The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
“The Glass Menagerie” takes place in St. Louis in the year of 1937. The play follows the Wingfield family and explores themes such as memory, the past, The American Dream, guilt, and denial. The narrator, Tom Wingfield, lives with his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura. The play opens with Tom explaining the crucial role his memory has in the way the events of the play are presented. He clarifies that what is shown may not be acute reenactments of the past, but rather hazy scenes dulled and warped by time and personal attachments. Throughout the play Tom frequently breaks the fourth wall in order to justify his actions or explain the situations at hand.
Amanda is a concerned and over-bearing mother who is worried about her children. Despite the fact that both Tom and Laura are adults, Amanda feels compelled to micromanage her children’s lives. Tom is employed at a factory and works to support his mother and unmarried sister. Due to the dull work, Tom lacks excitement in his life and instead lives out his fantasies through adventure movies at the cinema. He dreams of mirroring his father’s actions and leaving his family, however, an ever-present guilt ties him to the lonely St. Louis apartment. Tom knows that if he leaves his mother and sister he will permanently scar them and they will be forced to grapple with life on their own. But Tom simultaneously realizes that if he doesn’t leave he will be chained to a life of obligation, misery, and boredom.
Meanwhile, Laura is a severely introverted and self-deprecating young women. Even with the loud presence of her well-meaning, but exceedingly controlling mother, Laura manages to continually evade life. She is painfully self-conscious because she suffers from Pleurosis, however, later events in the play suggest that perhaps her limp is not as noticeable as she believes and thus, she is self-conscious for no reason at all. This toxic tendency causes Laura to drop out of school only to hide and waste away at home. Laura’s escapism and naive denial is presented in the form of her glass collection, which Amanda refers to as the “glass menagerie.”
While her children struggle with issues of their own, Amanda lives in a world of the past. She spends the majority of her time dancing in youthful memories and recalling the times when her life seemed most promising. She dreams of finding a suitor for Laura and living a successful and happy life. She believes that if she pushes her children hard enough, success is bound to show itself. Unfortunately, her strong ties to past fantasies and unrealistic visions for the future often cloud any chances of success. In many ways, Amanda’s denial is just as strong, or stronger, than Laura’s.
The play deals with individual demons and the ways in which people turn to each other for solace when life becomes unmanageable. The biggest conflict in the play occurs when Amanda forces Tom to find a gentleman caller for Laura. What suddenly appears as a shot at well-deserved happiness suddenly becomes a spinning nightmare that crashes into, and obliterates the Wingfield family.
(NOTE**: The edition I used to read this play does not include line numbers, so I will be using page numbers to cite quotes. This edition was published by New Directions Publishing Company and includes an introduction by Robert Bray.)
Tom: “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion,” (page 4).
Tom: “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic,” (page 5).
Tom: “But since I have a poet’s weakness for symbols, I am using this character [Jim] also as a symbol; he is the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for,” (page 5).
Amanda: “So what are we going to do the rest of our lives? Stay home and watch the parades go by? Amuse ourselves with the glass menagerie, darling? Eternally play those worn-out phonograph records your father left as a painful reminder of him? We won’t have a business career- we’ve given that up because it gave us nervous indigestion!” (page 16).
Tom: “After the fiasco at Rubicam’s Business College, the idea of getting a gentleman caller for Laura began to play a more and more important part in Mother’s calculations. It became an obsession. Like some archetype of the universal unconscious, the image of the gentleman caller haunted our small apartment…” (page 19).
Tom: “Every time you come in yelling that Goddamn ‘Rise and Shine!’ ‘Rise and Shine!’ I say to myself, ‘How lucky dead people are!’ But I get up. I go!'” (page 21).
Tom: “But here there was only hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows… All the world was waiting for bombardments!” (page 39).
Laura: “I was out of school a little while with pleurosis. When I came back you asked me what was the matter. I said I had pleurosis- you thought I said Blue Roses. That’s what you always called me after that!” (page 75).
Jim: “People are not so dreadful when you know them. That’s what you have to remember! And everybody has problems, not just you, but practically everybody has got some problems. You think of yourself as having the only problems, as being the only one who is disappointed. But just look around you and you will see lots of people as disappointed as you are,” (page 76).
Amanda: “That’s right, now that you’ve had us make such fools of ourselves. The effort, the preparations, all the expense! The new floor lamp, the rug, the clothes for Laura! All for what? To entertain some other girl’s fiancé! Go to the movies, go! Don’t think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job! Don’t let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure! Just go, go, go-to the movies!” (page 96).
