What are the themes and symbols of The Glass Menagerie

wiseGEEK Writing Contest

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is a play about the reflections of a man named Tom, who abandoned his family in order to pursue his own future. The entire play is centered around the theme of abandonment starting with the father of Laura and Tom abandoning the family when they were just children, Jim’s abandonment of Laura after their date despite the family’s high hopes that they will be married, and finally Tom’s selfish abandonment of his family who is entirely dependent on him. Throughout the play different symbols exist to add a deeper message to the plot…

There are many symbols in classic literature, but those in The Glass Menagerie are particularly unique. The use of technology’s advancement represents the outside world. Mr. Wingfield with his telephone company fell in love the long distances he could only hear and not see. This leads to his abandonment of his family and the subsequent devastation left behind. Jim, who is most passionate about the newest advances in radio and television for the heightening of his career, has no interest in marrying someone as unchanging and shy as Laura. As a result, he abandons her and leaves the Wingfields in total devastation. Finally, with Tom’s obsession with movies and the better lives he sees in them, his eventual abandonment of his family is derived from the alternative life’s allure.

Throughout the novel words and images are displayed on a screen behind the actors. This screen is used to emphasize a certain point such as a phrase, a word or a symbol that should be given extra attention. Sometimes the screen will reflect whatever is on the character’s mind, such as a recollection of an important event in the past or a fantasy playing out in their minds. Other times it is just a simple phrase describing a character on the screen. In any instance, the use of the screen is especially unique but has often been criticized for its pretension or its condescension. Others have praised it for its irony, but it has been virtually eliminated from every presentation of the play for its inefficacy of adding any depth or meaning to the play.

Music is another unique quality of the play. For the most part, the actors of the play are unaware of the music while the audience is aware of its enhancements to the theme and plot. At some points in the play, the actors can hear the music which lessens the thematic role of it. For example, when Tom starts talking about World War II, “The World Is Waiting For the Sunrise” begins to play in the background. A song written specifically for the play called “The Glass Menagerie” plays when Laura first comes into the forefront of the stage with her precious glass menagerie. It also plays when Laura mentions that her mother is afraid she will end up an old maid.

Laura’s glass menagerie symbolizes some aspects of her personality. As a whole, the figurines are very delicate and old-fashioned. The glass menagerie has a rainbow of colors that shine through it whenever a light is shined down on the glass, demonstrating the beauty inside Laura that is often hidden because she hides herself from the rest of the world. The animals also represent the state of her mind, which is full of imagination and unrealistic ideas.

More specifically, the unicorn, which is described as Laura’s favorite represents Laura’s strangeness. The unicorn is unique, like Laura, and as Jim points out, it is extinct and lonely because it doesn’t fit in with the other horses. Of course, the unicorn best represents Laura who is cripplingly shy and lonely as a result of it. When Jim dances with her despite her discomfort, she becomes ‘normal’ and as a blatant symbol of this, when Jim kisses her, he knocks over the unicorn and the horn is broken off, making it just like the other horses. But Laura gives the unicorn to Jim as a souvenir because it is better suited for a normal person like him than it is for her. This is an ambiguous symbol, however, because it can either represent the new normalcy that is in Laura herself, or her acknowledgement that a drastic act – such as happened to the unicorn – must be done to her in order to shatter her crippling shyness.

The “Blue Roses” nickname Jim gave to Laura back in high school when she had a huge crush on him is like the unicorn. Just as blue roses are unique, so is Laura, and just as blue roses are beautiful, so it Laura. At the beginning of Act Two, the blue roses are shown on the back screen to emphasize their significance. The name “Blue Roses” has been exceedingly meaningful to Laura ever since high school because the boy she had such a big crush on acknowledged her existence. Outside of the play, Tennessee Williams’ sister was named “Rose” and the character of Laura was entirely based on her.

The fire escape in the play represents Tom’s escape from the fiery frustration he suffers in his home. The stagnate atmosphere of the home keeps Tom from realizing his dreams. He cannot get anywhere with his current situation, so he escapes from the same landing that Laura slipped on, preventing her own escape. Tom also steps out onto the fire escape to escape from the pressures and constant fighting in the house. He calms his nerves by smoking a cigarette.

Each of these symbols helps the individual characters to escape from reality. Tom uses the movie theatre and the fire escape to escape from the pressures of his home life. The movies create a microcosm of an ideal life in his mind. He watches the people on the screen and dreams of becoming ‘normal’ like them. This leads to his eventual escape. He can’t stand the constant fighting with his mother. And although he feels bad about abandoning Laura, he never returns again. The fire escape is where he plans to make his eventual escape, which he succeeds in doing at the play’s conclusion.

Amanda escapes from the reality of her life through her recollections of gentlemen callers. The abandonment of her husband and the problem of her daughter never being able to leave the house and find a husband are two realities Amanda doesn’t like to focus on too closely. Therefore, she often recalls her life back in the South, amongst very rich and genteel society. Back then, she had her whole life before her, and she could have never foreseen the sadness that would befall her in her family life. The remembrance of multiple suitors reminds her of the mistake of her choice. If she had chosen anyone else besides Mr. Wingfield, she most likely wonders if her life would be different. Back then, life was so wonderful, Amanda constantly lives in the past, which cripples the present in many ways.

Laura escapes from reality by playing with her glass menagerie. She listens to a record player and enjoys the peacefulness that contrasts the argumentative members of her household. Her mind fantasizes about the days back in high school in which she was in love with a man who called her “Blue Roses”. He was the only man to even acknowledge her presence and she has thought of him often as a result. Her menagerie, the music, and her memories also serve as her escape from the reality of her crippled leg and disabling shyness.

The characters of Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie aren’t really unique in their use of memories and tangible objects to escape from reality’s unfortunate circumstances. Each cast member regrets the life they live and the choices they have made that put them exactly where they are. But living in the past or in the future doesn’t do them any good. It in fact, keeps them from progressing in life. Because the present is the only reality; everything else is without substance or form. By living in the dreams of the past or the hopes for the future, people squander the true validity of the single thing that matters: the present. It’s a waste of life and a waste of time, and time is the only thing that, when lost, we can never get back.

submitted by Katie Jordan