Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Difficulty of Accepting Reality
Among the most prominent and urgent themes of The Glass Menagerie is the difficulty the characters have in accepting and relating to reality. Each member of the Wingfield family is unable to overcome this difficulty, and each, as a result, withdraws into a private world of illusion where he or she finds the comfort and meaning that the real world does not seem to offer. Of the three Wingfields, reality has by far the weakest grasp on Laura. The private world in which she lives is populated by glass animals—objects that, like Laura’s inner life, are incredibly fanciful and dangerously delicate. Unlike his sister, Tom is capable of functioning in the real world, as we see in his holding down a job and talking to strangers. But, in the end, he has no more motivation than Laura does to pursue professional success, romantic relationships, or even ordinary friendships, and he prefers to retreat into the fantasies provided by literature and movies and the stupor provided by drunkenness. Amanda’s relationship to reality is the most complicated in the play. Unlike her children, she is partial to real-world values and longs for social and financial success. Yet her attachment to these values is exactly what prevents her from perceiving a number of truths about her life. She cannot accept that she is or should be anything other than the pampered belle she was brought up to be, that Laura is peculiar, that Tom is not a budding businessman, and that she herself might be in some ways responsible for the sorrows and flaws of her children. Amanda’s retreat into illusion is in many ways more pathetic than her children’s, because it is not a willful imaginative construction but a wistful distortion of reality.
Although the Wingfields are distinguished and bound together by the weak relationships they maintain with reality, the illusions to which they succumb are not merely familial quirks. The outside world is just as susceptible to illusion as the Wingfields. The young people at the Paradise Dance Hall waltz under the short-lived illusion created by a glass ball—another version of Laura’s glass animals. Tom opines to Jim that the other viewers at the movies he attends are substituting on-screen adventure for real-life adventure, finding fulfillment in illusion rather than real life. Even Jim, who represents the “world of reality,” is banking his future on public speaking and the television and radio industries—all of which are means for the creation of illusions and the persuasion of others that these illusions are true. The Glass Menagerie identifies the conquest of reality by illusion as a huge and growing aspect of the human condition in its time.
The Impossibility of True Escape
At the beginning of Scene Four, Tom regales Laura with an account of a magic show in which the magician managed to escape from a nailed-up coffin. Clearly, Tom views his life with his family and at the warehouse as a kind of coffin—cramped, suffocating, and morbid—in which he is unfairly confined. The promise of escape, represented by Tom’s missing father, the Merchant Marine Service, and the fire escape outside the apartment, haunts Tom from the beginning of the play, and in the end, he does choose to free himself from the confinement of his life.
The play takes an ambiguous attitude toward the moral implications and even the effectiveness of Tom’s escape. As an able-bodied young man, he is locked into his life not by exterior factors but by emotional ones—by his loyalty to and possibly even love for Laura and Amanda. Escape for Tom means the suppression and denial of these emotions in himself, and it means doing great harm to his mother and sister. The magician is able to emerge from his coffin without upsetting a single nail, but the human nails that bind Tom to his home will certainly be upset by his departure. One cannot say for certain that leaving home even means true escape for Tom. As far as he might wander from home, something still “pursue[s]” him. Like a jailbreak, Tom’s escape leads him not to freedom but to the life of a fugitive.
The Unrelenting Power of Memory
According to Tom, The Glass Menagerie is a memory play—both its style and its content are shaped and inspired by memory. As Tom himself states clearly, the play’s lack of realism, its high drama, its overblown and too-perfect symbolism, and even its frequent use of music are all due to its origins in memory. Most fictional works are products of the imagination that must convince their audience that they are something else by being realistic. A play drawn from memory, however, is a product of real experience and hence does not need to drape itself in the conventions of realism in order to seem real. The creator can cloak his or her true story in unlimited layers of melodrama and unlikely metaphor while still remaining confident of its substance and reality. Tom—and Tennessee Williams—take full advantage of this privilege.
The story that the play tells is told because of the inflexible grip it has on the narrator’s memory. Thus, the fact that the play exists at all is a testament to the power that memory can exert on people’s lives and consciousness. Indeed, Williams writes in the Production Notes that “nostalgia . . . is the first condition of the play.” The narrator, Tom, is not the only character haunted by his memories. Amanda too lives in constant pursuit of her bygone youth, and old records from her childhood are almost as important to Laura as her glass animals. For these characters, memory is a crippling force that prevents them from finding happiness in the present or the offerings of the future. But it is also the vital force for Tom, prompting him to the act of creation that culminates in the achievement of the play.
More main ideas from The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams' famous play, The Glass Menagerie, is one full of symbolism, and so it should be easy to write a paper on the meaning behind the objects and settings of the play. But the most influential symbols are not inanimate pieces of scenery, but are the character's of the play. After all, characters in literature are nothing more than very lively pieces of setting through which the writer presents his or her theme. The three characters of the Wingfield family, Amanda, Tom, and Laura, each represents a different stereotype of humanity and are therefore the ultimate symbolism in the play.
Amanda Wingfield, the wily albeit annoying mother of Laura and Tom, wants what any mother wants for her children: security. She is, however, from another part of the country than that which her children are accustomed to and, more importantly, from another time. For this reason, she is not only unfit to provide security for her children, but is in some ways a burden to them (Griffin 61). Joven describes Amanda's character quit well: "She is presented as out of touch with reality; she is flighty, and a source of embarrassment to her children" (Joven 53). She represents wishful thinking and the inability to let go of the past. While all the character's seem to be trapped in their own dream worlds, it is Amanda who epitomizes counterproductive fantasizing.
