The Rose Tattoo Summary

Tennessee Williams

The Rose Tattoo

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The Rose Tattoo Summary

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Act I, Scene 1 Summary

In front of a small cottage on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, three small children are playing and discussing the weather when they hear their mothers calling them in for supper.  Serafina, a striking, voluptuous Sicilian woman, is setting the table for her daughter, Rosa, and husband, Rosario, whom she is expecting any moment. Assunta, an old apothecary, comes in, offering to sell Serafina an aphrodisiac for Rosario. Serafina informs her that they need no such assistance. While they sit and wait, Serafina tells Assunta about how she could tell she was pregnant with the baby she is carrying; Rosario has a tattoo of a rose on his chest, and the morning after the child was conceived, Serafina woke up with a burning pain on her breast and there was a copy of the tattoo on her. From this early point in the plot of The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams it is clear that the rose tattoo will have great symbolic significance.

Serafina tells Assunta in one of the important quotes from The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams, “I did know, when I seen it, that I had conceived, that in my body another rose was growing!”(Williams, 5). Assunta chides skeptically at Serafina, who insists that her husband is of Sicilian nobility. Assunta simply mocks her, saying, “in Sicily everybody’s a baron that owns a piece of land and a separate house for the goats!” (6). It is revealed through their conversation that Serafina thinks the world of her husband, who smuggles drugs for the mafia under the guise of delivering bananas.

Rosario still has not come home yet, and it is late. Assunta leaves. Estelle, a card dealer at a nearby house of miscellaneous sin, comes in with a bolt of pink silk to make for a man’s shirt. She needs it done overnight, and offers Serafina triple her normal price. She and Serafina talk about the man she is giving it to, a wild man, whom Estelle is in love with, but Serafina says would be intolerable. Just then, the Strega’s goat gets into their yard. The Strega is an old woman with rheumatism in her hands and cataracts in her eyes, who is viewed by her neighbors to be a witch. The Strega and Serafina chase the goat around the yard, with Serafina warning Rosa not to make eye contact with the Strega’s “evil eye.”


Act I, Scene 2 Summary

Father De Leo and several of his parishioners, all veiled in black, are standing in front of Serafina’s house. Serafina is at work making the shirt for Estelle. Serafina can apparently hear their voices, and some of the women can see what she’s doing through the window. When Serafina hears them coming, she suddenly is stricken and unable to breathe.  De Leo and the women argue over who should be the one to tell her. Pointing out the obvious, Assunta says, “I think she already knows what we have come to tell her!” (16). Assunta is correct. Upon seeing the procession coming up her front step, Serafina runs out into the yard, where she collapses in a fit of despair, begging the mourners not to speak.


Act I, Scene 3 Summary

Later that day, the mourners, De Leo, and a doctor, are in the parlor of Serafina’s home. The doctor informs them that Serafina has miscarried as a result of the sudden anxiety attack she suffered earlier. He and De Leo get into an argument over whether or not Rosario’s body should be cremated. During the argument it is revealed that Rosario’s truck was shot at, causing him to crash, and he was burned when the truck caught fire, disfiguring him beyond an open-casket funeral. In his pleading with De Leo, the doctor says, “you love your people but you don’t understand them. They find God in each other. And when they lose each other, they lose God and they’re lost. And it’s hard to help them” (18).

At this point in the plot of The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams, Estelle enters, veiled in black and bearing a bouquet of roses. This causes a fair bit of discord. The mourners attack her with insults and hands, snatching the roses from her and tearing them up, and tearing the veil from her head. De Leo separates them, and tells Estelle to leave and never return to this house. Rosa comes out from around the house, and, seeing the mangled veil and roses, cries for the first time after hearing of her father’s death. As she is grieving, she spies a little boy playing in the yard. She angrily snatches the ball away from him and tells him to leave.


Act I, Scene 4 Summary

Three years later. It is the high school graduation, and all the women with daughters in the graduating class are at Serafina’s house to pick up the gowns for the ceremony. While waiting around, they talk about seeing Rosa a few days ago, naked and in hysterics. Apparently, she had met a boy at a dance, and when Serafina found out, she locked up all of Rosa’s clothes so she could not leave the house. Rosa even missed her final exams. Suddenly, the women hear a commotion from inside the house. Miss Yorke, Rosa’s non-Italian teacher, comes up to the house, and tries to mediate the situation.

The Strega announces to the rest of the neighborhood that all the Sicilians were being uncivilized. She says, “In the old country they live in caves in the hills and the country’s run by bandits” (24). Serafina runs out of the house, looking nothing like she did three years ago. She is wearing a dirty old slip as a dress, and her hair is all tangled. She is screaming about Rosa cutting her wrists. Miss Yorke gets between Rosa and Serafina. Rosa tells her that since Rosario died, Serafina has not left the house or dressed properly, and now doesn’t want Rosa leaving the house either. Serafina tells her that this is because Rosa had met a sailor, and curses the school as a place where innocent girls are corrupted. She repeatedly asks Miss Yorke, “How high is this high school?” (28). Once Serafina has sufficiently bashed the teacher and the school, the rest of the women take their graduation gowns and leave her in peace.


