Reality is not always what it seems in appearance. In any Tennessee Williams' play nothing is as it seems. Everything represents more than itself. Williams’ creative use of symbols creates a drama that far exceeds the apparent or surface level. Williams himself admits that "art is made out of symbols the way your body is made out of the vital tissue," and that "symbols are nothing but the natural speech of drama [. . . ,] the purest language of plays [. . . ; S]ometimes it would take page after tedious page of exposition to put across an idea that could be said with an object or a gesture on the lighted stage" (Demastes 174). The reader must engage not only what appears to be just a needed prop or dialogue, but also the reader has to project beyond the obvious to understand the full impact of the symbols Williams uses. He controls every aspect of his plays by giving very precise stage directions. He is the god of his work. He directs every aspect as if he is afraid to turn lose any control unless it becomes something else than he wills it to be. In The Glass Menagerie, Williams uses many symbols that cannot fully be retained by the reader in just one reading of the play.
The Glass Menagerie is a play about a dysfunctional family during the 1930s and how they survive in their own world of reality. Even the characters themselves are symbols of a deeper meaning; for example, Amanda Wingfield’s name itself is revealing. Amanda contains the word man, and she has to play the role of the man and the woman of the house since the father deserted the family long ago. Close examination of the last name Wingfield gives the reader additional clues. The Wingfields are actually taking life as it comes to them, or, in slang terms, they could be winging it. Also when one thinks of wings, freedom comes to mind like a bird using its wings to fly to a more pleasant place, and this more pleasant place is a dream of all characters in this play. Tom Wingfield is not only a symbolic character in the play but is also very symbolic of Williams himself. Although Williams went by the name Tennessee, his legal name was Thomas Lanier Williams. Art is imitating life greatly between Williams’ life and the Tom character in the play. Tom, as the narrator of the play, states, "I have a poet’s weakness for symbols" (Williams 1.1866). Tom Wingfield, who is the son and real provider for the family, dreams of living his own life and escaping the responsibilities that his father’s leaving left on his shoulders. However, he turns out to be a younger version of his father. He escapes physically from the guilt of leaving and not fulfilling his own perceived responsibilities to Laura, Amanda’s daughter and Tom’s older sister. Laura suffers from a physical disability of one leg’s being shorter than the other that has also handicapped her emotionally, or so it seems at the play’s opening. She has her world of glass that she escapes to when she cannot handle reality. Finally, Jim O’Connor is the gentleman caller who seems to be just a nice ordinary man. However, he stands for much more, for he represents the "long delayed but always expected something we live for" (Williams 1.1866).
Tennessee Williams uses so many symbols to express the deeper level of this play expressed in the most important theme, that appearance does not always equal reality. This theme is exposed by Tom’s narration at the beginning of the play. Tom says, "Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion" (Williams 1.1866). Tom’s lines distinguish what is realistic from what is nonrealistic and force the reader to accept this memory as the real event (Demastes 172). Laura appears to be the weakest and most fragile of all the characters of the play, but in her case—as in many others in this dramatic cosmos—appearances are deceiving unless close attention is paid to the roles that Laura plays in the family, the role she plays with Jim, and the role she participates in at the closing of the play.
Williams titles the play after a collection of physical objects, and the title carries heavy symbolic resonance. Williams commented about the associations with a piece of glass: "When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken" (Kolin 41). In The Glass Menagerie, not only are the glass pieces delicate and fragile, but also so is Laura perceived to be delicate and fragile. The collection of glass animals, which Amanda calls Laura’s glass menagerie, is symbolic of not only Laura but of the whole Wingfield family, a collection of fragile, transparent human beings. Laura’s collection of a variety of different animals that does not really belong or fit together is symbolic of the menagerie of Laura’s family. These three people would not be together except that they have no other choice in order to survive. Amanda, Tom, and Laura all have handicaps or disabilities. While Tom’s and Amanda’s disabilities may not have the physical appearance Laura’s does, their handicaps are just as real and just as controlling of their lives, if not more so, than is Laura’s. The difference is that Laura’s perception or acceptance of her disabilities makes her more contented than Tom or Amanda. Laura’s tender heart is revealed through the care of her glass pieces. One has to handle them delicately and care for them meticulously so the delicate glass edges will not break off. Just as her glass ornaments have chipped, although she has taken excellent care of them, so has Laura’s life been chipped by rough events, but her spirit survives and remains gentle.
