The Glass Menagerie

What happens to us when we live only in the past? How do we live up to the expectations of others – and is it even worth doing so? Tennessee Williams explores these questions in The Glass Menagerie, a play produced nearly 80 years ago but that still resonates today. 

The Glass Menagerie The Glass Menagerie

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Table of contents

    The Glass Menagerie (1944)

    The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, is a play that grapples with the past and the expectations of others. The Wingfield family struggles with the weight of memory, their dreams and illusions, and how each of them find escape from their stifling world. The Glass Menagerie shows the tragedy of using fantasy to escape reality and the triumph of breaking free from the trap of illusions.

    The Glass Menagerie summary

    The Glass Menagerie opens with narrator and protagonist Tom Wingfield addressing the audience, saying this is a “memory play.” The curtains open and reveal the Wingfield apartment in St. Louis around the 1930s. Tom lives with his mother Amanda and sister Laura. The father abandoned the Wingfield family many years prior, which has created lasting tension for the family. Tom narrates the play from the fire escape, which is the only way to get into and out of the apartment.

    Tom joins the scene as a character. The family sits around the dinner table and talks about Amanda’s youth as a beautiful young woman and her many “gentlemen callers”. It’s clear that Tom and Laura have heard these stories hundreds of times and are bored. Laura, a painfully shy young woman who does not possess her mother’s charm, says she will never receive gentlemen callers.

    Laura spends her days playing with her glass figurines and going on walks in the park and zoo. Tom, who feels trapped by living at home, escapes to the movies at night. He also writes poetry during his shifts at work at a warehouse. In a heated argument with Amanda, Tom accidentally breaks some of the glass animals in Laura's collection. She puts the pieces back together, a symbolic act of her emerging strength.

    Gentleman caller: An outdated term for a male visitor who may be a potential love interest or boyfriend.

    Tom brings home Jim O’Connor, one of his colleagues, to introduce to Laura. Laura, however, is terrified and embarrassed to meet him because he was her secret love in high school. Amanda receives Jim as if he were coming to meet her instead of Laura. Amanda puts on a lavish gown and slips into her Southern accent and debutante ways.

    After the electricity goes out, Amanda lights candles around the apartment. Jim and Laura spend time alone. They dance together, and he accidentally breaks the horn on the glass unicorn. They kiss, but Jim pulls back and confesses he has a fiancé. Even though she is devastated, Laura keeps her composure and gives him the broken unicorn to take with him. Jim leaves, and Laura and Amanda are furious at Tom. Tom storms out of the apartment.

    In the closing scene, Tom narrates to the audience the resolution: he was fired from his job and eventually left Amanda and Laura. But no matter how far he goes, he says, he cannot get away from his emotional ties to his family.

    The Glass Menagerie, scene from the play, StudySmarterA scene from the 2017 production of the play at Uark Theatre, Wikimedia

    The Glass Menagerie setting

    The Glass Menagerie takes place in St. Louis, Missouri, sometime in the 1930s. Tom mentions the Chicago’s World’s Fair, which took place in 1934 and was a symbol of prosperity, advancement, and escape. The Great Depression, which took economic and psychological tolls on individuals, underscores the hardship the Wingfield family faces.

    The Glass Menagerie is based in part on Tennessee Williams' life. His father, who was turbulent and a heavy drinker, was frequently absent. His mother, like Amanda, was a Southern belle. Williams' sister, Evelina, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After having left the family home, Evelina underwent a pre-frontal lobotomy, a controversial neurosurgical procedure for mental disorders. As a result, she was institutionalized for the rest of her life, which caused Williams to feel immense guilt. Later, he would transition her to a private facility and provide her with financial support.

    Why is knowing Tennessee Williams's personal life and the historical background of the play important for your reading and interpretation? Consider how these ideas inform and deepen your understanding and analysis of The Glass Menagerie.

    The Glass Menagerie characters

    Tom Wingfield - the play’s protagonist whose beginning and ending narration frame the play. He is the son of Amanda and the brother of Laura. Tom feels constrained by his work and family responsibilities. As a result, he yearns to escape. He writes poetry while at work at a warehouse, and he goes out at night, drinking and watching movies. He desires to be free from his family, yet he can never quite achieve full freedom.

    The Glass Menagerie analysis setting StudySmarterAmanda Wingfield would likely have looked like the young women painted here, Wikimedia

    Amanda Wingfield - mother to Tom and Laura. In her youth, she was a Southern belle, and she continues to desperately cling to her past self. Her husband abandoned their family, yet his presence still looms from the large portrait of him hanging in the apartment. She nags Tom and pleads with him to never abandon them. She refuses to accept Laura is different than she was and instead thrusts her ideas of young womanhood onto Laura. Out of touch with reality, she sees the world as rosy, larger-than-life, and centered around her.

    Southern belle: A young woman of an upper-class family (between the War of 1812 and the Civil War) who was expected to be beautiful, polite, flirtatious yet innocent.

