Powerful Symbols and Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie

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Powerful Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is a classic among classics for a number of reasons. The narrator, Tom Wingfield, gives the reader an inside look into the lives of a common family living in the pre-war depression era. The members of this family experience a great deal, and their lives are made much more vivid and meaningful through Williams' use of symbolism. Three well-crafted symbols are the fire escape, which provides hope and an escape to the outside world and from it; the glass menagerie, which is a metaphor for Laura's fragility and uniqueness; and rainbows, which symbolize unrealized hopes and aspirations. Through the use of these symbols, the reader is presented with the universal theme that unfulfilled hopes and desires are an unwanted, albeit important aspect of the human experience. This theme is revealed in a stylized, artistic manner, which is one of the reasons why The Glass Menagerie is a meaningful classic.

Symbols are a major part of this play that Tom, who is a poet, admits he has a weakness for. One of the first to be presented in the story is the fire escape that serves as the passageway to the apartment. The escape has a different meaning and function for each character and is also said to have an "accidental poetic truth" (21). For Tom, it is a means of escape from fire, "the slow and implacable fires of human desperation"(21). This is especially true of Tom's apartment, which is "both literally and metaphorically a trap which Tom and his mother, at least, wish to escape" (Bigsby 34). His mother, Amanda, is devastated after her daughter Laura's failure to cope in business college. This is a let down of Amanda's hopes of escaping because she has "invested what little she had to free both herself and Laura" (Bigsby 34). Amanda then becomes obsessed with finding Laura a gentleman caller so that she can marry and be supported as another means of escape, at least for Laura. When this caller finally comes, and it seems like it was meant to be, as they dance and kiss, he announces he is engaged, and dashes their hopes. The ever-fragile Laura, temporarily drawn out of her dream-world shell of her glass collection and the victrola, draws further back into herself. Now a terrible desperation fills the apartment, and Tom decides he must escape the suffocating environment to follow his own calling.
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