The Glass Menagerie is a play that is very important to modern literature. Tennessee Williams describes four separate characters, their dreams, and the harsh realities they faced in the modern world. His setting is in St. Louis during the Depression-Era. The story is about a loving family that is constantly in conflict. To convey his central theme, Williams uses symbols. He also expresses his theme through the characters¹ incapability of living in the present.
The apartment that Amanda, Laura, and Tom Wingfield share is in the middle of the city and is among many dark alleys with fire escapes. Tom and Laura do not like the dark atmosphere and their mother always tries to make it as pleasant as possible. The two women do not get out much to socialize. Amanda sometimes goes to D.A.R. (Daughters of the Revolution) meetings, but Laura does not like to socialize at all. She has a slight limp and is extremely shy with people. When she does leave the apartment, she falls. She is unable to function in the outside world.
As previously stated, symbols play an important role in The Glass Menagerie. Symbols are substitutions that are used to express a particular theme, idea, or character. One symbol that is used over and over is the fire escape. This has different meanings to the characters. For Tom, it is a place where he can escape to. It is where he goes to escape from his mother¹s nagging. He is open to the outside world when he is on the fire escape. It is his way out. For Laura, it is where the gentleman caller enters and where the outside world is brought inside to her. But to Amanda, the fire escape is not only where the gentleman caller enters, but where he will come in and rescue her daughter from becoming a spinster.
Amanda feels that if the gentleman caller comes, then he will rescue Laura. The problem is that Jim, the caller, has not even met either of the two women yet. Amanda assumes that he will be the one for Laura. She has a difficult time distinguishing between reality from illusion. The same way she refuses to acknowledge Laura¹s handicap. She does not refer to it as a handicap, but rather as a ³little defect,² that is hardly noticeable.
In addition to the fire escape, Williams uses Laura¹s glass menagerie as an important symbol throughout the play. It represents Laura¹s sensitive nature and fragility. She is very innocent, very much like the glass that she polishes and looks at. Eventhough, it is very fragile, when put in the light the glass shines and produces a multitude of colors. This is the same way as Laura. When Laura is enrolled at the Business School she becomes very shy and embarrassed, hence causing her to become ill in the classroom. She can not bare to face those same faces again the next day and decides to give up on going to her classes.
Laura chooses to spend her time with her tiny glass animals, and she treasures them more than actually participating in daily contact with other people. She does not want to become involved with the world outside of their apartment. She prefers the comfort of her home and of her glass animals. Laura is just as easily broken and hurt as the glass unicorn, and she is just as unique. When Jim accidentally bumps into the unicorn and breaks it, the unicorn no longer looks unique. It becomes like all the rest. During that time, Laura feels more accepted and less self-conscious. She begins to open up and glow. Jim notices this and takes advantage of it by dancing with her, and, eventually, kissing her.
Part of the innocence Laura has lost is symbolized in the breaking of the unicorn. When Jim tells Laura of his engagement she is heartbroken. She no longer feels that uniqueness she once shared with the unicorn, but becomes more common like Jim.
Therefore, when she gives the unicorn to Jim she is giving him her broken heart. She gives him something of hers to take with him when he leaves and, in a way, he has left something with her. He has only left her with shattered hopes. It is clear, at this point, that Laura and her glass menagerie break when they both become exposed to the outside world, represented by Jim.
In the same manner, although not very major, the use of rainbows and cigarette smoking are minor symbols in the play. The rainbows signify the hope in the future. Tom exhilarates Laura when he pulls out the rainbow-colored scarf and tells her how the magician changed a bowl of goldfish into canaries. He is thinking of the time when he will be able to escape also. In addition, at the end of the play Tom is speaking about looking into shop windows and seeing the pieces of glass perfume bottles, which remind him of Laura. He sees their rainbow-colored glass and remembers how his sister used to protect her glass animals. But, in the end, the rainbows, which at first were positive, all end in disappointments to each person.
Tom¹s use of cigarette smoking is a symbol of his constant strive for individualism. He is pursued by his mother to not smoke as much, but he does anyway. Neither Laura nor Amanda smoke, leaving this pleasure to only Tom. He can go out on the fire escape and smoke his cigarette knowing that neither of the other two will have a say in his decision. He escapes the everyday racket of his mother by smoking. Although, not as significant as the other symbols, Tom¹s cigarette smoking is one way he tries to relate to the outside world.
All of the characters in The Glass Menagerie retreat into their own separate worlds to escape the harshness of life. None of them are capable of living in the present. Each of them avoids reality in their own way.
For example, Laura is only able to live in the present very briefly. She retreats back into her little world of glass animals and listening to her old phonograph records. Even when it appears that she is overcoming her extreme shyness with Jim, she immediately goes back to playing the records on the Victrola after she finds out that he is engaged. She is more comfortable and less vulnerable in her own world.
In addition, Amanda is very obsessed with the past. She is always telling Laura and Tom about the time when she was younger and had received seventeen gentlemen callers. She considers those times to be better days than the present or the reality. She has difficulty in facing the fact that she is a single mother with two children.
Also, Tom becomes caught up in the past after he leaves home and is wandering the streets thinking about Laura. He had gone to movies and wrote poetry at work to escape the reality of living at home. It was his responsibility to support his mother, his sister, and himself with his work at the warehouse. He wanted to become a poet, but he was pressured by his mother to become responsible enough to take care of his sister. She wanted him to find Laura a mate that could rescue her. Actually, this search was a search for reality. Without that link to the outside world, they would continue to live in their world of delusions. Unfortunately, Tom left home, as did his father, and continues to be haunted by his memories of Laura.
