Carl Jung, an analytical psychologist, stated that “archetypes are a tendency or instinctive trend in the human unconscious to express certain motifs or themes” (“Dreams, Health, Yoga, Mind & Spirit”). In the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, Williams uses many archetypal images and personas, such as the tragic hero or the stern father figure, to convey the overall complexity of the plays many themes and characters as a way for the audience to connect with and recognize the familiar structures and personas seen in everyday society and family.
An archetype, or “an original model or pattern from which other later copies are made, especially a character, an action, or situation that seems to represent common patterns of human life” (“Literary Terms and Definitions”), can be used to relate any and all people, ideas, and beliefs.
The founder of analytical Psychology, Carl Jung, “theorized that the archetype originates in…the shared experiences of a race or culture, such as birth, death, love, family life, and struggles to survive and grow up” (“Literary Terms and Conditions”), meaning that the archetypes commonly found in literature are often used to relate people to the characters, which can create a relationship and connection between the audience the characters in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick can be considered an archetypal tragic hero or, arguably, an unbalanced hero.
Brick is a textbook tragic hero, according to Northrop Frye: “Tragic heroes are so much the highest points in their human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them, the greatest trees more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass. Conductors may of course be instruments as well as victims of the divine lightning”. (“Memos for Developmental Writers”) Before Brick’s downfall he was always the favored son, cherished by both of his parents (mostly his mother), football star, and esteemed sports announcer.
But as Frye predicted, Brick, being the highest up, was more likely to be struck by the lightning bolt of pain when his friend Skipper died which led to his depression and drinking problem. With this he lost all that he had, including the respect for and from his family and wife. Because of the enormity of his downfall, this tragedy allows and entices sympathy towards Brick from the audience and offers a connection, which places him as the tragic hero, one of the many archetypes of the play.
Brick can also be considered an unbalanced hero, which is “The Protagonist who has (or must pretend to have) mental or emotional deficiencies” (“Archetypes to Help With Literary Analysis”) based on his inability to emotionally cope with the loss of his friend and his feelings of guilt over his last actions toward Skipper when he simply hung up the phone and refused to resolve the conflict between them. This emotional block is what led to the reliance on the numbing of his thoughts, or finding his click, with alcohol.
Because of this deficiency, Brick is dedicated to finding his click to deal with his daily life and his family, which creates a problem among the other family members. Big Daddy is a very dynamic character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; he can be characterized as both a wise old man, and a stern father figure. A wise old man would be considered one who “represent[s] knowledge, reflection, insight, wisdom, cleverness, and intuition on the one hand, and on the other, moral qualities such as goodwill and readiness to help…The old man always appears when the hero is in a hopeless and desperate situation” (“Archetypes”).
This is exactly what Big Daddy does; once his own fears of dying are out of the way, he was able to see the decline of Brick’s emotional state and when Brick was at his weakest in the play, Big Daddy was there to offer advice and knowledge. When Big Daddy confronted Brick about his problem he offered insight as well as wisdom to try to understand the cause of his dependency; however, he was also very stern and forceful in his approach which could characterize him as a stern father figure.
He is tolerant of many things including the idea of his son being homosexual, and his insufferable wife whom he shows nothing but disdain and cruelty towards, but the one thing he will not tolerate is lying. He, being intolerable toward this specific issue, creates a chasm between himself and the household, who are all accused of lying and treachery. He, being the stern father figure, showed this intolerance of lying when he spoke to Brick about his indecision over who will inherit his property. The complexity of Big Daddy’s character contributes to the idea that the father is the all knowing head of the household.
With Big Daddy, an archetypal theme of immortality is presented in the play. Before the play begins, Big Daddy believed that he was dying from cancer; however, he was then told by his doctor that he was no longer going to die and he was simply diagnosed with a spastic colon. While thinking he was dying Big Daddy allowed Big Mamma to take some control in the household, but when he was told that he wasn’t dying he realized what was going on and sternly took over again expressing that “Expecting death made me blind” (page 74). With this idea of immortality, Big Daddy was reassured of his dominance and position as the father figure.
As humans, we typically think or ourselves as immortal and nothing bad can or will happen to us. That is, until the unthinkable happens: we are confronted by death. When the family in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was presented with the possibility of Big Daddy dying, all characters changed in their attitudes and personas. Mae and Gooper became vultures, circling their dying father waiting for the promise of wealth that is accompanied by his death, Maggie tries to reassure herself and the family of her superiority over Mae even with her lack of children, and Big Mamma tries to establish herself as the new head of the household.
The idea of death changed almost everyone. The character Maggie, Brick’s wife, characterizes the archetypal view of women and their “role” in a family. Maggie’s archetypal feminine position consists of her being valued as a lower asset to the family based on her lack of children, this commoditization of the children characterizes the archetypal view society has of women. Mae, on the other hand, is considered a better suit for inheriting the family property and fortune, in theory, because of her fertility and dedication to becoming the expected family breeder and housewife with her soon to be six children.
With this feministic view of how women must have children in order to gain position running rampant in the house, Big Mamma’s constant nagging about children and Mae’s incessant digs about Maggie being childless, Maggie becomes desperate to have at least one child. She is so far convinced that this is what she needs to be accepted that she resorts to bribing her husband with the promise of more alcohol to feed his addiction just to sleep with her. Society’s views of how things should or shouldn’t be is an archetype in itself.
An archetype is simply a common idea or persona shared by many members of a society, something familiar to connect people and their ideas. This archetype of Maggie’s role in society, and her family, shows that no matter how strong a person is, like Maggie who is constantly struggling with her alcoholic husband and his resentment towards her, society will always have control over someone and he/she will try to conform to the societal norm, or archetype.
The use of archetypes in the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof provides the opportunity for the audience to connect with the characters and their tragedies by being able to recognize the familiar structure and personas seen in everyday society and family shown through common archetypal themes, ideas and characters.
“Archetypes. ” Flagerschool. com. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. . “Archetypes | Dream Encyclopedia | Dreamhawk. com. ” Dreamhawk – Tony Crisp | Dreams, Health, Yoga, Body Mind & Spirit. Web. 07 Dec. 2011. . “Archetypes to Help with Literary Analysis. ” Scribd. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. . “Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. ” Kristisiegel. com. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. . “Memos for Developmental Writers. ” Faculty Websites @ Southwest Tennessee Community College. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. . Wheeler, L. Kip. “Literary Terms and Definitions. ” Web. cn. edu. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. . Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. New York: New Directions, 1975. Print.