Tennessee Williams’ symbolism play The Glass Menagerie depicts a fragile world which has been constructed on the illusions, weaknesses, and fascinations of the characters. The play’s title itself has a revealing nature: The ornate glass collection represents the play’s characters’ fragility and escape into an imaginary and illusionary world. The play hence abounds in numerous kinds of symbols, some obvious (the little glass figurines of animals), some multi-layered (different types of light and the unicorn), and some oblique (the frequent references to rainbows).
The different symbols represent different themes underlying the play. Thus, these symbols draw our attention to the truths that are hidden beneath the obvious surface reality in the play. We see the Wingfield family’s life through Tom’s eyes, who is one of the main characters. Since he is a poet, he has a penchant for finding symbols in things around him. He is an escapist with a strong desire to escape. The fire escape is a symbol depicting the themes of escapism and avoidance.
It is a way out of the Wingfield apartment for Tom, an escape for him from the life of dreariness and responsibility of an old mother and a spinster, stay at home sister with a crooked leg. When he gets tired of his mother’s nagging, he retreats to the fire escape. Furthermore, the films and theatre too stand as a symbol for Tom’s escape into an imaginary and illusionary world for a while. This tendency of his is a perpetual bone of contention between Amanda and Tom, who curses him for his casual and avoidant behavior, she says: “Go to the moon-you selfish dreamer!
” (65; scene 7). Moreover, the rainbow or the reference of it in the play is an oblique symbol which represents fantasy or transience. It is a thread that binds Tom to Laura, as her glass collection acts as a prism for rainbow colors. When he sees shop windows, they look like shattered rainbow to him; meanwhile, the chandelier also reminds him of deceptive rainbows. Even the scarf that Malvolio the Magician gives him is rainbow-colored. Hence, rainbow represents transience, illusion, and deception. It’s there one moment and gone another.
He even stays on miserable in his job and wait until he is fired. When Tom finally decides to leave his family behind for good, his action echoes his father’s actions. He is perhaps doomed to chase rainbows through a career in the navy as a sailor. Life still doesn’t give him an opportunity to be the poet or writer, this self-professed Shakespeare wanted to be. Laura is the other important character of the play. The fragility of her glass collection represents her own vulnerable nature. She is unable to face the real world, as she is not equipped to handle its demands.
The glass collection represents her desire to escape into fantasy rather than face the grim real world. She likes to polish the collection rather than practice her typing skills when no one is looking. She is so fragile that she can hardly function in the real world which is harsh. She is bored by the typing course her mother insists she should take and the idea of the visiting suitors also vex her greatly. Not surprisingly, her favorite figurine in the menagerie is the unicorn, a creature which Laura calls “freakish” (58; Scene 7). She has also been referred to a ‘blue rose’ by Jim i. e.
, something rare and farfetched. The title fits her aptly, as Laura has felt like a misfit all her life. Due to her braced leg, she felt embarrassed and self-conscious and calls herself crippled. The fire escape, a prominent symbol, does not serve as an effective means of even momentary escape for her, as she stumbles when she tries to use it. It seems that the nature of her affliction is more psychological than physical. Tom rightly sums up her dreamy existence as follows that she lives: “in a world of her own-a world of little glass ornaments… She plays old phonograph records and-that’s about all” (30; Scene 5).
William’s description of Laura in the play is revealing: “fragile, unearthly prettiness has come out in Laura: she is like a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting” (32; Scene 6). Leading a normal life is a momentary temptation for Laura, which makes her warm up to Jim, her childhood love interest. According to Bigsby, “this is the temptation to which Laura succumbs in The Glass Menagerie but the alternative is equally chilling and she is unwilling to surrender her dreams for the prosaic typing pool and the frightening casualties of time” (47).
