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The play introduced to the audience by Tom as a memory play, based on his recollection of his mother Amanda and his sister Laura. The action of The Glass Menagerie takes place in the Wingfield family's apartment in St. Louis, 1937. The events of the play are framed by memory – Tom Wingfield is the play's narrator, and usually smokes and stands on the fire escape as he delivers his monologues. The narrator addresses us from the undated and eternal present, although at the play's first production (1944-5), Tom's constant indirect references to the violence of the Second World War would have been powerfully current. Amanda's husband abandoned the family long ago.
Although a survivor and a pragmatist, Amanda yearns for the illusions and comforts she remembers from her days as a feted Southern belle. She yearns especially for these things for her daughter Laura, a young adult with a crippled foot and tremulous insecurity about the outside world. Tom works in a warehouse, doing his best to support them. He chafes under the banality and boredom of everyday life and spends much of his spare time watching movies in cheap cinemas at all hours of the night. Amanda is obsessed with finding a suitor for Laura, who spends most of her time with her collection of little glass animals. Tom eventually brings a nice boy named Jim home for dinner at the insistence of his mother, who hopes Jim will be the long-awaited suitor for Laura.
Laura realizes that Jim is the man she loved in high school. After a long evening in which Jim and Laura are left alone by candlelight in the living room, waiting for electricity to be restored, Jim reveals that he is already engaged to be married, and he leaves. During their scene together, Jim and Laura have shared a quiet dance, and he accidentally brushes against the glass menagerie, knocking the glass unicorn to the floor and breaking its horn. When Amanda learns that Jim was engaged she assumes Tom knew and lashes out at him: ("That's right, now that you've had us make such fools of ourselves. The effort, the preparations, all the expense! The new floor lamp, the rug, the clothes for Laura! all for what? To entertain some other girl's fiancé! Go to the movies, go! Don't think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who's crippled and has no job! Don't let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure. Just go, go, go - to the movies !")
At play's end, as Tom speaks, it becomes clear that Tom left home soon afterward and never returned. In Tom's final speech, as he watches his mother comforting Laura long ago, he bids farewell: "Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger - anything that can blow your candles out! [LAURA bends over the candles.]- for nowadays the world is lit by lightning ! Blow out your candles, Laura - and so good-bye." Laura blows the candles out as the play ends.
The action of the play centers on Tom, his mother Amanda, and his sister Laura. In 1937 they live together in a small apartment in St. Louis. Their father abandoned them years earlier, and Tom is now the family's breadwinner. He works at the Continental Shoemakers warehouse during the day, but he disappears nightly "to the movies." Amanda is a loving mother, but her meddling and nagging are hard to live with for Tom, who is a grown man and who earns the wages that support the entire family. Laura is a frightened and terribly shy girl, with unbelievably weak nerves. She is also slightly lame in one leg, and she seldom leaves the apartment of her own volition. She busies herself caring for her "glass menagerie," a collection of delicate little glass animals.
Amanda's relationship with Tom is difficult. Tom longs to be free - like his father - to abandon Amanda and Laura and set off into the world. He has stayed because of his responsibility for them, but his mother's nagging and his frail sister's idiosyncrasies make the apartment a depressing and oppressive place. Tom also hates his job. His only escape comes from his frequent visits to the movies, but his nightly disappearances anger and baffle Amanda. He fights with Amanda all the time, and the situation at home grows more unbearable.
Amanda, sensing that Tom wants to leave, tries to make a deal with him. If Tom and Amanda can find a husband for Laura, a man who can take care of her, then Tom will be free of his responsibility to them. Amanda asks Tom to bring home gentlemen callers to meet Laura. Tom brings home Jim O’Connor, a fellow employee at the warehouse. He is an outgoing and enthusiastic man on whom Laura had a terrible crush in high school. Jim chats with Laura, growing increasingly flirtatious, until he finally kisses her. Then he admits that he has a fiancé and cannot call again. For fragile Laura, the news is devastating.
