Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

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In his drama, The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams uses symbolism in order to develop multi-faceted characters and to display the recurring themes of the play. These various symbols appear throughout the entire piece, and they are usually disguised as objects or imagery. They allow the reader to know the characters’ personalities, and their true inside characteristics. These symbols also add to the major themes, which develop as the play gains momentum. In the drama, symbols play the most important role.
One of the most recurring symbols is the glass menagerie itself. It consists of glass animals frozen in form and it is housed at the Wingfield’s apartment. The glass menagerie has a high amount of meaning for all of the characters in this play. “Ultimately, the glass menagerie is symbolic of all their shattered dreams, failing to fulfill their transcendent aspirations, the Wingfields find themselves confined to a wasteland reality, their dreams become a ‘heap of broken images’'; (Thompson 15). Just as the menagerie itself is frozen in time, the Wingfields are also. They are restricted to the one way of living that they have practiced as time had passed, so they do not know how to break free of that confinement. All the characters as a whole have tried to escape the harsh reality, but in every case they manage to fail, and in turn shatter their dreams like glass. This continuing struggle is a large part of the major theme of The Glass Menagerie.
Just as the glass menagerie represents all of the characters as a whole, it also represents each character individually. “Though the glass menagerie is most directly relevant to Laura, all four characters have sublimated their animal drives into esthetics. Laura has her glass animals, Tom his movies and poems, Amanda her jonquil-filled memories distorted into hopes, and Jim his baritone cliches of progress'; (Cohn 101). Though Amanda blames her children alone for relying on false illusions, she too carries this fault. Although it is obvious that the glass menagerie represents Laura because of her frailty, Tom, Amanda, and even Jim are exemplified too. They all concentrate their powers in illusions, only in different ways.
More specifically, the glass menagerie unravels the character of Laura and lets the reader into her true personality. The glass menagerie “embodies the fragility of Laura’s world, her search for beauty; it registers sensitively changes in lighting and stands in vivid contrast to the harshness of the outer world which can (and does) shatter so easily'; (Stein 110-111).

