The Glass Menagerie: A Study In Symbolism

In the drama, The Glass Menagerie (1945), Tennessee Williams reflects upon personalexperiences he and his family encountered during the Depression of the 1930s. As a lower classfamily, the characters are placed in the slums of St. Louis in 1935. The protagonist, Tom Wingfield,is the narrator and Williams surrogate. Living with his mother and sister, Tom supports them byworking in a shoe manufacturing warehouse. He should feel lucky to have this job; however, hedespises his work and dreams of leaving to become a Merchant Marine.

Unhappy with what life hasdealt him, Tom strives for adventure and longs to turn his back on his responsibilities. His mother,Amanda Wingfield, abandoned by her husband almost sixteen years ago, tries to keep her familytogether through tough times. Although her love and hopes for her children are sincere, heroverbearing and outspoken nature often hurts them. Laura, Toms sister, suffers from neuroses. She has trouble separating fantasy from reality. Without the ability to function in the outside world,Laura becomes a liability to both Tom and Amanda. The gentleman caller, Jim OConnor, is afriend of Toms from the warehouse.

He is an ambitious young man, who strives for the AmericanDream through hard work and optimism. Jim offers the Wingfields hope for the future: Tom: He is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from aworld of reality that we were somehow set apart from. But since I have apoets weakness for symbols, I am using this character also as a symbol; he is the long- delayed but always expected something that we live for (23). Williams gives the reader many emblems throughout the play; there are three of them are especiallyinteresting. The unicorn symbolizes Lauras uniqueness, the picture of Mr.

Wingfield represents hisstrong influence on his deserted family, and Malvolios coffin trick signifies Toms suffocatinglifestyle. The unicorn is a symbolic representation of ways that Laura is unique or unusual. The first facetof the unicorn, its horn, refers to ways that Laura is an unusual person, such as in her may escapemechanisms. Lauras escape devices include her glass menagerie, listening to records on theVictrola, and visiting the park and zoo. Laura identifies with her glass menagerie because she hastrouble identifying with the real world, the pieces are small and delicate, just as she is.

The Victrolais a reminder of Mr. Wingfield; Laura often plays records to avoid the present and thinks pleasantlyabout the times she had with her father. When Laura stopped going to Rubicams Business College,she would spend many of her days at the zoo or park. She was a nature lover and thought of theseplaces as very peaceful and beautiful, a sharp contrast to her real life. The fragility of the unicorn, itssecond part, recalls Lauras delicate psychological condition. Lauras emotional problems causedmany difficulties in her life.

While in high school, Laura was very self-conscious about the brace shehad to wear, as evidenced in the following passage: Laura: I had that brace on my leg — it clumped so loud! Jim: I never heard any clumping. Laura: To me it sounded like — thunder! Jim: Well, well, well, I never even noticed. Laura: And everybody was seated before I came in. I had to walk in front of all those people. Myseat was in the back row. I had to go clumping all the way up the aisle with everyone watching! Jim: You shouldnt have been self-conscious. Laura: I know, but I was (93).

Laura suffered all the way through high school. Unfortunately, she scored poorly on her finalexaminations and dropped out of school. After such a failure, her fragile self-esteem dropped fromlow to almost non-existent, and she could not face going back. Six years later, with pressure fromher mother, Laura took another stab at education. She enrolled at Rubicams Business College. However, Laura only made it to the first test. As the test began, she vomited on the floor and had tobe carried to the bathroom. Laura never returned to school, and once again her fragile emotions gotthe best of her.

The transparency of the unicorn, its final facet, represents the fact that Laurasproblems are easily apparent to anyone who cares to notice them. This is best seen through Jimsevaluation of her: Jim: You know what I judge to be the trouble with you? Inferiority complex! Yep — thats what Ijudge to be your principal trouble. A lack of confidence in yourself as a person. You dont have theproper amount of faith in yourself. Im basing that fact on a number of your remarks and also oncertain observations Ive made (98-9). Jim, practically a stranger, was able to see right through Laura and recognize her glaringpsychological problems.

