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The Glass Menagerie Essay, Research Paper
Tennessee Williams’ play “The Glass Menagerie” relives the horrors of the Great Depression and the effects it had on many people’s lives. The story is in many ways about the life of Tennessee Williams himself, as well as a play of fiction that he wrote. However, the story is based on Tennessee and his family’s struggle to emotionally deal with the harsh realities that followed the crash of 1929 (807).
He says in the beginning, “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion” (695). The characters Tom, Laura, and Amanda are very much like Williams, his sister Rose, and his mother Edwina. The characters’ lives seem to avoid reality more than facing it. Each character changed their difficult situations into shadows of truth. This gives us the image that not one of the characters is capable of living entirely in the present. Each character retreats into their separate worlds to escape the brutality of life.
The playwright has done remarkable use of symbols, tensions, and irony. He uses all of these components to express the main theme of the play; the hopeful desire to change the present followed by unavoidable disappointments. All of the characters have dreams, which are destroyed by the harsh realities of the world. As the narrator admits in his opening of the play, “since I have a poet’s weakness for symbols,” is an expression of a particular theme, idea or character.
One major symbol is the fire escape, which has a separate function for each character. This fire escape provides a means of escape for Tom to get away from his cramped apartment and nagging mother. Therefore, the fire escape, for Tom, represents a path to the outside world where dreams are. For the gentleman caller, the fire escape provides the means through which Jim can enter the Wingfield’s apartment and serves as an entrance to their lives. For Amanda, Tom’s mom, the fire escape allows Jim to come into the apartment and prevent Laura from becoming a spinster. For Laura, Tom’s sister, it is her door to the inside world in where she can hide. It is ironic that when Laura does leave the security of her apartment, she falls. This symbolizes Laura’s inability to function properly in the outside world.
Another major symbol is the title “The Glass Menagerie,” which represents Laura’s hypersensitive nature and fragility. Laura is just as easily broken as a glass unicorn and just as unique. When Jim accidentally bumps into the unicorn and breaks it, the unicorn is no longer unique. When Jim kisses Laura and then shatters her hopes by telling her that he’s engaged, she becomes broken hearted and loses her innocent being, which made her unique. Both Laura and her glass menagerie break when they are exposed to the outside world, represented by Jim. When Laura gives Jim her broken unicorn as a souvenir, it symbolizes her broken heart that Jim will take with him when he leaves and it also provided her with a new confidence. Now the unicorn is no longer unique, like her, but rather as common as a horse, like him. Therefore, she gives the unicorn to Jim, giving him a little bit of her shattered hopes to take with him.
The Glass Menagerie also uses a rainbow to symbolize hope and each mention of rainbows in the play is associated with a hopeful situation. A good example is when Tom talks about his rainbow colored scarf that he got at the magic show. He talks about how it changed a bowl of goldfish into flying canaries and just like the canaries, Tom hopes to fly away too; to escape from his imprisonment of himself and his family. The chandeliers, that create rainbow reflections at the dance hall, foreshadow the dance between Jim and Laura, which also gives leaves hope within her. At the end, when Tom looks at pieces of colored glass like bits of a shattered rainbow, he remembers his sister and hopes that he can blow ‘her’ candles out. Basically, though the rainbows seemed to be positive signs, it all ends in disappointment. As shown mostly through the narrator Tom, “maintains distance between himself and the pain of the situation through irony,” and also explains, “For the artist, irony is a device that protects him from the pain of his experience so that he may use it objectively in his art” (734).
