The Glass Menagerie is a play that was written by Tennessee Williams and debuted in Chicago in 1944. It won a New York Drama Critics Award a year later. The Glass Menagerie propelled Williams to higher circles in the literary industry and established him as one of the most articulate playwrights in America.
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The Glass Menagerie has three major characters, Tom Wingfield, his mother, Amanda and his sister, Laura. Tom is an upcoming poet and works in a warehouse. His father abandoned them some years back and, apart from one postcard, has not communicated with the family since. Tom’s mother is from a genteel southern ancestry and frequently narrates the stories of her youth to her children and the number of suitors who wanted her. She is upset that her daughter, who is agonizingly shy, does not draw a similar number of suitors.
Amanda takes her daughter to college hoping that she will have her own family and an occupation. However, she discovers that Laura’s extremely shy behavior has made her to drop out of college and spends her days roaming in the city all by herself. Laura’s only comfort seems to come from her music records and a set of small animal statuettes.
Tom hates his job and is dying to leave the family in order to have fun in the outside world, he frequently stays out late and claims to have been at the movies. In one of the disagreements with his mother, he unintentionally breaks Laura’s animal statuettes.
Amanda tells Tom to find suitors for Laura at the workplace and Tom chooses Jim O’Connor, his friend, and asks him for dinner at their place. We learn that Jim went to the same school as Tom and Laura. Before Jim’s arrival, Laura makes Amanda to wear a new dress while she wears a beautiful gown to remind her of her youth.
Jim arrives and is let in by Laura, but she leaves, leaving the two men alone. Tom informs Jim that he used the electricity bill to join the merchant marine and intends to leave the family, Jim informs about his aspirations to become an executive. The lights go out as the characters are still having dinner and are forced to light candles. Amanda persuades Jim to entertain Laura as she and Tom clean up.
Laura is initially too shy to converse with Jim, but his friendliness soon warms her up to him. She admits that she knew and developed a crush on Jim but was too shy to talk to him. They talk fondly about their schooldays for some time. Laura then decides to show Jim her favorite animal figurine, a unicorn, but he unintentionally knocks it and its horn breaks, making it resemble other horses. Shockingly, she forgives him and laughs off the occurrence. It is obvious she likes him. Eventually, Jim tells her,
“Somebody needs to build your confidence up and make you proud instead of shy and turning away and—blushing—Somebody ought to—ought to—kiss you, Laura!” (Williams, scene 7). He kisses her but swiftly withdraws, apologizes, and mentions that he has a fiancée. Laura presents him with the broken animal as a memento.
As soon as Jim leaves, Amanda reprimands Tom for bringing home an engaged man for a suitor. Tom had not known that Jim had a fiancée. As they argue, Tom shouts:
“The more you shout about my selfishness to me the quicker I’ll go, and I won’t go to the movies!” (Williams, scene 7).
Tom becomes the narrator at this moment as he was at the opening of the play and explains how he left his family and ran away, just as his father did. He spent many years journeying overseas, but something still bothered him: he is unable to forget the guilt that Laura placed on him.
Tom acts as the author’s mouthpiece in some scenes. He provides a separate explanation and evaluation of what is taking place. He also acts in the play. This duality in role makes Tom’s position confusing to the audience, as we do not know whether to trust the role he plays as a character in the play or that of being a narrator. However, The Glass Menagerie is partially an autobiography and Tom is Tennessee William’s mouthpiece, therefore we can learn of William’s experience in his own youth through Tom (Heintzelman & Howard, pp. 182).
Tom is full contradictions, on one hand he reads books, writes poems, and wishes he could escape the family and have adventure, but on the other hand, he appears to be inextricably attached to the nasty, paltry world of the Wingfield apartment. We know that he studies D. H. Lawrence’ works and tracks the politics of Europe, but we do not know his intellectual ability. Besides, we have no knowledge of the genre of his poetry. All we know is his thoughts on Laura, Amanda, and his job- exactly the things he wants to flee.
Tom’s position on his mother and sister is clearly puzzling. While he evidently cares for them, he is often unconcerned and even mean to them. His closing speech shows how strongly he feels for Laura, yet he abandoned her (Bloom, pp. 57).
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Amanda has a hard time measuring up to her role as a single parent. She is frequently nagging Tom and refuses to recognize Laura’s shy behavior. She also reveals a readiness to sacrifice herself for her children. Fro example, she engages in the embarrassing labor of subscription sales to increase Laura’s chances of landing a suitor, she does it without ever complaining.
Similar to Laura and Tom, she pulls out of reality and engages in fantasy: she frequently tells her children of the number of suitors that came after her, and wishes the same for Laura. However, she feels she is not doing enough and involves outsiders. Her numerous monologues with her children plainly reveal her moral and psychological failures, but they are also some of the most vivid and memorable statements in the play.
The emotionally disabled Laura is the only character that never upsets anyone. Despite having a heavy burden, she demonstrates deep kindness and empathy: she sheds tears due to her brother’s unhappiness despite the egotistic and resentful acts that typify the Wingfield household (Williams, scene 4). She has the least role in the play among the Wingfields, yet everything in the play revolves around her. The major symbols in the play- blue roses, the glass unicorn, the complete glass menagerie- all seem to characterize her (Bloom, pp. 74).
Everyone in the play sees Laura as one who can assume whatever role they wish, similar to a transparent glass that takes on any color going through it. Her mother uses her to stress how glamorous she was during her youth days while Jim and Tom view her as an exotic being, very different from others.
The Impossibility of True Escape
Tom amuses his sister with the story of a magic show in which the magician escapes from a nailed coffin. He pictures his life at home and at the workplace as a confinement. The desire to escape haunts him throughout the play and in the end, he opts to free himself by running away from his mother and sister.
This escape haunts him wherever he goes and leads to questions of morality. How does an able-bodied young man leave his struggling mother and a sister behind for reasons only beneficial to himself? Leaving home is no true escape for him and no matter how far he wanders, memories of home still linger in his mind.
Difficulty of Accepting Reality
One feature of characters in The Glass Menagerie is their difficulty in accepting the truth, especially Amanda. Laura’s keeps glass animal figurines- items that are fanciful and precariously fragile. Tom is a realist: he has a job and makes friends with other people, be eventually succumbs to fantasies written in books and the trance offered by alcohol, he runs away from home to seek adventure.
Amanda’s relationship with reality is the most distant if the three: she desires to achieve financial and social success and wishes the same for her daughter. She cannot come to terms with the realities of life, for example, she refuses to accept that Tom is not an upcoming businessman, that Laura is unique, and that she might be to blame for some of her children’s failures (Heintzelman & Howard, pp. 257).
Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: InfoBase Publishing, 2007.
Heintzelman, Greta and Howard, Alycia Smith. Critical Companion to Tennessee Williams. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: Random House, 1945.