Tennessee Williams play Glass Menagerie was written 1944 as a screenplay for MGM. The play is set in 1937 in a St. Louis’ ghetto with the principle characters being the three members of the Wingfield family. The Wingfield family is at best dysfunctional. Having dealt with the disappointment of being left by her husband and the father of her two children, Tom and Laura, Amanda is determined to see to it that her family does not suffer the fate of being abandoned again. However, her well-intentioned attempt to achieve this family unity only succeed in tearing the family apart because her grip on her children becomes suffocating (Bloom, pg. 19).
For her children, Tom and Laura, the weight of Amanda’s expectations hangs heavily on their shoulders. For Tom especially it is unbearable since he is looked upon to perform the duty of watching over the wellbeing of the family and as such he gives up his ambitions of becoming a poet and instead takes up a job at a warehouse so that his family can escape a life of destitution, his mother’s worst nightmare. Tom is therefore made to do a job he cannot stand and this creates tension between mother and son.
Tom’s sister, Laura, is a something of a needy of case. She is a crippled and an awfully shy person. No one knows for sure but with these two factors at play her self confidence look to have also taken a beating. Her socializing skills are wanting and she has problems relating with people outside of her immediate family.
To make matters worse, Laura drops out of college where her mother had hoped she would be able to learn a trade that would have helped her find a job which would make her independent. Having quit college the next best thing for Laura is to find herself a husband who will take of her, so thinks Amanda. However Laura’s does not interact easily with people, problem which Amanda wants dealt with.
Laura’s “handicap” is great source of worry for Amanda who never had such trouble herself in her youthful belle days, the lovely and lively character that she was in Southern Bell, she was every gentleman caller’s fantasy. She beseeches Tom to find his sister a caller and the number of times reference was made to the words gentleman caller is summed up thus in Part Scene 2: “…Like some archetype of the universal unconscious, the image of the gentleman caller haunted [their] small apartment . . .” (Williams, pg. 19). Amanda does not know, but it is this fixation with her past that is creating problems for her family. What bearing will Amanda’s past have on the life of her children and her present life?
Glass Menagerie explores human beings’ consistent failure to differentiate between what is real and what is illusory. Wearing clothes of a sailor, Tom, who is both a character and a narrator of the play, informs the audience that he shall be delivering the truth in the form of illusion. Here Tennessee might have been suggesting that men love to substitute hard truths for the more comforting illusions. The characters in the play seem to have a hard time separating the two as well. Laura, unable to associate freely with fellow humans has instead taking to tending to glass animals. These glass figurines have her undivided attention. She polishes and dusts all these tiny transparent creatures clean before carefully storing away in the shelf. These figurines have become part of Laura’s world, acting as a replacement for the human beings she is unable to interact with. Laura’s “fulfilling” relationship with the glass figurines points to a deeper yearning to associate with creatures of her kind: humans. For no matter how much she cares for the glass animals they will never be able to return her love for them.
Amanda’s believe in the possibility of finding a gentleman who will take care of Laura is delusional in the sense that she herself was once married only for her husband to desert her. She very well knows that marriage is no guarantee for material security as her case indicates, yet she likes to imagine it will work for Laura.
To pass this message of truth and illusion Tennessee Williams employs the use of symbols in the play. Several symbols appear in Glass Menagerie. The first and most obvious one is the glass animals, as a matter of fact they are the ones give the play its title. The glass figurines represent Laura’s fragile world which eventually breaks when the gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, Tom brought home in the hope that he might marry Laura announces that he is engaged to another lady just after kissing Laura. The breaking of the unicorn thereafter symbolizes the inevitable end of Laura’s romantic attachments. Like a unicorn Laura is beautiful but odd.
Jim calls Laura Blue Roses a name which he gave her back in their high school days. Roses are known to be beautiful but nobody ever heard of the existence of blue roses. This may well signify that Laura is beautiful but not by earthly standards.
