The Glass Menagerie
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, and its action is drawn from the memories of the narrator, Tom Wingfield. Tom is a character in the play, which is set in St. Louis in 1937. He is an aspiring poet who toils in a shoe warehouse to support his mother, Amanda, and sister, Laura. Mr. Wingfield, Tom and Laura’s father, ran off years ago and, except for one postcard, has not been heard from since.
Amanda, originally from a fashionable Southern family, regales her children frequently with tales of her idyllic youth and the scores of suitors who once pursued her. She is disappointed that Laura, who wears a brace on her leg and is painfully shy, does not attract any gentlemen callers. She enrolls Laura in a business college, hoping that she will make her own and the family’s fortune through a business career. Weeks later, however, Amanda discovers that Laura’s crippling shyness has led her to drop out of the class secretly and spend her days wandering the city alone. Amanda then decides that Laura’s last hope must lie in marriage and begins selling magazine subscriptions to earn the extra money she believes will help to attract suitors for Laura. Meanwhile, Tom, who hates his warehouse job, finds escape in liquor, movies, and literature, much to his mother’s disappointment. During one of the frequent arguments between mother and son, Tom accidentally breaks several of the glass animal figurines that are Laura’s most prized possessions.
Amanda and Tom discuss Laura’s prospects, and Amanda asks Tom to keep an eye out for potential suitors at the warehouse. Tom selects Jim O’Connor, a casual friend, and invites him to dinner. Amanda quizzes Tom about Jim and is delighted to learn that he is an ambitious young man with his mind set on career advancement. She prepares an elaborate dinner and insists that Laura wear a new dress. At the last minute, Laura learns the name of her caller; as it turns out, she had a special liking for Jim in high school. When Jim arrives, Laura answers the door, on Amanda’s orders, and then quickly disappears, leaving Tom and Jim alone. Tom confides to Jim that he has used the money for his family’s electric bill to join the merchant marine and plans to leave his job and family in search of adventure. Laura refuses to eat dinner with the others, terribly shy and nervous. Amanda, wearing an ostentatious dress from her glamorous youth, talks vivaciously with Jim throughout the meal.
As dinner is ending, the lights go out as a consequence of the unpaid electric bill. They light candles, and Amanda encourages Jim to entertain Laura in the living room while she and Tom clean up. Laura is at first paralyzed by Jim’s presence, but his warm and open behaviour soon draws her out of her shell. She confesses that she knew and liked him in high school but was too shy to approach him. They continue talking, and Laura reminds him of the nickname he had given her: “Blue Roses,” an accidental corruption of pleurosis, an illness Laura had in high school. He reproaches her for her shyness and low self-esteem but praises her uniqueness. Laura then ventures to show him her favourite glass animal, a unicorn. Jim dances with her, but in the process, he accidentally knocks over the unicorn, breaking off its horn. Laura is forgiving, noting that now the unicorn is a normal horse. Jim then kisses her, but he quickly draws back and apologizes, explaining that he was carried away by the moment and that he actually has a serious girlfriend. Resigned, Laura offers him the broken unicorn as a souvenir.
Amanda enters the living room, full of good cheer. Jim hastily explains that he must leave because of an appointment with his fiancée. Amanda sees him off warmly but, after he is gone, turns on Tom, who had not known that Jim was engaged. Amanda accuses Tom of being an inattentive, selfish dreamer and then throws herself into comforting Laura. From the fire escape outside of their apartment, Tom watches the two women and explains that, not long after Jim’s visit, he gets fired from his job and leaves Amanda and Laura behind. Years later, though he travels far, he finds that he is unable to leave behind guilty memories of Laura.
Scenes One and Two
With Tom’s direct address to the audience, describing the play and the other characters, the play acknowledges its status as a work of art and admits that it does not represent reality. Tom’s address also identifies the bias inherent in the portrayal of events that have already occurred: everything the audience sees will be filtered through Tom’s memory and be subject to all of its guesswork, colourings, and subconscious distortions. The presence of a character that both narrates and participates in the play is quite unusual, and Tom’s dual role creates certain conflicts in his characterization. As narrator, Tom recounts and comments on the action from an unspecified date in the future and, as such, has acquired a certain emotional distance from the action. As a character, however, Tom is emotionally and physically involved in the action. Thus, Tom first appears as a cool, objective narrator who earns the audience’s trust, but within minutes, he changes into an irritable young man embroiled in a petty argument with his mother over how he chews his food. As a consequence, the audience is never quite sure how to react to Tom—whether to take his opinions as the solid pronouncements of a narrator or the self-centred perspective of just another character.
