The Theme of Escapism in "The Glass Menagerie": How Tom Wingfield Uses Poetry and the Movies
The Glass Menagerie
"I Go to the Movies"
The concept of escapism is a strong theme in Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie. Amanda, Laura, and Tom Wingfield all seek to escape the dull and depressing reality of their situation. They engage in escapism by retreating into their own fantasies which push them farther apart. The play uses their desire to escape reality to emphasize the role of the 1940s as an exciting escape from the 1930s.
Amanda Wingfield escapes reality by living in the past. She is obsessed with the notion of the “Southern belle” and identifies with a lifestyle of ease and gentility that is far removed from her own. At every opportunity she reminds her children of her connection to the planter class. She tells Laura “you be the lady this time and I’ll be the darky” (Williams 7). This blatant (and politically incorrect) reference to slavery and white supremacy demonstrates Amanda’s obsession with class. She reinforces her association with the Southern elite by emphasizing the fact that some of her callers were “the most prominent young planters of the Mississippi Delta – planter and sons of planters” (8). As a woman abandoned by her husband and living in poverty, Amanda seeks consolation in the fact that she might once have married into the planter elite. Amanda also implies she was one of the elite. “I never could make a thing but angel-food cake… in the South we had so many servants” she tells Jim (64).
While Amanda ought to be proud she has raised two children alone for sixteen years, instead she takes pride in her exaggerated incompetence because in her warped imagination it indicates her high social status.
Amanda’s fantasies distort her perception and keep her out of touch with reality. She fails to see the reason Laura is not able to attract any “gentlemen callers” despite Tom’s efforts to enlighten her. Tom tries to explain to Amanda that Laura “is very different from other girls… she’s terribly shy and lives in world of her own and those things make her seem a little peculiar” (47). Amanda fails to recognize this in her daughter. She tries to dodge the issue by telling Tom not to call Laura “crippled” and not to “say peculiar” rather than do as Tom asks and “Face the facts” (47-48). Amanda uses her obsession with gentile speaking and politeness to shut out Tom’s attempts to make her face reality. Her obsession with refined Southern manners and class helps her to blot out the uncomfortable truths of her existence.
Laura Wingfield is shy and self-conscious of her disability and escapes to a fragile fantasy world to escape her troubled existence. Laura retreats to imaginary, child-like, fantasy and “lives in a world of her own” (47). She spends her time playing the old records her father left and looking at her “glass menagerie.” She anthropomorphizes her glass ornaments, saying of her unicorn “he doesn’t complain… and [he and the horses] get along nicely” (83). Rather than face the difficulties of her existence, Laura escapes to a world of imagination and fantasy, a world as beautiful and fragile as her “glass menagerie.”
Laura’s escape from reality cuts her off from the rest of the world because the fantasy to which she escapes is totally unique. Amanda’s escape to the Old South and the idea of the “Southern Belle” was a fairly common obsession during the 1930s for women of her age, but Laura’s “glass menagerie” is less acceptable and sounds childish. This aggravates the alienation Laura feels from society.
Tom Wingfield’s indulgence in escapism allows him to tolerate his overbearing mother and stay at home for a time. Like his sister Laura, Tom retreats to worlds of fantasy and imagination but he is more outgoing and mature in his tastes. He writes poetry and spends almost every night at the movie theater. Tom’s habit of going to the movies is a means of escaping his dull existence and a substitute for physical separation from his family. He shouts: “if self is what I thought of, Mother, I’d be where [father] is – GONE!” (23). Tom uses the movies to fill a void in his life, a fact he is at pains to explain to Amanda. “I go to the movies because – I like adventure… something I don’t have much of at work,” he explains (33). Tom is not happy with the kind of life Amanda is pushing him into and watching adventure in the movies helps him to cope with the oppressive atmosphere of his home life.
Although Tom’s use of movies as a means of escaping reality seems harmless, it does help to push him farther from his family. Tom spends most of his nights out at the movies which worries Amanda. She protests and says on several occasions “I don’t believe you always go to the movies” (48). Her disappointment in Tom drives a wedge between them. Tom eventually decides that escapism is a poor substitute for real escape. “People go to the movies instead of moving!” he exclaims to Jim O’Connor (61). Tom comes to a realization that neither Amanda nor Laura seem to reach, that escapism is an impediment to action. Tom cannot have his own adventures if he remains stuck in his boring job and goes to the movies every night.
The Glass Menagerie suggests that the 1940s, marked by global conflict and upheaval, were an escape from the dismal 1930s. Tom says that in the 1930s “the world was waiting for bombardments” (39). The play presents the Spanish Civil War as a ray of hope for adventure and change in the 1930s and as a prelude for the changes to come in the 1940s. Indeed, the Spanish Civil War was both ideologically and militarily a prelude for WWII. America, like Tom, is waiting for an escape from its dull existence. Tom says that war is “when adventure becomes available to the masses” (61). This unique perspective views the violence of the 1940s as a relief to Americans left dismal and desperate by the Great Depression.
The escapism offered by entertainment serves as a substitute for the real excitement of war. Tom says that while Spain had war raging, in America “there was only hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows” (39). Tom sees that the “adventures” Americans sought during the ’30s were merely illusions that only temporarily relieved the “gloom” of the Great Depression. They are promises of real excitement but they can do little more than provide temporary satisfaction. Even the song, “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise!” that plays from the dance hall the first time Tom introduces it reflects this idea (39). The entire play seems to suggest that the 1930s in America was merely a boring and uncomfortable waiting period for the excitement and danger of the 1940s.
Many women during the 1930s in the South aspired to be seen as “Southern Belles” and enjoyed the escapism offered by romanticizing the Old South. As Amanda puts it, “Gone with the Wind took everybody by storm… [all] everybody talked was Scarlett O’Hara” (20).
The fantasy of the refined “Southern Belle” of the long lost Old South was readily accessible to women like Amanda who no longer lived in their old home towns and could quite easily romanticize their “genteel” upbringing and high social connections without fear of contradiction.
Many Americans, young and old, male and female, found excitement at the movie theater. For many people impoverished by the Great Depression, the movies were one of the few affordable forms of entertainment available. The movies also provided a variety of entertainments. Tom’s night at the movies that included “a Garbo picture and a Mickey Mouse and a travelogue and a newsreel… an organ solo… [and] a big stage show” was fairly typical for the era (26-27). For a small price, moviegoers could get a wide variety of entertainment and could take their minds off of their own troubles.
Like many people in America during the Great Depression, Amanda, Laura, and Tom seek relief from their dreary lives by escaping reality. Although each of them retreats to a different place, they all seek escapism for the same reason, to help them cope with their place in life. Their escapes from reality, however, also drive them farther apart from one another and, in Tom’s case, result in permanent separation.