Among the most prominent and urgent themes of The Glass Menagerie is the difficulty the characters have in accepting and relating to reality. Each member of the Wingfield family is unable to overcome this difficulty, and each, as a result, withdraws into a private world of illusion where he or she finds the comfort and meaning that the real world does not seem to offer. Of the three Wingfields, reality has by far the weakest grasp on Laura. The private world in which she lives is populated by glass animals-objects that, like Laura’s inner life, are incredibly fanciful and dangerously delicate. Unlike his sister, Tom is capable of functioning in the real world, as we see in his holding down a job and talking to strangers. But, in the end, he has no more motivation than Laura does to pursue professional success, romantic relationships, or even ordinary friendships, and he prefers to retreat into the fantasies provided by literature and movies and the stupor provided by drunkenness. Amanda’s relationship to reality is the most complicated in the play. Unlike her children, she is partial to real-world values and longs for social and financial success. Yet her attachment to these values is exactly what prevents her from perceiving a number of truths about her life. She cannot accept that she is or should be anything other than the pampered belle she was brought up to be, that Laura is peculiar, that Tom is not a budding businessman, and that she herself might be in some ways responsible for the sorrows and flaws of her children. Amanda’s retreat into illusion is in many ways more pathetic than her children’s, because it is not a willful imaginative construction but a wistful distortion of reality.
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Although the Wingfields are distinguished and bound together by the weak relationships they maintain with reality, the illusions to which they succumb are not merely familial quirks. The outside world is just as susceptible to illusion as the Wingfields. The young people at the Paradise Dance Hall waltz under the short-lived illusion created by a glass ball-another version of Laura’s glass animals. Tom opines to Jim that the other viewers at the movies he attends are substituting on-screen adventure for real-life adventure, finding fulfillment in illusion rather than real life. Even Jim, who represents the “world of reality,” is banking his future on public speaking and the television and radio industries-all of which are means for the creation of illusions and the persuasion of others that these illusions are true. The Glass Menagerie identifies the conquest of reality by illusion as a huge and growing aspect of the human condition in its time.
The Impossibility of True Escape
At the beginning of Scene Four, Tom regales Laura with an account of a magic show in which the magician managed to escape from a nailed-up coffin. Clearly, Tom views his life with his family and at the warehouse as a kind of coffin-cramped, suffocating, and morbid-in which he is unfairly confined. The promise of escape, represented by Tom’s missing father, the Merchant Marine Service, and the fire escape outside the apartment, haunts Tom from the beginning of the play, and in the end, he does choose to free himself from the confinement of his life.
The play takes an ambiguous attitude toward the moral implications and even the effectiveness of Tom’s escape. As an able-bodied young man, he is locked into his life not by exterior factors but by emotional ones-by his loyalty to and possibly even love for Laura and Amanda. Escape for Tom means the suppression and denial of these emotions in himself, and it means doing great harm to his mother and sister. The magician is able to emerge from his coffin without upsetting a single nail, but the human nails that bind Tom to his home will certainly be upset by his departure. One cannot say for certain that leaving home even means true escape for Tom. As far as he might wander from home, something still “pursue[s]” him. Like a jailbreak, Tom’s escape leads him not to freedom but to the life of a fugitive.
The Unrelenting Power of Memory
According to Tom, The Glass Menagerie is a memory play-both its style and its content are shaped and inspired by memory. As Tom himself states clearly, the play’s lack of realism, its high drama, its overblown and too-perfect symbolism, and even its frequent use of music are all due to its origins in memory. Most fictional works are products of the imagination that must convince their audience that they are something else by being realistic. A play drawn from memory, however, is a product of real experience and hence does not need to drape itself in the conventions of realism in order to seem real. The creator can cloak his or her true story in unlimited layers of melodrama and unlikely metaphor while still remaining confident of its substance and reality. Tom-and Tennessee Williams-take full advantage of this privilege.
The story that the play tells is told because of the inflexible grip it has on the narrator’s memory. Thus, the fact that the play exists at all is a testament to the power that memory can exert on people’s lives and consciousness. Indeed, Williams writes in the Production Notes that “nostalgia . . . is the first condition of the play.” The narrator, Tom, is not the only character haunted by his memories. Amanda too lives in constant pursuit of her bygone youth, and old records from her childhood are almost as important to Laura as her glass animals. For these characters, memory is a crippling force that prevents them from finding happiness in the present or the offerings of the future. But it is also the vital force for Tom, prompting him to the act of creation that culminates in the achievement of the play.