By the end of Scene Three, Williams has established the personalities of each of the three Wingfields and the conflicts that engage them. Tom’s frustration with his job and home life, Amanda’s nostalgia for her past and demands for the family’s future, and Laura’s social and physical handicaps all emerge quickly through the dialogue.
Amanda’s constant nagging suffocates and wounds her children, and her pettiness decreases her credibility in the eyes of her children and the audience. For example, her complaints about Tom’s night-time excursions may be legitimate, but they get lost in the reproaches she heaps upon him for his eating habits. Yet the hardship of her life as a single mother inspires sympathy. Her magazine subscription campaign is humiliating work, but it is a sacrifice and indignity that she is willing to undergo out of concern for her daughter’s eventual happiness.
Mr. Wingfield’s photograph hangs over everything that occurs onstage, indicating that, though the family has not seen him for years, he still plays a crucial role in their lives. Tom has been forced to adopt his absent father’s role of breadwinner, and he is both tantalized and haunted by the idea that he might eventually adopt his father’s role as deserter. Tom voices this possibility explicitly at the end of Scene Three, For Amanda, her husband left her because he “fell in love with long distances.” With that in mind, it seems perfectly reasonable that she should be suspicious whenever Tom strays, mentally or physically, into any world outside their cramped apartment.
Like the glass animals that she loves so well, Laura is incredibly delicate and oddly fanciful. Somehow, the fights and struggles that shape Amanda’s and Tom’s lives have not hardened Laura. Amanda and Tom argue constantly about their respective responsibilities to the family, but Laura never joins in. Interestingly, Laura does not participate in supporting the family. Her physical and resultant emotional disabilities seem to excuse her from any practical obligation to the household.
Though she does nothing to hold the family together financially, Laura holds it together emotionally. Amanda hits on this truth when she reminds Tom that he cannot leave as long as Laura depends on him. Both Tom and Amanda are capable of working to support themselves, and, without the childlike Laura, this family of three adults would almost certainly dissolve. In addition, Laura’s role as peacemaker proves crucial to ending the standoff between Tom and Amanda. Laura valiantly tries to douse the “slow and implacable fires” of her family’s unhappiness. Interestingly, she trips on the fire escape when she leaves the apartment. This event contributes to the reconciliation between Tom and Amanda, who are united in their concern for Laura, and it also draws attention to the fact that, for Laura, escape from the emotional fires of her family is impossible. Thus, she has no choice but to do everything she can to extinguish them.
The closeness and warmth of Tom’s relationship with Laura becomes evident when Tom comes home drunk at the beginning of Scene Four. Laura’s love and concern for Tom are great enough to prompt her to wake up at five in the morning to see if he has come home. Tom uses his account of the magic show to share his most intimate experiences and thoughts with Laura. He subtly confesses to her about his drinking when he talks about the magician turning water to whiskey. Then, the coffin anecdote reveals both Tom’s sense of morbid confinement in his job and family life and his impossible dreams of escaping the family “without removing one nail”—that is, without destroying it. The imagery in Tom’s speech about the magic show contains several layers of symbolic meaning. The coffin trick, with its suggestions of rising from the dead, is a reference to Christian resurrection.
Although Amanda seems to do everything she can to make her children happy, many of her expectations of what will make them happy are actually egocentric—that is, they are based on Amanda’s own definition of happiness. She wants the best for Tom and Laura, but her concept of the best has far more to do with her own values than with her children’s interests and dreams. Tom wants intellectual stimulation and a literary life, and Amanda refuses to admit that these may provide as valid a vision of happiness as financial stability. Gentleman callers hold no interest for Laura, but they hold great interest for Amanda, who refuses to accept that her daughter is not identical to her in this regard.
In Scene Five, Amanda’s far-fetched dreams for Laura appear to be within reach. The screen legend at the beginning of the scene is “Annunciation”—a word that, besides simply meaning “announcement,” also refers to the Catholic celebration of God’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that she is pregnant with Jesus Christ. Jim, then, may be seen as a saviour—for Laura and for the entire family. Furthermore, Amanda’s description of the moon as a “little silver slipper” also calls to mind the Cinderella fairy tale, which Williams considered an important story. In one version of this tale, a handsome young prince rescues a maiden from a lifetime of domestic drudgery, and a glass slipper is crucial to cementing the match. Amanda’s hopes for Jim’s visit are high, and clues such as the slipper suggest that they may be correctly so. Soon, though, Williams’s references to the birth of a saviour and of fairy-tale romance are revealed as ironic omens of tragedy.