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Glass itself, being so fragile, is the perfect item that can symbolize Laura. Just as it can shatter so easily when exposed, Laura can too. The glass being translucent also symbolizes Laura’s struggle to become her own person and to let her inside feelings know to the world. Though it is learned that Laura has a physical handicap, and emotional handicap lies within her also. It enables her to lead a normal life, and restricts her to illusions. The glass menagerie symbolizes this because it shows that Laura as an unreal image, not made of the human characteristics others possess.
Drained of the courage and self-esteem needed to face the world, all that is left is a defenseless girl unable to face the world. The glass menagerie’s “frozen animal forms image her own immobilized animal or sexual nature, her arrested emotional development, and her inability to cope with the demands of a flesh-and-blood world'; (Thompson 15). The menagerie also symbolizes the change, which takes place when Laura is exposed to Jim. Jim reveals a side of Laura that the reader is not familiar with at this time. He recharges her self-confidence and boasts her courage and trust, but this does not last. As described by Williams, “A fragile, unearthly prettiness has cone out in Laura,'; when with Jim, “she is like a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary, not actual, not lasting'; (Williams 69). It is obvious that Laura has changed, but this change does not become permanent.
Just as the menagerie represents Laura, it also holds significance for Laura’s mother, Amanda. Throughout the drama, Amanda tells her children about the life she lived when she was young and living at Blue Mountain. She recalls her dozens of gentlemen callers and her popularity at the time. Seeing how time has changed for Amanda from her youth to the time presented in the play, it is plain to understand why she would try to relive her past. Amanda wishes that her life would be as simple and enjoyable as it was when she was young. She also wants to create such a happy childhood for her two children. Amanda tries to force upon her views to Laura and Tom, and in turn wants to live in the past. She yearns for Laura to have gentlemen callers as she had, and tries to make this dream a reality. “It is Amanda who names Laura’s collection a ‘glass menagerie,’ in which animal drives are frozen into esthetic objects, and it is she who longs for gentlemen callers in an ungentle world'; (Cohn 101). Amanda tries to freeze her life to preserve the girl she once was. The glass menagerie, being frozen in time, symbolizes Amanda’s wishes for Laura to live the life Amanda once had.
One specific member of the glass menagerie, the unicorn, plays an important part in symbolizing the situation between Laura and Jim (the gentleman caller). As Jim and Laura become more closely acquainted, Jim changes Laura and makes her a more solid being. Symbolically, the horn of the glass unicorn (Laura’s favorite piece) breaks off when Jim is exposed to it. Metaphorically, this occurs right after Jim reveals his marital situation to Laura. When Laura finds out that Jim is engaged to be married, a part of her breaks too. When Jim breaks the glass unicorn’s horn, he is unintentionally bringing Laura into the real world. This also symbolizes the breaking of Laura’s hope, which adds to the major theme of the drama (Adler 2069-2070). In high school, Laura was the unicorn in a society full of horses. Because she was shy and had a leg brace, she was considered an outcast, and overall, different. Symbolically, the unicorn’s horn breaks off just as Laura breaks out of her closed shell (Mendez 1). Originally, Laura is delicate and unique, as is the unicorn. She is different because of her disability, but internally, she is a girl who missed a couple steps while growing up. When the unicorn loses its horn and becomes like the rest of the animals in the glass menagerie, it loses its uniqueness. Likewise, when Laura gains confidence through Jim, she realizes that she is not too different from everyone else. This is a characteristic that is able to be overcome, but just needs some assistance (Ross 1). Jim brings out Laura’s inside, but then destroys it when the truth is revealed. “When this incompatible couple waltzes into the glass menagerie, they begin to destroy it. At first, Laura does not mind. She is too thrilled with the prospect of being normal to care whether her glass unicorn has lost its distinctive horn. But the accident warns the reader of what Jim awkwardly confesses after the kiss – that he has made a mistake and will see her no more. Laura now knows that she belongs to a different world from Jim. He wandered into a zoo of exotic animals, but that was on his day off and he must return to the real world'; (Scanlan 102). This quote depicts the situation perfectly. When Jim switches worlds as he steps into the Wingfield’s apartment, he represents a member of the glass animals. Laura is shattered though when she realizes he cannot be an animal in her menagerie, and that they are not members of the same world. It is obvious that the unicorn revealed many traits of both Laura’s and Jim’s characters.
