IMPORTANT SYMBOLS IN TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’
THE GLASS MENAGERIE
Vilnius University, Lithuania
Tennessee Williams uses symbolism heavily in his The Glass Menagerie. Symbolism is employed to give a deeper meaning to the characters, scenes in the stories. The aim of my article is to analyse symbols suggesting the characters’ desire to escape. The symbols implying the idea of escape from reality are: the fire escape, the glass menagerie, the Paradise Dance Hall, etc. Some symbols display not only the idea that the main characters are not able to live in the present days, but also show how irretrievably their lives are broken. Furthermore, it is necessary to show how symbols reveal personalities of the main characters. Hence, understanding the symbols, one may achieve a greater awareness of the play’s theme.
In The Glass Menagerie, the main characters are Tom Wingfield, Laura Wingfield, Amanda Wingfield, and Jim O’Connor. The scenes of the past and present are intertwined. Tom is the narrator who left family and now is telling about his prior life. Each of the four characters has symbols that best demonstrate their essence. For example, Laura’s symbols are Blue Roses, her glass menagerie, and the unicorn. Amanda’s symbols, Blue Mountain and Jonquils, show her affection to the past events. Tom’s symbols are movies. Jim is seen symbolically by the family of Wingfields. He symbolises a gentleman caller for Laura.
The main reasons why Wingfields want to escape from reality are psychological and social. The social cause is that the family have financial problems, because Mr. Wingfield abandoned his family. His abandonment also has psychological negative impact on all characters. Nobody has been able to live his or her lives, since he left.
Tennessee Williams uses many symbols, which are suggestive of a variety of things. Symbols are mostly used to reveal the difference between reality and an imaginary world or show escape, which is different for every character in the play. The fire escape, symbolising something that unites the illusory world of the Winfields and the world of reality, is presented at the very beginning. Every character wants to escape into a different world. Tom perceives the fire escape as the exit from Amanda and Laura, and the entrance into the world of his dreams. For Laura, the fire escape is as a way into her inner life, while for Amanda it is a way for gentlemen callers to enter her daughter’s life. Hence, every character attempts to escape from reality into the imaginary world.
Tom is the character who uses the fire escape most. He stands on it when he wants to escape from his mother. He feels a great need to live on his own, but he also understands how important he is to his mother and sister. Tom hates to be responsible for them and to have the job that he does not like. He wishes never to come back home. Although the fire escape is an exit from harsh reality, it is still the doorway to Tom’s real life and his misery. It is mentioned in the play that Mr. Wingfield left his family to live on the road. The abandonment makes Tom be responsible for the family. He does not only have to take care of his mother Amanda and a disabled sister Laura but also to take a job at a warehouse in order to pay the rent. The only way for Tom to cope with his misery is to go to movies. He asserts that he loves adventures. Tom adores writing poems and going to movies, which makes him forget his troubles.
A significant symbol for Tom is Paradise Dance Hall. It symbolises the outside world, which is across the street. There you do not have to think about the cruel reality. You can forget for a couple of hours all your troubles. You simply dance. This fact attracts Tom. Even the name of Paradise Dance Hall is symbolic. Actually, paradise is an imagination of a real paradise.
Tom is accompanied by one more symbol, namely: the picture of Mr. Wingfield that is placed in the living room. He abandoned his family and made Tom responsible for Amanda and Laura. Mr. Wingfield’s photograph gives hope to Tom that one day he might escape from his family. Indeed, Tom leaves his family, but he cannot emotionally escape from his mother and sister as his father could.
Another important symbol is the glass menagerie. It is a collection of glass figurines. The glass menagerie symbolizes Laura herself. Actually, every character seeks the protection from the harsh reality, but Laura perceives her world of glass to be more real than the outside world. Laura is shown as a fragile and shy girl who seems to care only for the little glass animals she collects, and does not look for friendship or companionship of others. The world of illusion is beautiful and fragile, but it also represents coldness. For Laura the escape from reality lurks inside the apartment, while for others the exit is the fire escape. Moreover, Laura sees the fire escape as something that distinguishes her from the outside world. It is necessary to mention that Laura’s desire to escape is can be explained by the fact that she suffered from pleurisy and became slightly crippled, which made her an anti-social and shy girl.
The unicorn, Laura’s favourite glass animal, symbolises her uniqueness. The horn makes this animal look different from other glass animals. It is strange and beautiful as Laura herself. Jim makes her become more self-confident. His warmth helps Laura to start overcoming her shyness. Only when Jim breaks the horn of the unicorn, Laura understands that her favourite animal and she are becoming normal, more similar to ordinary people. Jim wants to engage in sexual intercourse with Laura, because he likes to be adored. He happily remembers those days, when he has been the most popular boy in his school. While communicating with Laura he becomes even more self-assertive and dares to kiss her. He is not stopped by the fact that they will not be together, because he is engaged with the woman he loves. Having learned that she will not see Jim again, returns Laura to her illusionary world. She gives him the unicorn, hoping that it will remind him of her and her inability to escape the world of illusions. Jim takes the broken unicorn, and leaves Laura, whose heart is also broken, in her illusionary world.
