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Glass Menagerie: An Uncertain Reality
This essay will examine the ways in which the three main characters in "The Glass Menagerie" soften with harshness of day-to-day living with an insulating blanket of self-deception.
This play is one of Tennessee Williams's earliest and most biographical plays (Patterson, 27).
"The Glass Menagerie" was written by Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams (1911-1983) in 1944, incorporating his short story "Portrait of a Girl in Glass" with the unproduced screenplay "The Gentleman Caller" (Williamson, 184).
It was first presented on December 26, 1944 (Williamson, 141).
The initial ticket sales were so poor that a closing notice was prepared following the early performances.
Williams himself expected it to last for only a few presentations.
E. Influential theatrical critics were impressed by the play, however, and began to champion its virtues in their regular newspaper column.
F. The audiences quickly picked up, so that mid-January of 1945, it was almost impossible to find a ticket for the play.
G. It has since become regarded as one of the high marks in American theater.
II. The three main characters in "The Glass Menagerie" soften with harshness of day-to-day living with an insulating blanket of self-deception (Wolter, 53).
III. The play is a favorite with actors, as well as with audiences, as it offers choice, powerful parts for both its male and female characters.
Some modern viewers may find it rather slow-moving, with its introspective nature and confined settings.
However, the beauty and recognizable truths to be found in Williams' are capable of drawing the reader or the audience member into a fragile and at the same time cutting examination of the masks that life can wear.
Tom Wingfield is, on the surface, the most "normal" of the members of the family.
1. Son to Amanda and brother to Laura, Tom is the narrator of the play (identified as a "memory play" in the idiom of the theater, since it takes place within his memory) and the sole support of the family.
E. Amanda Wingfield - Tom and Laura's mother is sometimes "in" the world, but not often "of" it.
F. Laura Wingfield - Laura is really the focal point of the play.
III. Each of these characters live within themselves and the fantasy lives they hold to desperately.
IV. The "gentleman caller" incident causes each to reassess his/her life.
V. The play ends much as it began, with Tom being the only one of the Wingfields who lives in real world.
He holds down a job in a shoe factory and interacts with people outside of the small set of rooms in which he lives on a day-to-day basis. He is young and intelligent and probably seems to most of the people he encounters to be someone with a decent future ahead of him. But for Tom, the future is almost unimaginable.
He hates his job and feels smothered by his family and responsibilities. Tom longs to become a poet, even though he understands that professional writing of any sort is nearly an impossible way to support oneself and that poetry is especially unrewarding financially. To escape a reality in which he feels trapped, he turns whenever possible to literature and films, outlets during which he can leave behind the frustrations of an existence he feels to be "beneath" him (Hale, 26).
Another refuge for Tom is alcohol. It is true, of course, that the problems facing a drinker will still be there when he sobers up, but Tom accepts these periods of stupor as welcome respites. At other times, he stations himself on the fire escape outside the apartment, supposedly to smoke without disturbing the women but actually to simply remove himself from their company (and the company of the world) for a time.
Tom's rejection of reality is also illustrated by his failure to try to change it. He rebels against the restraints it places upon him, but he never really tries to make himself into anything other than a "wage slave." The farthest he goes within the time frame of the play is to use money set aside to pay the electric bill to join the merchant marine (in which he believes he will find the adventure that his life is lacking), but even then he remains with his family until circumstances beyond the active portion of the play (primarily his firing from the shoe company) provide the impetus.
Tom Wingfield sees himself as fit for a better reality, but at the same time he uses his responsibilities to avoid striving for that idealized life.
Tom and Laura's mother is sometimes "in" the world, but not often "of" it.
Amanda was raised the pampered daughter of an old-fashioned Southern family. (Williams
Though this upbringing has left her unprepared to face the cold necessities of earning a living, Amanda is very aware of the power that wealth conveys. Since her husband has left her years before, she has transferred her expectations to her son and she is continuously disappointed by his inability to provide her with the style of living that she believes her origins promised her.
Amanda and Tom argue frequently. In her world-view, young men are supposed to focus their attention on "getting ahead" and acquiring money. This is how they affirm their worth and for her son to even dream of devoting his life to something as financially uncertain (and therefore "unworthy") as literature or poetry is ridiculous. Women, on the other hand, are defined by the very fact of what they are. They are to be possessed and taken care of by successful men.
Even though this is the depth of the Great Depression and Amanda sees women all about her working as long and strenuously as men just to put another meal on their tables, she refuses to let go of the "correct" social ideas with which she was indoctrinated in her spoiled childhood. When Laura hides from a rare dinner guest, Amanda sees no problem with putting on a too-fancy dress and taking over the spotlight as if she is a teenager herself.
Where Tom longs for a different life while existing in the world as it is, Amanda refuses to accept that her own life has changed from her early "glory" days.
Laura is really the focal point of the play. She is the truly lost spirit in the Wingfield family. Tom has some ability to function in the real world, and Amanda recognizes what it can offer those who are lucky enough to "deserve" it, but Laura rejects reality almost entirely.
Though she is an attractive young woman, Laura has always been intimidated by her mother and the tales of the wonderful days of her privileged childhood (Tolan, 72). She also is forced to wear a leg brace, which she instinctively realizes disqualifies her as one of the special girls in her mother's eyes.
Laura is afflicted with crushing shyness. When Amanda enrolls her in business school to help combat this (as well as in hopes that Laura will become the success in business that Tom has failed to be), Laura endures a few weeks of this life in the real world, but her shyness eventually drives her to secretly drop out of the classes. She spends the time wandering about the city, dreaming (Williams, 13).
Laura's dreams are focused almost entirely on the glass menagerie of the title. Her world is populated by tiny glass animals. In their translucent bodies, reflections and tricks of bending light can reveal to her an endless parade of events of which she can be a part without ever opening herself to another person. This world reminds one of the haunting final episode of the television drama "St. Elsewhere," during which all of the events of the preceding seasons were revealed to have been mere fantasies of an autistic child staring into a snow globe.
But if Laura's glass world is a refuge for her, it is also a fragile one. The delicate nature of the menagerie is revealed on several occasions, including early in the play when Tom accidentally shatters several of the figurines while arguing with Amanda (Tischler, 123). The defining moment of the work comes near the end.
After Tom's friend Jim has arrived for dinner and Laura as fled, as usual, to the safety of her room, the lights go out (due to the unpaid electrical bill). Candles replace bulbs, and in the quiet, relatively unfocused, non-threatening atmosphere, Laura is enticed out of her room and then out of her emotional shell. She reveals that she knew Jim in school, though she never developed the courage to speak with him. Jim remembers her only as "Blue Roses," the slang name derived from her illness (pleurosis) (Williams,
Opening up to Jim as she seldom has to anyone, Laura shows him her most prized possession, an exquisite glass unicorn. It is clear that the unicorn represents the girl herself. Jim is touched, and he tries…[continue]
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