English Literature
The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie

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A Closer Look at the Wingfield Family in Tennessee Williams' Classic Play, The Glass Menagerie

Written almost 80 years ago, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie remains a timeless and thought-provoking play, exploring the consequences of living in the past and trying to live up to others' expectations.

This powerful play centers around the Wingfield family, who struggle with their memories, dreams, and illusions in an attempt to escape their suffocating reality. Through their journey, Williams highlights the dangers of using fantasy as a means to avoid the truth and the strength it takes to break free from the trap of illusions.

An Overview of the Story

The play begins with Tom Wingfield, the narrator and main character, addressing the audience and declaring the play to be a "memory play." As the curtains rise, we are introduced to the Wingfield apartment in St. Louis during the 1930s, where Tom lives with his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura. The absence of their father, who left them years ago, looms over their family dynamic.

Tom narrates the play from the fire escape, which serves as the only entrance and exit to the apartment. As the story progresses, he becomes a character in the scenes.

Meet the Wingfield Family

Amanda often reminisces about her youth as a beautiful woman with many suitors. Tom and Laura have heard these stories countless times and are tired of them. Laura, a shy and delicate girl, doesn't possess her mother's charm and believes she will never have any gentlemen callers of her own.

While Laura spends her days taking care of her collection of glass figurines and strolling in the park and zoo, Tom feels trapped at home and escapes to the movies at night. He also writes poetry during his shifts at the warehouse. A heated argument with Amanda leads to Tom accidentally breaking some of Laura's beloved glass animals, symbolizing the shattering of her illusions and the start of her emergence from her shell.

One day, Tom brings home his coworker, Jim O'Connor, and introduces him to Laura. However, she is terrified and ashamed because Jim was her secret crush in high school. Amanda greets Jim as if he were coming to meet her, not Laura, and puts on a facade of Southern charm and debutante manners.

As the evening progresses, the power goes out, and the family is forced to use candles. During this time, Jim and Laura have a brief moment alone and dance together. Accidentally, Jim breaks the horn on Laura's prized possession, a glass unicorn. Their dance and conversation lead to a kiss, but Jim pulls back and reveals that he is engaged to be married. Heartbroken, Laura composes herself and gives Jim the broken unicorn as a keepsake.

After Jim leaves, Tom and Amanda confront each other, with Tom eventually storming out of the apartment. In the final scene, Tom narrates the resolution to the audience - he leaves Amanda and Laura and eventually gets fired from his job. However, he realizes that he can never truly escape from the emotional ties he has to his family, no matter how far he may physically go.

The Setting and Historical Context

The Glass Menagerie is set in St. Louis, Missouri, during the 1930s. Tom mentions the Chicago's World's Fair, which took place in 1934 and symbolized prosperity and escape from the harsh reality of the Great Depression, which heavily impacts the Wingfield family.

The play is partly influenced by Tennessee Williams' own life. His father struggled with alcoholism and was often absent, while his mother was a Southern belle, like Amanda. Williams' sister, who suffered from schizophrenia, underwent a lobotomy, which caused Williams immense guilt. The interweaving of personal experience and historical context adds depth and meaning to the story.

The Complex Characters

At the heart of the story are the complex characters of the Wingfield family. Tom, the main character, grapples with his role as a provider for his family and his desire to break free and pursue his own dreams. Amanda, a Southern woman, clings to her past and tries to live vicariously through her children. Laura, the fragile and introverted daughter, faces her own inner demons, including self-doubt and fear. Through their relationships and struggles, Williams sheds light on the consequences of living in the past and living up to others' expectations.

Despite the constraints of his demanding family life, one man finds solace in the art of poetry and the escapism of movies and alcohol. However, his family's reliance on him never ceases, making it impossible for him to truly break free.

The Southern Belle and Amanda Wingfield

Amanda Wingfield, mother of Tom and Laura, was once a classic Southern Belle in her youth. Despite being abandoned by her husband, she desperately clings to her past and the expectations placed upon women like her. She constantly nags her son Tom to stay and fulfill his duties, while also pressuring her daughter to conform to society's ideals. Her distorted view of the world revolves around her and her own nostalgia.

Like most 19th-century Southern Belles, Amanda was expected to embody beauty, manners, and flirtation, all while maintaining an air of naivete. And though she is out of touch with reality, she still holds onto these outdated expectations.

Laura Wingfield and Her Glass Collection

The Wingfield's youngest member, Laura, suffered from pleurosis as a child, earning her the ironic nickname "Blue Roses." She is shy, reclusive, and walks with a limp, a result of her illness. To avoid facing her own reality, she retreats into her own fantasies, spending her days wandering aimlessly.

The central imagery of the play is Laura's collection of delicate glass animals. At first, they represent her own fragility, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Laura is the strongest of all. When her brother accidentally breaks her figurines, it symbolizes her breaking out of her own fragile shell. And when she gives the broken unicorn to a gentleman caller, it signifies her release from the grip of her glass menagerie.