The play itself focuses on the apartment life that Amanda, Laura, and Tom Wingfield share in the city and it is among many dark alleys with fire escapes. Tom and Laura do not like the dark atmosphere of their living conditions, even though their mother tries to make it as pleasant as possible. An apartment that had only two small windows in the front and rear rooms, and a fire escape blocked the smoky light from a back alley. A home that is a lower middle class neighborhood, which seemed disgusted. Amanda is a typical Southern belle who fantasizes about her seventeen gentlemen callers back in Blue Mountain. In reality, the mother depends on her son’s income to support the family. She regularly attends the D.A.R. meetings, which is an important outlet for her activities. Amanda believes that Laura needs to have some gentlemen callers visiting their apartment, because she does not want Laura to be an old unmarried spinster, which is just like her. This comes from her selfish concern of Laura but also from her being unattached.
Tom is trying to support his mother, sister and himself with his work at a shoe factory. This was a typical situation for this time frame. Many families struggled to survive on a single income during the country’s recovery from the crash of 1929. Tom does not want this job because it is a career, and he will have to do it all his life. Instead, he wants to be a writer and spends most of his time working on poetry. Amanda constantly criticizes Tom’s wishes, and she pressures him to bring home a gentlemen caller from his work to introduce to Laura. Amanda explains to Tom that she knows that he wants to leave them, but he should at least be responsible enough to take care of his sister’s destiny before he departs. Tom and Laura do have a close relationship, and he obliges with Amanda’s request to bring home a gentlemen caller for his sister.
For Tom movies were always exciting for him and were another avenue of escape from the world. In the play, Amanda constantly questions Tom about his daily “leaves to the movies.” Tom tries to explain that he loves the movies so much, but Amanda does not believe that his evenings are so innocent. Meanwhile, Laura is very shy girl and does not want to be involved with the world outside of their apartment. She collects tiny glass animals and she treasures them more than actually participating in daily contact with the public. It comes to the point where Amanda enrolls her in a business school, hoping Laura will have some sort of trade and be able to support herself in the future. But, Laura is so shy that she does not attend classes and is eventually dropped from the enrollment.
Amanda somehow convinced Tom into inviting a nice young man from the shoe warehouse over to their apartment for dinner. When Jim O’Connor comes to dinner, Laura recognizes him as the boy that she had a crush on in high school. After dinner, Amanda tells Jim to keep Laura accompanied in the parlor. Initially, Laura is petrified, but she begins to feel more comfortable around him as they reminisce over high school days. Jim dances with Laura and kisses her, only to reveal that he is engaged to another woman and must leave. This, seemingly, is the turning point of the play. Amanda believes that Tom has purposely made them look like fools and eventually got Tom to leave, just as his father had. At the end of the play, Tom realizes that he will never be able to forget the sister he had left behind.
All the characters seem to separate themselves from the cruel realities of their lives. Their efforts to escape serve only to distract them from their problems. Laura has come to a understanding degree of self interest as a dependent sad girl. Tom still faces a dead end life, though he runs away to find his dream. Amanda still has no means to support herself and Laura remains beset by a past colored by fantasy. While Jim leaves the stage, we wonder if he ever leaves the warehouse.
The comical relief is when Amanda accuses Tom of going out drinking every night. Tom creates a humorous story about how “Killer, Killer Wingfield spends his nights in opium dens, dens of vice and criminals’ hangouts.” By agreeing with his mother and turning the argument into a form of exaggeration, Tom wants to protect himself. Tom seems to be distancing himself from the situation and avoiding the pain by turning it into a joke. He then makes a joke of his father’s abandonment, which he refers to his father as a “telephone man who fell in love with long distances,” to shield himself. He also talks of the last time he heard from his father with an ironic twist of humor of a postcard saying, “Hello” and “Goodbye.” It is also ironic that Tom’s last words in the play are the same as his father’s, “and so goodbye.”