When Tom returns home one morning form watching the movies and a magic show, he narrates to Laura one that fascinated him the most. There is a magic show which intrigued him so much and he tells Laura about it. Tom tells Laura of the show in which a magician was nailed into a coffin but was able to get out of the coffin. He says: “But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. There is a trick that would come in handy for me — get me out of this two-by-four situation.” (Williams, Part 2, Scene 4, pg. 27)
The coffin is a powerful symbol in that for Tom it represents a trap that his life has become. The rigors of having to lead a life for which you want no part of is much like death for Tom. The coffin is his life together with that of his family which Tom yearns to get away from, but unlike the magician there is easy way out for him. If Tom has to get out the nails have to come off, meaning that his family will break apart with his departure. And this is exactly the scenario that unfolds at the end of the play.
Another powerful symbol in the play is the fire escape. The fire escape represents the possibility, or the way out of the frustrations of living in a mousetrap that is the home of the Wingfields with its so many unfulfilled dreams. Whoever gathers the courage to escape through it will be liberated from the dreary stranglehold the house has on all of its inhabitants. However Laura’s falling on the fire escape’s landing may have been a way of showing us that she fails in her bid to escape the entrapments of their apathetic house.
Mr. Wingfield’s picture is yet another important symbol. Many people will different interpretations on the nature of its purpose. The fact that it seems to loom large in the house may have been the playwright’s way of showing us where it all started. Though gone for sixteen years now, Mr. Wingfield will always the principle cause of the situation the Wingfield siblings and Amanda have found themselves in. He absconded his responsibilities as a father and a husband and now Tom has had step in for him denying himself the need to follow his pursuits (Falk, pg. 8).
All the above symbols help to make the play’s message more profound and it also enables the audience to deduce some issues on its own without having to be implied directly in the play. Glass Menagerie is especially heavy with symbolism because of its peculiar technique of beaming images on the stage. The visual images consolidate the story and helps remind the audience that the play is a work of memory.
Having looked at the symbols, it is only fair that we also fair that we also look at some of the major themes in the play. There are three main ones at best. First, there is failure and disappointment. The failure of Amanda’s marriage to Mr. Wingfield is a glaring example. Amanda is obviously disappointed that her marriage did not turn out as she had expected even though her husband was chosen among the seventeen gentlemen callers who had shown interest in her.
There is the failure of Laura to find herself a suitor yet she was so close. When Jim O’Connor announces that he is engaged everyone including Tom is disappointed. Having watched movies over many evenings, Tom is disappointed with them saying they only give the viewer a feeling of on screen adventure but never allows the them to experience real life adventure. Tom is also disappointed with people and the world for exuding a pretension of calm when they are wars going on elsewhere as is the case with Spain the play. The Second World War was also looming large but people are busy dancing away their nights.
Escape is another theme in the play. The ability to stage one or the failure to make a clean break for it is debated all through the play. Tom’s father disappearance was not accidental. That his picture seemed to have “grinned” when Tom asks who can ever get out of a coffin without removing a single suggesting to us that he may purposefully decided to leave his family behind. He may have left his broken but he did manage run and left behind a life he did not think was fulfilling enough after falling in love, as is said in the play, with the long distances (Williams, Part 1, Scene 1, pg. 5)
Tom follows in his father’s footsteps and also decides to “run away” leaving behind his sister. He leaves behind the responsibility accorded to him by his mother to care for them and joints the Merchant Marine Service. Unfortunately for Tom the memory of her sister haunts him. Laura is one person in need of an escape but she is not courageous enough to make one and thus she will remain stuck to her drab St. Louis house. The theme of escape is important in showing us that sometimes we can free ourselves only for us to hold ourselves back (Bloom, 24).
On the overall, Glass Menagerie is a powerful play whose powerful message still resonates with us in this day and age. We are still none the wiser as the people in 1930s America were on issues involving truth and reality. We still love the truth disguised as reality, failing to realize that illusion will never be reality no matter. The sooner we learn to face our problems as they are the better. Tom may have irresponsibly run away from his “sick” sister but at least he followed his heart. He remembers her memory albeit with some guilt but the guilt is purged by what he considers to have been a bold step he took in escaping.
Bloom, Harrold.Tennessee Williams’ the Glass Menagerie (Modern Critical Interpretation). New York: Chelsea House Publications, 1998
Falk, Signi L. Tennessee Williams. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961
Williams, Tennessee. Glass Menagerie ( PDF). Sparknotes.com, 2008. Retrieved July 21, 2008 from: https://secure.sparknotes.com/account/buyProduct.psp?pid=10185