POeDate:6/4/00 12:53:26 PM Eastern Daylight Time
The Glass Menagerie: Plight of the Wingfields
In Tennessee Williams: A Portrait in Laughter and Lamentation, Harry Rasky uses extensive interviews with Williams to explore the playwright’s intent. Through these interviews, Rasky presents a glimpse of the playwright’s life-world and the driving force behind his creations. Rasky reports Williams as saying:
“I have always been more interested in creating a character that contains something crippled. I think nearly all of us have some kind of defect, anyway, and I suppose I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge on hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person” (134).
This statement supports the idea that Williams incorporates something crippled into all his major characters. In The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams portrays a crippling mother and child relationship comprising fundamental themes of dysfunctionalism. He poignantly illustrates that none of the characters are capable of living in the present. They believe their functionality and life’s happiness lies in their repeated quests for escape from plight. As such, they retreat into their separate worlds to escape life’s brutalities.
Their daily tribulations thrive in an overcrowded building’s rear apartment where lower middle-class population is a symptomatic impulse of a large and fundamentally enslaved section in American society. Set in Depression-era St. Louis, the overbearing Southern ex-charmer, Amanda Wingfield is the de facto head of the household. A former Southern belle, Amanda is a single mother who behaves as though she still is the high school beauty queen. Williams’ still-resonant study reveals her desperate struggle with the forces of fate against her dysfunctional relationship that looms and grows among her adult children. (Gist)
Laura, Amanda, Tom, and Jim resort to various escape mechanisms to avoid reality. Laura, fearful of being denigrated as inferior by virtue of her innate inability to walk, is shy and detaches herself from the unfeeling modern world. Amanda tries every means to integrate her into society, but to no avail. She sends her to business school and invites a gentleman caller to dinner. She is both unable to cope with the contemporary world’s mechanization represented by the speed test in typing and unable to make new acquaintances or friends due to her immense inhibition with people. Her life is humdrum and uneventful, yet it is full of dreams and inundated with memories.
Whenever the outside world threatens Laura, she seeks solace and retreats to her glass animal world and old phonograph records. Amanda, her mother hints at the alternative of matrimony for fiasco in business careers and Laura “utters a startled, doubtful laugh. She reaches quickly for a piece of glass.” (Williams, ). The glass menagerie becomes her tactile consolation. The little glass ornaments represent Laura’s self and characterize her fragility and delicate beauty. In particular, the glass unicorn greatly symbolizes her. As the unicorn is different from all the other glass horses, it adds a unique quality and virtual “freakishness” to her very characteristics (Kapcsos).
Laura’s physical handicap differentiates her from others. She is just as easily broken as the glass unicorn is as unique. She instantly regresses, just as it appears that Laura finally overcomes her shyness and hypersensitivity with Jim, the gentleman caller. Jim accidentally bumps into the unicorn, as it falls and breaks. The unicorn no longer retains its unique quality. To comfort Laura, he kisses her and then shatters her hopes and dreams by telling her he is engaged. Both Laura and the glass menagerie break upon exposure to the outside world. Laura offers Jim her broken unicorn, symbolizing her broken heart that Jim will take with him. She is unable to cope with the truth and once again retreats to her fantasy world of glass figurines and Victrola records. Laura can only live a brief moment in reality.
Amanda obsesses over her past. The moment Tom or Laura worry her, she uses her Mississippi Delta childhood memories like a cooling balm. She flashes back to her days dancing at the governor’s ball in Jackson, Mississippi and recalls the gentlemen’s “chivalric nature” during her youth. (Ghiotto) She constantly reminds Tom and Laura about that “one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain” when she receives seventeen gentlemen callers (Williams, 148). The reader is not confident that this actually occurs. However, it is clear that despite its possible falsity, Amanda has come to believe it. She refuses to acknowledge that her daughter is crippled and refers to her handicap as “a little defecthardly noticeable” (Williams, 157). Only for brief moments does she ever admit that her daughter is “crippled” and then she resorts back to denial.
Moreover, Amanda does not perceive anything realistically. While she has not met him yet, she believes that Jim is the man that will rescue Laura. As Laura nervously awaits Jim’s arrival, Amanda tells her, “You couldn’t be satisfied with just sitting home” (Williams, 192). Yet, Laura prefers that. Amanda cannot distinguish reality from illusion. Amanda dresses in the same girlish frock she wore on the day she met their father. Upon Jim’s arrival, she reverts to her childish, giddy days of entertaining gentlemen callers. Amanda chooses to live in the past.
Tom escapes to his poetry writing and movie world. He is a victim of his mother’s relentless smothering and captures all the angst of his poetic soul going to waste in a factory warehouse. His outbursts with Amanda exhibit a powerful manifestation of his growing frustration. He cannot handle his menial job and his unsatisfying home life. He believes that the atmosphere is stifling and damaging to his creative capacities. He regards the warehouse as a prison that shackles all the basic impulses with which, he believes, men are endowed”Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter” (Williams ). In the warehouse, Tom does not find any satisfaction at all“I’d rather somebody picked up a crowbar and battered out my brainsthan go back mornings!” (Williams )let alone amiable, intimate friendship or companionship.