1. But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. . . . There is a trick that would come in handy for me-get me out of this two-by-four situation! . . . You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?
Explanation for Quotation 1 >>
At the beginning of Scene Four, Tom, returning home from the movies, tells Laura about a magic show in which the magician performs the coffin trick. Tom, who dreams of adventure and literary greatness but is tied down to a mindless job and a demanding family, sees the coffin as a symbol of his own life situation. He has been contemplating an escape from his private coffin since the beginning of the play, and at the end, he finally goes through with it, walking out on his family after he is fired from his job. But Tom’s escape is not nearly as impressive as the magician’s. Indeed, it consists of no fancier a trick than walking down the stairs of the fire escape. Nor is Tom’s escape as seamless as the magician’s. The magician gets out of the coffin without disturbing one nail, but Tom’s departure is certain to have a major impact on the lives of Amanda and Laura. At the beginning of Scene One, Tom admits that he is “the opposite of a stage magician.” The illusion of escape that the magician promotes is, in the end, out of Tom’s reach.
IMPRISONMENT & THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF TRUE ESCAPE
2. Well, in the South we had so many servants. Gone, gone, gone. All vestige of gracious living! Gone completely! I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me. All of my gentlemen callers were sons of planters and so of course I assumed that I would be married to one and raise my family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants. But man proposes-and woman accepts the proposal! To vary that old, old saying a bit-I married no planter! I married a man who worked for the telephone company! . . . A telephone man who-fell in love with long-distance!
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Explanation for Quotation 2 >>
This quote is drawn from Scene Six, as Amanda subjects Jim, who has just arrived at the Wingfield apartment for dinner, to the full force of her high-volume, girlish Southern charm. Within minutes of meeting him, Amanda introduces Jim to the broad arc of her life history: her much-lamented transition from pampered belle to deserted wife. As she does throughout the play, Amanda here equates her own downfall with that of a system of “gracious living” associated with the Old South, which contrasts starkly with the vulgarity and squalor of 1930s St. Louis. Naturally, Amanda’s intense nostalgia for a bygone world may have something to do with the fact that neither she nor her children have managed to succeed in the more modern world in which they now live.
Amanda’s memories of her multitudinous “gentlemen callers” are responsible for the visit of Jim, whom Amanda sees as a comparable gentleman caller for Laura. Amanda’s decision to tell Jim immediately about her gentlemen callers demonstrates the high hopes she has for his visit. Indeed, the speech quoted might be taken as rather tactless move-a sign that Amanda’s social graces have a touch of hysterical thoughtlessness to them and that putting herself and her story at the center of attention is more important to her than creating a favorable atmosphere for Laura and Jim’s meeting.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
5. I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. . . . I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. . . . 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 a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!
Explanation for Quotation 5 >>
The play closes with this speech by Tom, at the end of Scene Seven. Here, Tom speaks as the narrator, from some point in time years after the action of the play. He describes how he leaves Amanda and Laura after being fired from his job and embarks on the life of the wanderer, just as his father did years ago. This escape is what Tom dreams of aloud in Scene Four, and it is Tom’s chosen means of pursuing the “adventure” that he discusses with Amanda in Scene Four and Jim in Scene Six. From Tom’s vague description of his fate after leaving home, it is unclear whether he has found adventure or not. What is clear is that his escape is an imperfect, incomplete one. Memories of Laura chase him wherever he goes, and those memories prove as confining as the Wingfield apartment.
Tom’s statement that “I am more faithful than I intended to be!” indicates that Tom is fully aware that deserting his family was a faithless and morally reprehensible act, and the guilt associated with it may have something to do with his inability to leave Laura fully behind. But the word “faithful” also has strong associations with the language of lovers. A number of critics have suggested that Tom’s character is influenced by an incestuous desire for Laura. The language used in this sentence and the hold that Laura maintains over Tom’s memory help to support this theory.
THE DIFFICULTY OF ACCEPTING REALITY
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