The Glass Menagerie is a play that is very important to modern literature. Tennessee Williams describes four separate characters, their dreams, and the harsh realities they faced in the modern world. His setting is in St. Louis during the Depression-Era. The story is about a loving family that is constantly in conflict. To convey his central theme, Williams uses symbols. He also expresses his theme through the characters¹ incapability of living in the present.
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The apartment that Amanda, Laura, and Tom Wingfield share is in the middle of the city and is among many dark alleys with fire escapes. Tom and Laura do not like the dark atmosphere and their mother always tries to make it as pleasant as possible. The two women do not get out much to socialize. Amanda sometimes goes to D.A.R. (Daughters of the Revolution) meetings, but Laura does not like to socialize at all. She has a slight limp and is extremely shy with people. When she does leave the apartment, she falls. She is unable to function in the outside world.
As previously stated, symbols play an important role in The Glass Menagerie. Symbols are substitutions that are used to express a particular theme, idea, or character. One symbol that is used over and over is the fire escape. This has different meanings to the characters. For Tom, it is a place where he can escape to. It is where he goes to escape from his mother¹s nagging. He is open to the outside world when he is on the fire escape. It is his way out. For Laura, it is where the gentleman caller enters and where the outside world is brought inside to her. But to Amanda, the fire escape is not only where the gentleman caller enters, but where he will come in and rescue her daughter from becoming a spinster.
Amanda feels that if the gentleman caller comes, then he will rescue Laura. The problem is that Jim, the caller, has not even met either of the two women yet. Amanda assumes that he will be the one for Laura. She has a difficult time distinguishing between reality from illusion. The same way she refuses to acknowledge Laura¹s handicap. She does not refer to it as a handicap, but rather as a ³little defect,² that is hardly noticeable.
In addition to the fire escape, Williams uses Laura¹s glass menagerie as an important symbol throughout the play. It represents Laura¹s sensitive nature and fragility. She is very innocent, very much like the glass that she polishes and looks at. Eventhough, it is very fragile, when put in the light the glass shines and produces a multitude of colors. This is the same way as Laura. When Laura is enrolled at the Business School she becomes very shy and embarrassed, hence causing her to become ill in the classroom. She cannot bare to face those same faces again the next day and decides to give up on going to her classes.
Laura chooses to spend her time with her tiny glass animals, and she treasures them more than actually participating in daily contact with other people. She does not want to become involved with the world outside of their apartment. She prefers the comfort of her home and of her glass animals. Laura is just as easily broken and hurt as the glass unicorn, and she is just as unique. When Jim accidentally bumps into the unicorn and breaks it, the unicorn no longer looks unique. It becomes like all the rest. During that time, Laura feels more accepted and less self-conscious. She begins to open up and glow. Jim notices this and takes advantage of it by dancing with her, and, eventually, kissing her.
Part of the innocence Laura has lost is symbolized in the breaking of the unicorn. When Jim tells Laura of his engagement she is heartbroken. She no longer feels that uniqueness she once shared with the unicorn, but becomes more common like Jim.
Therefore, when she gives the unicorn to Jim she is giving him her broken heart. She gives him something of hers to take with him when he leaves and, in a way, he has left something with her. He has only left her with shattered hopes. It is clear, at this point, that Laura and her glass menagerie break when they both become exposed to the outside world, represented by Jim.
In the same manner, although not very major, the use of rainbows and cigarette smoking are minor symbols in the play. The rainbows signify the hope in the future. Tom exhilarates Laura when he pulls out the rainbow-colored scarf and tells her how the magician changed a bowl of goldfish into canaries. He is thinking of the time when he will be able to escape also. In addition, at the end of the play Tom is speaking about looking into shop windows and seeing the pieces of glass perfume bottles, which remind him of Laura. He sees their rainbow-colored glass and remembers how his sister used to protect her glass animals. But, in the end, the rainbows, which at first were positive, all end in disappointments to each person.
Tom¹s use of cigarette smoking is a symbol of his constant strive for individualism. He is pursued by his mother to not smoke as much, but he does anyway. Neither Laura nor Amanda smoke, leaving this pleasure to only Tom. He can go out on the fire escape and smoke his cigarette knowing that neither of the other two will have a say in his decision. He escapes the everyday racket of his mother by smoking. Although, not as significant as the other symbols, Tom¹s cigarette smoking is one way he tries to relate to the outside world.
All of the characters in The Glass Menagerie retreat into their own separate worlds to escape the harshness of life. None of them are capable of living in the present. Each of them avoids reality in their own way.
For example, Laura is only able to live in the present very briefly. She retreats back into her little world of glass animals and listening to her old phonograph records. Even when it appears that she is overcoming her extreme shyness with Jim, she immediately goes back to playing the records on the Victrola after she finds out that he is engaged. She is more comfortable and less vulnerable in her own world.
In addition, Amanda is very obsessed with the past. She is always telling Laura and Tom about the time when she was younger and had received seventeen gentlemen callers. She considers those times to be better days than the present or the reality. She has difficulty in facing the fact that she is a single mother with two children.
Also, Tom becomes caught up in the past after he leaves home and is wandering the streets thinking about Laura. He had gone to movies and wrote poetry at work to escape the reality of living at home. It was his responsibility to support his mother, his sister, and himself with his work at the warehouse. He wanted to become a poet, but he was pressured by his mother to become responsible enough to take care of his sister. She wanted him to find Laura a mate that could rescue her. Actually, this search was a search for reality. Without that link to the outside world, they would continue to live in their world of delusions. Unfortunately, Tom left home, as did his father, and continues to be haunted by his memories of Laura.
Jim, on the other hand, tends to try to live his life in the present. He is that link to the outside that the family needs. He only lives temporarily in the past, only when he enters into the apartment. Jim is not happy with working at the warehouse either. He is taking night classes and wants to become an executive someday. He becomes the high school hero again when Tom and Laura remember his glory days. They are the only ones that give him the feel of importance, of self-worth. Jim talks about how he was constantly surrounded by women and he feels a bit disappointed that his future did not turn out like his high school days.
Jim is the only character in the play that still has a sense of reality. Even though he reminisces about high school, he still remembers that he is engaged. As Laura cannot handle the outside world, Jim cannot handle Laura¹s world. He eventually stumbles and breaks the glass unicorn. Neither of them are comfortable.
In The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams wrote about the struggles of an American family during the Depression-Era. He presented the problems of being constrained to monotonous work and how one¹s dreams may not always come true. He also stressed that not everyone is comfortable with living in the present day. There were always better times than the ones that are being lived now. He acknowledged that there are those who wish not to participate and are not comfortable living in the outside world. Through Williams¹ genius use of symbols he was able to convey his ideas to the reader. He made relationships with the symbols and the actions of the characters. Along with these symbols he also used the characters¹ incapability of living in the present to convey the harsh realities that they faced in the modern world.