Even more stifling to his poetic creativity is his home where Amanda, prompted by her motherly solicitude and her fear for the family’s sole source of income, is the major obstacle to his creative concentration. Home is more like a cage as oppressive as the warehouse by Amanda’s austere parental control and over-protectiveness (Ng). During meals, she insists that he listen to long sermons such as “Honey, don’t push with your fingers. If you have to push with something . . .” (Williams ). As Tom reaches for a cigarette, she complains, “You smoke too much!” (Williams ). Unable to tolerate Amanda’s failure to understand his needs and her smothering affection, Tom ends up turning to movies, where he feels reprieve. The movies satisfy his vicarious gratification of adventure. In the cinema, he becomes a hero, which he can never be at home. On the other hand, the magic shows provide him an illusionary world he yearns for in his daily life. Sometimes his mother and his family’s financial hardships shatter his world. The movies serve as an anesthetic, along with bouts of heavy drinking. Hence, it is possible for him to temporarily forget the oppressive apartment.
Nevertheless, his poetic aspirations end up in frustration and doom, which partly contributes to his nocturnal film-going behavior. Finally, when he does leave the Wingfield apartment, he entraps himself with memories of Laura. He escapes one prison only to fall into another, that of his guilty conscience, his nostalgia of home, the glass menagerie and old fashioned melodies. He is unable to function in the present and wanders aimlessly thinking of his sister.
Jim, though not as severely as the Wingfields, also reverts to his past as he looks through high school yearbooks with Laura and recalls the days of his heroism. The present does not satisfy himworking at the same warehouse as Tom, despite Tom’s prediction that he would “arrive at nothing short of the White House by the time he was thirty” (Williams, 190). Tom realizes that he “was valuable to him Jim as someone who could remember his former glory” (Williams, 190). Jim reminisces about his lead in the operetta and Laura asks him to sign her program. He signs it “with a flourish” (Williams 218). Only as Jim enters the Wingfield’s illusory world, can he become this high school hero again. Subsequently, Jim regresses to his high school days of wooing women as he woos innocent Laura by dancing with her and kissing her. While this might as well be an illusion, the situation’s reality is that Jim is engaged. Unlike the Wingfields, Jim can only live temporarily in the past. Thus, he leaves the dream world of the Wingfields.
Amanda constantly lives in her past and generates devastating consequences for her children. The fate of Amanda’s children is her fault, crippling them psychologically and emotionally, seriously inhibiting their own quests for maturity and self-realization. Amanda lives in a fantasy world of dreamy recollections, and her children cannot escape from this illusory world either. She suffers from a psychological impulse to withdraw into a fabricated “lost” time. The present exists for this family only to the degree that it can be verified by constant references to the past. This explains why none of the characters can succeed in their present situations. They exist through their past, but the problem is that the past no longer exists. While these characters stay the same, the outside world changes. This explains the characters’ repeated failures in the present world outside them.
Although Jim pulls himself into the Wingfield’s illusory world, he sustains his reality senses. This accounts for why Jim is such a “stumble john” in the Wingfield apartment. He is more realistic than the others and is clumsy in such a delicate world. Likewise, Laura’s fragility and hypersensitivity prevent her from participating in the outside world, a world that is harsh and brutal. Just as Jim is clumsy in Laura’s world, Laura is clumsy in Jim’s world, as she slips and falls on the fire escape and in another instance, throws up on the floor at Business School. Laura’s irrational fear of the outside explains why she cannot successfully enter the outside world. The major characters in this play are so warped and their lives so distorted and perverted by fantasies that each is left with only broken fragments of what might have been.
Accordingly, Judith Thompson, in Tennessee Williams: Memory, Myth, and Symbol, believes that memory is the avenue Williams uses to approach the collective unconscious. Through Tom’s recollections, Williams demonstrates how powerful memories revolve around characters whose actions reflect the inner turmoil of the person doing the remembering. Thompson states that Williams’ characters “are representatives of a modern suffering humanity, victimized by their own conflicting drives and desires and existentially alienated from a world become a metaphysical ‘heap of broken images’” (11). These “representatives” form the constituency of Tom’s consciousness; the suffering in each character reflects Tom’s pain.
Along with this, Williams reveals that one’s inability to communicate functionally in meaningful ways with other human beings is one of the modern life’s most tragic situations. His interpretation of familial love, shattered hopes, frustration to the point of rage, entrapment, and ultimate guilt throughout “The Glass Menagerie” depicts each character’s gloom and futile dreams. Tom, Laura, and Amanda seem to believe that escape is possible. Inevitably, no character makes a clean break from the situation at hand. Perhaps Tennessee Williams conveys a message that running away is not a means to solving life’s problems. One’s only escape in life is to solve their problems, not to avoid them.
Gist, Richard. The Glass Menagerie 5 April 1997. *http://saber.towson.edu/gist/glass.html*.
Ghiotto, Chubby. “The Glass Menagerie.” Alligator Online 5 March 1998. 15 March 1998 *http://hipp.gator.net/glass_alligator_review.html*.
Ng, Ben. “Dreams and the Notion of Escape in the Glass Menagerie.” Home page. May 1999 *http://web.hku.hk/h9818830/EngLit3.html*.
Kapcsos, Kristal. “The Glass Menagerie.” Online posting. 13 Nov. 1997. The Glass Menagerie 21 Nov. 1997 *http://www.mccnic.mohave.az.us/wcb/schools/NMC/dl/dtimpson/1/forums/forum12/me…/26.html*.
Rasky, Harry. Tennessee Williams: A Portrait in Laughter and Lamentation. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1986.
Thompson, Judith J. Tennessee Williams’ Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
Williams, Tennessee. “The Glass Menagerie.” The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Vol. 1. New York: New Directions, 1990.