Amanda is furious, and after Jim leaves she accuses Tom of playing a cruel joke on them. Amanda and Tom have one final fight, and not long afterward Tom leaves for good. In his closing monologue, he admits that he cannot escape the memory of his sister. Though he abandoned her years ago, Laura still haunts him.
a woman abandoned by her husband some 15 years ago, trying to raise her children under harsh financial conditions. Her devotion to her children has made her, she admits at one point, a "witch," and she longs for the kind of Old South gentility and comforts which she remembers from her youth for her children. Once a Southern belle, she still clings to whatever powers vivacity and charm can muster.
Amanda's daughter. She is slightly crippled and has an extra-sensitive mental condition.
A Amanda's son. He works in a warehouse but aspires to be a writer. He feels both obligated toward yet burdened by his family.
a workmate of Tom's (a shipping clerk) and acquaintance of Laura's from high school, he is also the physical representation of all Laura's desires and all Amanda's desires for her daughter. He is invited over to the Wingfield's house for dinner with the intent of being Laura's first gentleman caller. He seems like a dream come true for the Wingfields.
Amanda's absentee husband, he is represented by a large portrait on the set and is referred to frequently by Amanda.
Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of shattered rainbow. Middle of Tom's final monologue - Scene Seven
Failures of capitalism, failures of the family structure, and failures of fathers (perhaps even God), broken promises, individual failure and reconciliation. The Glass Menagerie is about tough decisions people make for themselves that affect others and adversely themselves.
The themes of the play are weighty and somewhat timeless:
From the beginning, the figure of the narrator shows that Williams' play will not follow the conventions of realistic theatre. Tom also tells us that he is going to give the audience truth disguised as illusion, making the audience conscious of the chimerical quality of theatre. By playing with the theme of memory and its distortions and projected images to haunting effect. Tom, as narrator, tells the audience that the gentleman caller is a real person - more real, in many ways, than any other character - but he also tells the audience that the gentleman is a symbol for the "expected something that we live for,"
Originally, the script called for the use of a projector, which, during each scene, showed images to emphasize certain motifs and symbols. This projector was not used in the original Broadway production, but some productions since have used the idea and the instructions for the device remain in the script. For example, while Amanda is speaking, the script says that a projected image of Amanda as a young girl appears. These photographic images and projected text emphasize the symbolic elements of the play as well as the theme of memory; in the case of Amanda's image, we are given memory within memory, a memory framed by the larger memory of the play itself. The audience is therefore twice removed from the world of the image, contributing to the dream-like and ghostly atmosphere of the play. While the projected image gives added force to Amanda's words, showing the audience a visual representation alongside the images created by Amanda's speech, these visual images become symbolic of memory's paradoxical nature. On one hand, the visual image is real, right before our eyes, and full of evocative power; on the other hand, it is only a photograph from a distant past and is therefore frozen and lifeless.
Amanda is always returning mentally to this past, which is immaterial and far-removed from her current reality. Her reaction to Laura shows that she is strangely in denial about the nature of her own daughter. Laura is crippled, able to walk only slowly and with great effort, and emotionally she is terribly fragile. The relationship between Tom and Amanda is tense. In this scene, he seems to be struggling to tolerate her, and while Amanda is loving, she is also demanding beyond reason. Her insistence that Laura stay put while Amanda plays "the darky" reveals her extremely provincial Southern upbringing. In her youth she was wealthy enough to have servants, but now, with her husband gone, she is struggling to make ends meet. Indeed, she wants to relive her past through Laura, transplanting the quaint life she had in Blue Mountain to the urban setting of St. Louis. Clearly, Amanda seems oblivious to Tom's unhappiness and Laura's painful shyness.