Not truly human but not entirely scenery, character's in a play blur the line between being real people and being mere symbols. For this reason, it is no surprise that the writer often attaches them to certain symbolic places, objects, or actions. Amanda seems to identify with two things: the apartment in which the Wingfields live, and the dinner at the end of the play. The apartment is like a place inside her dream world. Though she doesn't pay the rent, it somehow seems like it's hers. In the apartment, she has full access to her two children and they cannot escape from her. She dictates when it is appropriate to play music, dismisses people form the table, and even offers advice on how to chew properly (Williams 694, 657). There is no place to hide from her or her constant reminiscing about the past. The dinner party at the end of the play presents Amanda in her full element, which up until now, has only been alluded to. She is right back in her teens, in her hometown, charming a gentleman caller like in the good old days (Joven 57). Even Jim, who is rather oblivious to the entire plot comments on her behavior. When she explains that she used to be rather carefree and "gay as a girl" Jim comments, "You haven't changed Mrs. Wingfield." To which even she admits, "Tonight, I'm rejuvenated!" (Williams 693). Somehow, despite the fact that Jim is added to the story to provide a bit of outside reality into the Wingfield's isolated illusion, Amanda manages to be the only member of her family not to learn from the encounter. While Laura gains confidence and Tom gains resolve to leave, Amanda only moves further into her delusions during the scene, showing her utter detachment from reality.
Laura is a shy crippled woman who retains many of the characteristics of a girl due to poor socialization because of her disability (Williams 654). She is clearly representative of people's desire to fit into society. She is caught in an endless loop: shyness from her disability, which leads her to avoid socializing, which causes her not to know how to socialize.
Laura's two identifying symbols are the Victrola and the menagerie of glass animals for which the play is named (Joven 53). The Victola is quite a simple symbol, playing a part of her escape from reality. When Laura plays a record on it, she does not do so merely for enjoyment or to add a mode to the room but often does so at times deemed inappropriate by her mother (Williams 660). This is because Laura listens to her music for comfort and release from the pressures she is under in her life. The glass menagerie is a bit more complicated. It too represents her freedom from reality, but in a much more clearly unusual, perhaps even pathological, way. The glass menagerie is her; both are delicate and will break if ever removed from their place and put under any degree of stress (Stein 110). Specifically representing Laura among the crystalline ornaments is a unicorn, the only one of its kind, standing out among the regular horses (Williams 689-690). Laura feels isolated from the regular people because of her disability, but unlike the unicorn, she has not learned to embrace and be happy in her uniqueness.
Tom is the slave of the family. While his mother stays at home and believes in her delusions of grandeur that she is in charge and must take care of her family, Tom is the one who actually works and makes money. He is also a dreamer and a poet. Tom represents anyone who has ever felt halted by his living situation from chasing his dreams, possibly because of his own good conscience. He is anyone who has ever wanted to move away from his family, and knew that he could do it, but was somehow obligated to stay for the benefit of people he didn't feel he should be responsible for.
Tom, I find, has three symbols associated with him. The first is the movies, which he goes to on a nightly basis. It is quite clear that Tom does not only go to the movies but also to bars and may not actually go to the movies at all, but the movies are a perfect symbol for places people go when they want to get out of the house. Tom not only wants to get out of the house, but he wants to get away from his burdens, and so he goes to the movies alone. As he describes it, the movies give him a sense of adventure and release from his unpleasant reality (Williams 680). Like Laura with her Victrola, Tom goes to the movies far more often than normal because he is in greater need for suspension of reality than most people. The second of Tom's symbol's is the fire escape. This is merely a place that he goes to smoke, which seems plausible enough, but the fact that it is an escape is where the symbolism arises. It is a stairway that is meant to be used to flee a crisis, and Tom finds it to be one of his favorite places to be in the apartment. Not only that, but he routinely used it as an exit rather than the front door. This shows his desire to escape the apartment, and it foreshadows his ultimate decision to do so. The foreshadowing is especially prevalent when he accidentally breaks some of the glass menagerie (Laura's symbol) while trying to exit, thus showing that he will leave and shatter his families illusions (Joven 55). Finally, the portrait of Tom's father serves as a symbol that Tom identifies with. Whenever Tom shows signs of being on the verge of leaving, his mother is quick to point out that their father left them and that it was such a terrible thing for him to have done. The giant, grinning picture that Tom describes as almost being a fifth character, during his part as narrator (Williams 656), stands as a reminder to Tom of how, if he leaves his family, he will be following in his father's footsteps. This is, of course, something that he is comfortable doing as Tom himself says, "I'm like my father. The bastard son of a bastard! Did you notice that he's grinning in his picture in there?"
The characters of The Glass Menagerie are in no way rounded, nor should they be. Each character fills a necessary role and presents a symbolism that is vital to the point of the story. In a story about the fine line between dreams and illusions, every character brings to the table a different spin on reality, fantasy, and hopes for the future in ways that mere inanimate symbols could not. While the play is named after the glass menagerie, really that is just a symbol for Laura, and she in turn is just a symbol for an entire group of real people who are like her.