Laura’s glasslike qualities become more explicit in Scene Six, where, according to the stage directions, she resembles “glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance.” She embodies the “momentary radiance” of glass more completely in Scene Seven. Here, however, it is the fragility of glass that is most evident in her character. Before now, we have merely heard about the panic that results from her shyness. In this scene, we witness it directly, as her reason breaks down in the face of the terror that Jim’s presence instils in her.
The straightforward, iron-willed Jim contrasts sharply with the elusive, delicate Laura. Jim is, as Tom says in Scene One, a representative from the “world of reality.” His entrance marks the first time in the play that the audience comes into contact with the outside world from which the Wingfields, in their various ways, are all hiding.
Jim is as different from the rest of the Wingfields as he is from Laura. Whereas Tom sees the warehouse as a coffin, Jim sees it as the starting point of his career. Amanda lives in a past riddled with traditions and gentility, while Jim looks only toward the future of science, technology, and business. He is good-natured about Tom’s ambivalent performance at his job, and most important, he is charmed by Laura’s imagination and vulnerability. Given Jim’s philosophy of life and belief in the value of social grace, it is possible that his remarkable tolerance and understanding is not a result of genuine compassion but, rather, an expression of the belief that it is always in one’s best interest to try to get along with everyone.
While Jim’s presence emphasizes the alienation of the Wingfields from the rest of the world, it simultaneously lends a new dignity and comprehensibility to that alienation. Jim’s professed dreams present a nightmare vision of the impersonality of humanity—shallow, materialistic, and blindly, relentlessly upbeat. We are forced to consider the question of whether it is preferable to live in a world of Wingfields or a world of Jims. There is no easy answer to this question, but it seems possible that, for all their unhappiness, Amanda and Tom would choose the former because the Wingfields’ world is emotionally richer than Jim’s.
As Scene Seven begins, Laura’s face is made beautiful by the new floor lamp and its lampshade of “rose-colored silk.” The delicate light represents Laura, and the rose represents Laura, whom Jim used to call “Blue Roses.” The glass unicorn that Jim breaks accidentally is yet another symbol that points to Laura. Like the unicorn, Laura is an impossible oddity. Jim’s kindness and kiss bring her abruptly into the normal world by shattering the protective layer of glass that she has set up around herself, but this real world also involves heartbreak, which she suffers at Jim’s hands.
Though Jim is an emissary from a very different world, he also shares some fundamental qualities with the Wingfields, each of whom is somehow unable to connect to the world around him or her. Jim seems to be well integrated into the outside world, to accept its philosophy of life, and to have latched onto a number of things that keep him afloat: public speaking, radio engineering, and Betty. But his long-winded speeches to Laura reveal an insecurity that he is fighting with all his might. He has somehow strayed off the glorious path on which he seemed destined to travel in high school. Lacking an inherent sense of self-worth, he is scrambling to find something that will give him such a sense. Jim talks as if he is trying to convince himself as much as all the others that he has the self-confidence he needs to succeed.
Each character in The Glass Menagerie is trying to escape from reality in his or her own way: Laura retreats into her imagination and the static world of glass animals and old records, Amanda has the glorious days of her youth, and Jim has his dreams of an executive position. Only Tom has trouble finding a satisfactory route of escape. Movies are not a real way out, as he comes to realize. Even descending the steps of the fire escape and wandering like his rootless father does not provide him with any respite from his memories of Laura’s stunted life and crushed hopes. Yet, in one way, he has escaped. A frustrated poet no longer, he has created this play. Laura’s act of blowing out the candles at the play’s end signifies the snuffing of her hopes, but it may also mark Tom’s long-awaited release from her grip. He exhorts Laura to blow out her candles and then bids her what sounds like a final goodbye. The play itself is Tom’s way out, a cathartic attempt to purge his memory and free himself through the act of creation.
Even so, when one considers the trajectory of Tennessee Williams’s life and writings, one senses a deep ambivalence in the play’s conclusion. The rose image continued to show up in Williams’s writings long after The Glass Menagerie, and the ghosts haunting Williams would eventually lead him to drug addiction and a mental hospital. For Williams and his character Tom, art may be an attempt to erase all pain.
“Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!”
The play closes with this speech by Tom, at the end of Scene Seven. From Tom’s vague description of his fate after leaving home, it is unclear whether he has found adventure or not. What is clear is that his escape is an imperfect, incomplete one. Memories of Laura chase him wherever he goes, and those memories prove as confining as the Wingfield apartment. Tom’s statement that “I am more faithful than I intended to be!” indicates that Tom is fully aware that deserting his family was a faithless and morally reprehensible act, and the guilt associated with it may have something to do with his inability to leave Laura fully behind.
Tom’s double role in The Glass Menagerie—as a character whose recollections the play documents and as a character who acts within those recollections—underlines the play’s tension between objectively presented dramatic truth and memory’s distortion of truth. Unlike the other characters, Tom sometimes addresses the audience directly, seeking to provide a more detached explanation and assessment of what has been happening onstage. But at the same time, he demonstrates real and sometimes juvenile emotions as he takes part in the play’s action. This duality can frustrate our understanding of Tom, as it is hard to decide whether he is a character whose assessments should be trusted or one who allows his emotions to affect his judgment. The Glass Menagerie is partly autobiographical, and Tom is a stand-in for the playwright himself (Williams’s given name was Thomas, and he, like Tom, spent part of his youth in St. Louis with an unstable mother and sister, his father absent much of the time).
Even taken as a single character, Tom is full of contradiction. On the one hand, he reads literature, writes poetry, and dreams of escape, adventure, and higher things. On the other hand, he seems inextricably bound to the dirty, insignificant world of the Wingfield household. We know that he reads D. H. Lawrence and follows political developments in Europe, but the content of his intellectual life is otherwise hard to understand. We have no idea of Tom’s opinion on Lawrence, nor do we have any indication of what Tom’s poetry is about. All we learn is what he thinks about his mother, his sister, and his warehouse job—precisely the things from which he claims he wants to escape.
Tom’s attitude toward Amanda and Laura has puzzled critics. Even though he clearly cares for them, he is frequently indifferent and even cruel toward them. His speech at the close of the play demonstrates his strong feelings for Laura. But he cruelly deserts her and Amanda, and not once in the course of the play does he behave kindly or lovingly toward Laura—not even when he knocks down her glass menagerie. Critics have suggested that Tom’s confusing behaviour indicates an incestuous attraction toward his sister and his shame over that attraction. This theory casts an interesting light on certain moments of the play—for example, when Amanda and Tom discuss Laura at the end of Scene Five. Tom’s insistence that Laura is hopelessly peculiar and cannot survive in the outside world, while Amanda (and later Jim) claims that Laura’s oddness is a positive thing, could have as much to do with his jealous desire to keep his sister to himself as with Laura’s own quirks.
If there is a signature character type that marks Tennessee Williams’s dramatic work, it is undeniably that of the faded Southern belle. Amanda is a clear representative of this type. Amanda is the play’s most extroverted and theatrical character.
Amanda’s constant nagging of Tom and her refusal to see Laura for who she really is are certainly reprehensible, but Amanda also reveals a willingness to sacrifice for her loved ones that is in many ways unparalleled in the play. She subjects herself to the humiliating drudgery of subscription sales in order to enhance Laura’s marriage prospects, without ever uttering so much as a word of complaint. The safest conclusion to draw is that Amanda is not evil but is deeply flawed. In fact, her flaws are centrally responsible for the tragedy, comedy, and theatrical flair of her character. Like her children, Amanda withdraws from reality into fantasy. Unlike them, she is convinced that she is not doing so and, consequently, is constantly making efforts to engage with people and the world outside her family. Amanda’s monologues to her children, on the phone, and to Jim all reflect quite clearly her moral and psychological failings, but they are also some of the most colourful and unforgettable words in the play.
