Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, Laura Wingfield, a grown woman, kneels on the floor playing with glass figurines like a child. She envisions a dismal future for herself that includes total withdrawal from the outside world where bad things constantly happen and positive experiences are rare. The rest of Laura's family, who are kindred-spirits in hopelessness, share Laura's fatalistic view of life. "Unlike most of Williams's other works, which are charged with sensationalism and sex, this story holds the audience by the revelation of quiet and ordinary truths. This play, unique among Williams's dramas, combines poetic and unrealistic techniques with grim naturalism to achieve a gossamer effect of compassion, fragility, and frustration, typical of Tennessee Williams at his most sensitive and natural best." (Bloom, Tennessee Williams's the Glass Menagerie 41)
The Glass Menagerie is the story of the Wingfield's a dysfunctional family that has surrendered to depression and given up on life as being anything more than a means to an end. Amanda, the mother of Laura and Tom who are both grown, tries to encourage her children to seek a better future for themselves than she was able to manage.
The Glass Menagerie is loosely based on the author's own family and deals with a lot of symbolism. The fire escape is the main, recurring symbol throughout the play. It signifies something different for each of the characters. For Tom, the fire escape is a symbol of his retreat from his mother and sister.
For Laura, the fire escape is a symbol of the confines and boundaries in life and for Amanda the fire escape is a symbol of Laura gaining independence, because she thinks that Laura's gentleman caller will someday come and whisk her away.
One of the other important symbols in the play is the glass menagerie itself. The glass menagerie symbolizes Laura's own fragility, like her the glass object can be easily broken. "Laura...can't escape into movies, alcohol, or literature; she simply isn't that violent or decisive. Her retreat is into a world of glass and music. Her father's old phonograph records provide her with escape that the unfamiliar new tunes can't provide...her collection of glass absorbs her time. She spends hours polishing the tiny animals that are as delicate and fragile as she is." (Bloom 36)
The women in the Glass Menagerie appear to be very Victorian in their thinking and actions. This thinking require them to be charming at all times and to rely on men for both emotional and financial support. "The Southern gentlewomen also represent the culture and the gentility, sometimes rather seedy, that disappeared during the decade of World War I. Though at times eccentric, these females are superior to the domesticated housewives and gossips who correspond to the average and the acceptable women. The male counterpart in this conflict is represented by young men who are sometimes attracted to this frustrated gentlewoman but who are sometimes almost emasculated by a domineering mother. The DH Lawrence derivative, the red-blooded symbol of sexual freedom who contrasts to the nondescript intellectual young man, sometimes establishes the conflict that is the essence of the play." (Bloom 80)
Both Amanda and Laura live in a world of their own imagination and are unable to cope the realities of the world. All of their hopes and dreams focus on men who, in reality, have never been there for them. Amanda has been abandoned by her husband and is lost because of it. She needs a man to help her get through life and without one, she is nothing and must live in the past.
The story of Amanda and Laura is largely wrapped up in their dependency on men. "The means which Williams has used to give form to this vision are symbolic rather than literal. His play about the man who came to dinner and failed to satisfy the expectations of two neurotic women depends not so much upon plot or characterization as upon an undercurrent of allusion, the range of secondary associations which, instead of being in the foreground of dramatic action, serve as a background of ironic commentary on the essentially static surface of this memory play." (Bloom10)
In The Glass Menagerie, Williams shines a light on his belief that men and women find reality and meaning in life through relationships with one another. Without a loving relationship, women are nothing and must remove themselves from all decent society and revert to a place within themselves. Without a man, neither Amanda nor Laura feels that they have anything to contribute to the world. Amanda lives in the past and Laura escapes into her own world of glass ornaments. The main focus for both Amanda and later for Laura through her mother's urging, is to find that one special man who can rescue them from themselves. And who will help them find the man who will rescue them? Another man...Tom. Even in this, they must rely on a man to get them what they feel is missing in their lives, and they turn to Tom to set them free. Tom wants to leave home but feels that "to leave home and Amanda is to insure self-preservation, but at the same time to kill something vital within the self." (Crandell, The Critical Response to Tennessee Williams 7)
In essence, the search for a man for both Amanda and Laura is actually the search for reality and truth. Until they find a man that can love them, they remain wrapped up in a world shaped by their own delusions. Amanda constantly nags Laura to stay pretty for her gentlemen callers because without beauty, she will not be able to attract them. And, without a man Laura will not be able to escape her current situation. Without a man Laura will not be successful and will be doomed to wallow in misery and self-pity forever. "Through her timidity, her suffering from the friction between Tom and Amanda, and her retreat into a world of dreams, Laura evokes genuine sympathy; she is the one who must be cared for, loved, and understood. Her charm and delicacy win the audience, just as they have won her brother. Perceptive of others' feelings, Laura senses her mother's need to romanticize her past and so stands as a buffer between the mother and son. For one so sensitive and shy, the clanking brace on her leg is torture." (Bloom 82) Amanda sees Laura's lack of gentleman callers as a failure -- a failure that is both hers and Laura's. "Just as willfully, Amanda ignores present reality. Overanxious to have her daughter, Laura, securely married, she refuses to recognize the girl's painful shyness or to admit to her slightly crippled leg. She insists that Laura not refer to herself as a cripple, that she speak only of a little defect, and that she distract attraction from it by developing charm and vivacity. Amanda has known what can happen to a Southern girl without a home of her own: 'I know so well what becomes of unmarried women who aren't prepared to occupy a position. I've seen such pitiful cases in the South -- barely tolerated spinsters living upon the grudging patronage of sister's husband or brother's wife! Stuck away in some little mouse-trap of a room -- encouraged by one in-law to visit another -- little birdlike women without any nest -- eating the crust of humility all their life!'" (Bloom 81)
All of the characters in The Glass Menagerie are miserable and they all have their own way of escaping from this self-imposed misery. Laura's escape is listening to the victrola and playing with her glass menagerie. These two activities occupy her mind and prevent her from having to deal with reality. When Laura finds herself in any kind of conflict situation, she cannot deal with it so she winds the victrola or plays with the glass menagerie. Even when she is in the presence of a gentleman caller, a man who might free her from her self-imposed hell, she cannot stop herself from doing these things. Possibly she is nervous, so she retreats to her comfort zone, but she may also do this in the presence of a gentleman caller because she feels that she has not right to be happy and is sabotaging her own efforts at happiness.
Amanda's escape from reality is the past. Her memories of the past, and her regular visits from gentleman callers, comfort her. As the reader, you do not know how authentic these stories of gentleman callers are. Are they real stories or is Amanda using them to hide from reality like her daughter uses her glass figurines? Because Amanda reverts to the past for solace, it is possible that she is making up the stories and convincing herself that they are true along with her children.
Tom's escapes in life are drinking, writing poetry and going to the movies. When Tom does these things, he can pretend that he is someone else, and…