“The Glass Menagerie” is set in the apartment of the Wingfield family. By description, it is a cramped, dingy place, not unlike a jail cell. It is one of many such apartments in the neighborhood. Of the Wingfield family members, none of them want to live there. Poverty is what traps them in their humble abode. The escape from this lifestyle, this apartment and these relationships is a significant theme throughout the play. These escapes may be related to the fire escape, the dance hall, the absent Mr. Wingfield and Tom’s inevitable departure.
The play opens with Tom addressing the audience from the fire escape. This entrance into the apartment provides a different purpose for each of the characters. Overall, it is a symbol of the passage from freedom to being trapped in a life of desperation. The fire escape allows Tom the opportunity to get out of the apartment and away from his nagging mother. Amanda sees the fire escape as an opportunity for gentleman callers to enter their lives. Laura’s view is different from her mother and her brother. Her escape seems to be hiding inside the apartment, not out. The fire escape separates reality and the unknown.
Across the street from the Wingfield apartment is the Paradise Dance Hall. Just the name of the place is a total anomaly in the story. Life with the Wingfields is as far from paradise as it could possibly be. Laura appears to find solace in playing the same records over and over again, day after day. Perhaps the music floating up to the apartment from the dance hall is supposed to be her escape, which she just can’t take. Often in the play the music from the Paradise Dance Hall is the background music for the scenes. The Glass Menagerie playing quite frequently. With war ever present in the background, such as the fact that Amanda is in the Daughters of the Revolution, the dance hall is the last chance for paradise.
Mr. Wingfield, the absent father of Tom and Laura and husband to the shrewish Amanda, is referred to often throughout the story. He is the ultimate symbol of escape. This is because he has managed to remove himself from the desperate situation that the rest of his family is still living in. His picture is featured prominently on the wall as a constant reminder of better times and days gone by. Amanda always makes disparaging remarks about her missing husband, yet lets his picture remain. Tom always makes jokes about his dad, and how he “fell in love with long distances.” This is his attempt to ease the pain of abandonment by turning it into something humorous. It is ironic that the thing that Tom resents most about his father is the same thing that he himself will do, escape. Through his father, Tom has seen that escape is possible, and though he is hesitant to leave his sister and his mother behind, he is being driven to it.
Tom escapes reality in many different ways. The first and most obvious is the fire escape that leads him away from his desolate home. Another would be the movies that he goes to see and Amanda is always nagging him about. She thinks he spends too much time watching movies and that he should work harder. She also feels that it is partly his duty to find a suitable companion for Laura. The more Amanda nags, the more Tom seems to need his movie escapes. They take him to another world for a while, where mothers and sisters and runaway fathers do not exist. As the strain of his real life gets worse, the movie watching becomes more frequent, as does Tom’s drinking. It is getting harder and harder for Tom to avoid real life. The time for a real departure is fast approaching. Amanda eventually pushes him over the edge, almost forcing him out, but not without laying overpowering guild trips on him. Tom leaves, but his going away is not the escape that he craved for so long. The guilt of abandoning Laura is overwhelming. He cannot seem to get over it. Everything he sees is a reminder of her. Tom is now truly following in the footsteps of his father. Too late, he is realizing that leaving is not an escape at all, but a path of even more powerful desperation.
Williams uses the theme of escape throughout “The Glass Menagerie” to demonstrate the hopelessness and futility of each character’s dreams. Tom, Laura and Amanda all seem to think, incorrectly in the end, that escape is possible. In the end, no character makes a clean break from the situation at hand. The escape theme demonstrated in the fire escape, the dance hall, Mr. Wingfield and Tom’s departure prove to be a dead end in many ways. Perhaps Tennessee Williams is trying to send a message that running away is not the way to solve life’s problems. The only escape in life is solving your problems, not avoiding them.