The physically and emotionally crippled Laura is the only character in the play that never does anything to hurt anyone else. Despite the weight of her own problems, she displays a pure compassion—as with the tears she sheds over Tom’s unhappiness, described by Amanda in Scene Four—that stands in stark contrast to the selfishness and grudging sacrifices that characterize the Wingfield household. Laura also has the fewest lines in the play, which contributes to her aura of selflessness. Yet she is the axis around which the plot turns, and the most prominent symbols—blue roses, the glass unicorn, the entire glass menagerie—all in some sense represent her. Laura is as rare and peculiar as a blue rose or a unicorn, and she is as delicate as a glass figurine. Laura is painfully shy, unable to face the world outside of the tiny Wingfield apartment. She spends her time polishing her collection of tiny glass animals, her "glass menagerie." Her presence is almost ghostly, and her inability to connect with others outside of her family makes her dependent on Tom and Amanda. Jim's nickname for her, "Blue Roses," suggests both her odd beauty and her isolation, as blue roses exist nowhere in the real world. She is in many ways like Rose, Tennessee Williams' real-life sister. As a parallel to Rose, then, Laura becomes helpless and impossibly passive.
An old acquaintance of Tom and Laura. Jim was a popular athlete in high school and is now a shipping clerk at the shoe warehouse in which Tom works. He is unwaveringly devoted to goals of professional achievement and ideals of personal success.
Amanda’s husband and Laura and Tom’s father. Mr. Wingfield was a handsome man who worked for a telephone company. He abandoned his family years before the action of the play and never appears onstage. His picture, however, is prominently displayed in the Wingfields’ living room.
1. Tom calls Laura “peculiar,” but Amanda bristles at this word. What is “peculiar” about Laura?
When Amanda asks Tom to explain what he means when he calls Laura “peculiar,” he refers to the fact that she never goes out and says that “[s]he lives in a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments.” Her inability to talk to strangers is also unusual, as is the violent illness that overtakes her when she is faced with the most minimal of social pressures. One of her legs is shorter than the other, and it is quite possible that this physical deformity contributes to her shyness. Jim suggests another possible explanation for her oddity: he believes that all of her peculiarities stem from an inferiority complex and that they would disappear if she could only learn to think more highly of herself. Another more complex explanation for Laura’s odd behavior is that she lives in a fantasy world of her own creation. Like the glass menagerie, this fantasy world is dangerously delicate. Because direct contact with the real world threatens to shatter Laura’s fantasies, much as the touch of any solid object will pop a soap bubble, she is terrified of any interaction with reality. If such is the case, then Laura begins to look a little less peculiar. After all, Amanda and Tom also live to some extent in fantasy worlds—Amanda in the past and Tom in movies and literature. The only difference between Laura and them, perhaps, is that she inhabits her fantasy world much more completely than they inhabit theirs.
A single line from Laura reveals the complexity of the question of exactly how peculiar she is. In Scene Seven, she says to Jim that she has never heard her glass horses argue among themselves. If we are meant to believe that she actually expects the glass figures to talk, then this quote demonstrates that she is deeply and unhealthily engrossed in her fantasies. Yet the stage directions indicate that she should say this line “lightly.” It seems that she is just making a joke, which would indicate that she can, on the right occasion, distance herself enough from her fantasy world to find humour and absurdity in it.
2. Why is the fire escape important in the play?
On the most concrete level, the fire escape is an emblem of the Wingfields’ poverty. In Amanda’s youth, she would have stepped onto a veranda or a porch for fresh air. But she and her children now live in a tenement in an urban centre, and outdoor space is hard to come by. Yet in Scene Five, in one of the play’s few cautiously optimistic moments, the Wingfields still manage to find romance and hope on the fire escape, when Tom and Amanda wish on the moon. The fire escape also represents exactly what the name implies: the promise of escape from the overheated atmosphere of the apartment. Williams describes life in these tenements as the constant burning of the “slow and implacable fires of human desperation.” Tom, for one, is suffocated by the heat of these fires and occasionally steps onto the fire-escape landing to have a smoke. “I’m starting to boil inside,” he tells Jim in Scene Six. The photo of Mr. Wingfield operates with the fire escape to remind Tom and the audience that leaving is possible, and at the end of the play, Tom does indeed walk down the fire escape steps, never to return. Yet this possibility does not exist for everyone. In Scene Five, Laura slips and falls on the fire escape while on her way to a nearby store. For her, escape is impossible, and the fire escape, which takes the people she loves away from her, represents only the possibility of injury and destruction.
3. Which aspects of The Glass Menagerie are realistic? Which aspects are the most nonrealistic? What function do the non-realistic elements serve?
