The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is a touching play about the lost dreams of a southern family and their struggle to escape reality. The play is a memory play and therefore very poetic in mood, setting, and dialogue. Tom Wingfield serves as the narrator as well as a character in the play. Tom lives with his Southern belle mother, Amanda, and his painfully shy sister, Laura. The action of the play revolves around Amanda’s search to find Laura a “gentleman caller. The Glass Menagerie’s plot closely mirrors actual events in the author’s life. Because Williams related so well to the characters and situations, he was able to beautifully portray the play’s theme through his creative use of symbolism.
The Glass Menagerie reflects Williams’s own life so much that it could be mistaken as pages from his autobiography. The characters and situations of the play are much like those found in the small St. Louis apartment where Williams spent part of his life. Williams himself can be seen in the character Tom. Both worked in a shoe factory and wrote poetry to escape the depressing reality of their lives, and both eventually ended up leaving. One not so obvious character is Mr. Wingfield, who is the absent father seen only by the looming picture hanging in the Wingfield’s apartment. Tom and Williams both had fathers who were, as Tom says, “in love with long distances.” Amanda, an overbearing mother who cannot let go of her youth in the Mississippi Delta and her “seventeen gentleman callers” is much like Williams own mother, Edwina. Both Amanda and Edwina were not sensitive to their children’s feelings. In their attempts to push their children to a better future, they pushed them away. The model for Laura was Williams’ introverted sister, Rose. According to Contemporary Authors “the memory of Rose appears in some character, situation, symbol, or motif in almost every work after 1938.” Edwina, like Amanda, tried to find a gentleman caller for Rose. Both situations ended with a touching confrontation with the caller and an eventual heartbreak.
Tennessee Williams’s brilliant use of symbols adds life to the play. The title itself, The Glass Menagerie, reveals one of the most important symbols. Laura’s collection of glass animals represents her fragile state. When Jim, the gentleman caller, breaks the horn off her favorite unicorn, this represents Laura’s break from her unique innocence. Laura is no longer alone in her world of glass animals. She has had a break into the real world. Another symbol is the ever present larger-than-life-size photograph of Mr. Wingfield. This picture is a constant reminder of a painful past and foreshadows Tom following in his father’s footsteps. Amanda’s fears of being left alone again are represented by Mr. Wingfield’s smiling face always watching over the family. The play ends with Tom escaping to the outside world, but never escaping thoughts of his beloved sister, Laura. He confesses to the audience that he cannot forget Laura’s “candles.” Laura’s “candles” symbolize the memory of Laura which stays with not only Tom but with anyone who is touched by The Glass Menagerie. All of these symbols representing Laura’s broken innocence, Tom’s inability to escape the past, and Amanda’s fulfilled fears of being alone portray the recurring theme of a struggle towards a better life and the inevitable disappointment this brings.
The parallelism of Tennessee Williams’ life to that of Tom Wingfield together with Williams’ magnificent us of symbolism make The Glass Menagerie not only a classic dramatic production but also a captivating story. Audiences world wide have appreciated this work of art since it opened on Broadway with rave reviews in 1945. This play is a must for any literary library.