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One of the most important themes in the play is the characters' persistence in clinging to dreams, past or future, that have little to do with the reality of their day-to-day existence. The most obvious example of this is Amanda, who looks back on the day when she was apparently a beautiful and highly desirable woman. Not only does she cling to this past in a way that is counterproductive, but she projects it on Laura. Tom also dreams of a future, persuading himself that a life of excitement awaits him if he can only rid himself of his family, who he blames for his unhappiness.
Another theme is the obligations that go along with family. Obviously, some people find meaning in these obligations, seeing them as more than something that is imposed on them. But for Tom, they are confining, keeping him in what he sees as not only a state of boredom, but of almost childhood. In order to become a man, he seems to think, he needs to cast off the very obligations that most would associate with masculinity. His mother and sister depend on him, and this is like a weight around his shoulders, as he tells his mother during an argument:
You think I'm crazy about the warehouse? You think I'm in love with the Continental Shoemakers? You think I want to spend fifty-five years down there in that - celotex interior! with - fluorescent - tubes!...Every time you come in yelling...'Rise and Shine!'...I say to myself, 'How lucky dead people are! 'But I get up. I go! For sixty-five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever! And you say self - selfs' all I ever think of. Why, listen, if self is what I thought of, Mother, I'd be where he is -GONE!
There are at least four prevalent themes in Tennesse Williams's The Glass Menagerie.
Reality vs. Self-Deception
Each of the three main characters have great difficulty in dealing with reality. In the final scene, Amanda accuses Tom, "You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions!" Tom seeks distraction at the movies at night and in the literature of D. H. Lawrence. Further, he dreams of being a poet; Laura, whose inner life is extremely fragile as she is unable to go into the real world, retreats to her glass menagerie at home; Amanda has unrealistic goals for her children, expecting Laura to be able to work in the business world, and planning on Tom's unending support of the family. Amanda does not understand why Laura has no gentleman callers because, she frequently reminisces, she had so many herself. In self-delusion, she criticizes her children, telling Laura,
"I'm sick too--of your nonsense! Why can't you and your brother be normal people? Fantastic whims and behavior. Preposterous goings on!"
Responsibility vs. Escape
Throughout the drama, the portrait of Mr. Wingfield looms over the characters as a reminder of the one member of the family who has eschewed his responsibilities. Because he has deserted his family, Amanda places undue pressure upon Tom, forcing him to act as a surrogate father. When he finally goes out the fire escape for the last time, Tom abandons his family, but he should not have been forced into the role Amanda assigns him.
While Laura does not accept the responsibility of earning a living for herself by attending Rubicam's Business College, for which her mother has paid. Instead, she walks around at the zoo; at home she toys with her glass menagerie and plays music. However, she does respond to Jim's encouragment that she be who she really is and not be ashamed.
Amanda Wingfield places too much responsibility for the family upon Tom in her effort to escape the anxieties of her life without a husband. And, while she worries about the family's future, she retreats in the final act to the memory of her youth and her gentleman callers in the "slow and impacable fires of human desperation."
Dependence vs. Independence
Both Laura and Tom feel trapped in their lives, although for different reasons. Tom conflicts with his sense of duty and his desire to flee his role as supporter of the family. Even after he departs, he is ridden with guilt for having abandoned Laura,
"Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!...."
The power of memory
As the play opens, the stage directions in Scene I state,
The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. it omits some details; others are exaggerated....
Acting as both narrator and character, the point of view of Tom shades the drama. Music and symbolism, therefore, play an important part in expressing the message of this play with its characters who are surrounded in illusion.
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