Imagery is another important form of symbolism used in William’s play. Lighting techniques and other such icons create a balanced set of qualities in the characters, and add meaning to the entire story itself. Lighting gives the scenes added significance by providing more details towards the theme. All of the characters struggle to make their dreams come true, but they all end up failing in each situation. Light symbolizes hope in The Glass Menagerie. During one of the many quarrels between Amanda and Tom, some of Laura’s glass animals break. Laura is present during this scene, and the reader is told that one single beam of light is concentrated on Laura’s face. The disappointment and sorrow is evident, and the light depicts this exactly. In this case, light symbolizes Laura’s grief without any words needed (Adler 2069). Another situation between Amanda and Tom also includes symbolism through lighting. Amanda tells Tom to make a wish on the “silver slipper of the moon'; (Williams 58). The small amount of light shown by the moon represents the small amount of hope that the wish will come true. The blackout (which starts off the seventh scene) is used to make the transition back and forth between hope and pain. The lights flicker, and then go out, leaving the scene in complete darkness. The black out is also what reveals the truth about Laura’s gentleman caller. Directly following the blackout, candles are lit by Jim. The significance in this is that Jim sets the mood of the scene, putting him in complete control over the events to come. The flickering of the candle light in this scene shows that the situation is wavering between hope and disappointment (light symbolizing hope). This is proven even further when all light is erased after Laura learns about Jim’s fiancé, and the scene is left in darkness (Stein 111). Just as Jim set the scene with hope represented by the flames, Laura took that hope away after Tom tells her to blow out her candles. Tom realizes that there is no hope left for them, and that there is no point in trying to overcome the inevitable failure. Lightning, which is also considered flickering light, is also used in this final passage of Williams’ drama. Tom states in his final speech, “the world is lit by lightning'; (Williams 115). This comment reflects on all of the Wingfields. The family tries to team up against the harshness of the world and fails (Scanlan 103). As quickly as hope is presented, it is erased.
The image of a rainbow is also used in this play to symbolize hope. Adding to the continuing theme, every situation in which this symbol is used ends up disastrous. Tom uses a magic scarf in order to change a goldfish into a bird. This shows his need to escape his imprisonment and fly away. The rainbow gives him hope, but it is proven that Tom actually never does leave his pain. He does escape, but the memory and Laura and his mother still haunt him. The chandeliers at the Dance Hall create rainbow prisms. This foreshadows the hope instilled in Laura during her dance with Jim. Though she feels at peace with him during their encounter, this also ends up in disappointment (Harris 1).
Though the glass menagerie and imagery are symbols used throughout the entire drama, there are also other symbols that play brief, but important roles. They may appear only in the author’s directions, but they help the reader examine the characters completely.
The nickname “Blue Roses'; is given to Laura by Jim when they are in high school together. Though this may seem like a random nickname, it actually has a large significance to the character of Laura. Jim tells Laura that she is unlike all others. They are all weeds but she is Blue Roses. Though Laura says that blue is wrong for roses, because she is different, they are right for her. Just as blue is a unique color for a rose; Laura is unique (Williams 105-106). In general, “Blue Roses'; is symbolic of Laura’s existence as a whole. Roses are frail and beautiful but cannot be blue. This is also symbolic of the imaginary presence of Laura. (Adler 2069-2070). Though she is a visible human being, her appearance is too frail to be one of a real woman.
The fire escape is used by all of the characters symbolically. It is the only entrance to the Wingfield’s apartment, so it holds much significance. As Williams describes, “The apartment faces an alley and 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'; (Williams 21). The continuous drama, which takes place in the Wingfield’s apartment, provides two uses of the fire escape; an escape and a refuge. Amanda uses it as an escape; it is the only way a gentlemen caller can come and rescue Laura. For Laura, it is an escape from the world. She is proven weak when she has to leave the apartment and stumbles. Tom uses it as an escape to the outside and from his mother (Mendez 1). For Jim, it is a way of entering the Wingfields’ lives (Harris 1).
“As Laura is symbolized by her glass unicorn, Tom is symbolized by his movies,'; Cohn states. “He explains movies to his mother as sublimated adventure, but by the time Jim comes to the house, Tom is tired of vicarious adventure'; (Cohn 100-101). Tom uses movies as a get-a-way from his unhappy life in the apartment. He goes to the movies instead of moving, but as he explains, he wants to move. Tom escapes to the movies, but then finds that he wants adventure of his own, in real life.
In conclusion, these symbols which appear throughout the entire drama show the true personalities of Tennessee Williams’ characters. Each character has separate traits, which are revealed by these images. The theme of the drama is the destruction and failure of hopes and dreams. Each of these symbols helps display this thesis individually, but they all add together to prove it as a whole. All of the developing characters in The Glass Menagerie together produce a central theme, which is reliant on symbols.

Works Cited

Adler Thomas P. "Setting as Meaning: A Scenic Approach to Teaching The Glass Menagerie." Alabama English 4. 1-2 (2012)

Cohn Ruby. "The Garrulous Grotesques of Tennessee Williams." Tennessee Williams, Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea Publishers, 1987.

Harris, Mark Edward. Faces of the Twentieth Century. New York: Abbeville Press, 2008.

Mendez, Moses. "A Collection of the Most Esteemed Pieces of Poetry." London, 1767.

Stein, Roger B. "The Glass Menagerie Revisited: Catastrophe Without Violence." Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie: Modern Critical Interpretations. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea Publishers, 1988.

Thompson, Judith J. Tennessee Williams' Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol. New York: Peter Land Publishing, Inc., 2002.

Williams, Tennessee. "The Angels of Fructification." The Winter of Cities: Selected Poems of Tennessee Williams. New York: New Directions, 1956.
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