“The Glass Menagerie” is vastly different from Tennessee Williams’ other well-known piece, “A Streetcar Named Desire” for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s quite a bit shorter than Streetcar. Secondly, Menagerie has a lot more concrete symbolism. From Laura’s glass menagerie to the setup of the stage to emulate the presence of memories, “The Glass Menagerie” blatantly reveals the main symbols to the audience. In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the streetcar makes its appearance a couple of times, but the play itself holds a lot more cards in its hands when compared to Menagerie. In Streetcar, Blanche’s age is a recurring theme, but it is not exactly something that is tangible. Lastly, Tom’s consistent narration provides clear insight into the meaning of “The Glass Menagerie,” whereas the themes in “A Streetcar Named Desire”are not as apparent and the key to understanding the play is much more dialogue based.
I would love to see this play live because the way the stage is arranged plays a huge part in visually demonstrating the powers of memory and the past. I think that watching Tom step out of the scenes to narrate is something that would add to my understanding of the play. Reading “The Glass Menagerie” was an extremely powerful experience by itself, so I can only imagine how powerful it would be to see it live.
My favorite character in the play is Amanda because she is the hardest character to relate to. Perhaps it is because I have never been a mother, but I think it is something more than that. In my edition of the play, Robert Bray writes that the audience will either ” demonize Amanda or regard her as a misguided saint.” However, what Bray fails to note is that instead of simply feeling strongly one way, the audience’s opinion of Amanda may switch back and forth throughout the play.
While reading the play, my feelings for Amanda constantly shifted. At times I was irritated with her because of her overbearing nature. I tired quickly of her fiery attitude and her immediate distaste in her children’s choices. Yet in some scenes I sympathized with Amanda and pictured myself struggling along with her. How disappointing would it be to obsessively dream about a life oversaturated with love only to live the reality of one without? The day Amanda’s husband abandoned her was the day her life stalled and refused to move forward. Amanda sees herself in her children and yearns for Laura to find a companion so to avoid further abandonment. How frustrated would I be if my children refused to take life by the horns and truly live? I figure very. Despite her sweet nature, Laura is terribly frustrating and consistently her own worst enemy. This causes Amanda to spend all of her time spinning fairytale fantasies for Laura’s future, urging her that if she just takes a moment to step outside of herself, the world will shine for them both. Sadly, by the time the play ends and Laura actually does try to live, life has other plans.
Amanda claims to live in the present, but ever since the day of her family’s abandonment, she has been stuck in the past. Ironically, while Amanda is one of the most realistic characters in the play, she is also the most unrealistic. She tells her children to wake up and stop living in memories while she does exactly that. In the tiny apartment the family shares, all that is left are precious memories and pieces of broken glass. The future Amanda sees is one similar to Gatsby’s; a whirlwind of déjà vu moments that are devoid of originality and eerily reflect facets of past events.
Laura is probably the most pitiful character only because Jim’s observations about her are so spot-on. Her inferiority complex completely stagnates her life. She is at the young age of twenty-four, yet she lives as if she is eighty-four. Like a child, she plays with glass animals and skips school because she is too afraid of judgement. The saddest part is that this is a reality many people face. People miss out on life because they are afraid of judgement and the possibility of failure. We tell ourselves that we are not, but like Laura, something as silly as indigestion can become a hinderance when it comes to living life to the fullest.
Tom is the most relatable character because like many people, he spends his life stuck in a job that he despises. He goes as far as to tell his mother that he envies dead people for God’s sake! If that’s not pitiful, I don’t know what is. But alas, Tom is a man who is unsatisfied. He dreams of scaling the highest mountains and breathing in the salty ocean air. The reality of his life is that he is chained to his dependent mother and sister. And although he works hard each and every day, nothing he does is truly enough for his mother. Despite his efforts, she still manages to guilt him into staying and home and thereby slugging through his soul-sucking life.
Each character in “The Glass Menagerie” paints a picture of the modern-day human condition as a result of societal pressures and industrialization. The family gets by, yet each member of it is trapped in a unique kind of hell. And worst of all, this quiet, never-ending torture is the most realistic kind of pain that people experience.
Another intriguing (and depressing) feature about this play is that apparently it somewhat mirrored Williams’ own life. According to Robert Bray, Williams had a mother and sister he felt entirely responsible for. This responsibility created a saddening weight for Williams along with a bitter taste of dry obligation. In the end, Williams ended up leaving his family in order to pursue his dreams of becoming a writer.
Overall, this play is extremely thought-provoking. It is a short read, but surprisingly it is a dense piece filled with tangible, yet heavy themes. The honest pain that is illustrated in the play shows that getting by does not mean actually living to the fullest. If anything, this play has inspired me to do one thing; and that is to live.