Modern readers are so mesmerized by Tennessee Williams’s romantic and mysterious personality and his unique talent to point precisely at human faults in his writings that not many know that the writer’s original name was Thomas Williams and in his “former” life that preceded the literary career he even worked for a shoe factory. Nowadays, “The Glass Menagerie”, so widely admired, is rarely compared to Williams’s own life, but in fact he purposefully splits his personality into two hypostases (Cluck, p.84) in order to show that the writing is a mature person’s account of his earlier life. The present paper focuses on the relationship between the play and the events from the author’s own life and addresses the technique of “personality dualism”, aimed at more sincere depiction of re-evaluation of the earlier years from the height of ten-year experience.
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Similarly to Tom the Character, Tennessee Williams worked for a warehouse for several years, which he always remembered as the most depressive period in his life (O’Connor, p.75). “An average student and social outcast in high school, Williams turned to the movies and writing for solace” (O’Connor, p.75). His sister Rose, the closest person in his life and the prototype of Laura in “The Glass Menagerie”, actually suffered from epilepsy and underwent a prefrontal lobotomy in the mid-1930s, which has a clearly negative outcome and left the girl institutionalized for the rest of her life. Laura, as one knows from the play, has pleurosis, a complicated medical condition, which consists in problems with breathing. Similarly to Rose, Laura is a shy, but excessively responsible girl: “Laura (rising). Mother, let me clear the table. Amanda. No, dear, go in front and study your typewriter chart” (Williams, p.6). Amanda, their mother, is similar by nature to Mrs.Williams given that both of them had quite a naïve nature and poorly fulfilled ambition, as both Tennessee’s mother and Mrs.Wingfield, in spite of their “noble” background and sociable nature, had “unworthy” husbands.
The major means of knitting the plot closely to the author’s life is creating difference between Tom the Character and Tom the Narrator, as the former embodies young Tennessee Williams, whereas the latter is designed to act as a textual representation of 33-year-old writer. Tom’s dual role in “The Glass Menagerie” —as a personality whose recollections the play documents and as a character that performs according to those memories —highlights the play’s tension between independently presented truth and memory’s alteration of truth. Tom the Narrator often addresses the reader directly, trying to give a more distanced clarification and evaluation of what has been happening in his life so that it can be evaluated “from above” (Crandall, 2001, p.153). On the other hand, he expresses real and usually childish emotions as he participates in the play’s action (Crandall, 2001, p. 154). This duality can distort the reader’s viewpoint concerning Tom’s personality, as it is difficult to make a decision if he is a character whose judgment should be trusted or one who allows his feelings to influence his opinion. It shows as well how the nature of remembrance is itself challenging: memory often includes dealing with a past in which one was much less honorable than one is at the present.
Tom the Narrator and Tom the Character have the same problems, but the Narrator dealt with them in his past, whereas the Character struggles with them as with a harsh reality and faces those problems at the moment. Tom the Narrator, or Tennesse Williams, is naturally somehow wiser and older, while Tom the Character still remains a rash young man dreaming about adventures and glory, or a young aspired poet without any life experience, but with ambitions and emotional outlook (O’Connor, p. 85).
The monologues delivered by Tom Wingfield determine the degree “to which the other characters of The Glass Menagerie are real as parts of Tom’s recollection” (O’Connor, p.85). Mrs. Wingfield, Laura, Amanda, and Jim O’Connor are Tennessee Williams’s own and Tom’s memories, as they do not exist in the world, contemporary to 33-year-old Tennessee Williams, who had already lost his sister as the closest soul and whose mother was enduring a severe breakdown (Cluck, p. 86); however, the play resuscitates both the girl’s and his mother’s original mind. (connected also with Tom’s subconscious).
In ” Dramatizing Dementia: Madness In the Plays of Tennessee Williams ” Jacqueline O’Connor notes that that Tom is the only character in this play; the others can have no consciousness as they are not real (O’Connor, p.87): “Indeed, Amanda, Laura, and the Gentleman Caller do not appear in the play at all as separate characters,” writes the scholar, adding that “we see not the characters but Tom’s [author’s] memory of them — Amanda and the rest are merely aspects of Tom’s consciousness” (O’Connor, 2002, p.86). therefore, the play resembles rather autobiography than fiction. However, O’Connor speaks predominantly about Tom the Narrator, while Tom the Character deals with real people at the present time and evaluates their actions emotionally. Importantly, the Narrator, probably an adult, judges more critically and is aware of his faults and mistakes in the past.
In his first soliloquy, Tom puts forward a logic, which applies to the characters as parts of his memory. It is a “magic” logic (O’Connor, p.86), “It is the poet, Tom Wingfield, who directs the action of both the characters in the drama and the audience viewing the play. In the first part of his narration, Tom concentrates the attention of the audience on the “fiddle in the wings” “ (Crandall, p. 164). In his last soliloquy, he reaffirms his position as narrator speaking directly to the audience, and as the play’s coordinator by asking Laura to “blow your candles out” (Crandall, p. 172).
Tom the Narrator is a magician, who presents his second personality, the Character. In the fifth part of his narration, Tom the Narrator specifies that time has taken him out of the drama, “for time is the longest distance between two places” (Crandall, p. 172). In the final soliloquy Tom tells how he lives and re-lives the narrative in his memories, although he is detached from the characters in the original situation. Similarly to his father, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances,” (Crandall, p. 172), Tom has fallen in love with the long distance, the name of which is time. Tom the Character is a sensitive, creative man who is forced by conditions into a difficult situation. He is obliged to live and re-live the circumstances of the play, in which he wanted and found what he believed to be independence. Even though he escapes the problems, he does not find real independence; his consciousness encumbers him in this situation until he finds its real meaning.
As one can conclude, combining and juxtaposing two parts of the same personality, the only distance between which is time, Williams makes his play almost biographical, given that the other characters have lost their meaning in the Narrator’s life and exist only as the copies of true people, saved in his memory. Living ‘now and here’, Tom the Character behaves like naïve adolescent who thinks that it is easy to escape the life and routine world he grew in. Tom the character loves, hates, demonstrates his emotional attitude towards his environment, while Tom the Narrator seeks to judge and evaluate the same events objectively by using his knowledge and experience.
Cluck, N. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. American Literature, Vol. 51, No. 1.(1979), pp.84-93.
Crandall, G.W. A Critical Response to Tennessee Williams. Penguin, 2001: 155-199.
O’Connor, J. Dramatizing Dementia: Madness In the Plays of Tennessee Williams. London, Heinemann Educational, 2002.
Williams, T. The Glass Menagerie. Heinemann, 1996.