The Glass Menagerie: the Reality of Illusion Using Symbolism

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Life is not how we always envision it to be. Sometimes life throws us into situations where we are trapped due to obligations or we are retracted into own world due to illusion of perfection or self-doubt. In Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie, which was produced in 1944, he uses symbolism as a form of allowing us to understand the characters more without directly telling the audience. He also used symbolism as a form of escape of reality for each character.

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In the beginning of the play we are told about the “hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population” (Williams 2) which symbolically plays a role in the unhappiness of two of the main characters. In the play we are introduced to Amanda the mother, Tom the son, and Laura the daughter. Each character has their own set of symbolism which explains who they are as a person. Tom has the fire escape, the movies, and the candle. Laura has the glass menagerie and the unicorn. Amanda has her past which she cannot seem to move past. Tennessee Williams was creative in the way he riddled his plays full of symbolism. The culmination of the play points to the fact that all the characters are stuck in a disappointing predicament, which causes them all to retract into an illusion rather than reality. Stein states that “Williams had captured with such skill the truncated lives of his characters, caught in the world of their own illusions and unable to break out” (Stein 143).

The title to the play The Glass Menagerie is one of the more complex symbolism that Tennessee Williams uses. Laura is “crippled” young woman who fixates on her glass menagerie to transport to an illusional world to escape her harsh reality of life. Stein writes “the glass menagerie itself, which embodies the fragility of Laura’s world, registers so sensitively any changes in lighting, and stands in vivid contrast to the harshness of the outside world, the so-called world of reality which can shatter it so easily” (Stein 146). Another critic of the play Domina writes “Laura’s fantasies are not simply a preference but a need; they incapacitate her. Laura’s fantasies, that is, don’t merely supplement reality but become reality. More specifically, her glass menagerie which gives the play its title resembles Laura in disturbingly accurate detail”(Domina). This is who Laura has become due to the pressures that her mother has laid forth upon her. The stress of what expectations are expected of her has caused Laura severe anxiety problems which inhibits her from having a social life. When she attended the Rubicam’s Business College for typing she became so nervous, her hands shook so much she could not touch the right keys. At her first test Laura broke down and became sick to her stomach, they had to drag her to the washroom.

She refused to go back after that, she was so embarrassed. To further understand Laura in the play when Tom went into his fit of rage during an argument with his mother he hurls off his coat “ it strikes against the shelf of Laura’s glass collection, there is a tinkle of shattering glass. LAURA cries out as if wounded” (Williams 23). These glass figurines are everything to her and when Tom broke some of them it broke a part of her. Like the glass, it only shines when light is put upon it which is how Laura is as a person. She shines when she has a ray of hope that she will be able to escape the clutches of the expectations of her mother, otherwise she is colorless. Laura’s personality says a lot about the character that she portrays. She is the only person in the play who harms no one, she is empathetic and respectful towards everyone. This is supported by a moment in the play when her gentlemen caller Jim accidentally bumps into the table when they were dancing. Jim apologizes fearing she would not forgive him for breaking her favorite figurine. Laura says “I don’t have favorites much. It’s no tragedy, Freckles. Glass breaks so easily. No matter how careful you are. The traffic jars the shelves and things fall off them. I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less —freakish! Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns” (Williams 85-86). After the unicorn incident they were talking and Jim kisses her, but immediately regrets it. He tells her he’s got “strings” and that he’s engaged, this crushed Laura, but like the unicorn it changed her. It gave her a sense of hope that someone might want to court her and eventually marry her. She did not see herself as freakish in that moment, this is why she gave Jim the unicorn as a “souvenir”.

Tom is a dream seeker stuck in the confines of the squalid home he lives in with his narcissistic mother who drives him absolutely insane. Tom cares very much for his family, he is their sole provider, but he has a hard time dealing with the reality of his situation. He is stuck with the illusion of adventure and joining the merchant marines. As Domina explains in her essay of the play “freedom equals freedom from familial responsibilities; yet since each character either attempts to achieve conventional family relations or obsessively to deny them” (Domina). Tom is sick of going to the movies he wants to move, he craves for adventure. He has dreams of writing poetry and joining the merchant marines. The use of the fire escape is symbolic of a form of escape for Tom. It not only is where he goes to smoke, which perturbs his mother, it’s also his gateway to freedom when he does leave. Anytime his mother berates him with questions about what his nightly activities consist of he tells her that he was at the movies. She never believes him “ more and more you remind me of your father! He was out all hours without explanation! —Then left! Goodbye! And me with the bag to hold” (Williams 34). She is a woman of strict Christian southern values and beliefs and does not approve of his vices. Tom cannot handle her constant bickering and bombardment of question, so he leaves to escape reality. Another use of symbolism by Tennessee is the picture of their father that hangs on the wall. The constant reminder that he is following in his fathers foot steps “I’m like my father. The bastard son of a bastard!