Act I, Scene 5 Summary

Later that morning, Serafina is trying to figure out what to wear to the graduation when suddenly she hears the marching band play in the distance and starts to get rushed. At this moment, two women, Bessie and Flora, come up to her house, also in a hurry. They have a train to catch in fifteen minutes and Flora needs her blouse. They are trying to get to the American Legion parade in New Orleans, where there will allegedly be a lot of illicit activity to partake in. Serafina is trying to usher them out so she can get to the school, but to no avail.

The women spy a car of legionnaires out in the street, and they flirt with them through the window. Serafina is outraged, telling them that this is a Catholic house, and they are in the presence of the ashes of her dead husband. Flora and Bessie accuse Serafina of being jealous, but Serafina says that she and Rosario had an excellent sex life right up until he died, and she is happier with his memory than they will be with their promiscuity. She tells them, “I’m satisfied to remember the love of a man that was mine- only mine! Never touched by the hand of nobody but me!” (40). The women then reveal that Rosario was in fact not only hers, and had had an affair for over a year with Estelle. This drives Serafina into a rage, and accusing them of lying, she violently ousts them from her home.


Act I, Scene 6 Summary

Jack and Rosa return to the house to find it dark and shuttered. They go in, and talk about their new relationship. Jack is somewhat shocked that a girl could be affected by him so, and is feeling insecure but trying to accept that Rosa’s infatuation with him is really love. He takes the handkerchief from earlier that morning and proclaims, “This is the blood of a beautiful girl who cut her wrists with a knife because she loved me!” (47).

Suddenly, Serafina bursts in from the adjoining room. Rosa immediately sets about trying to make her mother look presentable, but Serafina shows no interest in making a good impression. Rather, she wishes to interrogate Jack, and put the fear of God into him. Rosa continuously interjects details about the graduation, including her prize, an encyclopedia titled The Digest of Knowledge. Serafina shows great skepticism about the honorability of Jack’s intentions, a sign that the idea of her husband cheating on her has begun to take root in her mind. She insists that before Rosa met him, she was not boy-crazy at all, and was a virgin. Jack reveals to Serafina that he too is a virgin, and Rosa was the first girl he had ever wanted to sleep with. He also tells her about his earring, which he got for crossing the equator. Serafina makes Jack kneel before her statue of the Virgin Mary and swear to respect Rosa’s innocence before he and Rosa run off to their picnic.


Act II Summary

De Leo comes up to the house, and begins to lecture Serafina about cremating her husband and keeping the ashes. He says that her current insane, disheveled state is God punishing her for hanging on to the urn and worshiping it like an idol. He goes on to say that she ought to let go, and try to socialize, maybe even go back into dating again. Serafina explains that the memories of what she remembers as a perfect marriage are more important to her, and that all the other husbands she has seen pale by comparison. She tells him, “they go to the bars, fight in them, get drunk, get fat, put horns on the women because the women don’t give them the love which is glory- I did, I give him the glory. To me the big bed was like a religion” (70). She also expresses fear that Rosa is now headed down the same path. Serafina tells him that the reason she called him over was to ask him if Rosario had ever confessed to cheating on her. De Leo says that he cannot tell her, and she becomes violent. The priest leaves, saying she has become an animal.

A traveling salesman approaches, offering a broken contraption. But just then, a banana truck pulls up and Alvaro, an honest, legal driver, gets out and confronts the salesman for driving aggressively and hurling ethnic slurs at him. The salesman knees Alvaro in the groin, and Alvaro runs into Serafina’s house and begins to cry. Serafina sets about mending his jacket, and Alvaro reveals that he is also crying because he knows he is going to lose his job and has three derelict relatives to worry about. Serafina tells him about her daughter and their recently troubled relationship. She observes him opening a window and his silhouette looks exactly like the frame of Rosario, though he has a different face. Alvaro calls his headquarters and finds out that he has been fired.  As their conversation continues, it becomes clear that they have a certain affection for one another. Alvaro even becomes so bold as to suggest that Rosa is wrong to remain so attached to the urn. He tells her, “You have put your heart in the marble urn with the ashes. And if in a storm sometime, or sometime when a ten-ton truck goes down the highway, the marble urn was to break!” (100). Serafina makes a plan with him for them to have dinner together that night, if Rosa is not back from her picnic.


