The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, is about four persons who are trying to avoid their present real life by retreating into their separate worlds. The Glass Menagerie is a memory play because it is told from the memory of the narrator, Tom Wingfield. The readers live the story through Tom’s eyes, they see what he sees and feel what he feels. Both, the play’s style and content are inspired by memory.
According to Williams, “nostalgia”..is the first condition of the play” (Production Notes). The use of music, lack of realism and the frequent symbolism are all due to its origins in memory. As it will be illustrated in this paper, memory is a major theme of the play because most characters are haunted by it. It will also display the various symbols of escape in the play, and why some characters prefer to escape their lives by living in the past.
The Glass Menagerie is described as a memory play because the story is drawn from the narrator’s own memory, Tom Wingfield. Being a self-described memory means that it will be somewhat removed from reality, the way it was remembered and not necessarily the way it was. At the beginning of scene one, Tom goes back to the days when he was a younger Tom and starts telling his version of the story. To set the scene for us, Tom explains “I turn back time. I reverse it to the quaint period, the thirties” (Williams 5). This means that Tom is telling a story that long took place, and that he is recalling the details to tell them to the audience. Furthermore, he explains that what we are about to see is a memory, and that the most realistic character is the gentleman caller.
Memory is an important theme of the play because in some way the whole play revolves around this specific theme. The play discusses the power of memory, and how some people hold on to their memories so much that they can not move on with their lives. Throughout the play Tom discusses how every single member of his family is longing to escape their present lives. Tom, too, can not wait for a chance to run away through the fire escape and never return. However, when he finally got the chance to escape by joining the marine, his memory of Laura is the one thing that brought him back home. It is like his memories are chains around his neck that it is preventing him from breathing. Hence, memory plays a major role n this play, since it is the one thing that kept. the family members together.
The play consists of many symbols and themes that serve the escape mechanism that most characters choose, to avoid the reality of their lives. Williams uses many of these symbols to help the Wingfield’s live in their memory and escape their surroundings.
Mr. Wingfield, the absent father who is presented by a photo is the ultimate symbol of escape. His departure is probably the one thing that triggered the rest of the family members to escape their lives. His picture on the wall is a constant reminder of the better times and days that went away. His absence is the factor that makes everyone else despise their present and empty lives. Amanda makes several negative remarks about missing him, yet his picture is till on the wall. Tom also makes jokes about how his father “fell in love with long distances” (Williams 5). This might be Tom’s defense mechanism to ease the pain of abandonment by changing his father’s action into something humorous.
The fire escape presented in the first scene represents a “bridge” between the world inside the Wingfield home and the reality world outside (scene 1). However, this bridge has a different meaning to each character. For Tom, it is the was to escape the world of Amanda and Laura, and an entrance into the real life. Amanda sees the fire escape as a way for gentlemen callers to enter their lives. As for Laura, it is a way to escape the world outside by hiding inside their illusionary world of the apartment.
Another symbol is the “Paradise Dance hall” that lies across the street form the Wingfield apartment (Williams 39). The name of the dance hall itself might imply that living with the Wingfield is like a prison, or it is far from paradise, as Tom and Amanda have continuous arguments day after day. Tom likes to watch the couples dance in the hall, according to my opinion, he likes to watch the care-free partners dancing to the music since he does not have a love partner of his own. In addition, the dancing hall represent the longing feeling that Tom experience to the real world outside of the apartment.
Tom’s habit of going to the movies is another symbol of escaping to the world of reality where he finds “a lot of adventure” (Williams 33). Tom understands man needs for love and adventure. Having Amanda criticizing him for being a “selfish dreamer” is the thing that makes Tom unable to leave (Williams 96). However, when Tom is fed up, he states that he is tired of going to the movies, and that he is going to move. This implies that he was using the movie theaters to dream of a better life and to avoid that harsh reality that he has nothing, “no single thing” ( Williams 21).
The movies were not the only thing that Tom used to avoid his empty life, he also admired magic shows. His admiration in the particular ‘coffin trick’ resembles his captivity in the cramped, dinghy place and similar to a jail ceil apartment. When Tom comes back home drunk from the movies, after having a fight with Amanda, he tells Laura ” but the most wonder fullest trick of all was the coffin trick”.. These is a trick that would come in handy for me to get out of this two-by-four situation” (Williams 27). This quote entails Tom’s entrapment in his own place, and how he longs to leave.
