Tennessee Williams loved symbols and imagery. Being a lyric poet first, he explained that he had a “poet’s weakness for symbols” (Tischler 32). In looking at his life and body of work, this trait is without doubt is as well a result of the playwright’s early saturation with the thought and symbolism of the Episcopal Church. Williams came to see just about every aspect of life as symbolic of some greater truth (Tischler 32). Thus, one sees the many symbolisms and imagery presented in his play The Glass Menagerie.
The PlotThe Glass Menagerie is not a typical Williams play in that it is characterized by simplicity. This is unlike his other plays which were too complex and with too many fascinating stories for each of the characters, flavored with too much sexuality and violence. Set in St. Louis, this play tells the story of a small Southern family, the Wingfields, who are in financial trouble during the Depression era. The father has abandoned his wife (Amanda) and two children (Tom and Laura). The son is reluctantly working in a warehouse to support his mother and sister. Laura is unable to take care of herself, too frightened to work in an office and too shy to find a good husband. She is crippled both physically and psychologically.
Although Amanda tries to sell magazine subscriptions, she knows that she cannot support her daughter and herself without Tom’s help.Amanda has no marketable skills, having been raised to be a “lady”. She is desperate in making her daughter independent by enrolling her in business school; however, this proves a failure. Amanda then nags Tom to find a suitor to court and marry his sister.
Finally, Tom brings Jim O’Connor in. Jim’s clumsy and outspoken manners underscore the family’s peculiar Southern habits. Jim enjoys the conversation, the dinner, and the time alone with Laura. He kisses her, dances with her, admires her glass menagerie, and accidentally breaks her favorite figure – a unicorn. Eventually, the Wingfields bid Jim farewell with gracious words, aware that this is the end of their hope: the suitor will not return, the daughter will not marry, the son will escape, and the mother will be forced to cope with an impossible future.Symbolism/ImageryThe central image in this play, from which the play takes its title is Laura’s glass menagerie. Williams’ biographers have traced the origins of this image to a tragic young woman in Clarksdale, Mississippi (Leverich 55). Within the play, it allows readers and audience to see the childlike fixation on a private world of make-believe animals, and delicacy of this isolated girl.
In general, the glass menagerie symbolizes the shattered dreams of the Wingfields. Their failure to satisfy their aspirations confines the family to a wasteland reality, wherein their dreams, hope, and aspirations become a mound of broken images. Similar to a menagerie the Wingfield family is also is frozen in time. Their past has frozen the family. In all instances, whether in Amanda’s yearning for the past, Tom’s eager thrust toward the future, or Laura’s imprisonment in the jailhouse of her thwarted present, the past dominates as the present or future can never do. The past not only casts its shadow upon the present and the future, but actually determines the course that each of these shall take. Thus the present and, by implication, the future of the family, are prevented from taking a course (Bluefarb 513).
Taking the menagerie as a symbol of Laura herself, fragile and beautiful, Williams plays with the more specific figure of the unicorn. The peculiar glass figurine grows to prominence only in the last scene (scene 7) the interview scene between Laura and Jim. Thus far in the play, it had been only an undistinguished part of the glass menagerie, Laura’s fragile refuge against the unbearable tension of the outside world. In the course of the interview the small animal comes to be connected with both Laura and Jim.When Laura designates the unicorn to Jim’s attention as the figurine dearest to her, she also points to the horn on its forehead and admits that his singularity may make him feel lonesome and certainly makes him unfit for life in a world tending to reduce living creatures to “one interfused mass of automatism.
” Her warning to Jim “Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks!” may well connote that it is only an imaginary creature, a mythic lie and that breathing, a basic manifestation of real life, might be too much of a test for it as it is, in a different sense, for her (Bloom 53).The unicorn is a perfect symbol for Laura since, to the overtones of fragility and delicate beauty of all the glass figurines, it adds those of uniqueness and, as a consequence almost, of freakishness. Jim, however, is not captivated by Laura’s fable about her animals.
To draw her away from her morbid fascination, he invites her to “cut the rug a little” at the sound of a waltz. Here, Jim lures Laura away from the dreamlike universe of which the unicorn is the centre, away from her reverie and invites her to move with him towards the world of the alley, to become identical with the innumerable couples moving, indistinct in the flickering light of the “deceptive rainbows” (Bloom 53).As Jim swings Laura into motion, they hit the little table and the unicorn falls to the floor. The unicorn breaks at the moment when the girl emerges from the world of her lifeless companions and transfers the refuge overtones connected with it onto the person of Jim. The figurine epitomizes Laura’s possibility of escaping into her unreal world of glass and the breaking of the figurine marks the capital turning point in Laura’s life when the immature world of glass toys loses its attractiveness in her eyes and she feels the desire to dance like all the others, to disregard her freakishness, and to belong to the world of the adults. “The event symbolizes a kind of emotional defloration, the girl’s irreversible loss of childlike innocence, the unavoidable mutilation that Williams sees as necessarily accompanying the process of growing up.