Although the unicorn is the most famous symbol of the play, the picture ofMr. Wingfield strikes the reader as thought-provoking, also. The picture of Mr. Wingfield is an emblem of his pervasive influence on Amanda, Laura, andTom. First, the largeness of the portrait suggests Mr. Wingfields strong hold on Laura, even thoughhe has been gone nearly sixteen years. The larger-than-life size photograph looms over the familyas a haunting reminder of him (23). This especially torments Laura, who hopes someday he willreturn. This is evident in her playing of the Victrola.

The Victrola brings back pleasant memories ofher father; she remembers when times were good and wishes things could be like that again. Second, the grin on Mr. Wingfields face reminds Amanda of the effect his personality has had onher life. Mr. Wingfields grin and good looks are what first attracted Amanda to him. He was full ofcharisma and won Amandas heart through physical attraction, as Amanda declares: One thing yourfather had plenty of — was charm! (36). Amanda remembers the pleasant times they shared and,as a romantic, still hopes that he will return.

However, more realistic in her situation, Amanda looksat the grin as a painful reminder of his mischievous and devious manner that led to him leaving. Thegrin signifies Mr. Wingfield laughing at them by abandoning them. This is apparent when Tom states:The last we heard of him was a picture postcard from Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast of Mexico,containing a message of two words: Hello — Goodbye! and no address (23). Finally, Mr. Wingfields Doughboy uniform mirrors Toms adventurous aspirations to become a MerchantMarine. Tom longs to break free of his boring life and satisfy his craving for adventure.

Herationalizes his plans to abandon his family through heredity: Im like my father. The bastard son of abastard! (80). Just as the picture of Mr. Wingfield, Malvolios coffin trick represents some more ofthe great symbolism used throughout the play. Malvolios coffin trick is a token of Toms suffocating lifestyle. The first aspect, Malvoliossimilarities with Tom, refers to each of their life-threatening situations. Malvolio faces literal death bysuffocation if he does not successfully escape the coffin. Conversely, Tom faces figurative death byemotional and spiritual suffocation if he does not find a way out of his present situation.

The coffin,the second aspect, symbolizes the lifestyle from which Tom is striving to escape. Tom looks at hislife as a two-by-four situation (45). He fears living the next fifty-five years of his life working in thebasement of a warehouse, performing mundane tasks, and making a mere sixty-five dollars a month. Although he loves his family, he cannot tolerate the thought of spending the rest of his life in acramped apartment, supporting his family, living with the constant worry of Lauras well-being, andputting up with his mothers frequent nagging.

The nails of the coffin, its final facet, represent Lauraand Amanda. In his trick, Malvolio escapes from the coffin without disturbing any of the nails;however, Tom knows that that will be impossible for him: You know it dont take much intelligenceto get yourself into a nailed up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one withoutremoving one nail? (45). Tom is suffocating in his own figurative coffin, but for him to escape hemust disturb Laura and Amanda. Clearly, Malvolios escape from the coffin was much easier thanToms flight from his lifestyle will be.

In conclusion, Williams play, through well-written symbolism, offers its readers many emblemsto study, including the unicorn, the picture of Mr. Wingfield, and Malvolios coffin trick. This dramateaches the reader about the struggles of the Depression and the effects it had on the people wholived through it. Like Tom, Williams suffered with his own suffocating lifestyle, until he finallyescaped to become a playwright. When Williams left home, his sister, Rose (Laura), wasdevastated. Her neuroses worsened to psychoses, and at age 27 she was lobotomized, which lefther a vegetable for the rest of her life.

However, unlike his father (Mr. Wingfield), Williams felt muchguilt for leaving his family and never completely forgave himself for what happened to Rose. Although what happened to Rose is very tragic, I feel it is hard to blame Williams. Unfortunately,after he left, surgeons performed a lobotomy on her, but if he would have stayed, it would have beenas if he was lobotomizing himself. I feel that The Glass Menagerie was a wonderful play. With somany tokens throughout the play, each one with many facets, it was truly fascinating to analyze anddiscuss them.