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In Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, the characters of mother Amanda Wingfield, her children Laura and Tom Wingfield, as well as Laura’s gentleman caller Jim O’Connor, exemplify three different themes found in the play: The past and the present, dreams and reality, and optimism and pessimism. Through these characters and their respective struggles, Williams portrays a reality of American life during the latter years of the Great Depression, in which the future only bears further uncertainty and is fueled by the hopes of millions that their livelihoods may eventually improve with time.
In The Glass Menagerie, the mother-daughter duo of Amanda and Laura serve as personifications of the past and present. Amanda is a faded Southern belle, whose speech occasionally and unintentionally reverts to her Southern dialect when she pays her words no mind (8). Similarly, when entertaining company like Jim O’Connor in Scene Six, her drawl slips through and Amanda attempts to return to her glory days as a sought-after prize among her callers (63). While behaving this way is almost instinct to her, Amanda does not realize that, with her cheap velvety coat with an imitation fur collar and a cloche hat that is around five or six years old (11), she is already far past her prime, as demonstrated by her dated style of dress. Even her youthful ringlets and burst of “girlish Southern vivacity” (62) initially astounds her son Tom, who is greatly confused by his mother’s slipping grasp on her past.
Laura, on the other hand, does not dwell on her past or future very much. She simply lives in the moment and allows the day to take her wherever it wishes, hence accounting for her daily explorations of the city ever since dropping out of business college (14). As she explains to Amanda on the following page, “I went in the art museum and the bird houses at the Zoo. I visited the penguins every day! Sometimes I did without lunch and went to the movies. Lately I’ve been spending most of my afternoons in the Jewel Box, that big glass house where they raise the tropical flowers.” Laura spent the six weeks following her withdrawal from Rubicam’s Business College making spontaneous trips and wandering across the city. In a sense, her cluelessness may even represent Amanda’s personal heartbreak and insecurities as a single parent struggling to support her family (95-96). To further the parallel between Laura and Amanda, Laura’s fixation with her glass menagerie is perhaps a reflection of Amanda’s jonquil craze during the days of her youth (54).
Through the glass menagerie, Laura pursues a form of quiet escapism, in which she can leave reality and enter a world where everything possesses life (83-84) and all is fragile aside from her. As Tom observes, “she lives in a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments” (48), a world which allows Laura to feel like the bigger person with more control over her personal stability. Williams describes Laura as “a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting” (51), becoming a manufactured piece of glass that is hand-crafted the same way Amanda rearranged her appearance. However, as the opening quote by e. e. cummings on the foremost page of this book says, “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” Though Laura devotes plenty of her time and energy towards caring for her glass collection, she does not possess the ability to eternally protect her collection nor become a piece of glass herself—suspended in eternal beauty but fragile in its livelihood. Even in her obvious enamorment with Jim, despite their years of separation after graduating from high school (55), Laura is shown to be caught in a dream, living a more developed life within the confines of her mind than in reality with the rest of her family.
Contrarily, Tom’s role as both the narrator and a core character within the play makes him dually part of our reality and the dream-like essence of The Glass Menagerie as a “memory play” (xv). Throughout the play, Tom consistently returns to the movies and manages to escape the reality of his struggles at home (26-27), but soon tires of them, feeling like “it’s our turn now, to go to the South Sea Island—to make a safari—to be exotic, far-off!” (61) These constant late-night journeys and Tom’s belief in personally seeking adventure causes a strain in his relationship with Amanda. Though he continuously attempts to pursue writing while working at the warehouse, he eventually fails (96) and is therefore unable to chase his own dreams. Jim even jokingly warns him that “[he’s] going to be out of a job if [he doesn’t] wake up” (60). Even in the final moments of the play, Tom states that he “didn’t go to the moon, [he] went much further—for time is the longest distance between two places” (96). Therefore, although he was initially bound by reality and distanced from his dreams as he did not have the means to travel across the world, he finally managed to follow in his father’s footsteps and create his own traveler’s reality instead.
Finally, in terms of contrasting attitudes, Jim is very much the optimist of the play. In his conversations with Laura, he reveals a strong belief in the goodness of people (76) and “the future of television” (82), exhibiting a mindset that differed with the socioeconomic circumstances America was going through during that time period. Even in managing a near-conflict between Amanda and Jim regarding the unpaid light bill, Jim chose to view their situation through a positive and realistic scope, maintaining a warm atmosphere in which everyone remained content (69). As depicted by the stage directions, Jim’s warmth is what draws Laura out of her shell and “[dissolves] her shyness” (77), temporarily allowing her personality to shine through. However, in his optimism, he inadvertently blinds himself to the reality of Laura’s situation as well. Not only does he fail to fully realize Laura’s love for her menagerie and her feelings towards him, but he also convinces himself that his experience grants him the ability to “fix” her inferiority complex (80-81). As a result, he unwittingly hurts Laura’s feelings, perhaps breaking her heart the same way he broke the glass unicorn’s horn (85).
On the other hand, Laura is extremely pessimistic. In the case of any event that triggers her anxiety, such as her first day at Business College and hearing the news of Jim’s impending visit, she allows her worries to get the better of her. “I’m—crippled!” (17) and “I’m sick!” (57), she would apologetically exclaim, using her personal issues as excuses to make her way out of certain unwanted situations. Yet, in favor of Jim, she minimizes her problems and brushes them aside—saying “it doesn’t matter” (86) that one of the oldest ornaments in her collection broke, considering the possibility of it being a blessing in disguise rather than an unfortunate accident. Thus, Laura sacrifices an important part of who she is for his sake, without managing to address her own struggles nor find a solution to them.
In conclusion, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie provides an in-depth view into the aspects of past and present, dreams and reality, and optimism and pessimism through the play’s characters and their individual struggles. Not only does this play convey the difficulties brought on by the Great Depression in the late 1930s, but also delivers a potent message regarding the differences between the generations in terms of their aims and goals, and a family’s shared but stunted journey towards reaching mutual understanding with each other.