Does the symbolism of the glass menagerie represent the same thing throughout the play, or does the meaning change?
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That's a good question. I think if it changed, then it would lead into something more allegorical as opposed to symbolizing one concrete object.
The symbolism of the glass menagerie changes to parallel the changes in Laura. Laura herself is symbolized by her glass collection, as she is both beautiful and fragile. Like her glass pieces, Laura "shines" when the light of love or attention falls upon her. Of all her pieces, the unicorn symbolizes her most fully; like the unicorn, Laura is unique and not of the real world. At the play's conclusion, the unicorn's horn is broken, making it less exotic and unusual, just as Laura has been drawn momentarily into the real world by Jim O'Connor. By the end, the glass menagerie still symbolizes Laura, but with a new dimension. She is still beautiful and fragile, but like her collection, she is no longer inviolate. The damaged unicorn has been given to Jim, breaking up the collection of animals, just as Laura's emotional withdrawal (and her sense of self) has been broken by Jim's selfish behavior.
The glass collection also symbolizes escape, as do the father's records and the apartment's fire escape. Before Jim's arrival, Laura can lose herself in her glass and escape from the realities of her own life and circumstances. After Jim's visit, however, this escape will be denied her. In the future, looking at her glass figures and remembering the unicorn that used to be among them will remind her of Jim.
The basic symbolism of the glass menagerie does not change, as the glass collection consistently relates to Laura throughout the play, but the symbolism itself is dynamic, reflecting the changes that occur in her heart and in her circumstances.
While the glass animals remain symbolic throughout the play, as does the fire escape which is the "bridge" between illusion and reality, and the portrait of the father as symbol of escape, there are other symbols that appear and disappear in "The Glass Menagerie," which is described by Tom as narrator as "a memory play." For instance, with the appearance of Jim comes the symbolic name "Blue Roses" which he recalls. This name symbolizes Laura's unusual allure. This also is significant in that it recalls Tennessee Williams sister, Rose, on whose character Laura is modeled.
Religious/spiritual symbolism is also present in last scenes. Laura is dressed in white by her mother since she is to be presented to the "gentleman caller," and Laura is described as having "an unearthly prettiness" as a light glows from behind her. There is a candelabrum that Jim, the gentlman caller, carries in one hand, and a glass of wine in the other as he comes into the dining room. after dinner, Jim talks with Laura with "a warmth and charm which lights her inwardly with altar candles," writes Williams. After they dance, Jim stumbles and knocks over the unicorn. The stage directions read,
The holy candles in the altar of LAURA's face have been snuffed out.
Tom's glass is smashed. The illusion is finished after Amanda has told Tom
You don't know things anywhere! You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions.
These spiritual/religious symbols reflect the unearthly quality of Laura and the unrealistic expectations that her mother has for her. Reality has its weakest grasp on Laura, who herself seems an ephemeral creature.
Another symbol in the play that remains constant is the record player and collection of records. These belonged to the father who has deserted the family. At times of great stress, Laura runs to the record player. It is an escape for her, as is her glass collection, but it takes on a special connotation. Perhaps Laura is retreating into a time of greater safety, before her father went away.
In addition to the above comments, the glass menagerie is a complex symbol. Not only does it symbolize Laura and the inner change Laura's evening with Jim precipitates, it also represents Amanda's belief about her children and her attempt to keep them together and her hopes for their future prospects. Though it may be that Amanda tells her stories of her past life out of regret and self-aggrandizement, it may also be that she tells her stories to try to show her children how to focus on an effort to gain themselves their own future prospects. When Tom plays the role of the bull in the china shop and damages the glass menagerie, he represents the damage to Amanda's effort to help her children though she has limited resources. In the end, Amanda's children do find prospects for themselves rising as it were like the Phoenix from the shards of the broken magical unicorn, but the cost to Amanda is the loss of the unicorn, the loss of the ideal of what she dreamed for her children.
Interesting discussion, because I came to a different conclusion about the glass menagerie and the meaning of the unicorn's horn being broken. I actually thought indicated the way that Laura was being drawn into the world. At this stage of course it looks as if Jim is interested in Laura, and we know that of all of her menagerie, it is the unicorn that Laura most identifies with. When the horn breaks and it is, in Laura's words, just like every other horse, it symbolises the potential of Jim to lead Laura into the world where she can be like everyone else. However, when it is clear that Jim is engaged and will not marry Laura, the gift of the unicorn to him symbolises Laura's final retreat from the world without hope of return.
I think it slightly changes in sentimental meaning, but not allegorically speaking. It continuously means fragility, clarity, and vulnerability. When Jim accidentally breaks the glass (a symbol of a broken heart, and a break in boundaries), Laura seems to realize the reality of her life. Maybe she even learns to accept her reality of being a woman whose life has been wasted hiding beneath the fragile shield of her glass menagerie. However, I do not see the symbol of the glass, itself, changing in any way-just the way Laura looks at it, and feels about it.
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