Helpless Women in the Glass Menagerie
Women are often depicted as helpless creatures and when we look at women during the Depression era, we should not be surprised to see some women not only depicted as helpless but also see them left helpless and hopeless as the men in their lives cope with the struggling economy. The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, reveals two female characters as helpless women, victims of the economy and the men in their lives. Amanda and Laura depend on Tom for not only their physical survival but they also depend on him for emotional support. As expected, Tom cannot support his mother and sister in either of these capacities and he ends up deserting them much like his father did. The Glass Menagerie provides a look at hopeless women and what allows them to stay that way in their world. The female characters in this drama are doing well to survive because the men in their lives simply cannot live up to the responsibility of what it means to be a man. Through this agonizing conflict, Williams demonstrates the delicate nature of the family unit.
Williams emphasizes the matter of helplessness in the play with the family's need for escape through illusion. This is significant because it takes the remaining man of the house away from the female characters. The play takes place in a dark apartment, which reflects the gloomy world outside. The women in this play already have something against them and that is the fact that the world in which they live is hostile. Roger Boxill claims the outside world is hopeless with "dark alleyways and murky canyons of tangled clotheslines, garbage cans, and neighbouring fire escapes" (Boxill). This impression demonstrates how the family might need to find an escape from their world. Roger Levy says each of the Wingfields is "hampered in relating to others by the need to inhabit a private world where the fundamental concern is with self-image" (Levy). This includes Tom as well as his mother and sister. We need to be aware of his need to escape to another place because eventually, he does, abandoning his mother and sister. When Tom steps out onto the fire escape or goes to a movie, he retreats to another world and avoids the "slow and implacable fires of human desperation" (Williams 968), that exist with Amanda and Laura in the apartment. Understanding Tom and his need to escape is essential to understanding the level of hopelessness the women in his life face. If their world is bad enough to drive him away, then it is bad enough for them to earn the label helpless women.
Tom is just a small part of the problem for these helpless women. Helplessness comes in many forms and one characteristic that helps these women stay hopeless and helpless is their denial of reality. Roger Levy writes that each family member is "hampered in relating to others by the need to inhabit a private world where the fundamental concern is with self-image" (Levy). Denial surfaces with the character of Amanda. Amanda is incredibly capable of convincing herself of anything. She does not believe Laura is handicapped and tells her the idea is pure "nonsense" (353) and insists she has a "little defect -- hardly noticeable" (353). Amanda lives in the past, and this prevents her from the accepting the reality of her daily life, which is not good. She reminisces about her youth because it was filled with of hope and excitement and these are two things she does not have in her life now. In fact, her hopelessness is heightened because she has no desire to look at her life an any other way. She denies the truth that surrounds her and she believes good things will happen to her family. One such good thing is the belief that Laura will find her Prince Charming and he will save the entire family from the demise it's heading for in the meantime. Amanda encourages Laura to stay "fresh and pretty for gentlemen...
It is amazing to watch Amanda still place hope in men even after her husband deserts her. Amanda is in denial of many things and the sad fact is she passes the trait on to her daughter.
With Laura, denial emerges through her fantasy world. Laura gets "caught in the middle" (Burnett 147) of Amanda's "constant desire to change her life to suit that of a normal girl" (147). Laura isolates herself because of the pressure from society, according to Burnett. She is isolated into a depression and suffers in the "far ends of her community that she was once a part of" (147). This ongoing depression leads her into a "life of loneliness" (Burnett). She stays inside all days and entertains herself with her glass collection and listening to 147. "The fact that Laura's character is superficial and transparent also contributes to her loneliness and points out the need for someone to take her to reality, to rescue her from her fantasy world" (147). Her glass menagerie literally gives her a safe place to go and escape the cold world outside her apartment. She finds a certain amount of contentment that other people in her situation might not and while this sounds like a good idea, it is only making her more helpless in the real world. Her false world gives her the perfect excuse to deny that a real world even exists. Her glass collection needs her in a way that Tom and Amanda do not. Laura is undoubtedly helpless and it is because of this that she becomes the most significant character in the play. She represents all individuals in the world that are misunderstood and considered different from the rest. Nancy Tischler says Williams uses symbolism to provide "stimulating contrasts to the realism of his characterization" (Tischler 376). We see this played out with Laura and her glass menagerie. The glass shapes are also symbolic because they reflect light from all angles, bringing a certain touch of light and color to the dank apartment. It could be said the light and colors give the apartment a sense of happiness, especially from Laura's point-of-view. Outisde, it is cold and people are mean. Inside, Laura brings light and joy to the apartment. The collection, fragile as it is, gives Laura a happy place to go. Tom sees how damaging this is for her when he says she lives in a "world of her own -- a world of -- little glass ornaments" (Williams 995). Because of this perception of Laura, we see an incredibly helpless girl. From the outside, she is not only helpless but hopeless as well but from the inside of the apartment, the collection gives Laura all of the hope she ever needs. They give her a reason to survive and they give her a reason to be strong. In a sense, they need her. They are every bit as real to her as her bother and mother are. She take "good care" (1015) of them, keeping in mind their feelings about certain things, like their placement in the apartment. The collection brings out the helplessness of Laura but it also points to the helplessness of the entire family. The females in this family, especially, are helpless creatures because they are fragile and they are literally hanging on by a thin thread.
The issue of helplessness is also highlighted when Tom leaves. The action cements the notion that these women are helpless and there is very little in life that they will be able to do to counter this. Tom is more concerned with his own dreams, hopes, and escapism than he is with attempting to make his family's world better. He is happy in his illusion but, unfortunately, that illusion does not include his mother and sister. In the end, they are more like burdens to him and he simply does not want to be burdened with anything when he decides to leave. While leaving is easy, it is worth noting that is was problematic for Tom because he cannot shake the image of his helpless sister from his mind. The thought of his sister chases him through the streets. Levy says Tom's concluding speech is one where he "admits that, at bottom, his freedom is no more than a flight in which he feels 'pursued by something' that turns out to be the image of his sister" (Levy). This image is powerful because it reinforces the notion of Laura's helplessness and Tom's culpability. He is repeating the sins of his father and deep down, he knows there is something wrong with this. Which results in him seeing bits and pieces of Laura in the glass windows on the streets. A shattered rainbow describes how he feels and this haunts him. Roger Stein says this ending "enhances the credibility of the dramatic situation" (Stein) because of…
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