Tennessee Williams' first big hit, 'The Glass Menagerie,' known as the memory play, fascinated audiences for its presentation of one man's vision of his past. This lesson will go into the basic plot of this story, as well as explore the major symbols and elements of style in the play.
The Glass Menagerie
The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams' first real success. Critics raved about the play, and it slowly rose in popularity as people went to see what everyone was talking about. It was called 'the memory play' because the story is told through the reflections and memories of its main character, Tom. Tom's reflections on his past seem to haunt him, and as he recounts his memories they come to life on stage. Having Tom narrate the play - and also play the role of himself - as his memories come to life creates a kind of tension in the play because what we are seeing is not exactly what happened, but how Tom remembers it. We, therefore, see not an objective portrayal but one that is colored by his personal experiences as he retells us the story. The Glass Menagerie fascinated audiences for its presentation of one man's vision of his past. This lesson will explore the plot and theme of his story, as well as analyze the major symbols and elements of style in the play.
Theme and Plot
The Glass Menagerie starts off as Tom, the main character, recalls his memory of living in a tiny run-down apartment with his sister Laura and his overbearing mother Amanda, years after they were abandoned by their alcoholic father. The family is struggling to get by and is living off of Tom's wages from working at a shoe factory. Tom's memory of his mother is mainly of her dominating his life, and we watch him become overwhelmed by her constant demands on his everyday activities. Their mother Amanda is constantly reminiscing on her past as a debutante, when she was courted by all kinds of fine Southern gentlemen. Amanda's recurrent nostalgia for better times puts pressure on both of her children to somehow make a better living for the family.
In contrast to his mother, Tom is very close with his sister Laura, who is incredibly sensitive, always reflecting upon her collection of glass figurines. Laura was supposed to be going to typing school, but it turns out she was too shy to go and she had been spending all of her time wandering the streets for fear of her mother's disappointment. When her mother discovers Laura hasn't been going to school, her hope for their future is destroyed, and she becomes obsessed with the idea of Laura marrying some nice man to take care of the family. Laura is hesitant to even dream of finding someone to marry her, as not only is she incredibly shy, she has trouble walking and has to wear a brace on her leg, which causes her to feel even more socially awkward. After much prodding from her mother, Laura finally confesses that she once liked a boy named Jim, and Amanda convinces Tom to bring Jim home to hook him up with Laura.
The tragedy of the story culminates when Jim ultimately does express a kind of love for Laura, but then he explains that he is engaged to marry someone else and takes off. As if this wasn't bad enough, Tom further disappoints his mother by taking the money for the electric bill and using it to enroll as a traveling member of a crew on a ship, leaving the family just as his father had done years before. In the end, we are left with an older Tom narrating, looking back and regretfully apologizing to his image and memory of Laura. He tells the audience of how he was fired from his job at the shoe factory after writing a poem on a shoebox and that he left the family in search of something unknown. All the while, though, he has been haunted by his sister's memory.
As all of the character's desires are crushed one at a time, unmet desire is a major theme in the play. Initially, Tom's desire to travel and write are thwarted by his obligations to stay and take care of his mother and sister, Laura's desires are unmet as Jim is engaged to marry someone else and Amanda's desire for a better future for her family is unmet, as both her husband and son abandon her.
The title of the play, The Glass Menagerie, refers to a collection of glass figurines that can be seen as a representation of the family because each embodies elements of emotional fragility, and they are all merely reflections given to us through Tom's memory. But the character who most closely resembles the qualities of a glass figurine is Laura. Williams describes her in the play as being 'like a piece of translucent glass touched by a light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting.' In order to understand the symbolic message Laura represents, we need to examine her encounter with Jim.
Her shyness is so extreme that when Jim comes to the door, she pleads for her mother to answer it, and only when her mother refuses to does she reluctantly make herself open the door and awkwardly invite Jim into the house. Then she pretends to be busy with the record player. Jim is an easygoing, upbeat sort of character who was a star athlete in high school and who is hopeful about his prospects at the shoe factory. His comfort and ease with life sharply contrasts with Laura's emotional instability. Laura becomes so overtaken by her nervousness that she has a panic attack and struggles to regain her composure by sitting on the couch while the others sit down for dinner.
After dinner, Jim and Laura talk on the couch. Their conversation is nervous at first, and Laura has to remind Jim that they knew each other in high school. She warms up when she shows him her collection of glass ornaments. She comments 'Oh, be careful! If you breathe, it breaks!' as she lets him see her favorite ornament, the unicorn. It is not a coincidence that her favorite one happens to be a rare magical creature that is 'extinct' in the modern world. Williams clearly wants us to associate Laura with the qualities of a delicate ornament that is not of this world. Jim comments on how she is an 'old-fashioned girl' and how she shouldn't undervalue her worth. He then waltzes her around the apartment and knocks the table, breaking the unicorn's horn off. Laura tries to play it off as if being a horse will make him feel 'less freakish', and Jim comments on how she is special and that someone should kiss her. Jim decides to kiss Laura, and after they kiss, she is bewildered as Jim frets and apologizes, explaining that he is actually engaged to marry someone else.
The dream is over before it ever really began. Here we see Laura's tragic circumstance, as her delicate personality, like the glass unicorn, is just not made for this modern world. Just as the unicorn is broken, so is her dream to live a normal life in the world with Jim. As she is left by both Jim and her brother Tom, Laura will spend her days like her glass figurines, never to really experience life but rather to be shelved in the tiny apartment with her mother.
Elements of Style: Social Realism
The Glass Menagerie is also an example of social realism for its portrayal of cultural transitions in the South. Psychologically, during the 1940s, the South was still influenced by the loss of the Civil War only 80 years prior. Remnants of the 'Old South' were slowly being replaced by a new America, which included the rise of industrialism. The Glass Menagerie depicts the South in a state of transition - at times lost in the reverie of the old ways and, at other times, dealing with modern life. To illustrate this, Williams gives us Tom, who is struggling to deal with his life as an industrial worker. In contrast to Tom, Jim enjoys his work at the factory and is hopeful about his prospects in the new age of industrialization. We can see Jim as a metaphor for the modern age, whereas Tom, like the South as whole, struggles to find his place in the changing times.
Many characters struggle with accepting the modernization of the Old South.
Tom's mother and sister also represent the struggles of the South to adapt to cultural shifts. Amanda's memory of herself when she was young is a direct portrayal of a real Southern belle, as she was courted by fine Southern gentlemen and appreciated for both her beauty and charm. She is often nostalgic for better times, and she can be seen as a metaphor for the South as a whole. Laura represents, in some ways, an even more romantic portrayal of the Southern belle. Her fragile and sensitive demeanor would fit much better in an older time where kind and gentle women were courted and protected by chivalrous gentlemen. Just as Jim abandons Laura, the changing modern world left both of these romantic portrayals of women behind, and Williams seems to be mourning their passing in the play.
The Glass Menagerie is called the 'memory play,' not only because the story is narrated through Tom's memories but also because all of the characters seem to exist in a sort of dream state. Amanda is prone to nostalgic reminiscing, and Laura is lost in the dream world of her imagination as she contemplates the light reflecting through her glass figurines. It is a tragic story that brings attention to the push and pull we feel in our relationships and the sorrow of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Finally, the play makes use of symbolism and metaphor. Examples include Laura's fate and personality, resembling one of her glass figurines, and nearly all of the characters - Tom, Laura and Amanda - portray the struggle to adapt to changing times.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Understand why 'The Glass Menagerie' can be called the memory play
- Summarize the plot, themes and symbolism of the play
- Recognize the elements of social realism in the play