The Glass Menagerie


By Tennessee Williams
"I have a poet's weakness for symbols." So states Tom
Wingfield, narrator and major character in Tennessee
William's timeless play "The Glass Menagerie". Through the
eyes of Tom, the viewer gets a glance into the life of his
family in the pre-war depression era; his mother, a
southern belle desperately clinging to the past, his
sister, a young woman too fragile to function in society,
and himself, a struggling young poet working at a warehouse
to pay the bills. Williams, through his remarkable use of
symbols, is able to effectively express the theme of "The
Glass Menagerie"; that of hopeful aspirations followed by
inevitable disappointment and of having dreams which are
destroyed by the harsh realities of the world.
Symbols are a major part of this play, as Tom, the
narrator, is a poet, and admits he has a weakness for
symbols. One major symbol presented in the story is that of
the fire escape, a symbol that has a different meaning and
function for each character. For Tom, it is a means of
escape from fire, not the type of fire that was considered
in its building, but "the slow and implacable fires of
human desperation." 
This is especially true of Tom's apartment. His mother,
devastated after her daughter Laura's failure to cope in
business college, becomes obsessed with finding her a
gentleman caller so that she can marry and be well
supported. When this caller finally comes, and it seems as
if it was meant to be by the way they dance and kiss, he
announces he is engaged, and dashes their hopes. The
ever-fragile Laura, temporarily drawn out of her
dream-world shell of her glass collection and the victrola,
draws further back into herself. 
Now a terrible desperation fills the apartment, and Tom
decides he must escape the suffocating environment to
follow his own calling. The fire escape to him represents a
path to the outside world. For Laura, the fire escape is
exactly the opposite--a path to the safe world inside, a
world in which she can hide. Especially symbolic is Laura's
fall when descending the steps to do a chore for her
mother, after leaving the security of the apartment. This
fall symbolizes Laura's inability to function in society
and the outside world. For Amanda, the fire escape is
symbolic of her hopes and dreams--hopes and dreams that a
gentleman caller will arrive to marry her daughter and
leave her well supported. This is the way Jim comes into
the apartment, at the time when Amanda's hopes have been
peaked. It is symbolic that Laura does not want to open the
door when Jim arrives. It shows her reluctance to let an
emissary from the world of reality, symbolized by Jim,
invade the comfortable non-existence of the apartment, and
her insecurity in dealing with the outside world.
Another recurring symbol in the story is that of the glass
menagerie itself. This represents Laura's hypersensitive
nature and fragility. The first time the menagerie is
mentioned in any detail in a symbolic manner is when Tom
and Amanda have a heated argument near the beginning of the
play. Tom ends it by calling Amanda an "ugly babbling old
witch", and struggles to put his jacket on, intent on
leaving. When he cannot put the coat on properly, he
becomes frustrated with his clumsiness, and flings it
across the room, breaking some of the glass collection.
Laura "cries out as if wounded". This shows how fragile
Laura really is, and how she reacts when even the small
balance of her apartment is shifted. Williams also makes
the use of this symbol apparent on stage. When Amanda sits
down to discuss Laura's future with Tom, the legend "Laura"
appears on screen, and the music that begins playing is
"The Glass Menagerie". 
The most prominent use of this symbol comes at the turning
point of the story, when Jim is left alone with Laura. The
conversation turns to Laura's glass collection, when she
remarks "glass is something you have to take good care
of.", again showing her fragility. More parallels are drawn
between Laura and the glass collection with the
introduction of the unicorn. Jim says "Poor little fellow,
he must feel sort of lonesome" to which Laura replies "He
stays on a shelf with some horses that don't have horns and
all of them seem to get along nicely together." The unicorn
becomes a symbol for Laura--she is different. When Jim and
Laura dance, and Jim accidentally knocks the unicorn off
the table and its horn is broken, it loses its uniqueness.
Similarly, when Jim kisses Laura and then shatters her
hopes by telling her that he's engaged, she becomes
broken-hearted, and less unique. Part of the innocence that
made Laura so vitally different is gone, because both Laura
and the glass menagerie break when exposed to the uncaring
outside world. When Laura gives Jim her broken unicorn, it
symbolizes her broken heart that Jim will take with him
when he leaves. The unicorn is no longer unique like her,
rather it is common now, like Jim, so she lets him keep it.
Just as she gives Jim a little bit of herself to take with
him, he leaves behind a little bit of himself with her
shattered hopes.
Finally, the symbol of rainbows is used throughout the
story, but is less prominent and obvious than those of the
fire escape and the glass menagerie. Rainbows are
traditionally a symbol of hope, and each time the symbol is
presented it is in a hopeful situation. For instance, when
Tom comes back from the magic show with a rainbow-colored
'magical' scarf, that can turn goldfish into canaries, who
fly away. Just like the canaries, Tom also hopes to fly
away, from the imprisonment of his apartment. Next, the
chandeliers which create rainbow reflections at the Dance
Hall can be interpreted as foreshadowing for the dance
between Jim and Laura, which gives Laura hope that her
problems are solved. And at the end, when Tom looks at
"pieces of colored glass, like bits of a shattered
rainbow," he remembers his sister and hopes that he "can
blow her candles out". There is also a great irony tied up
in this symbol, in that although rainbows seem to be
positive signs, they all end in disappointment.
 Tennessee Williams has managed to create a powerful play
using a combination of different elements, one prominent
one being symbolism; the fire escape, as a sense of hope,
and an escape both to the outside world and from it; the
glass menagerie, a symbol for Laura's fragility and
uniqueness; and rainbows, as symbols of unrealized hopes
and aspirations. Through these symbols a greater
understanding of the theme is realized, and "The Glass
Menagerie" is made into a powerful epic.


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