Symbolism in "The Glass Menagerie"
Tennessee Williams' famous play, The Glass Menagerie, is one full of symbolism, and so it should be easy to write a paper on the meaning behind the objects and settings of the play. But the most influential symbols are not inanimate pieces of scenery, but are the character's of the play. After all, characters in literature are nothing more than very lively pieces of setting through which the writer presents his or her theme. The three characters of the Wingfield family, Amanda, Tom, and Laura, each represents a different stereotype of humanity and are therefore the ultimate symbolism in the play.
Amanda Wingfield, the wily albeit annoying mother of Laura and Tom, wants what any mother wants for her children: security. She is, however, from another part of the country than that which her children are accustomed to and, more importantly, from another time. For this reason, she is not only unfit to provide security for her children, but is in some ways a burden to them (Griffin 61). Joven describes Amanda's character quit well: "She is presented as out of touch with reality; she is flighty, and a source of embarrassment to her children" (Joven 53). She represents wishful thinking and the inability to let go of the past. While all the character's seem to be trapped in their own dream worlds, it is Amanda who epitomizes counterproductive fantasizing.
Not truly human but not entirely scenery, character's in a play blur the line between being real people and being mere symbols. For this reason, it is no surprise that the writer often attaches them to certain symbolic places, objects, or actions. Amanda seems to identify with two things: the apartment in which the Wingfields live, and the dinner at the end of the play. The apartment is like a place inside her dream world. Though she doesn't pay the rent, it somehow seems like it's hers. In the apartment, she has full access to her two children and they cannot escape from her. She dictates when it is appropriate to play music, dismisses people form the table, and even offers advice on how to chew properly (Williams 694, 657). There is no place to hide from her or her constant reminiscing about the past. The dinner party at the end of the play presents Amanda in her full element, which up until now, has only been alluded to. She is right back in her teens, in her hometown, charming a gentleman caller like in the good old days (Joven 57). Even Jim, who is rather oblivious to the entire plot comments on her behavior. When she explains that she used to be rather carefree and "gay as a girl" Jim comments, "You haven't changed Mrs. Wingfield." To which even she admits, "Tonight, I'm rejuvenated!" (Williams 693). Somehow, despite the fact that Jim is added to the story to provide a bit of outside reality into the Wingfield's isolated illusion, Amanda manages to be the only member of her family not to learn from the encounter. While Laura gains confidence and Tom gains resolve to leave, Amanda only moves further into her delusions during the scene, showing her utter detachment from reality.
Laura is a shy crippled woman who retains many of the characteristics of a girl due to poor socialization because of her disability (Williams 654). She is clearly representative of people's desire to fit into society. She is caught in an endless loop: shyness from her disability, which leads her to avoid socializing, which causes her not to know how to socialize.
Laura's two identifying symbols are the Victrola and the menagerie of glass animals for which the play is named (Joven 53). The Victola is quite a simple symbol, playing a part of her escape from reality. When Laura plays a record on it, she does not do so merely for enjoyment or to add a mode to the room but often does so at times deemed inappropriate by her mother (Williams 660). This is because Laura listens to her music for comfort and release from the pressures she is under in her life. The glass menagerie is a bit more complicated. It too represents her freedom from reality, but in a much more clearly unusual, perhaps even pathological, way. The glass menagerie is her; both are delicate and will break if ever removed from their place and put under any degree of stress (Stein 110). Specifically representing Laura among the crystalline ornaments is a unicorn, the only one of its kind, standing out among the regular horses (Williams 689-690). Laura feels isolated from the regular people because of her disability, but unlike the unicorn, she has not learned to embrace and be happy in her uniqueness.
Tom is the slave of the family. While his mother stays at home and believes in her delusions of grandeur that she is in charge and must take care of her family, Tom is the one who actually works and makes money. He is also a dreamer and a poet. Tom represents anyone who has ever felt halted by his living situation from chasing his dreams, possibly because of his own good conscience. He is anyone who has ever wanted to move away from his family, and knew that he could do it, but was somehow obligated to stay for the benefit of people he didn't feel he should be responsible for.
Tom, I find, has three symbols associated with him. The first is the movies, which he goes to on a nightly basis. It is quite clear that Tom does not only go to the movies but also to bars and may not actually go to the movies at all, but the movies are a perfect symbol for places people go when they want to get out of the house. Tom not only wants to get out of the house, but he wants to get away from his burdens, and so he goes to the movies alone. As he describes it, the movies give him a sense of adventure and release from his unpleasant reality (Williams 680). Like Laura with her Victrola, Tom goes to the movies far more often than normal because he is in greater need for suspension of reality than most people. The second of Tom's symbol's is the fire escape. This is merely a place that he goes to smoke, which seems plausible enough, but the fact that it is an escape is where the symbolism arises. It is a stairway that is meant to be used to flee a crisis, and Tom finds it to be one of his favorite places to be in the apartment. Not only that, but he routinely used it as an exit rather than the front door. This shows his desire to escape the apartment, and it foreshadows his ultimate decision to do so. The foreshadowing is especially prevalent when he accidentally breaks some of the glass menagerie (Laura's symbol) while trying to exit, thus showing that he will leave and shatter his families illusions (Joven 55). Finally, the portrait of Tom's father serves as a symbol that Tom identifies with. Whenever Tom shows signs of being on the verge of leaving, his mother is quick to point out that their father left them and that it was such a terrible thing for him to have done. The giant, grinning picture that Tom describes as almost being a fifth character, during his part as narrator (Williams 656), stands as a reminder to Tom of how, if he leaves his family, he will be following in his father's footsteps. This is, of course, something that he is comfortable doing as Tom himself says, "I'm like my father. The bastard son of a bastard! Did you notice that he's grinning in his picture in there?"
The characters of The Glass Menagerie are in no way rounded, nor should they be. Each character fills a necessary role and presents a symbolism that is vital to the point of the story. In a story about the fine line between dreams and illusions, every character brings to the table a different spin on reality, fantasy, and hopes for the future in ways that mere inanimate symbols could not. While the play is named after the glass menagerie, really that is just a symbol for Laura, and she in turn is just a symbol for an entire group of real people who are like her.
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Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. Literature and the Writing Process. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X. Day, Robert Funk. Prentice Hall, 2002. 654-695.
Stein, Roger B. "Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie." The Glass Menageries Revisited: Catastrophe Without Violence. Ed. Roger B. Stein Western Humanities Review, 1964. 109-116
Joven, Nilda G. "Illusion Verses Reality in The Glass Menagerie." Illusion and Reality in Tennessee Williams. Ed. Nilda G. Joven. Diliman Review, 1966. 52-60.
Griffin, Alice. "The Character of Amanda Wingfield." Understanding Tennessee Williams. Ed. Alice Griffin. 1995. 61-70.