This is the first scene where the audience sees Laura taking care of her glass menagerie. The glass menagerie is the most important symbol for Laura and her fragility. Her engagement with the tiny animals reveals how painfully afraid she is of interaction with other humans. The qualities of glass parallel Laura's characteristics: like the tiny glass animals, she is delicate, beautiful in her oddness and terribly fragile. The little collection, like Laura, is locked completely in the realm of the home. The animals must be kept on a little shelf and polished; there is only one place where they truly belong. In a similar way, Laura is kept and cared for, dependent on her mother and brother for financial support. The Blue Roses are another important symbol of Laura. The image of blue roses is a beautiful one, and it is the image that is indicated as being on the screen at the start of Scene Two. But blue roses are also pure fantasy, non-existent in the real world. Laura, like a blue rose, is special, unique even, but she is also cut off from real life. Amanda's anxieties show the difficulty of their financial situation. She is sincerely fearful of what will become of Laura, now that Laura has given up any hope of a career.
Amanda works, but the Wingfield family is dependent on Tom's wages. This dependency puts Tom in a difficult position, and we'll see more of that difficulty in Scene Three. Throughout the play, Amanda vacillates between a realistic appraisal of her situation and a willful blindness towards the truth. Here, early in the play, we see Amanda in brutally honest form - she knows, deep down, that Laura is not going to be easy to marry off, and her attempts to make Laura support herself have failed. It is after this crushing disappointment that Amanda begins to retreat back into the illusion of a gentleman caller swooping in to save the day.
The idea of a gentleman caller becomes Amanda's obsession and the great hope for the Wingfields to attain financial security. With a husband, Laura will be provided for and the two women will no longer be dependent on Tom. However, Amanda's ambition for Laura shows the level of her disconnection from real life and the fragility of her dreams. Even if Laura could find a husband, it is strange that Amanda should have so much faith that a husband for Laura would mean security for their family. After all, Amanda's own husband was faithless, and his decision to leave their family led to their current predicament.
His anger at being questioned does not help to shed light on the matter: he would be angry if he was telling the truth about going to the movies, and he would be angry if he had something to hide. Critics who favor the sexual interpretation of Tom's nightly disappearances often cite Tennessee Williams' youth and his grappling with his own sexuality. The play is in many other respects autobiographical, and Tom is Williams' surrogate - he even bears Tennessee Williams' real name. If Tom were gay, his frustration with home would be even greater. Tom would feel even more isolated and restless, unable to tell the truth to his mother and sister.
When Tom accidentally breaks some of the pieces in the glass menagerie, the incident foreshadows Laura's heartbreak later on. The event emphasizes the collection's fragility, and so metaphorically we are reminded of Laura's own fragility. Tom is the one responsible, and the pain of his position is made clear. As much as he would like to live his own life, his actions have a deleterious effect on the well-being and security of his mother and sister. By being reckless, he can destroy the pretend-world of his sister.
For the first production of The Glass Menagerie, the composer Paul Bowles wrote a musical theme entitled “The Glass Menagerie.” This music plays when Amanda discusses Laura at the breakfast table with Tom and at other crucial moments involving Laura. The title and timing of the music equate Laura with her glass animals. Like the objects that she loves so well, Laura is incredibly delicate (a typing drill is enough to make her physically ill) and oddly fanciful. Somehow, the fights and struggles that shape Amanda’s and Tom’s lives have not hardened Laura. Amanda and Tom argue constantly about their respective responsibilities to the family, but Laura never joins in. Interestingly, Laura does not participate in supporting the family and, though Amanda is upset when Laura deceives her about the business college, neither Tom nor Amanda resents Laura’s dependence in any way. Her physical and resultant emotional disabilities seem to excuse her from any practical obligation to the household.
The imagery in Tom’s speech about the magic show contains several layers of symbolic meaning. The coffin trick, with its suggestions of rising from the dead, is a reference to Christian resurrection. Christian themes are also suggested by Tom’s tendency, when he reaches the limits of his patience with Amanda’s reproaches, to see himself as a martyr committing a supreme sacrifice for the family’s good. In addition, the rainbow-colored scarf that Tom brings home and gives to Laura reminds the audience of the rainbow of colors refracted by her glass animals. On a social and historical front, the coffin is representative of the condition of the American lower middle classes, whom Williams describes, in the stage directions, as a “fundamentally enslaved” sector of America.
Although Amanda seems to do everything she can to make her children happy, many of her expectations of what will make them happy are actually egocentric—that is, they are based on Amanda’s own definition of happiness. Amanda claims to value her children’s well-being above her own.