Did you notice how he’s grinning in his picture in there? And he’s been absent going on sixteen years!” (Willams 61). He understands why his father left it was said that he fell in love with long distance, but in reality he could not stand Amanda anymore and her clutches. After the disaster with Jim the gentlemen caller “even Tom, who thought he was being helpful by bringing Jim home, has illusions which blind him and doom the visit of the Gentleman Caller to failure. Tom can only escape, leaving Laura and Amanda to withdraw even further into their private worlds”(Stein 148). Not long after the final argument with his mother blaming him for not knowing Jim was engaged he got fired from his work at the shoe factory for writing poetry on a shoe box, he finally decides it is time to leave. At the end of the play he is guilt ridden leaving his sister who he was very close to. He tells her that he tried to leave her behind, he stayed longer than he intended to. The symbolism of him asking Laura to blow out the candle is he is asking for her to forgive him and forget him. He took all he could from his mother while trying to help both of them.

Amanda is an old southern bell who as Davis says “ from the opening scene of the play she constantly reminds everyone that she belongs to an earlier time in her family’s plantation in Mississippi” (Davis 197). She has this illusion that her he children need to live the lifestyle that she was so proud to live. She has an oppressive attitude about her children’s lifestyles. Anything they do that does not align with the dreams that she has for them she rids them with guilt. She told Tom that he is now allowed to leave until Laura finds a man and marries him and at which point he is free to go live his dreams. Davis he writes, “Amanda’s response to life generates devastating consequences for her children, crippling them psychologically and seriously inhibiting their own quest for maturity and self realization” (192). She is frustrated with the lifestyle that she lives, she married a man who had other ideas of drinking and smoking. He evidently fell out of love with her and left her to “hold the bag”. With the fleeting realization that her aspirations for her children are going unchanged, she feels bamboozled by the dream she once had. She refuses to accept the fact that Laura is crippled and that Tom is different from most men. She has a hard time understanding the anxiety problems that Laura suffers from she considers it all silliness. When the gentlemen caller came to dinner, Amanda dressed up and went all out to make the house perfect. It brought back that glimmer of an old southern belle who once entertained seventeen gentlemen caller. “ Amanda’s past not only animates but also sustains her in the present, becoming in effect her point of reference for everything connected with goodness, truth, and reality” (198). During her last argument with Tom she told him he was a “selfish dreamer” because he indulged in things that pleased him unlike her. He warned her if she kept talking about his selfishness that he would leave, she said go ahead. He did leave, he went and chased his dreams. Leaving Amanda and Laura to fend for themselves with no income and Laura with no suitor.

Tennessee Williams employs a great deal of symbolism throughout this play, which are a form of escaping reality and understanding the characters. Laura’s insecurities inhibits her from living her life to fullest, and the expectations of her mother does not allow her light to shine. Tom is stuck in the confines of his prison of a home, the only escape is the symbolic fire escape. Amanda cannot move on with her life because she is living in the past, refusing to conform to reality. The use of these symbolism helps us feel for these characters and get consumed by their situations. As stated in the beginning of the play by Tom, “memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart” (Williams 2). These characters are all dreamers who do nothing but dreams, Tom is the only one who took the steps to leave an achieve then. Domina reinforces this statement “whether these characters attempt to achieve freedom through a family or detached from one, the play indicates that such freedom is the stuff of which dreams are made” (Domina).

Works Cited

  1. Domina, L. M. “”An overview of The Glass Menagerie.”” Drama for Students, Gale. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 6 Mar. 2019.
  2. Davis, Joseph K. “”Landscape of the Dislocated Mind in Williams’“The Glass Menagerie.” in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, Drama Criticism, edited by Jac Thorpe, vol. 4, Gale, 1994. Literature Criticism Online, Accessed 4 Mar. 2019. Originally published in University Press of Mississippi, 1977, pp. 192-206
  3. Stein, Roger B. “”‘The Glass Menagerie’ Revisited: Catastrophe without Violence.”” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Thomas Votteler and Laurie DiMauro, vol. 71, Gale, 1992. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 4 Mar. 2019. Originally published in Western Humanities Review, vol. 18, no. 2, Spring 1964, pp. 141-153.
  4. Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New Directions Book. Kindle Edition, 2013.”
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The Glass Menagerie: The Reality of Illusion Using Symbolism. (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from