The Victrola is also associated with Laura, as it helps her cope with the problems. When Laura is in a difficult situation, she plays the old records her father left them. The listening of the old records gives her the impression that she is safe and does not have to worry about anything.
One more important symbol of Laura is Blue Roses. Blue roses are beautiful but unreal – pure fantasy; they emphasize Laura‘s uniqueness. This image also shows that she somehow does not belong to this world. Jim gave her a nickname of “Blue Roses” not accidentally. Admittedly, he gave her the nickname because of the misunderstanding, but despite this fact, he seeks to convince her that she is beautiful and unique.
Jim O’Connor’s symbol is the gentleman caller, which symbolizes the waiting of the Wingfield family. The gentleman caller is a person for whom people always wait. Amanda is the character who dreams about a gentleman caller. She is obsessed by the idea that she must find a husband for Laura and that it would improve their financial situation. But first a gentleman caller must enter their lives. Amanda believes that Laura’s good financial position would mean security for their family that would enable them not be dependent on Tom. Her aim to find a husband for Laura seems strange considering that her husband has left their family.
Amanda is also accompanied by symbols. She thought to marry a wealthy man, but she did not. Her husband was poor and. what is more, he had abandoned their family. This event made Amanda want to escape from life, from the routine, and become a fierce woman. She nags Tom because of his habits and tries to transform Laura into a girl that she herself desired to be. She constantly teaches her children how they should behave, speak and she tries to control their lives. Amanda wants them to be perfect. She fears two things: that Tom would become like his father and that a gentleman caller would not come for Laura. Consequently, for her, the fire escape means a way out of this life and a way for gentleman callers to come in.
When Amanda learns about gentleman caller’s arrival, she becomes extremely satisfied. She decorates her house. Moreover, she puts on the yellow dress of her youth that is improper, because of her age. She realises that the gentleman caller is coming to Laura, but she behaves as if he came to her.
Amanda is heavily associated with two symbols, namely: Blue Mountain and Jonquils. The home of Amanda Wingfield was Blue Mountain before she married. Amanda loves to recollect her youth. She was a popular and beautiful young woman, who attracted attention of many men. Amanda’s memories help her to escape the reality, which seems cruel to her. She often says that honour and tradition meant a lot when she was young. Thus, Blue Mountain symbolises youth, honour, everything that Amanda would like her daughter to have. Jonquils also are an important symbol revealing Amanda’s personality. One summer, Amanda had seventeen gentleman callers. She remembers that she could not get enough of jonquils that summer. For Amanda, jonquils are flowers that represent beauty, the times when she was adored. At those days, she was a young woman not abandoned by a man. She decorates their house with jonquils on the day Jim O’Connor comes. She expects a lot from the arrival of the gentleman caller. However, Jim leaves Laura. Therefore, his leaving could be compared with her husband’s abandonment. Their beloved men left both of them.
Light and colour are essential to the play, as they help to reveal the characters’ thoughts, their expectations and moods. In the first scene, it is mentioned that the stage is dimly lighted. This fact suggests that the play will not have a happy ending. The description of light shining through Laura’s glass animals shows that hope is found. At the end of the play, only the light of the candles is left. Laura hopes that Jim might love her now when he has brought some candles. Light symbolises hope that was lost when Jim told that he was engaged.
The final scene mentions that Tom cannot forget his sister and candles, which he perceives to be her hopes. He asks Laura to blow out the candles. She blows them out as if saying good-bye to Tom and her hopes. The dark stage gives an impression that the future is dark to Wingfields. Laura will never work and the gentleman caller will never enter her life. Moreover, Amanda believes that they do not have future without a man who could maintain and look after them.
To sum up, in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie a lot of symbolism is used to describe the characters of Tom, Amanda, Laura and Jim. Most of the symbols show that characters want to hide from the cruel reality into their illusionary world. Symbols help to reveal the characters’ personalities and underlying themes of the play.
1. High, Peter B. An Outline of American Literature. New York: Longman, 2000
2. Nelson, Benjamin. The Major Plays of Tennessee Williams. New York: Monarch Press, 1964
3. The Glass Menagerie Book Notes. Summary In:
4 Mohr, Nicole. Symbolism in Tennessee Williams’ Play The Glass Menagerie. 2006. In:
In his play The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams describes four different characters, namely: Tom, Amanda, Laura, Jim. He reveals their dreams and their inability to face reality. The characters desperately search for a way out from their present lives. The fire escape is one of the most obvious ways of exit. Each of the characters has the symbol, which best represent his or her personality. Laura’s symbols are Blue Roses, her glass menagerie and the unicorn. Amanda’s symbols are Blue Mountain and Jonquils. Light and colour are essential in creating the characters’ images. They are used as a device to reveal the mood of the play. The understanding of various symbols helps the reader to come to a greater understanding of the play’s theme.