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Tennessee Williams uses symbolism to reveal, in depth, attributes of characters and what they represent. the play is constructed so that each character has a defining symbol which resembles their personality. Brechtian techniques also contribute to the motifs and themes of the play.
We are presented a symbol straight away in the first scene which is the fire escape. This symbolises a "bridge" between the illusionary world of the Wingfields and the world of reality outside of their apartment.
Tom-"I'm going for a smoke!"
Laura-"I'm all right. I slipped, but I'm all right
From this The "bridge" initially seems to be a one way passage, but the for each character the direction varies. The fire escape, for Tom, is escape out of the world of Amanda and Laura and an entrance into the world of reality. The fire escape however, for Laura, is a way into her world and an escape from reality. Examples of both characters can clearly be seen: whenever Tom smokes he goes out on to the fire escape, showing that he does not like to be inside and be a part of the illusionary world. Yet on the other hand, Laura, thinks of the fire escape as a way in and not a way out. An example of this can be seen when Amanda tells Laura to go to the store: Laura trips on the fire escape. This idea suggests that Laura's emotions and fears enormously affect her physical condition. Much more so than normal people.
The most predominant and frequently referred to symbol which is rather obvious is Laura's glass menagerie. Her collection of glass represents her own private world which she frequently use as an escape from reality. Her place where she can hide and be safe. The events that happen to Laura's glass affects Laura's emotional state greatly. When Tom breaks the glass menagerie Laura is affected tremendously and this can be deciphered from her reaction.
"(shrilly) My glass!- menagerie".
"(from stage directions after the menagerie is broken) Laura clings weakly to the mantel with her face averted."
The shattered glass represents Laura's understanding of Tom's responsibilities to her. Also, the reaction to the unicorn breaking "(shrilly) My glass!- menagerie"., which is important, represents Laura directly because her fragility is represented; it is as if she has broken herself.
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There are many symbolic attributes that Williams use to present Laura and the world she lives in. In the play Laura is presented as an awkward, emotionally insecure and fragile person. In her mind she doesn't have a connection to the real world and lives in her world of glass animals. The glass figurines represent the fragile relationship between the characters, and when they break the relationships fall apart. The glass unicorn is Lauras favourite figure and this represents he delicacy and fragility and her outcast status in the world. This idea of animals representing her a being fragility and being an outcast re-occurs many times throughout the whole play in many other forms. After Laura dropped out of college she consistently visited the zoo, and glass house of tropical flowers. She feels comfortable here because they are vulnerable and delicate just like her. Laura and Jim have a very brief love encounter , during this Laura is gaining more confidence about herself. This idea is as if she is starting to escape the illusionary world and entering reality. Jim accidentally knocked and broke Lauras favourite glass piece. Laura, who usually worships her glass collection more than anything else and would have been distraught, replied to his reaction with;
"He's lost his horn. It doesn't matter. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise."
"I'll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less-freakish! Now he will feel more at home with the other horse, the ones who don't have horns....".
These two quotes suggest that Laura is finally escaping her illusionary world. Her encounter with Jim has made her think that she might have a chance to survive the real world. "I'll just imagine he had an operation", the unicorn is like Laura in this because it has lost its horn and it fits in with the rest of the figures. The meeting she has had with Jim is "the operation" she has had done to her and she feels as if she will fit in with the world now. Jim tells her the news that he is engaged and she gives him the unicorn as a souvenir which can be interpreted as her giving away her ability to fit in with the world and retreats into illusory world of the glass menagerie never to come out again.
Tom acts as two roles in the play; as the narrator and a character. He struggles with being a hard worker, a protector of his loved ones, and a fulfiller of his dreams. Tom wishes for a sense of independence by escaping the pressures that come from his dysfunctional family life. Tom needs to feel a sense of adulthood. He feels like a child because his mother is constantly telling him what to do. He uses forms of escapes to remove himself from the stresses and strains Laura and his mother place upon him, such as the cinema which he visits frequently through the play. He is imaginative and articulate which is contradictory to the attributes of Amanda. We can tell Tom yearns for a life of adventure and freedom, but feels he cant fulfil because he doesn't want to hurt Amanda and Laura
"I'm going to opium dens! Yes, opium dens, dens of vice and criminal hang- outs, mother. I've joined the Hogan gang, I'm a hired assassin, I carry a tommy-gun in a violin case "
" But the wonderfulness trick of all was the coffin trick. he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. There is a trick that would come in handy for me- get me out of this 2 by 4 situation"
We can see from the imaginative vocabulary and ideas "I've joined the Hogan gang, I'm a hired assassin, I carry a tommy-gun in a violin case " that Tom conveys through his speech he is very articulate and is destined for better things than working in a dead end warehouse job. He symbolises the average American struggling in his one dimensional live that wants to escape and break free in to a better life which they wish for. He is autobiographical for Tenessee Williams and therefore is the most complex character which can be seen from the way in which he treats Amanda and Laura. Sometimes he can be understanding towards them but can then be very indifferent towards them. The phrase " he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. There is a trick that would come in handy for me- get me out of this 2 by 4 situation" completely summarises Toms intentions as a character as he uses this symbolic idea as a representation of his situation living in the Wingfield apartment and how he would like to escape. The nails symbolise Laura and Amanda and he reveals he doesn't want to remove one, which translates as he does not want hurt either of them. When Tom acts as the narrator it is a Brechtian technique to remind the audience it is a play and not a realistic situation. This emphasises all the characters in the play as merely symbolic representations.
The use of an onstage screen on which words and images of relevance to the action are projected is one of the play's most unique features. The idea of the screen is to emphasize the importance of something referred to by the characters. This is a Brechtian technique used to remind the audience they are in a play and going to learn something. An example of this is when an image of a gentleman caller appears on the screen; occasionally it refers to something from a character's past or fantasy, as when the image of Amanda as a young girl appears in Scene Six because she is obsessed with her past and her illusory world is her past.
"Ou sont les neiges"
The purpose of the screen is to generally emphasize a themes or symbol that has already been encountered and established obviously by the action of the play. This makes the device seem, at best an ironic device, but slightly patronising occasionally. Productions of the play have been, for the most part, very hesitant about the effectiveness and value of the screen as a device. The screen as a device is, however, an interesting personification of Williams's Brechtian theatrical style, which makes expressionist life portrayals to convey an idea the main priority rather than realistic portrayals of life.
Williams does create characters as merely symbolic representations used to teach the audience about human nature because of the use of Brechtian techniques such as the screen and a narrator .Also we learn so much from the characters through symbolism that it is difficult to imagine them as real people because they seem to unrealistic and only created to teach the audience a lesson.