Characters and Symbols in The Glass Menagerie

Jim O'Connor, the "gentleman caller" who enters the play later on, was a former high school acquaintance of Tom and Laura. Little does anyone know, Laura had a secret crush on him during their school days. Jim is steady, hardworking, and ambitious, in contrast to Tom's carefree lifestyle. He displays a charming and likable personality during a dinner with the Wingfield family. However, before anything can develop between him and Laura, he must leave to return to his own life.

Two significant symbols in the play are Laura's glass animals and the Wingfield's fire escape, both of which reveal underlying themes within the story.

1. Laura's Glass Menagerie

Laura's collection of delicate glass figures represents both fragility and strength. In the beginning, she relates to the fragile animals as a way to escape the harsh realities of the outside world. When her brother accidentally breaks them, it symbolizes her breaking free from her own fragility and putting herself back together. Giving the broken unicorn to Jim represents her letting go of the hold her glass menagerie had on her.

2. The Fire Escape

The Wingfield's fire escape is both a literal and figurative exit from their apartment. Tom often visits to smoke, using it as a means to escape from the stress of his family life. When Laura ventures onto the fire escape for the first and only time, she nearly falls, symbolizing her inability to leave her family's home. Tom's frequent visits to the fire escape foreshadow his eventual departure from the family. In the beginning, he describes the structure as always burning with the fires of human desperation, representing the weight of his emotional ties and memories.

Themes in The Glass Menagerie

The play explores three main themes:

1. The Weight of Memory

Memory heavily influences the actions of each character. Amanda cannot live in the present and clings to her past youth. Laura retreats into fantasies of the past to cope with her anxiety and embarrassment over her secret love for Jim. Tom tells the story of his family as a way to distance himself emotionally. The memory of their absent father creates tension and prevents the family from moving on.

2. The Pressure to Meet Expectations

Amanda imposes her ideas of young womanhood onto Laura, putting immense pressure on her to conform. Laura's limp and illness also contribute to societal pressures and fears of not being able to meet society's expectations.

Laura's limp and inability to complete business school only adds to her insecurities and intensifies the pressure to conform to societal norms.

The Urge to Break Free

The Wingfield family, consisting of three members, all long for an escape from their current circumstances. Tom turns to writing and drinking, Laura seeks refuge in her fantasies, and Amanda reminisces about the past. Despite their efforts, they are unable to break free from their responsibilities and the weight of their memories.

Abandonment vs Escape

In The Glass Menagerie, it is crucial to understand the difference between abandonment and escape. Tom, the main character, constantly struggles with the decision to leave his family, whether it is going out at night or inviting a gentleman over to meet his sister. He fears repeating his father's act of abandonment but eventually chooses to follow his heart's desire. However, even after he leaves, he remains unable to fully escape from his family.

Dreams and Illusions

In this play, dreams and illusions serve as traps rather than a means of escape for each character. Tom dreams of becoming a poet and joining the merchant marines to live an independent life away from his family. He also avoids facing reality by immersing himself in movies every night. Similarly, Amanda cannot accept her present circumstances and dreams of returning to her past life. She envisions putting Laura through business school and relying on Tom for financial support. Laura retreats into a fantasy world with her collection of glass animals and solitary walks among zoo animals. But these illusions only hold them back and prevent any progress.

"It doesn't matter...I don't have favorites much...I'll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less - freakish!" (Laura explains her fantasy to Tom when he accidentally breaks her glass figurine, Scene 7).

It is only when they meet Jim, a man who is not burdened by his past or future, that the characters confront their disillusionment and face reality.

Key Points from The Glass Menagerie

  • The Glass Menagerie was first written in 1944 by Tennessee Williams as a "memory play."
  • The story centers around the Wingfield family and Tom's memories of his time with his mother and sister after his father left them.
  • The glass figurine collection symbolizes Laura's vulnerability and how she eventually finds her inner strength.
  • The fire escape represents both Tom's eventual escape and a barrier preventing Laura from leaving her current situation.
  • The major themes include the weight of memories, the fine line between abandonment and escape, and the entrapment of dreams and illusions.

The Story Behind The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie is a play written by Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) that premiered in Chicago in 1944. It depicts the struggles of the Wingfield family, who belong to the lower class during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The play explores themes such as abandonment, disillusionment, and the search for freedom.

Who is the Author of The Glass Menagerie?

The Glass Menagerie was written by Tennessee Williams (1911-1983).

What is the Plot of The Glass Menagerie?

The play follows the Wingfield family as they cope with the challenges of abandonment, disillusionment, and the desire for independence.

What Does The Glass Menagerie Symbolize?

The glass figurine collection, referred to as the "glass menagerie" in the play, represents Laura's escape from reality, her fragility, and her eventual strength.

When Does The Glass Menagerie Take Place?

The events in The Glass Menagerie are set in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

When Was The Glass Menagerie Written?

Tennessee Williams began writing different versions of the Wingfield story in the 1930s, and the play premiered in Chicago in 1944.

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