There is much to condemn in Amanda’s selfishness. However, the trajectory of her life also offers much to pity. Amanda simply cannot accept her transition from pampered Southern belle to struggling single mother. Some of her richest dialogue occurs when the genteel manners of her past come to the surface—when she calls the moon a “little silver slipper” or bursts out with a string of Southern endearments in her subscription-drive phone calls. Such elegant turns of phrase seem tragically out of place in a St. Louis tenement.
In Scene Five, Amanda’s far-fetched dreams for Laura appear to be within reach. The screen legend at the beginning of the scene is “Annunciation”—a word that, besides simply meaning “announcement,” also refers to the Catholic celebration of God’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that she is pregnant with Jesus Christ. Jim, then, may be seen as a savior—for Laura and for the entire family. Furthermore, Amanda’s description of the moon as a “little silver slipper” also calls to mind the Cinderella fairy tale, which Williams considered an important story. In one version of this tale, a handsome young prince rescues a maiden from a lifetime of domestic drudgery, and a glass slipper is crucial to cementing the match. Amanda’s hopes for Jim’s visit are high, and clues such as the slipper suggest that they may be correctly so. Soon, though, Williams’s references to the birth of a savior and of fairy-tale romance are revealed as ironic omens of tragedy.
Laura’s glasslike qualities become more explicit in Scene Six, where, according to the stage directions, she resembles “glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance.” She embodies the “momentary radiance” of glass more completely in Scene Seven. Here, however, it is the fragility of glass that is most evident in her character. Before now, we have merely heard about the panic that results from her shyness. In this scene, we witness it directly, as her reason breaks down in the face of the terror that Jim’s presence instills in her.Given Jim’s philosophy of life and belief in the value of social grace, it is possible that his remarkable tolerance and understanding is not a result of genuine compassion but, rather, an expression of the belief that it is always in one’s best interest to try to get along with everyone.
While Jim’s presence emphasizes the alienation of the Wingfields from the rest of the world, it simultaneously lends a new dignity and comprehensibility to that alienation. Jim’s professed dreams present a nightmare vision of the impersonality of humanity—shallow, materialistic, and blindly, relentlessly upbeat. We are forced to consider the question of whether it is preferable to live in a world of Wingfields or a world of Jims. There is no easy answer to this question, but it seems possible that, for all their unhappiness, Amanda and Tom would choose the former because the Wingfields’ world is emotionally richer than Jim’s. Along these lines, it seems possible that the outside world has not so much rejected the Wingfields as they have rejected the outside world.
As Scene Seven begins, Laura’s face is made beautiful by the new floor lamp and its lampshade of “rose-colored silk.” Williams marshals the force of metaphor through the accrued weight of symbols. The delicate light represents Laura, and the rose represents Laura, whom Jim used to call “Blue Roses.” The glass unicorn that Jim breaks accidentally is yet another symbol that points to Laura. Like the unicorn, Laura is an impossible oddity. Jim’s kindness and kiss bring her abruptly into the normal world by shattering the protective layer of glass that she has set up around herself, but this real world also involves heartbreak, which she suffers at Jim’s hands.
Each character in The Glass Menagerie is trying to escape from reality in his or her own way: Laura retreats into her imagination and the static world of glass animals and old records, Amanda has the glorious days of her youth, and Jim has his dreams of an executive position. Only Tom has trouble finding a satisfactory route of escape. Movies are not a real way out, as he comes to realize. Even descending the steps of the fire escape and wandering like his rootless father does not provide him with any respite from his memories of Laura’s stunted life and crushed hopes. Yet, in one way, he has escaped. A frustrated poet no longer, he has created this play. Laura’s act of blowing out the candles at the play’s end signifies the snuffing of her hopes, but it may also mark Tom’s long-awaited release from her grip. He exhorts Laura to blow out her candles and then bids her what sounds like a final goodbye. The play itself is Tom’s way out, a cathartic attempt to purge his memory and free himself through the act of creation.
