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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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For Laura, the fire escape is exactly the opposite--a path to the safe world inside, a world in which she can hide. Especially symbolic is Laura's fall when descending the steps to do a chore for her mother after leaving the security of the apartment. This fall suggests Laura's inability to function in society and the outside world. It seems then, that her safety is found by staying indoors in her fantasy world. It is as if "in stepping into the fictive world of her glass animals, she steps out of any meaningful relationship with others in the present. She becomes one more beautiful but fragile piece in the collection, no longer vulnerable to the depredations of social process or time but no longer redeemed by love" (Bigsby 38).
For Amanda, the fire escape is symbolic of her hopes and dreams that a gentleman caller will arrive to marry her daughter and take care of her. The fire escape is also cleverly used as an entrance to fulfill this hope. This is the way that Jim, the gentleman caller, comes into the apartment, at the time when Amanda's hopes have been uplifted. It is significant that Laura does not want to open the door when Jim arrives. It shows her reluctance to let an emissary from the world of reality, symbolized by Jim, invade the comfortable non-existence of the apartment and her insecurity in dealing with the outside world.
The main symbol in the play is that of the glass menagerie itself. This represents Laura's fragile nature. The first time the menagerie is mentioned in any detail in a symbolic manner is when Tom and Amanda have a heated argument near the beginning of the play. Tom ends by calling Amanda an "ugly babbling old witch" (42), and struggles to put his jacket on, intent on escaping his rage and misery. When he cannot put the coat on properly, he becomes frustrated with his clumsiness and flings it across the room, breaking some of the glass collection. Laura "cries out as if wounded" (42). This shows how fragile Laura really is and how she reacts when even the small balance of her apartment is shifted. Immediately Tom reenters the room in an attempt to comfort her. This incident brings to light Tom's predicament of the impact of his leaving, which is that "Tom cannot escape until he finds the way to leave without shattering Laura's fragile self" (Scheye 209).
Williams also makes the use of the glass menagerie apparent on stage. When Amanda sits down to discuss Laura's future with Tom, the legend "Laura" appears on screen, and the music that begins playing is appropriately titled The Glass Menagerie. The most prominent use of this symbol comes at the turning point of the story when Jim is left alone with Laura. The conversation turns to Laura's glass collection. She remarks that "glass is something you have to take good care of" (98), again showing her fragility. More parallels are drawn between Laura and the glass collection with the introduction of the unicorn. Jim says, "Poor little fellow, he must feel sort of lonesome" (101), to which Laura replies, "He stays on a shelf with some horses that don't have horns and all of them seem to get along nicely together" (101). The unicorn becomes a symbol for Laura in that she is different. When Jim and Laura dance, and Jim accidentally knocks the unicorn off the table and its horn is broken, it loses its uniqueness. Similarly, when Jim kisses Laura and then shatters her hopes by telling her that he's engaged, she becomes broken-hearted and less unique. Part of the innocence that made Laura so vitally different is gone, because both Laura and the glass menagerie break when exposed to the uncaring outside world. When Laura gives Jim her broken unicorn, it symbolizes her broken heart that Jim will take with him when he leaves. The unicorn is no longer unique like her; rather it is common now, like Jim, so she lets him keep it. Just as she gives Jim a little bit of herself to take with him, he leaves behind a little bit of himself with her shattered hopes. Williams himself even said later in reference to the meaning of the menagerie: "The glass animals came to represent the fragile, delicate ties that must be broken...when you try to fulfill yourself" (Williams 10). However, through this realization that she is more ordinary, she "accepts her own altered psychological circumstances. Thus, in spite of the illusion that Laura is the Weakest wingfield, she emerges as the emotionally strongest family member" (Beattie 2545).
Finally, the symbol of rainbows is used throughout the story, though less than those of the fire escape and the glass menagerie. Rainbows are traditionally a symbol of hope, and each time the symbol is presented it is in a hopeful situation; for instance, when Tom comes back from the magic show with a rainbow-colored 'magical' scarf, that can turn goldfish into canaries that fly away. Just like the canaries, Tom also hopes to fly away and escape from the imprisonment of his apartment. Next, the chandeliers which create rainbow reflections at the Dance Hall can be interpreted as foreshadowing for the dance between Jim and Laura, which gives Laura hope that her problems are solved. At the end, when Tom looks at "pieces of colored glass, like bits of a shattered rainbow" (115), which also represent shattered hopes, he remembers his sister and hopes that he "can blow her candles out" (115). But in fact, Tom's final hopes of being able to make his amends and end his guilt can never be fulfilled just by himself as he finally realizes that "it is only Laura who can do that for him and only as a character in the play that she will" (Scheye 213). Ironically, although rainbows seem to be positive signs, they all end in disappointment with no one ever being able to reach the pot of gold.
Williams effectively makes use of symbolism in order to express his message as a truth upon the audience and to learn from the experiences of the Wingfields. In effect, the audience learns from the mistakes of the Wingfields and realizes that what brings out the best in ourselves can sometimes only be brought out through imagination, but also that the worst can be brought out through the unforgiving truth of reality.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Beattie, Elisabeth L. "The Glass Menagerie." Masterplots, ed. Frank M. Magill. Revised Second Ed. Vol. 5. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1996.
Bigsby, C. W. E. "Entering the Glass Menagerie." The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, ed. Matthew C. Roudane.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Scheye, Thomas E. "The Glass Menagerie: 'It's not tragedy, Freckles.'." Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, ed. Jac Tharpe.Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977.
Williams, Tennessee. Conversations with Tennessee Williams, ed. Albert Devlin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1945.