While attending Rubicam’s Business College, Laura suffers from extreme anxiety and vomits on the floor; she is humiliated and decides not to go back to the class. Although personally humiliated, she is more worried about her mother’s disappointment, so every day she leaves as if she is going to class and walks out in the cold and visits different shops to get warm. Laura does not want to disappoint her mother and tries to save her from this disappointment. Laura’s role in the family is that of peacekeeper or mediator especially between Tom and Amanda. In fact, she is so efficient at it, neither of them realizes that she calms their ruffled feathers often. When Amanda goes on and on about her many gentlemen callers and Tom says, "I know what's coming!" Laura replies, "Yes. But let her tell it." Tom, tired of the reminiscing, says, "Again?" and Laura says understandingly, "She loves to tell it" (Williams 1.1867). Again when Tom and Amanda are not speaking because Tom has called his mother a witch, Laura convinces Tom that if he would say he is sorry, their mother would start speaking again. Laura is stronger than she appears to be.
Another implication of Laura’s strength is her ability to dissociate from her harsh world to her happy world of glass, where all her animals get along and do not argue. It is a strong person and a survivor who is able to remove herself from a situation too hard to handle emotionally or physically to another world outside reality. Laura is perceived to be like her glass ornaments and even her description to Jim seems to confirm this idea of being fragile. She says, "Glass is something that you have to take good care of" (Williams 7.1900). Again speaking to Jim, she comments, "Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks!" (Williams 7.1901). However, Laura is deceptively stronger than she herself realizes. Symbolically glass represents fragility, but glass can be of great strength also.
Another symbolic means of escape for Laura is the playing of the phonograph. The phonograph is the only item of luxury the family owns. Williams could be symbolically using the phonograph to suggest the family’s past might have been better financially than their present situation. More importantly, the phonograph represents the father who has left long ago but whose presence still affects the family on a daily basis. On a personal level for Laura, listening to the records her father left behind is the only tangible connection she has to her absent father. Being about eight years old when he left, in a predicable way Laura has been arrested in her emotional development because it is at this age daughters learn how to relate to the male gender through play and affection with their fathers. The reader can almost feel the longing of Laura to connect with her father because of her frequent listening to the records in time of distress and loneliness. One significant incident of Laura’s using the phonograph as an escape occurs when she has her first gentleman caller. Jim asks her why her hand is cold. She replies, "I’ve been playing the Victrola" (Williams 6.1890). If her father had been present, Laura would have received the encouraging and confidence-building words from her father before this big event in her life, but the father is not present, and the records he left behind are the closest thing to his presence Laura has. Although the music is not his voice, she can pretend that she feels closer to him by listening to the same songs that he himself had listened to at one time. Music can remove one from reality of life into a different perspective of life through the rhythms and the beat of the music itself. Laura uses this art of listening to music to pull her out of the harsh, crude, and confining world of her physical reality. The music provides Laura a way to escape by allowing her to become whomever she wants to be and to be transported to whatever place she so desires. In addition, the turning of the arm of the phonograph in a circular motion, however, symbolically prompts the reader to note that life is circular, and things rarely happen without their playing a part over and over in one’s life. The abandonment of the father will affect all the members of the Wingfield family for the rest of their lives. Laura refuses to accept that her father is not present to protect and guide her because in her reality, he is as close as the sounds of the records she so dearly loves to play. She protects herself and even protects the other members of her family through a quiet gentle strength that comes from an inner contentment she draws from this imaginary connection with her absent father. Williams symbolically uses a physical item to relate an emotional connection to the missing father that Laura feels. Truly, Laura is much stronger than anyone, including herself, realizes demonstrated by the symbols that are associated with her.
Laura also has an impact on others outside the family, especially Jim O’Connor. Laura fears his remembrance of her is due to her handicap, but as Jim tells her it has absolutely nothing to do with her disability. This exchange between Jim and Laura exposes the different perspectives they have about Laura’s disability. Jim says, "Now I remember—you always came in late." Laura replies, "Yes, it was so hard for me, getting upstairs. I had that brace on my leg it clumped so loud." Jim insists, "I never heard any clumping" (Williams 7.1898). Jim remembers that he had nicknamed her "Blue Roses." People do not give others nicknames unless there is some kind of affection present. Jim came up with this nickname because Laura had missed school with pleurosis, and he misinterpreted it as Blue Roses. The name Blue Roses is symbolic for several reasons in this play. Blue could represent the dreariness of Laura’s life, but it also could represent hope that is aspiring right at this moment in Laura’s life. The rose is a symbol for love; however, in reality, there is no such thing as a blue rose. Although neither Jim nor Laura might have realized the attraction in high school, when Jim comes calling, the attraction is felt by both. Laura is able to break out of the self-imposed and family-imposed limits of her world and become a whole individual with all the romantic feeling a person has when affection is experienced for the first time. The normalcy that has escaped her all her life is finally realized, as now she experiences friendship for the first time. Even though Laura’s symbolic nickname is that of fantasy and is given to her because of weakness in health, Laura’s strength is revealed in the play upon close consideration.