One of the play’s most unique stylistic features is the use of an onstage screen on which words and images relevant to the action are projected. Sometimes the screen is used to emphasize the importance of something referred to by the characters, as when an image of blue roses appears in Scene Two; sometimes it refers to something from a character’s past or fantasy, as when the image of Amanda as a young girl appears in Scene Six. At other times, it seems to function as a slate for impersonal commentary on the events and characters of the play, as when “Ousont les neiges” (words from a fifteenth-century French poem praising beautiful women) appear in Scene One as Amanda’s voice is heard offstage.
The plot of The Glass Menagerie is structured around a series of abandonments. Mr. Wingfield’s desertion of his family determines their life situation; Jim’s desertion of Laura is the center of the play’s dramatic action; Tom’s abandonment of his family gives him the distance that allows him to shape their story into a narrative. Each of these acts of desertion proves devastating for those left behind. At the same time, each of them is portrayed as the necessary condition for, and a natural result of, inevitable progress. In particular, each is strongly associated with the march of technological progress and the achievements of the modern world. Mr. Wingfield, who works for the telephone company, leaves his family because he “fell in love with [the] long distances” that the telephone brings into people’s consciousness. It is impossible to imagine that Jim, who puts his faith in the future of radio and television, would tie himself to the sealed, static world of Laura. Tom sees his departure as essential to the pursuit of “adventure,” his taste for which is whetted by the movies he attends nightly. Only Amanda and Laura, who are devoted to archaic values and old memories, will presumably never assume the role of abandoner and are doomed to be repeatedly abandoned.
What appears on the screen generally emphasizes themes or symbols that are already established quite obviously by the action of the play. The device thus seems at best ironic, and at worst somewhat pretentious or condescending. Directors who have staged the play have been, for the most part, very ambivalent about the effectiveness and value of the screen, and virtually all have chosen to eliminate it from the performance. The screen is, however, an interesting epitome of Tennessee Williams’s expressionist theatrical style, which downplays realistic portrayals of life in favor of stylized presentations of inner experience.
As the title of the play informs us, the glass menagerie, or collection of animals, is the play’s central symbol. Laura’s collection of glass animal figurines represents a number of facets of her personality. Like the figurines, Laura is delicate, fanciful, and somehow old-fashioned. Glass is transparent, but, when light is shined upon it correctly, it refracts an entire rainbow of colors. Similarly, Laura, though quiet and bland around strangers, is a source of strange, multifaceted delight to those who choose to look at her in the right light. The menagerie also represents the imaginative world to which Laura devotes herself—a world that is colorful and enticing but based on fragile illusions.
The glass unicorn in Laura’s collection—significantly, her favorite figure—represents her peculiarity. As Jim points out, unicorns are “extinct” in modern times and are lonesome as a result of being different from other horses. Laura too is unusual, lonely, and ill-adapted to existence in the world in which she lives. The fate of the unicorn is also a smaller-scale version of Laura’s fate in Scene Seven. When Jim dances with and then kisses Laura, the unicorn’s horn breaks off, and it becomes just another horse. Jim’s advances endow Laura with a new normalcy, making her seem more like just another girl, but the violence with which this normalcy is thrust upon her means that Laura cannot become normal without somehow shattering. Eventually, Laura gives Jim the unicorn as a “souvenir.” Without its horn, the unicorn is more appropriate for him than for her, and the broken figurine represents all that he has taken from her and destroyed in her.
Like the glass unicorn, “Blue Roses,” Jim’s high school nickname for Laura, symbolizes Laura’s unusualness yet allure. The name is also associated with Laura’s attraction to Jim and the joy that his kind treatment brings her. Furthermore, it recalls Tennessee Williams’s sister, Rose, on whom the character of Laura is based.
Leading out of the Wingfields’ apartment is a fire escape with a landing. The fire escape represents exactly what its name implies: an escape from the fires of frustration and dysfunction that rage in the Wingfield household. Laura slips on the fire escape in Scene Four, highlighting her inability to escape from her situation. Tom, on the other hand, frequently steps out onto the landing to smoke, anticipating his eventual getaway.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.