” (Bloom 53)The medieval iconography identified this mythical figure with virgins and therefore with sexuality. Although the unicorn looks like a horse, it is not a horse; it is a unique, mythical creature. Hence, when Jim clumsily breaks off the unicorn’s horn, he has not transformed it into a horse. The figurine remains a unicorn, but is now a damaged unicorn that manages to look like an ordinary horse. In some ways, this is what Amanda has done to Laura, distorted her true childish nature to make her seem like all the normal young ladies being courted by nice young gentlemen.
Laura’s pained responses to her Amanda’s cruel questions about her plans for the evening expose the anguish that this teasing causes the sensitive daughter (Tischler 33).The glass animals, instead of being vague, distant, and faerie-like, are read by some literary critics as the only artifacts in the play that hold any degree of reality for Laura (Bluefarb 518). If they are fragile, they are also strong. And if they are glass, they have a certain quality of transparency which permits their owner the full view of a world that is not bounded by time and lameness.
For even in their fragility, they are at least tangible, and therefore, for Laura, reliable. They can be seen, touched, felt, even fondled. And they have more sub- stance than mere memory. They will be there tomorrow, as they were yester- day, as they are today; broken or not, they will always be there (Bluefarb 518).Religious images are another prominent images in The Glass Menagerie.
When Tom returns home drunk, he tells his sister of a stage show he has seen which is shot through with Christian symbolism, none of which he perceives. Here the magician, Malvolio, whose name suggests hatred or dislike, plays the role of the modern Christ. He performs the miracle of concerting water into wine and then turning the wine into beer and then whiskey. The magician also produces his proper symbol, the fish, but it is goldfish, as if stained by modern materialism. The final trick is when the magician rises unscathed from a nailed coffin, clearly a reflection of Christ’s Resurrection. Tom metaphorically compared this trick in personal terms.
Like Malvolio, his father has escaped from the coffin-like existence and, later he will do the same escape act.Other images also populate The Glass Menagerie. The concern with images of liquid and water is pervasive in most of Williams’ writing (Vowles 52), including The Glass Menagerie. Williams loved the ocean and frequently used the sea as an escape symbol (Tischler 34).
The playwright’s buccaneers, pirates, and sailors are the gallant figures who sail away from the dreary land to have adventures denied to most of mankind (Tischler 34). Likewise, the images of liquid symbolize Tom’s escape.In addition, the liquid imagery in the play explains the fluid movement of the play itself. One can reasonable think that one of the dominant images in Williams’ mind accounts to some degree for the subtle, fluid movement of The Glass Menagerie.
One scene dissolves into another. There is, indeed, almost a submarine quality about the play, the kind of poetic slow motion that becomes ballet, and a breathless repression of feeling that belongs to everyone but Amanda. The very symbolic glass of the play is aqueous-arrested water.
Form and content are thus fused with striking felicity (Vowles 52).Moreover, the image of the absent father dominates the stage, allowing us to tie him to Tom, who is also in love with “long distances” (Williams, 145). As one knows from her conversation that Amanda loved this man, often pictured in productions in a World War I uniform, but drove him away by her constant verbal assaults.
Sometimes, a blown-up picture of Tom in a soldier’s cap is used for this centerpiece, to emphasize the identification of the men in the Wingfield family. For Amanda, her absent husband represents a blessed memory of a time when she was secure in her roles as wife and mother (Tischler 29).The play also uses the symbolism of light and darkness. In the play, the lights go out in the Wingfield’s house, in Amanda’s life, and in Laura’s face. This suggests that all hopes for resurrection have been lost. If Tom is finally released, he emerges as a chronicler of catastrophe, as in the ancient message, “And I am escaped alone to tell thee.” (Shaland 123) However, the tiny glass figures remains on the proscenium as mute testimony to Williams’ and the theater’s yearning for purity and kindness (Shaland 123).In The Glass Menagerie, Williams draws upon his frightened characters’ preference for soft candlelight to harsh daylight or electric bulbs.
This is not only because of technical goals of the play, but also because Amanda, Tom, and Laura so often want to withdraw from the blinding light of reality into the softer world of illusion.The setting of the play is also interesting in its symbolism. Moving from the South to St. Louis for the narrative, Williams retains in The Glass Menagerie the memory of the South, as a haunting presence under the superimposed Midwestern setting.
The reader and the audience, never seeing the gracious mansion that was the scene of Amanda’s childhood, feel its remembered grandeur and its contrast to the mean present. One of the elements that is always present in Williams’ plays is the awareness of the past. His characters live beyond the fleeting moments of the drama – back into a glowing past and shrinking from a terrifying future.
For Amanda, the South forms an image of youth, love, purity, all of the ideals that have crumbled along with the mansions and the family fortunes (Bloom 38).ConclusionWilliams uses symbolism and imagery as a literary device in developing complex characters and in displaying the recurring themes in The Glass Menagerie. These symbols, which are mostly disguised as objects or imagery, appear all over the entire play, allowing the reader or the audience to have a deeper understanding of the story, the personalities of the characters, as well as their true inside characteristics. Moreover, these symbols and images add to the major themes, which progress as the play gains momentum. It can be said that symbols and images play the most important role in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.