Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie


The play The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, Williams 
uses many symbols which represent many different things. Many of the 
symbols used in the play try to symbolize some form of escape or 
difference between reality and illusion. 

 The first symbol, presented in the first scene, is the fire 
escape. This represents the "bridge" between the illusory world of the 
Wingfields and the world of reality. This "bridge" seems to be a one 
way passage. But the direction varies for each character. For Tom, the 
fire escape is the way out of the world of Amanda and Laura and an 
entrance into the world of reality. For Laura, the fire escape is a 
way into her world. A way to escape from reality. Both examples can 
readily be seen: Tom will stand outside on the fire escape to smoke, 
showing that he does not like to be inside, to be a part of the 
illusionary world. Laura, on the other hand, thinks of the fire escape 
as a way in and not a way out. This can be seen when Amanda sends 
Laura to go to the store: Laura trips on the fire escape. This also 
shows that Laura's fears and emotions greatly affect her physical 
condition, more so than normal people.

 Another symbol presented deals more with Tom than any of the 
other characters: Tom's habit of going to the movies shows us his 
longing to leave the apartment and head out into the world of reality. 
A place where one can find adventure. And Tom, being a poet, can 
understand the needs of man to long for adventure and romance. But he 
is kept from entering reality by Amanda, who criticizes him as being a 
"selfish dreamer." But, Tom has made steps to escape into reality by 
transferring the payment of a light bill to pay for his dues in the 
Merchant Seaman's Union. 

 Another symbol, which deals with both Amanda and Laura, is Jim
O'Connor. To Laura, Jim represents the one thing she fears and does 
not want to face, reality. Jim is a perfect example of "the common 
man." A person with no real outstanding quality. In fact, Jim is 
rather awkward, which can be seen when he dances with Laura. To 
Amanda, Jim represents the days of her youth, when she went frolicking 
about picking jonquils and supposedly having "seventeen gentlemen 
callers on one Sunday afternoon." Although Amanda desires to see Laura 
settled down with a nice young man, it is hard to tell whether she 
wanted a gentleman caller to be invited for Laura or for herself.

 One symbol which is rather obvious is Laura's glass menagerie. 
Her collection of glass represents her own private world. Set apart 
from reality, a place where she can hide and be safe. The events that 
happen to Laura's glass affects Laura's emotional state greatly. When 
Amanda tells Laura to practice typing, Laura instead plays with her 
glass. When Amanda is heard walking up the fire escape, she quickly 
hides her collection. She does this to hide her secret world from the 
others. When Tom leaves to go to the movies in an angered rush, he 
accidentally breaks some of Laura's glass. The shattered glass 
represents Laura's understanding of Tom's responsibilities to her. 
Also, the unicorn, which is important, represents Laura directly. 
Laura points out to Jim that the unicorn is different, just as she is 
different. She also points out that the unicorn does not complain of 
being different, as she does not complain either. And when Jim breaks 
the horn off the unicorn, Laura points out that now it is like the
other horses, just as Laura has shed some of her shyness and become 
more normal. When she hands the broken unicorn to Jim, this might 
represent Laura handing over her broken love to Jim, as Jim has 
revealed that he is engaged to be married.

 As can be seen, there are quite a few symbols in this play. And a
number of them have diverse meanings. Most of these symbols have a 
direct meaning in the author's own life. This is understandable seeing 
that the play is supposed to be "memory play." It is obvious that this 
memory play is based on Williams' own memories.

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