The Glass Menagerie is fundamentally a non-realistic play. Distortion, illusion, dream, symbol, and myth are the tools by means of which the action onstage is endowed with beauty and meaning. A screen displays words and images relevant to the action; music intrudes with melodramatic timing; the lights rise or dim according to the mood onstage, not the time of day; symbols like the glass menagerie are hammered home in the dialogue without any attempt at subtlety. The play’s style may best be described as expressionistic—underlying meaning is emphasized at the expense of realism. The play’s lack of stylistic realism is further explained by the fact that the story is told from Tom’s memory. As Tom puts it, the fact that what we are seeing is a memory play means that “it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music.”
Though the style of the play is overwhelmingly non-realistic, its content is a different matter. Emotions like Tom’s boredom, Amanda’s nostalgia, and Laura’s terror are conveyed with all the vividness of reality. So are the sorrowful hostility between Tom and Amanda and the quiet love between Tom and Laura. Similarly, the bleak lower-middle-class life of the Wingfield family is portrayed with a great deal of fidelity to historical and social realities. In fact, it often seems as if the main effect of the play’s non-realistic style is to increase the sense of reality surrounding its content. The play, as Tom says, is committed to giving its audience “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
The Difficulty of Accepting Reality
Among the most prominent and urgent themes of The Glass Menagerie is the difficulty the characters have in accepting and relating to reality. Each member of the Wingfield family is unable to overcome this difficulty, and each, as a result, withdraws into a private world of illusion where he or she finds the comfort and meaning that the real world does not seem to offer. Of the three Wingfields, reality has by far the weakest grip on Laura. The private world in which she lives is populated by glass animals—objects that, like Laura’s inner life, are incredibly fanciful and dangerously delicate. Unlike his sister, Tom is capable of functioning in the real world, as we see in his holding down a job and talking to strangers. But, in the end, he has no more motivation than Laura does to pursue professional success, romantic relationships, or even ordinary friendships, and he prefers to retreat into the fantasies provided by literature and movies and the stupor provided by drunkenness. Amanda’s relationship to reality is the most complicated in the play. Unlike her children, she is partial to real-world values and longs for social and financial success. Yet her attachment to these values is exactly what prevents her from perceiving a number of truths about her life. She cannot accept that she is or should be anything other than the pampered belle she was brought up to be, that Laura is peculiar, that Tom is not a budding businessman, and that she herself might be in some ways responsible for the sorrows and flaws of her children. Amanda’s retreat into illusion is in many ways more pathetic than her children’s, because it is not a wilful imaginative construction but a wistful distortion of reality.
Although the Wingfields are distinguished and bound together by the weak relationships they maintain with reality, the illusions to which they succumb are not merely familial quirks. The outside world is just as susceptible to illusion as the Wingfields. The young people at the Paradise Dance Hall waltz under the short-lived illusion created by a glass ball—another version of Laura’s glass animals. Tom opines to Jim that the other viewers at the movies he attends are substituting on-screen adventure for real-life adventure, finding fulfilment in illusion rather than real life. Even Jim, who represents the “world of reality,” is banking his future on public speaking and the television and radio industries—all of which are means for the creation of illusions and the persuasion of others that these illusions are true. The Glass Menagerie identifies the conquest of reality by illusion as a huge and growing aspect of the human condition in its time.
The Impossibility of True Escape
At the beginning of Scene Four, Tom regales Laura with an account of a magic show in which the magician managed to escape from a nailed-up coffin. Clearly, Tom views his life with his family and at the warehouse as a kind of coffin—cramped, suffocating, and morbid—in which he is unfairly confined. The promise of escape, represented by Tom’s missing father, the Merchant Marine Service, and the fire escape outside the apartment, haunts Tom from the beginning of the play, and in the end, he does choose to free himself from the confinement of his life.
The play takes an ambiguous attitude toward the moral implications and even the effectiveness of Tom’s escape. As an able-bodied young man, he is locked into his life not by exterior factors but by emotional ones—by his loyalty to and possibly even love for Laura and Amanda. Escape for Tom means the suppression and denial of these emotions in himself, and it means doing great harm to his mother and sister. The magician is able to emerge from his coffin without upsetting a single nail, but the human nails that bind Tom to his home will certainly be upset by his departure. One cannot say for certain that leaving home even means true escape for Tom. As far as he might wander from home, something still “pursue[s]” him. Like a jailbreak, Tom’s escape leads him not to freedom but to the life of a fugitive.
