The Fruit of Circumstance
by Derek Grant Vaughn
What is reality? How does one determine what is real and what is fantasy? Certainly, some people cannot. Yet, if everyone dealt unceasingly in realistic terms, the world would be a terribly dull place. Tennessee Williams exemplifies these truths in his plays A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. Between these two works, there exists a striking parallelism in theme. Several of the plays’ characters suffer from a detached relationship with the real world. The one-time Mississippi stunner, her infatuated sister, the self-conscious cripple, the washed out Southern belle, and the poetic dreamer all struggle with accepting the realities of their lives and their worlds. All of these characters share a common burden of detachment from truth. Williams uses these similar characters to convey the common theme of the two plays, which is the characters’ difficulty in accepting reality. In effect, Williams forces the reader to contemplate, "Is reality the fruit of circumstance?"
At first glance, Stella Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire seems to be fairly well-grounded in realism. Her refreshingly mild-mannered southern personality sets her apart from her sordid New Orleans surroundings, especially her crude and vulgar husband, Stanley. However, it is soon discovered that Stella is not as sensible as she initially appears.
Indeed, like her sister, Stella longs to escape from her stark reality. Certainly, she finds her escape in a cruel carnal beast named Stanley Kowalski. His brawny sexual prowess soothes her feelings of uneasiness in a world far removed from the serene and tranquil climate of Laurel, Mississippi. In Stella’s own words, "There are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant" (4.70). Blanche makes unrelenting appeals to her sister, stormily trying to open Stella’s eyes to the mistake she has made in marrying the brutish wreck of a man that is her husband. Although Blanche’s perception is clouded as well, she is right about Stanley. However, Stella simply replies, "You take it for granted that I am in something that I want to get out of" (4.69). Stella’s remark solidifies her denial of reality. She plainly cannot admit that marrying Stanley is a mistake, and not because she does not want to face the facts, but because she truly believes in him.
Additionally, Stella is convinced that Stanley is an enterprising entrepreneur, whose hunger for success will take him far in life. She assuredly claims, "Stanley’s the only one of his crowd that’s likely to get anywhere. . . . It’s a drive that he has" (3.50). The reality of the situation is that Stanley’s success in life will probably be limited to remaining an auto-parts salesman for the rest of his days. Then, he will return home night after dismal night to drown his sorrows and discouragements in poker, liquor, and sensual desire. Stella, however, cannot envision this ominous forecast, and thus cannot accept reality.
Stella’s most blatant disregard for reality lies in the rape of her sister, Blanche, however. Unbeknownst to Stella, the very night that she is in labor, giving birth to Stanley’s devilish offspring, he makes his move on Blanche, claiming that it has been coming for some time. Blanche, who is too weak physically and emotionally to fight him off, submits to Stanley’s advances. When Blanche confides in Stella about the event, the burden becomes too great, and she has Blanche committed to a mental institution. Stella’s decision is tragic, but she cannot bring herself to believe the claim. Stella explains, "I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley" (11.133). In effect, Stella forces herself to believe a lie, knowing that she can no longer avoid making the choice between her husband and her sister (Kolin 60). Some critics argue that Stella and Stanley’s marriage will never be the same and that her distance from the action (viewing the consequences of her decision) in the final scene foreshadows a permanent silence between the couple (Kolin 61). Regardless of her future, Stella’s actions in the final scene mark her ultimate and most catastrophic denial of reality.
Another character who shares Stella’s detachment from reality is Amanda Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie. Amanda, the mother of Tom and Laura Wingfield, is a washed out Southern belle who lives in pitiable denial, as she "holds on to memories of her youth and a genteel past that conflicts harshly with the reduced circumstances of the present" (Hirsch 36). Thus, preoccupied by the reversal of her economic and social status, she retreats to the fantastical past of her younger days on Blue Mountain, where she once received seventeen gentleman callers in a single day. Moreover, with all those suitors to choose from, she chose the one who would leave her broke and alone. Now, her only purpose in life is to facilitate a better existence for her daughter, Laura, by means of finding her a husband. Amanda is annoyingly optimistic about the prospect of finding a suitor for her handicapped daughter. However, it is easy to be optimistic when one denies reality.
Amanda’s denial is aptly illustrated when she explains to her daughter, "Why, you’re not crippled, you just have a little defect—hardly noticeable, even!" (2.17). In effect, she denies the seriousness of Laura’s handicap, and thus, the reality of the situation. Later, Tom tries to explain to Amanda that not everyone sees Laura as they do, "Laura is very different from other girls. . . . In the eyes of others—strangers—she’s terribly shy and lives in a world of her own and those things make her seem a little peculiar to people outside the house" (5.48). However, Amanda just cannot face the facts, and continues to pretend that Laura is just like everyone else.
Moreover, Amanda is blind to Tom’s obvious downcast and dejected demeanor. Tom’s melancholy disposition is clear to the audience, and even to Laura, who voices her concerns to her mother. Amanda then confronts Tom asking, "Laura says that you hate the apartment and that you go out nights to get away from it! Is that true, Tom?" (4.33). Tom then claims that he is not unhappy, but merely seeks adventure in the movies he watches. Amanda is convinced by his answer and changes the subject, but anyone can see that Tom is truly heavy-hearted. In effect, Amanda once again turns her back to reality.
