What is the symbolism of the fire escape?The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

1 Answer | Add Yours

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

One of the major symbols of "The Glass Menagerie," the fire escape is the means of exit for the characters, an escape from the fires of frustration and rage that burn in the hearts of Williams's personages, and an exit for the father and eventually Tom. At the beginning of the drama, Tom describes this stairway as part of the setting,

The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.

It is interesting that all the characters also use the fire escape to enter the apartment when these stairs are only made for escape.  For, climbing these stairs must be rather difficult for Amanda, and especially challenging for Laura, suggesting that the safety of the apartment is preferable to the real world at the foot of the stairs. For Laura and Amanda, the fire steps are, indeed, not an escape. In Scene Four, Laura slips on the fire escape, indicating that she truly is incapable of leaving her home.

That Tom steps out frequently onto the landing of the fire escape in order to smoke foreshadows his final departure, while it also suggests his ambivalence about his own motives and about abandoning his sister and mother.  In addition, his leaving the rooms of the apartment indicate his inability to face and resolve conflicts.  Significantly, the fire escape is the path of escape for all the male characters involved in the play: the father flees his responsibilities to his family, Tom emulates his father in also fleeing, and Jim, the "gentleman-caller" makes a hasty exit from Laura. The women, damaged psychologically and physically are left to live their desperate lives inside the apartment from which there is no escape except through illusions.


We’ve answered 317,712 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question