The character Amanda also exhibits much irony in her character. She wants the best for her children, but she spends so much time worrying about it that she fails to realize what is best for them. Amanda dreams back to the time when she was a young girl and had seventeen gentlemen callers and says, “Those certainly were better days.” Though her past was wonderful, the present reality is that she is now an abandoned wife with two children. From that, she forces her ideas and opinions on her children and places them in bad situations. Especially, her ideal and obsession views are still based from her time and when she used to be well off in Blue Mountain. Though Laura doesn’t want a gentleman caller, Amanda is concerned about Laura’s future. She has Tom bring Jim to their home and has Laura portray an image of a perfect southern hostess displaying honeysuckle manners and down home coziness. Only for brief moments does she ever admit that her daughter is ‘crippled’ and then she resorts back to denial. This of course, ends in disaster as she finds out that Jim is getting married to someone else. She also wants Tom to be a successful, hard worker. As a result, she pushes him so hard that Tom leaves. The tension also unifies the theme of hopelessness and uselessness, as each character cannot fulfill their dreams.
The character of Laura is a fragile daughter figure that finds herself escaping life at every turn. She is unable to deal with life’s difficulties. Frightened of interacting with people, she looks to her collection of glass animals as a place of secure acceptance. Laura clings to the fear that she is strange and crippled, though she irritates the reality of that. Magnifying her illness and denying her inner beauty to come forth, is the way Laura hides from a, “world lit by lightning.” Laura had hopes that she would be with Jim and after he kisses her, she has a “bright, dazed look.” However, Jim merely calls himself a “stumblejohn” and informs her that he is engaged. With this, Laura’s hopes are shattered and she is unable to fulfill her dream.
Tom’s character, on the other hand, relies on self-denial to justify his concerns and feelings of insecurity. By making himself believe that he is a righteous male, he convinces himself that his needs are to take care of his family. But, Tom also escapes by entering into his world of poetry writing and movies. He cannot handle his meaningless job and his unsatisfying home life. His biggest dreams flash before his eyes on a screen in a darkened room. But, living in that little apartment he faces only the dimness. Even during his reflections on the fire escape, he is not really separating himself because he is stuck in that metal frame, where he’s still anchored to the apartment wall. Tom dreams of being a poet and escapes to fulfill his dream at the end. He later finds out that he cannot forget Laura, as he wanders around town aimlessly thinking of her. It comes to the end, where Tom is trapped by his past.
Finally, our ordinary nice boy Jim character uses his glorified old memories saved by Laura to find some relief. Even Jim is still disappointed that his future hadn’t turned out to be what he imagined in his glorious high school days, where he was that great man on the campus. Stuck also in the same warehouse job as Tom, he uses his past to project towards his future success in TV, believing he will better himself. While he takes classes in speaking, he hopes to recapture his good old high school days. Laura’s admiration gives Jim feeling of need, and he fails to realize what he did to the fragile girl. Each time a character feels as if he or she is moving forward, they only move backward. Though the characters are constantly trying, nobody moves forward and nobody escapes.
In the end, the play is like our own lives. A life filled with possible escapes but sometime there is no escaping. The character’s, just like so many of us, try to find their ways but succeed in tangling themselves in problems. These characters are victims of the time in which this play is written. During the Great Depression, many people were searching for that escape to a better life. Perhaps Tennessee Williams is trying to send a message that running away is not the way to solve life’s problems. In the 1930’s, the suicide rate climbed nearly 30 percent (810). In knowing this simple fact alone, it would be well understood that people were simply looking for a way out. Tennessee Williams uses the theme of escape throughout to demonstrate the hopelessness and futility of each character’s dreams. The true feeling of hopelessness, that describes each character’s behavior, would be directly related to the economic conditions during that time. The escape theme demonstrated in Mr. Wingfield and Tom’s departure, the fire escape, and the dance hall prove to be a dead end in many ways. Thus, the only escape in life is by solving your problems, not avoiding them. This theme held true for the American recovery after the Great Depression. The only way economic conditions were going to change would be to solve the economic problems, not escaping them by blaming everyone else.
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Hirsch, Foster. A Portrait of the Artist: The Plays of Tennessee Williams. Port
Washington: Kennikat Press, 1979.
Joyce, James. “The Glass Menagerie.” The Literature and the Writing Process. 5th ed.
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