Also, in her preoccupied manner, Amanda questions Laura, "Why can’t you and your brother be normal people? Fantastic whims and behavior!" (6.57). This comment is notably ironic, because in an effort to describe her dreamy children, she has inadvertently described herself. Then, she later tells Tom, "You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions!" (7.95). Once again, in an attempt to classify her son, she effectively portrays her own self; this is another ironic remark. Therefore, Amanda is too preoccupied with the potential of suitors that will never come to realize that she too is in a fantasyland. She lives in a daydream, waking from her Blue Mountain dream world just long enough to offer some unwanted commentary on the lives of her children. She does, however, love her children, holding various odd (sometimes humiliating) jobs to help provide for them. Being a single mother is not an easy undertaking, but Amanda raises her children from a relatively young age without the help of a father figure. Amanda is not a witch, but she is tremendously flawed. Thus, she will continue to combat realism and wait with optimistic apprehension for Laura’s suitor, and vicariously her own white knight, who never fully arrives.
Yet another character which exemplifies this common theme is Laura Wingfield, from The Glass Menagerie. Laura, like the rest, has difficulty accepting reality. However, out of all the characters mentioned, she has the greatest chance of overcoming her fantasies and accepting the real world. Laura’s social anxiety is too strong to attend Rubicam’s Business College, so she escapes in museums, movies, and parks. Certainly, however, her most effective escape from reality is her glass collection. Hirsch writes, "Her glass menagerie symbolizes her own extreme vulnerability; yet, . . . Laura is not hopelessly lost" (38). For example, unlike her mother, Laura does not try to curtail the seriousness of her handicap. Nor does she anxiously await the arrival of her numerous and eager suitors. However, although she does not lessen the extent of her impairment, she is still not realistic about her hindrance. Laura seems to think as the polar opposite of her mother in this respect. Amanda claims the handicap is a tiny restriction, but in Laura’s skewed perception her leg is a debilitating affliction, "Magnified thousands of times by imagination" (7.81). Somewhere in between is reality.
It is Laura’s shy and self-conscious mind-set which thus pushes her further away from the real world. Tom explains, "She lives in a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments. . . . She plays old phonograph records and—that’s about all" (5.48). Laura finds enormous companionship in her glass collection; the various animals become substitutes for real life friends. Her attachment to the animals becomes clear as she instructs Jim on how to hold the glass unicorn. She says, "Hold him over the light, he loves the light! You see how the light shines through him?" (7.83). When Laura refers to the unicorn as "he" instead of "it," it becomes evident that she views the animals not as inanimate objects, but individuals with their own personalities. Durham comments that "Laura’s glass animals, especially the unicorn, which is broken, symbolize the tenuousness of her hold on reality, the ease with which her illusion may be shattered" (62).
At the play’s end, however, the audience is left with feelings of hope for Laura. When Jim clumsily breaks her favorite glass piece, the unicorn, she is not fazed. Her optimism is impressive when she claims, "Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns. . . " (7.86). Furthermore, when Laura realizes that Jim will not return, she gives him the unicorn as a souvenir, for she no longer needs the piece, or the rest of the collection. Moreover, after Jim’s departure, while being comforted by her mother, she lifts her head and smiles. Laura’s smile indicates that she is stronger than everyone believes. Additionally, at the play’s close, Laura blows out the candles, facilitating her own closure. Thus, although Laura encountered great difficulty in accepting reality throughout the play, she ultimately transforms and triumphs over her fantasies. In effect, Laura shows that she has a will of her own.
Next, is perhaps the character that is the most detached of all, Blanche DuBois. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is the once sought after grass roots goddess, and Stella’s drama queen sister. Nearly Blanche’s entire existence is a charming fabrication. The reality she presents to the world is a deflection of the truth. She says herself, "I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman’s charm is nearly fifty percent illusion. . . " (2.41).
Indeed, the person Blanche pretends to be is far removed from who she really is. For example, it is clear to the audience that Blanche is an alcoholic, but she claims that she hardly touches liquor. Stanley, however, is on to her lie and replies, "Some people rarely touch it, but it touches them often" (1.30). Also, she attempts to shade her promiscuous past by suggesting her own virginity. She says, "Oh, my birthday’s next month, the fifteenth of September; that’s under Virgo. . . . Virgo is the Virgin" (5.77).
Additionally, Blanche tries to avoid the harsh reality of bright lights. She has to maintain an illusion of beauty that will not withstand close inspection. She explains, "I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action" (3.55). Later on, Mitch, her sweetheart, implores as to why he has never seen her in the light. She claims, "I like it dark. The dark is comforting to me" (9.116). The light, to Blanche, symbolizes harsh judgment and thus a symbol for the unsympathetic treatment she has received in the real world.