The Unrelenting Power of Memory
According to Tom, The Glass Menagerie is a memory play—both its style and its content are shaped and inspired by memory. The story that the play tells is told because of the inflexible grip it has on the narrator’s memory. Thus, the fact that the play exists at all is a testament to the power that memory can exert on people’s lives and consciousness. Indeed, Williams writes in the Production Notes that “nostalgia . . . is the first condition of the play.” The narrator, Tom, is not the only character haunted by his memories. Amanda too lives in constant pursuit of her bygone youth, and old records from her childhood are almost as important to Laura as her glass animals. For these characters, memory is a crippling force that prevents them from finding happiness in the present or the offerings of the future. But it is also the vital force for Tom, prompting him to the act of creation that culminates in the achievement of the play.
The plot of The Glass Menagerie is structured around a series of abandonments. Mr. Wingfield’s desertion of his family determines their life situation; Jim’s desertion of Laura is the centre of the play’s dramatic action; Tom’s abandonment of his family gives him the distance that allows him to shape their story into a narrative. Each of these acts of desertion proves devastating for those left behind. At the same time, each of them is portrayed as the necessary condition for, and a natural result of, inevitable progress. In particular, each is strongly associated with the march of technological progress and the achievements of the modern world. Mr. Wingfield, who works for the telephone company, leaves his family because he “fell in love with [the] long distances” that the telephone brings into people’s consciousness. It is impossible to imagine that Jim, who puts his faith in the future of radio and television, would tie himself to the sealed, static world of Laura. Tom sees his departure as essential to the pursuit of “adventure,” his taste for which is whetted by the movies he attends nightly. Only Amanda and Laura, who are devoted to archaic values and old memories, will presumably never assume the role of abandoner and are doomed to be repeatedly abandoned.
Laura’s Glass Menagerie
As the title of the play informs us, the glass menagerie, or collection of animals, is the play’s central symbol. Laura’s collection of glass animal figurines represents a number of facets of her personality. Like the figurines, Laura is delicate, fanciful, and somehow old-fashioned. Glass is transparent, but, when light is shined upon it correctly, it refracts an entire rainbow of colours. Similarly, Laura, though quiet and bland around strangers, is a source of strange, multifaceted delight to those who choose to look at her in the right light. The menagerie also represents the imaginative world to which Laura devotes herself—a world that is colourful and enticing but based on fragile illusions.
The Glass Unicorn
The glass unicorn in Laura’s collection—significantly, her favourite figure—represents her peculiarity. As Jim points out, unicorns are “extinct” in modern times and are lonesome as a result of being different from other horses. Laura too is unusual, lonely, and ill-adapted to existence in the world in which she lives. The fate of the unicorn is also a smaller-scale version of Laura’s fate in Scene Seven. When Jim dances with and then kisses Laura, the unicorn’s horn breaks off, and it becomes just another horse. Jim’s advances endow Laura with a new normalcy, making her seem more like just another girl, but the violence with which this normalcy is thrust upon her means that Laura cannot become normal without somehow shattering. Eventually, Laura gives Jim the unicorn as a “souvenir.” Without its horn, the unicorn is more appropriate for him than for her, and the broken figurine represents all that he has taken from her and destroyed in her.
“Blue Roses”: Like the glass unicorn, “Blue Roses,” Jim’s high school nickname for Laura, symbolizes Laura’s unusualness yet allure. The name is also associated with Laura’s attraction to Jim and the joy that his kind treatment brings her. Furthermore, it recalls Tennessee Williams’s sister, Rose, on whom the character of Laura is based. This symbolism contrasts with her mother's connection to jonquils, or daffodils – a beautiful yet commonplace flower. Laura, the blue rose, is a misfit, something that can't exist in the real world, no matter how lovely it is as an idea. No matter how beautiful or delicate she is, the world rejects her and ultimately will leave her all alone, unappreciated.
The symbol of shattering glass is used in two contrasting yet prominent ways in Williams' script. The first time a glass animal is broken corresponds to the shattering of illusions – Tom's angry speech about where he goes at night, and the Wingfields' first realization that he will inevitably leave them. But when the unicorn breaks, it is in a moment of rare confidence for Laura, as she is dancing with Jim. In that case, the breaking of the glass is a breaking of the shell that holds her in – and the piercing of a hole in her defences that welcomes a great amount of pain. In the end, Tom reveals in his final recollections that he will forever associate his sister with bits of coloured glass behind shop windows – glass hidden (protected?) behind more glass, something too delicate to touch the outside world.
(Borrowed From Sparknotes)
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Glass Menagerie.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2003. Web. 19 July. 2014.