    Laura Wingfield - sister to Tom and daughter to Amanda. Laura was sick with pleurosis as a child, which earned her the nickname “Blue Roses” (a mishearing of “pleurosis”). As a result of her illness, she walks with a limp. She is painfully shy, reclusive, and prefers to slip into fantasy rather than spend time in reality. She drops out of business school and instead roams the parks and the zoo.

    Laura's prized collection of small glass figurines, which she polishes and constantly arranges, serves as a central image in the narrative. At the beginning of the play, she is delicate and fragile, just like her glass animals. In the end, however, she proves to be the strongest and most grounded character of them all.

    Jim O’Connor - the “gentleman caller” who arrives towards the end of the play. Tom and Jim work together in the warehouse, and they knew each other in high school. Laura had a crush on Jim in high school, which no one really knew. Jim is Tom’s foil: steady, hardworking, driven, and undaunted. Jim visits for dinner and is polite and likable. Before things get too far with Laura, he leaves and returns to his real life.

    Analysis of symbols in The Glass Menagerie

    Two key symbols in the play which help reveal the its themes are Laura's glass animal collection and the Wingfield's fire escape. Let's take a closer look at these key symbols.

    The Glass Menagerie, Glass animal, StudySmarterLaura's glass animal collection represents both fragility and strength, Pixabay

    Glass animal collection

    Laura’s "glass menagerie" represents both her fragility and strength. At the beginning of the play, she identifies with the glass figurines. They are delicate statues, a haven from a scary world, immovable. When Tom breaks her figurines, it’s as if she is "broken" back into strength. Instead of falling to pieces, Laura puts the figurines back together. Giving the broken unicorn to Jim serves to free herself from the glass menagerie’s grip.

    Fire escape

    The fire escape is the only way in and out of the apartment. It serves as both a literal and figurative exit: Tom frequently smokes on the fire escape, a gesture of wanting release from the stress of his family life. When Laura goes onto the fire escape for the only time, she nearly falls, indicating her inability to truly leave the Wingfield family home. The frequency with which Tom goes to the fire escape during the play foreshadows his inevitable departure from the family. He opens the play saying this about the fire escape:

    The apartment...is entered by a fire escape, a structure

    whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these

    huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable

    fires of human desperation. (Scene 1)

    Themes in The Glass Menagerie

    The Glass Menagerie has three key themes. Let's take a closer look at each of them.

    The weight of memory

    Memory is heavy, and it informs every character’s action in the play: Amanda desperately attempts to relive her youth and beauty, to the point where she cannot live in the here-and-now. Laura is embarrassed by her secret love of Jim, yet retreats into fantasies of the past as a way to console herself from social anxiety.

    Tom tells the story of his family as an attempt to rid himself of memories — and thus, his emotional ties — to them. The memory of their father — and perhaps his absence — creates a mounting tension that ultimately weighs the family down from ever moving forward with their lives.

    Abandonment vs. escape

    There is a fine line between abandonment and escape. Tom demonstrates this by constantly oscillating between leaving his family (e.g., going out at night and drinking) and staying to take care of them (e.g. inviting Jim over to introduce him to Laura). He does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps and abandon his family, but he wants to follow his heart, which he ultimately does. Still, despite his abandonment of the family, he cannot ever truly escape them.

    Dreams and illusions

    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 explaining her fantasy to Tom when he breaks her figurine, Scene 7).

    Dreams and illusions trap each character, rather than help them. While each may turn to dreams and fantasies for an escape, they instead become immobilized by them. Tom dreams of becoming a poet, joining the merchant marines, and ultimately living an independent life. He even avoids reality by immersing himself in movies every night.

    Amanda dreams of returning to her old life and therefore cannot face reality as it is. She dreams of putting Laura in business school and for Tom to always provide for her. Laura dreams by retreating into fantasies of her glass animal collection and solo walks among zoo animals. Each character deals with their disillusionment head-on when they meet Jim, a man who is neither bound by his past nor his future.

    The Glass Menagerie - Key takeaways

    • The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams was first produced in 1944.
    • The play is a "memory play" about the lives of the Wingfield family. It revolves around Tom's memories of his life with his sister and mother after his father abandoned them.
    • The central image of the glass figurine collection symbolizes Laura's initial fragility and her later strength at the end of the play.
    • The fire escape not only foreshadows Tom's eventual escape from his life, but prevents Laura from leaving hers.
    • The major themes in the play are the weight of memory, the fine line between abandonment and escape, and the entrapment of dreams and illusions.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Glass Menagerie

    Who wrote The Glass Menagerie?

    Tennessee Williams (1911 - 1983) wrote The Glass Menagerie. 

    What is The Glass Menagerie about?

    The Glass Menagerie is about the 1930s lower class Wingfield family who grapple with abandonment, disillusionment, and finding freedom. 

    What does the glass menagerie symbolize?

    Laura's collection of glass figurines (referred to as the "glass menagerie") symbolizes her escape from reality, her fragility, and her strength. 

    What time period is The Glass Menagerie set in?

    The Glass Menagerie is set in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. 

    What year was The Glass Menagerie written? 

    Tennessee Williams began writing versions of the Wingfield story in the 1930s. The Glass Menagerie play debuted in Chicago in 1944. 

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