Blanche also suffers from delusions from her past. Namely, the conversation she has with herself in front of the mirror, which is a flashback to her days as a young Mississippi flirt. Blanche dreams of her glory days in the Southern sanctuary "of an elegant, enclosed society of fine gentlemen courting tremulous ladies in crinoline, while devoted family servants move discreetly in the background"; it is her vision of "perfect social order" (Hirsch 16). Also, Blanche frequently speaks of Shep Huntleigh, a former sweetheart from college, who in all probability, never even existed. Toward the end of the play she claims Shep has sent her a telegram, an invitation to a Caribbean cruise. She describes his lordliness, "I ran into him on Biscayne Boulevard . . . getting into his car—Cadillac convertible; must have been a block long! . . . Texas is literally spouting gold in his pockets" (4.66-67).
Moreover, Blanche tries to create illusions to mystify those around her, knowingly dodging reality. She admits, "I don’t want realism. I want magic! . . . I try to give that to people" (9.117). Finally, all the lies promote a confrontation between Blanche and Stanley. He declares that there is no telegram and no millionaire. Stanley shouts, "There isn’t a goddam thing but imagination! . . . And lies and conceit and tricks!" (10.127). However, Blanche fights to overcome her reality. Berkman writes that "Blanche’s tragic power lies in her ultimate acceptance of that very future she has fought so painfully, and almost successfully with Mitch, to resist" (4). Ultimately, Blanche has more difficulty than any other character in accepting reality, because she simply does not. Stanley’s confrontation, along with the rape, facilitates her final breakdown and total detachment from reality.
Finally, perhaps the most complex of the characters mentioned is Tom Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie. Tom serves as the narrator of the play, which is a "memory play," and by its very nature, unrealistic. Williams explains in the production notes: "Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated . . . " (1.3). Therefore, we see the events unfold through the perspective of Tom’s own memory.
His discouraging and mundane job at the shoe factory leaves Tom longing for adventure, so he escapes the reality of his life with alcohol, literature, and movies. Crandell explains: "For Tom, the cinema provides both the impetus and a convenient excuse for escape from unpleasant company and inhospitable surroundings. In contrast with the Wingfield apartment, . . . the movie theater provides Tom with both a temporary respite from the responsibilities of providing for his family and a refuge from the oppressive reality that distresses him" (Crandell 1). Therefore, the cinema is Tom’s primary mode of escape, but its pacification is merely a temporary fix and simply prolongs his inevitable physical flight. Moreover, Tom explains, "Adventure is something I don’t have much of at work, so I go to the movies. . . . Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter, and none of those instincts are given much play at the warehouse" (4.33-34). Thus, Tom longs for some real sensations, something other than frustration and anger. The movies, for Tom, dull the painful monotony of his life.
Additionally, Tom feels trapped by his situation. After seeing a magic show he comments to Laura, "You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in the hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?" (4.27). Here, the coffin serves as a metaphor for Tom’s life and represents all the things he feels imprisoned by: Amanda, Laura, and his job. Amazingly, the magician is able to disappear without disturbing anything, and that is exactly what Tom wants to do. He does not want his family to suffer, but he wants out. Tischler explains that Tom "rejects the possessive love of his family because he can accept it only by shouldering the responsibility and accepting the imprisonment that go with it" (33). In effect, Tom must keep his distance from his family in order to dodge his mother’s loving trap. Ultimately, this fear contributes to his physical liberation.
Eventually, Tom grows sick of it all. He confides in Jim, "People go to the movies instead of moving! . . . I’m tired of the movies and I am about to move!" (6.61). Move he does, and far away. Time and distance find him far removed from his past, but not entirely. Tom is never truly at peace; he is forever hounded by the reality of his actions. Wherever he goes, from time to time, he is reminded of Laura. He says:
Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! (7.97)
In effect, the audience realizes that Tom will never really be able to escape his past. He will never be able to accept the reality of his life and his actions. Tom shows that wounds heal, and the heart forgives, but the mind never forgets.
In conclusion, all of the aforementioned characters share a serious
and sometimes debilitating difficulty in accepting reality. Tennessee
Williams effectively uses these characters to pronounce his common theme
in A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, which
is that sometimes it can be challenging and even impossible to accept
the reality of our lives and our situations. Moreover, reality is
defined by circumstances. Accordingly, for Williams’ characters, their
delusions are their reality, and that, perhaps, is their true tragedy.
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Crandell, George W. "The Cinematic Eye in Tennessee Williams’s The
Glass Menagerie." The
Durham, Frank. "Tennessee Williams, Theatre Poet in Prose." Bloom. 59-73.
Hirsch, Foster. A Portrait of the Artist: The Plays of Tennessee
Williams. Port Washington, New
Kolin, Philip C. "A Streetcar Named Desire." Tennessee Williams: A
Guide to Research and
Kolin. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1998. 51-79.
Tischler, Nancy M. "The Glass Menagerie: The Revelation of Quiet Truth." Bloom. 31-41.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions, 1999.
---. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New American Library, 1974.
This essay was written by Derek Grant Vaughn, then a freshman majoring in General Studies. It was written for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class during spring 2004 semester.