The symbolic turning point of the play is the breaking of the unicorn’s horn, for it represents Laura’s breaking out of her learned helplessness and loneliness. The "freakish" horn of the unicorn is what makes it different from the rest of the horses in the glass collection. When the horn is broken during one of the most realistic moments of Laura’s life, she does not fall to pieces as expected but shows her strength once again and regards it as a positive event. This strength is revealed in a conversation between Jim and Laura when Jim accidentally knocks over the unicorn while dancing with Laura. Jim says, "Did something fall off it? I think—-." Laura replies, "Yes." Jim says, "I hope it wasn’t the little glass horse with the horn!" Laura replies, "Yes." With a little panic in his voice, Jim comments, "Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken?" And now the reader realizes that Laura has becomes the same as the unicorn, once different but now thrust into the normalcy of life. Laura states, "Now it is just like all the other horses." Laura realizes that now she is just as common as the next girl who is falling in love for the first time. Although Laura has had to survive many different emotional and physical challenges, she must now suffer the prospect of pain to become just an average happy person. Symbolically, Laura states this when she replies, "I’ll just imagine he had an operation" (Williams 7.1903). Laura is allowing herself to become normal for the first time by removing her horn of shame, by allowing Jim into her world, and by stepping out of her comfortable world into Jim’s world. Laura’s act of opening herself to Jim’s world or opening herself to reality is an enormous risk for Laura because of the possibility of rejection. This rejection does occur as Jim tells her he is about to be married and will not be able to come calling again, although he does care about Laura. She realizes that Jim has wandered into her zoo of exotic animals, but this on his day off, and he must now return to the workaday world (Scanlan 171). Laura, in a moment of tremendous courage, hands Jim the broken unicorn as a souvenir. Surely, this is a turning point in Laura’s life, an awakening that helps Laura accept that rejection is well worth the risk of the pain to enjoy some of life’s pleasure that she has never experienced. Symbolically, Laura finds the strength to experience heartbreak and adventure into this new world of love. As Jim so wonderfully states to Laura, "The power of love is really pretty tremendous! Love is something that—changes the whole world Laura!" (Williams 7.1904).
In the final act of the play, Laura is the only member of the family that has evolved into a more emotionally healthy person. Laura’s strength is finally revealed to all. Tom, as he narrates the closing of the play, is still conflicted by the guilt of not fulfilling his self-assumed responsibilities to Laura and struggles with unresolved issues with his mother. Tom is still escaping from reality, for he has not given his heart to anyone or anything. Like his father, he is still searching for the light fantastic. Tom’s closing narration expresses this haunting of consciousness vividly to the reader. Tom says with a great deal of emotion, "Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out!" (Williams 7.1908). Amanda remains the survivor she has always been and will be until her days on earth are completed. However, it is Laura who has grown beyond everyone’s expectations and has chosen to leave behind the world of the glass menagerie and will attempt to live in the real world.
The final image in The Glass Menagerie is that of Laura, alone, illuminated by the candles which, for all that they are the Gentleman Caller’s "favorite kind of light," will bring no warmth to Laura at this time but that she is hopeful of what the future may hold for her (Weales 470). Tennessee Williams symbolizes Laura’s growth by allowing Laura to be the one who blows the candles out at the end of the play. The only person who has the strength to leave the past behind and face the darkness of the unknown future is Laura. Williams dramatically expresses the theme that the appearance of reality and reality itself can be quite different. While Laura has stood symbolically in the play for everything pure and fragile in a violent world, her strength is finally revealed to all (Sievers 21). Although Laura’s appearance has been that of the weakest character of the play, actually her inner strength has made her the play’s strongest character. Appearance does not always equal reality Williams assures us.
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