Important Symbols and Themes of The Glass Menageri Essay
e Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie is considered a memory play because it is told from the memory of the narrator. The narrator, who is also a character, is Tom Wingfield, the youngest member of the Wingfield family. The other characters are Amanda Wingfield, his mother; Laura Wingfield, his older sister; and Jim O’Connor the gentleman caller. A fifth character is represented by the photograph of Mr. Wingfield, who left the family a long time ago. It is this departure by Mr. Wingfield that represents the theme of escape throughout the play.
The Glass Menagerie is set in the apartment of the Wingfield family during the mid 1930’s. By description, it is a cramped, dinghy place, similar to a jail cell. Of the Wingfield family members, none of them want to live there. Poverty is what traps them to live within their present environment. Williams uses many symbols to help the Wingfield’s escape their surroundings, and differentiate between reality and illusion.
The first symbol, presented in the first scene, is the fire escape. This represents the “bridge” between the illusory world of the Wingfields and the world of reality. This “bridge” may be a one-way passage, but the direction varies for each character. For Tom, the fire escape is the way out of the world of Amanda and Laura, and an entrance into the world of reality. Amanda sees the fire escape as an opportunity for gentleman callers to enter their lives. This would be an example of reality entering the Wingfields illusionary lives. For Laura, the fire escape represents a way to hide from reality by staying inside the illusionary world of the apartment.
Across the street from the Wingfield apartment is the “Paradise Dance Hall” (Williams 252). Just the name of the place is a total anomaly in the story. Life with the Wingfields is as far from paradise as it could possibly be. Morning after morning, the only thing Tom and Amanda do is argue. Laura appears to find solace in playing the same records repeatedly again, day after day. Could the music floating from the dance hall to the apartment represent Laura’s escape that she is afraid to take? With war ever present in the background, the dance hall could be the last chance for paradise.
Another symbol presented deals more with Tom than any of the other characters. Tom’s habit of going to the movies shows us his longing to leave the apartment and head out into the world of reality, a place where one can find adventure. Tom, who considers himself a poet, can understand mans need for romance and adventure. The number one obstacle keeping Tom from entering reality is Amanda, who criticizes him for being a “selfish dreamer” (Williams 281). Tom has already take steps to ensure his escape into reality by transferring the payment of the light bill to pay for his dues in the “Union of Merchant Seamen” (Williams 264).
Jim O’Connor represents a symbol for both Laura and Amanda. To Laura, Jim represents the one thing she fears and does not want to face, reality. To Amanda, Jim represents the days of her youth, when she “received seventeen gentlemen callers” (Williams 236). Although Amanda wants to see Laura settled down with a nice young man, it is hard to tell whether she wanted a gentleman caller to be invited for Laura or for herself.
One symbol which is rather obvious is Laura’s glass menagerie. Her collection of glass represents a safe place to hide from reality. The events that happen to Laura’s glass collection throughout the play affect her emotional state. When Amanda tells Laura to practice typing, Laura instead plays with her glass collection. When Amanda is heard walking up the fire escape, Laura quickly hides her collection. This is to keep her secret world of glass within her mind. Tom accidentally breaks some of Laura’s glass while leaving for the movies. The shattered glass represents Laura’s understanding of Tom’s responsibilities to her. By far, the most symbolic piece of glass is the unicorn. Laura and the unicorn share a common characteristic, both are different. Laura is different from the others with her shyness and her disability. The unicorn is different from the other pieces of glass because of the horn. Laura points out to Jim that the unicorn “doesn’t complain” about being different either (Williams 275). I feel this is symbolic of Laura’s acceptance of being different. Jim accidentally drops the unicorn which in turn breaks the horn off. Laura points out that now it is like the other horses, just as Laura has shed some of her shyness and become more normal. When she hands the broken unicorn to Jim, this may represent Laura handing over her broken love to Jim, as Jim has revealed that he is engaged to be married.
Mr. Wingfield, the absent father of Tom and Laura and husband to the shrewish Amanda, is referred to often throughout the story. He is the ultimate symbol of escape. This is because he has managed to remove himself from the bad situation that the rest of his family is still living in. His picture is featured prominently on the wall as a constant reminder of better times and days gone by. Amanda always makes negative comments about her missing husband, yet his picture remains. Tom always makes jokes about his dad, and how he “fell in love with long distances” (Williams 234). This is Tom’s attempt to ease the pain of abandonment by turning his father’s action into something humorous. It is inevitable that the thing Tom resents most in his father is exactly what Tom himself will carry out in the end . . . escape! Through his father, Tom has seen that escape is possible, and though he is hesitant to leave his sister and even his mother behind, he is being driven to it.
Tennessee Williams uses the theme of escape throughout “The Glass Menagerie” to demonstrate the hopelessness of each character’s dreams. Tom, Laura, and Amanda all seem to think escape is possible. In the end however, no character can completely escape their illusionary world. Could Williams be suggesting the only way to “escape” is to solve life’s problems?
Williams, Tennessee. “The Glass Menagerie.” A Pocketful Of Plays: Vintage Drama. David Madden. New York: Hardcourt Brace @ Company, 1996. 232-282.
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