Last but not least, is rather the obvious symbol, Laura’s glass menagerie. Her glass collection represents a safe place that serves her shyness to hide from the real world. The events that happen to her glass collection throughout the play affect her emotional state. When Amanda asks Laura to practice typing, she instead plays with her glass selection (Williams 10). Tom accidentally breaks some of the glass on his way to the movies. The shattered glass could represent Laura’s understanding of Tom’s need to leave the house (Williams 24). The most important piece of glass to Laura is the unicorn because they both have one thing in common, both are different. Laura is different because of her physical disability and her shyness, while the unicorn is different from the other animals because of the horn. Laura tells Jim that “the unicorn does not complain of being different” (Williams 83). This symbolizes Laura’s acceptance of being different. When Jim breaks off the horn of the unicorn, Laura points out that now he is like the rest of the horses, just as Laura can start overcoming her shyness as well.
The memory theme is presented not only through Tom, the narrator, but through other various means.. The idea conveyed in this play is memory versus reality.
The use of the screen device on the wall helps to set the mood of the characters, it allows us to enter into the mind of the narrator, his inner thoughts and feelings. According to Williams, the purpose of this device was ” to give accent to certain values in each scene” (Production Notes). These images or titles give the audience a sense to relate to the characters, to go through what they are going through. Sometimes the screen is used to emphasize the importance of something referred to by the characters, as when the image of blue roses appeared in scene two when Laura was talking about her crush on a high school boy.
The use of music is another accent to emphasize certain emotions. The recurring tune of “The Glass Menagerie” is used several times to “give emotional emphasis to suitable passages. Laura uses her old records to retreat in her own little world. When Tom started telling their story at the beginning of scene one music started playing in the background to give a feel of the sad, empty life that took place after the departure of Mr. Wingfield.
The Lighting, according to Williams, is not realistic, “In keeping with the atmosphere of memory, the stage is dim” (Production Notes, xix). Since the play has a very sad melodrama mood, the light is very dim throughout the play. When Amanda and Tom were discussing inviting Jim to dinner to meet Laura, and Laura had no active part, the light was on her figure. This way the audience can have Laura in mind when listening to Tom and Amanda’s plan, and sympathize with her when they see her shadow.
As it was noted that each character has a way to escape its life, we need to understand why some of the characters prefer to live in the past. Tom clearly sees his life with his family and his job at the warehouse as a prison. In addition, the responsibility that he has towards his mom and his sister makes him feel cramped and suffocated. The fire escape haunts Tom since the beginning of the play, where at the end he follows the footsteps of his father. Amanda lives in denial since her husband abandoned her. Ever since she has been living in remembering ‘the glory days’ when she had seventeen gentlemen callers in Blue Mountain. This was a time for Amanda when she was popular, rich and the center of attention. She likes to deny the fact that she is a single mother with a crippled daughter and unsuccessful son. As for Laura, she likes to live in her shell behind the glass menagerie to avoid contact with the people in the world outside. Her physical illness scares her of having any social life. If her own father left her behind, why would strangers want to have any contact with her? Jim, too, is escaping his life although he is the one realistic character in the whole play. As Jim was the high school hero, he ended up being an employee in a warehouse. The case of Jim and Amanda is rather similar, because both had high hopes for themselves and they ended up with a life that they never imagined.
All human beings seem to always look back on the ‘glory days’ to relive this glory. Everyone like to recollect memories, assuming their happy ones, and have them back again. The play, just like our lives, is filled with possible escapes. Each character tries to escape form their life but end up tangled in their problem. Williams uses the theme of memory and escape throughout “The Glass menagerie” to demonstrate the hopelessness and despair of each character’s dreams and the inevitable failure of their escapes. Could this be Williams way of suggesting that solving the problems is the right way to go?
Memory, on the other hand is a very strong element in the play, and everyone’s life. Many people try to escape their memory hoping to move on with their lives. Tom, just like anyone of us, attempted to escape his memories but failed. Another suggestion by Williams could be that memories are what is making some of the characters unhappy, i.e. the memory of Mr. Wingfield, Tom’s memory of Laura.