Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The central thematic mystery in the story is the motivation behind Brick’s self-disgust, something that Tennessee Williams has called a basic sense of unknowable dread. The narrator in the story simply says that it came on him with the “abruptness and violence of a crash on a highway. But what had Brick crashed into? Nothing that anybody was able to surmise, for he seemed to have everything that young men like Brick might hope or desire to have.” Brick says the reason for his malaise is the fact that his wife has castrated him by taking away his respect and that he must prove that he is a man again. He tells a group of painters working on the widow’s house that the meanest thing that one human being can do to another is take away his self-respect. “I could feel it being cut off me,” he says.

The fact that Brick tries to regain his self-respect through the passive young widow and what he himself calls the sissy game of croquet is the central irony of the story. Brick’s problem is not simply sexual, or even psychological, but rather aesthetic and metaphysical. His impotence is not a reaction against the castrating Margaret but rather a revolt against the flesh itself. His flight into the chaste arms of Isabel—which have been purified by the death of her husband—is the search for truth in the basic romantic sense of its equation with beauty. It is an attempt to escape from flesh into art, to escape intolerable contingent reality into the bearable—because detached and fleshless—ideal of aesthetic form.

This attempt to escape the contingency of existence by means of aesthetic patterning and idealization is doomed from the start. His desire for a romantic relationship with Isabel, as well as his effort to play the superior game of art and form with human beings as the pawns, comes crashing up against the real physical and psychological needs of the other two players—the widow and her daughter.