Act III, Scene 1 Summary

Alvaro returns that evening, and they have both cleaned up quite well. He is wearing rose oil in his hair, and has just gotten a rose tattoo on his chest, although when showing it to Serafina, he does not tell her that it is brand new. As they talk, they begin to grow closer and more affectionate. But suddenly, a condom drops out of Alvaro’s pocket and Serafina goes back to her suspicion of men. She says, “You talk a sweet mouth about women. Then drop such a thing like that from your pocket? Va via, vigliacco!” (114). She finds out that the tattoo is fresh after hearing her tale about her husband’s tattoo. Even after they calm down, she is still suspicious, and decides to investigate Rosario’s illicit activity. She sticks a knife in her purse and asks Alvaro to take her to the Square Roof. Alvaro decides to phone ahead instead, and in talking with Estelle, Serafina learns the truth- Rosario had indeed had an affair with her. She sends Alvaro to get ice for their spumanti, and while he is in the kitchen, she takes the urn and hurls it at the wall, shattering it. She makes a plan with Alvaro for him to park his truck elsewhere and act like he is leaving, then sneak in through the back yard.


Act III, Scene 2 Summary

Rosa and Jack are in front of the house, where they can hear Serafina and Alvaro in the throes of passion, although Rosa, unaware of Alvaro, dismisses it as one of Serafina’s dreams. She expresses a deep resentment for the promise that Jack had to make earlier. Jack, while disappointed, tries to reason with Rosa, showing his insecurities. “She knows that her Rosa is a rose. And she wants her rose to have someone better than me” He says. “Better than you!” Rosa replies, incredulously. “You see me through rose-colored glasses…” “I see you with love” (127). Jack is leaving for a long voyage the next day, and Rosa makes a plan for them to finally lose their virginity in a hotel the next afternoon before he sets sail.


Act III, Scene 3 Summary

The next morning, Alvaro stumbles out into the parlor, where Rosa is asleep on the sofa. Still drunk from the night before, is taken by Rosa’s beauty. “Che bella” (135), he repeats over and over. Suddenly, Rosa wakes up, and screams when she sees Alvaro. Serafina runs into the room, and, thinking the worst of the spectacle of the half-dressed Alvaro looming over her sleeping daughter, flies into a rage. Rosa immediately calms down and tries to quiet Serafina. She immediately realizes what Alvaro was doing there that night, and after Alvaro retreats into the morning from Serafina’s assault, tries to reason with her through a barrage of lies and excuses. Finally, there are no more lies between them. Rosa leaves for New Orleans, and Serafina accepts it. Some of the village women come in, and mock Serafina for her indiscretion, but Serafina is immune to the mockery. She announces that she now feels the same burning that she felt before, and is pregnant again. She sets off with the pink silk shirt for Alvaro.

This is the closing act of The Rose Tattoo and the end of this plot summary–Read on to get an in-depth analysis and more resources for this play.


The Rose Tattoo Literary Analysis

The theme of sexual repression in The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams is a forceful and ongoing one. Small-town gossip is rampant, and even with people streaming in and out of the nearby hotels in New Orleans, little things still get picked up and tossed about to demean others. The Strega, always listening in on Serafina, is a major agent of this gossip and acts as her main tormentor. Since Serafina had been alone ever since Alvaro’s death, but acted so strangely, she became a central target for gossips, a sort of “holy grail” for whomever could actually detect the suspected impropriety in this shuttered house.

But while gossip played a role, one of the biggest problems with Serafina’s love life is the slow deterioration of her worship of Rosario as a god. Because she had been so happy with him (not knowing what he was doing behind her back), Serafina got so attached that when Rosario was suddenly gone from her life, it became very hard for her to open up to anyone. Here Williams explores the popular emotional hang-up people feel about commitment when they have experienced loss. As the image of Rosario becomes worse as Serafina begins to suspect that the rumor may be true, this actually compounds the problem rather than helps it, because in addition to losing the man himself, she also lost the happy memory of him.

Her fear of romantic relationships also manifests itself in her relationship with Rosa after she realizes that she has become interested in Jack. While it would be normal for a fifteen-year-old girl to be married in a 1950’s Sicilian family, as Serafina had been, they still had to deal with the universal problem of most parents’ inability to cope with their children reaching sexual maturity. This causes minor setbacks in most families, but in a situation where the parent has a past trauma associated with romantic commitment, the problem goes from neurosis to psychosis. It is important to point out that Serafina does not accept Rosa’s womanhood until she herself has learned to appreciate the company of a man again.

The rose tattoo is a symbol and therefore encompasses several of these themes in The Rose Tattoo that have been touched upon. In this play by Tennessee Williams, the rose tattoo is a symbol of love, sex, emotional vulnerability, and procreation. Rosario was commended by Serafina for embodying all of these qualities in her life, and she places a great deal of importance on his namesake tattoo- including the name of their first child. It is also of note that without knowledge of Serafina’s story of the rose, Jack calls Rosa a rose, using the same symbol coincidentally, showing the universality of the symbol.