She momentarily loses this self-consciousness when she is dancing with Jim, but when they knock over the table having the unicorn, making it fall and break, it highlights that her dreams of finding love have been shattered and not liberated. The contact with Jim has initiated Laura perhaps too abruptly in the real world, thus shattering her. The hornless unicorn is now an ordinary horse; and hence, Laura gives it to Jim, perhaps reminding of his own ordinariness and momentary deceitfulness of acting like a unicorn when he was just an ordinary horse.
Thus, the symbol of the unicorn shifts from Laura to Jim. It’s not just Laura, but the lives of all the characters of the play are built on delicate and fragile illusions which are prone to get shattered very easily. Hence, the characters guard these illusions furiously as one would hold on to a phobia. Setting ‘fragility’ in the larger context, one may notice that the play is set in 1939, the unsettling time when not only the world peace is in a fragile state but also the world economy.
The message imbedded in the play is that the uneasy peace is the harbinger of war, capitalism is a mere illusion, and the capitalistic lifestyle is a fragile and delusional one. Both Tom and Jim represent the failed byproducts of the system, they are crimping to make ends meet and yet are barely able to do. The fragile peace in the Wingfield household is a microcosm of the world’s uneasy peace and its gradual descent into war and the impending gloom. The picture of Mr. Wingfield, the absentee father, symbolizes memory and the family’s propensity to stay in the past.
Amanda, Tom and Laura’s mother, insists on keeping it there which shows a valediction or proof of her married status, yet she cannot stop reliving the past where dozens of suitors waiting upon her, and yet she chose the one who ultimately left her. It is amusing when she dons the same dress she wore to charm her future husband when Jim, Laura’s prospective suitor, comes to meet the family. The old dress symbolizes her youth, long gone and faded, like the gentlemen she used to entertain at the Southern Blue Mountain. Memory is a means of escape from the drudgery of the present for her and yet it keeps her inevitably trapped into the past.
Thus, unlike her son, she is an escapist of different kind. Still, one can sympathize with Amanda’s dilemma of caring for her children and yet driving them relentlessly for a better future. Meanwhile, the dim lights that suffuse the entire play are a powerful symbol of grimness and memory. Darkness represents grimness as well as mystery. The dreamy world of the Wingfields is based on illusions, illusions that would vanish in the harsh light of the real world. The electric lights supplied by the power company thus represent the reality, forcing the dysfunctional family to retreat into the candle light.
The power being suddenly disconnected by the power electric supply company is symbolic of how Tom’s negligence in meeting the demands of real life in terms of paying the bills has submerged his family into darkness. Tom also says that “nowadays the world is lit by lightning” (65; Scene 7). Hence, the artificial and harsh electric lights also represent war, which would not let things remain the way they are, and familial ties would get severed. Furthermore, the illusions and shadows created by the candle light and the moon are meant to add a romantic aura to the play.
There is also reference to an old candelabrum, a relic from a burnt down Church which Amanda gives to Jim to light his way; it symbolizes the hope she has placed in Jim being Laura’s savior. Tom also calls him “an emissary from the world of reality” (2; Scene 1), as he is open and honest about not being able to achieve all that he wished to achieve in practical life despite his good academic record. One may note that the yearbook of Tom, Jim and Laura is curiously titled ‘Torch’, which symbolizes the ability of their so-called academic education to guide their path.
However, one can ironically see how useful has this education been for all the protagonists of the play. They are striving to find their own identity and place in the world but have been unable to do so. When Tom urges Laura to “blow out your candles” (65; Scene 7), he might be reminding her to come out of the shadows as she would eventually end up on her own. Laura’s act of blowing out of the candle and submerging the stage is symbolic of how the link binding Tom and Laura has weakened. Conclusively, the symbols in the play represent the characters’ aspirations as well as frustrations.
The glass menagerie in particular represents the fragile ties that the characters have with one another and with the world of reality. Like the ornate animals in Laura’s cupboard, the characters have encapsulated themselves at an illusionary plane of existence, as they are aweary that the glint of the real world would turn their unicorns and rainbows into nothingness. Work Cited Bigsby, C. W. E. A critical introduction to twentieth-century American drama: Tennessee. New York: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1984.