Symbolism in Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”

The American theater public initially took notice of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams when it was staged in Chicago in December 1944. It was presented in New York on March 31, 1945, and ran for over 550 performances.

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It won popular as well as critical acclaim and is not deemed one of the most delicate and moving plays of our time.

Commenting on the frailty of its subject, E.E. Cummings has this to say: “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”

Much of the play is autobiographical. This is perhaps the reason why William invests it with a great deal of realism and poetry. The lives of his characters are fraught with misery; he delineates each one with the softness of illusion and tenderness. It is no surprise, for Tom is Tennessee himself, Amanda Wingfield is his mother, and Laura is his sister Rose.

“The Glass Menagerie” is a memory play, and the action is taken from the memory of Tom, the narrator. Tom Wingfield is also a character in this play set in St. Louis in 1937. He is an aspiring poet who works in a shoe factory to support his mother and his sister. Mr. Wingfield, the children’s father, abandoned his family years back and, except for a single postcard, has not been heard of since.

Amanda Wingfield is the children’s mother. She is a little woman of great vitality, clinging desperately to another time and place. She is not a paranoiac. However, her life is. Yet Amanda is an admirable character. One gets to love and pity her as well as laugh at her. She possesses endurance, a kind of heroism, and is capable of tenderness to boot.

Laura Wingfield is Amanda’s daughter and Tom’s beloved sister. Like their mother, Laura has failed to establish contact with reality and continues to live in her illusions. A childhood malady has rendered her crippled, one leg shorter than the other and held in a brace. Laura’s separation from reality increases until Laura becomes like a piece of her own glass menagerie, too fragile to take down from the shelf.

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Jim O’Connor, a friend of Tom who gets invited to the Wingfields for dinner, is a nice ordinary young fellow. He turns out to be an old high school acquaintance of Tom and Laura. He used to be a popular athlete in his youth and has become a shipping clerk in the same shoe warehouse where Tom works. He is unswerving as regards his professional goals and ideals of personal success. At first, he seems to be the best (and only) candidate for Laura’s knight in shining armor on his white steed, ready to carry her off to a life of happiness and contentment.

Amanda is disappointed that Laura, who cannot walk normally and is painfully shy, does not attract any gentleman callers. She enrolls Laura in Business College, hoping that the girl will make it on her own and build the family’s fortune. Later on, she learns that her daughter, due to her extreme shyness, has dropped out of school. Amanda decides that Laura’s only hope would lie solely in marriage. Meantime, Tom, who hates his factory job, finds comfort in liquor, movies, and literature to the chagrin of his mother.

Because Amanda loves her son, she nags him to be more serious about improving himself. She also realizes that Laura will never be able to cope with the problems of making a living. So Amanda asks Tom to invite an eligible bachelor to dinner for his sister’s sake.

Tome invites Jim O’Connor.

Good-natured Jim is able to make Laura warm up to him, but after Amanda’s elaborate dinner for him, he reveals he is engaged to be married. Not long after, Tom breaks away from the two women to join the Merchant Marines.

All three characters are yearning to escape from the coffin of their lives.

Tom pines for romance and adventure, which, however, cannot dispel the clouds of memory that later will haunt him forever. Amanda escapes from reality by retreating to her memories. For her children, she decides that the practical, not the romantic is the path to salvation.

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By this time, Laura has retreated to her shadowy world by paralyzing fears and unfulfilled dreams. An interesting feature of the play is the application of William’s theory of expressionism; he contends that “truth, life or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest.” The use of symbols is in line with the expressionistic theory.

To refresh our minds, symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors to represent abstract ideas or concepts. For example, the glass menagerie or collection of glass animals is the play’s central symbol. Laura’s prized collection of glass figurines represents a number of facets of her personality. Like the figurines, Laura is frail, somewhat old-fashioned, and full of fancy. Glass is transparent, but when light is focused in its direction, it refracts an entire rainbow of colors. Laura is quiet and subdued when among strangers, but for those who opt to view her in a favorable light, she is transformed into a source of strange and unusual delight based on fragile illusion. Even the high school nickname “Blue Roses” points to this. Roses, although armed with thorns, have delicate petals and a delicate scent. Light blue is a sad, shy and subdued color. “Blue Roses, aside from symbolizing Laura’s unusualness and allure, the name is also associated with Laura’s attraction to Jim and the joy that his kindness has brought her.

The unicorn is an animal of myth and legend. This creature represents Laura’s peculiarity. Jim tells her that unicorns are “extinct” in modern times and are lonesome as a result of their being different from horses. Laura, too, is unusual, lonely, and cannot adapt to the modern times in which she lives. The accidental knocking off by Jim of the unicorn’s horn suggests Laura’s introduction to normalcy. However, the violence with which normalcy is thrust upon her suggests that Laura cannot really change into an ordinary, normal individual without “shattering.”

Without the horn, the unicorn is now more important for him than for her. The damaged glass figurine stands for all that he has taken from her and destroyed in her.

The fire escape is still another symbol. It leads out of the Wingfield apartment. It represents exactly what the name implies – an escape from the fires of frustration dysfunction that burn in the Wingfield family. Laura’s slipping on the fire escape indicates her inability to escape from her life situation. On the other hand, Tom frequently steps out onto the landing for smoke that can give him momentary relief.

The impact of success coming from “The Glass Menagerie” and other works was stupendous. In her estimation, however, it was far from positive. For years after he had achieved fame, Williams continued to create pathos-laden works. Since the early 1940s, he had been a known homosexual. He suffered a period of intense depression after the death of his long-time partner in 1961 and six years afterward entered a psychiatric hospital in St. Louis. Nevertheless, he continued to write. His life work adds up to twenty-five full-length plays; five screenplays; over seventy-one-act plays; hundreds of short stories; two novels; poetry, and a memoir.

Five of his plays were made into movies.

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Williams died in 1983 in a drug-related incident.

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