Jim, on the other hand, tends to try to live his life in the present. He is that link to the outside that the family needs. He only lives temporarily in the past, only when he enters into the apartment. Jim is not happy with working at the warehouse either. He is taking night classes and wants to become an executive someday. He becomes the high school hero again when Tom and Laura remember his glory days. They are the only ones that give him the feel of importance, of self-worth. Jim talks about how he was constantly surrounded by women and he feels a bit disappointed that his future did not turn out like his high school days.
Jim is the only character in the play that still has a sense of reality. Eventhough he reminisces about high school, he still remembers that he is engaged. As Laura can not handle the outside world, Jim can not handle Laura’s world. He eventually stumbles and breaks the glass unicorn. Neither of them are comfortable.
In The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams wrote about the struggles of an American family during the Depression-Era. He presented the problems of being constrained to monotonous work and how one¹s dreams may not always come true. He also stressed that not everyone is comfortable with living in the present day. There were always better times than the ones that are being lived now. He acknowledged that there are those who wish not to participate and are not comfortable living in the outside world.
Through Williams’ genius use of symbols he was able to convey his ideas to the reader. He made relationships with the symbols and the actions of the characters. Along with these symbols he also used the characters¹ incapability of living in the present to convey the harsh realities that they faced in the modern world.
Filed Under: Literature
In Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie, the characters’ perspectives of reality are mixed with those of appearance. Amanda, the mother, tries to make the lives of her children perfect, but in doing so, only causes them grief and anguish. Amanda still lives in the past and sees no reason why her two children should live anything but perfect lives. However, her children, Laura, a crippled and unsociable girl; and Tom, an ambitious young man, believe they should be able to choose their own paths of life. William conveys the theme that several people feel a need to set unreasonable standards for those they love. Amanda’s unwillingness to see Laura for what she really is causes her to make expectations for Laura that are out of her reach, and forces Tom to escape his family so that he no longer feels the pressure of being good enough for his mother.
Amanda sets goals of unreachable status for her children and will not see them for what they really are. Amanda sees no reason why her children should not be perfect and forces her upon visitors, by saying “It’s rare for a girl as sweet an’ pretty as Laura to be domestic! But Laura is, thank heaven, not only pretty but also very domestic” (Williams 14). Amanda distorts her mind in a way that makes Laura’s vices invisible. She believes Laura should have every chance at life that she once had as a young woman and tries to block out all of her inabilities. Amanda believes that if her children failed in life, then she is a failure as a person. She is not able to “accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented” (Truman). Amanda feels the need to control her children’s’ lives, not recognizing their own capability for survival. She has preconceived notions of how her family should live and will not stop in her to quest to find them happiness. Amanda can not find happiness in the life she has lead, instead depends on Tom and Laura to “bring her the happiness that her husband failed to give her” (www.pinkmonkey.com). Amanda does not fully understand the needs of her children, only focuses on their faults. She refuses to accept that Laura is different, forcing her into uncomfortable and awkward situations, that cause them both stress.
Amanda’s expectations of Laura cause her to lead a life filled with loneliness and a lack of self-respect. Laura’s glass animals are very delicate, and a slight pressure can make the “glass break so easily. No matter how careful you are” (Williams 19). Laura’s fascination in plants and animals becomes a world of adventure in her mind, a world of dreams, a world of disappointments. Laura’s love for rare glass specimens is also a love for herself, being that Laura is a rare specimen in a world of perfection that her mother has created. Laura’s memories of her childhood and previous encounter with Tom have been twisted into a bizarre fantasy, making it clear “that her memories are really illusions” (Lumley 61). Laura has a distorted image of herself, resulting in a lack of self-confidence. This trait leads Laura to become quiet and mysterious and misunderstood in public. She begins to lose all base with reality, almost encountering the edge of insanity. However, once Laura is able to break through the barrier of social nervousness and inexperience, she begins to “love the light” (Williams 18). The glass unicorn is a representation of Laura; and in certain conditions, both objects can begin to gleam. Laura begins to shine through the tests she has been put through and for a few moments, is accepted by the outside world.
Amanda’s frustration and nagging begins to wear on Tom, eventually causing him to break all ties with his mother. Amanda wants to give Tom “the chance to lead a normal life” (Truman) but in doing so, increases Tom’s desire to start a life of his own. Tom is contradicted in his dreams of exploration and adventure and his devotion to his sister. He believes that casting Laura into the cold world outside of the Wingfield household is cruel, and attempts to convince Amanda that she is not fit for a normal life. Tom’s dreams of escape come with a price. He is not able to leave “his coffin without removing one nail” (Williams 7). Tom’s departure causes despair and tension in the house. In order to escape this situation, Tom must see Amanda and Laura as their true selves and be able to cut all ties with them.
Amanda’s unfulfilled life causes her to nag her children constantly, which in turn, creates a daughter with little self-confidence and knowledge of the outside world and a son who can not decide what is more important to him—his family or his dreams. This relates to all of us, having had to make a decision between two objects that are close to our hearts. In the 1963 movie Tom Jones, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Albert Finney, the main character Tom, cannot decide on whether a life of mischief and lust or one filled with love is right for him. Combined with the pressures that his uncle, Squire Allworthy, force upon him, Tom goes through many adventures before deciding what life means to him.
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