I had not thought of some of the ways you looked at the movie–you did a good job.

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