Study Guide

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

The Glass Menagerie Analysis

Form and Content (Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

According to Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play.” It is narrated from the perspective of the character Tom Wingfield. What Williams calls “personal lyricism” is employed in the play not so much to challenge the accountability of Tom’s narrative as to display, from a character’s point of view, the impact that illusion has on individuals. The play, for example, portrays a large group of characters whose obsession with the past complicates their connection to the present. Illusory worlds are created by these characters, either to cherish the not-so-accurate memory of an idealized past or to protect an already-tattered emotional integrity. It is typical of Williams, a self-proclaimed romantic dramatist, to create characters who prefer dwelling in a fantasy world. Yet, the playwright, aware of the inevitability of the conflict between illusion and reality, also leaves the audience with no doubt about his cynical and bitter attitude in dramatizing the sometimes self-deceptive but always debilitating nature of his characters’ illusory world. Flashbacks are used effectively to underscore the struggle that characters must undergo when they do not know how to disentangle themselves from the past.

The main plot of The Glass Menagerie centers on what happens to the Wingfield family on one unforgettable evening. A childhood illness has left Laura Wingfield crippled; one of her legs is slightly shorter than the other and is held in a brace. Self-consciousness and a lack of self-confidence have turned Laura into an extremely shy person. She prefers living in a dream world created through her fantasies and her collection of glass animals. Laura’s mother, Amanda Wingfield, believes strongly in tradition. Her faith in the traditional Southern practice of having a “gentleman caller” has led her to make an arrangement for Laura to meet with one of Tom’s coworkers at the warehouse.

Jim O’Connor shows up one evening at the Wingfields’ apartment as the “gentleman caller.” He behaves like a gentleman, charming Amanda and strengthening her belief in this tradition. During the meeting, Jim’s outward glamour and glibness temporarily rekindle hopes in Laura’s closed heart. She tells him how much she admired him in high school and entrusts him with her favorite glass animal, the unicorn. When Jim clumsily breaks the unicorn’s horn and tells her that they are not compatible with each other, Laura loses even more of her ever-dwindling confidence in herself and furthers her alienation from reality.

At the end of the play, Laura is apparently thrown off her emotional balance and ready to retreat permanently into her fantasy world. Amanda, holding Tom responsible for the fiasco of Jim and Laura’s meeting, blames him as the manufacturer of dreams and illusions. Tom, now fully aware of the detrimental effects of the conflicts between the past and the present and between illusion and reality, decides to leave the family and take on the challenge of shaping his own life.

The Glass Menagerie Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Wingfield apartment

Wingfield apartment. St. Louis, Missouri, home of the narrator, Tom Wingfield, and his mother and sister. Along with its outside fire-escape landing, this apartment is the setting for the entire play. It is too small for the Wingfields’ needs—Laura sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room—and its contents are worn and aging. The contrast between the dingy apartment and the world in which Tom’s mother, Amanda, alludes to having grown up in is striking. During the play’s first scene, Amanda relates a well-worn story of her youth in Blue Mountain in rural Mississippi. Her story contains a significant allusion to the front porch on which she received gentleman callers—some seventeen young men by her account. Williams contrasts the porch in Blue Mountain with the apartment’s fire-escape landing, on which the family watches the moon rise over a delicatessen.

Alleyways

Alleyways. According to Williams’s opening stage directions, the play’s audiences should see alleyways running on either side of the apartment building and its rear wall before they see the apartment rooms in which the action will take place. The alleys are described as “murky canyons of tangled clotheslines, garbage cans, and the sinister latticework of neighboring fire escapes.” This is significant, as the alleys remain visible throughout the play. Williams uses them to generate a constant visual comment on the action within the apartment. The alleys strike a strong contrast to the idyllic life Amanda describes from her youth and are in conflict with Tom’s vision of a life of high adventure.

*Famous-Barr Department Store

*Famous-Barr Department Store. St. Louis’s leading department store at the time in which the play is set, in whose lingerie department Amanda works. Williams uses the store to emphasize Amanda’s frustration over the way her life has turned out. In the opening scene when she talks about her suitors, she blames her poor choice as the cause of her public humiliation of having to sell bras at Famous-Barr.

The Glass Menagerie Historical Context

World War II
Although the setting of The Glass Menagerie is the 1930s, during the Great Depression and slightly before...

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The Glass Menagerie Literary Style

Conflict
Although the action in The Glass Menagerie occurs over only a couple of days, nearly every scene is laden with...

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The Glass Menagerie Compare and Contrast

1930s: Adolf Hitler begins to achieve power in Germany. Some Americans fought in the Spanish Civil War, although the United States did...

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The Glass Menagerie Topics for Further Study

Although The Glass Menagerie is set in the 1930s, many critics describe it as timeless. Describe the historical changes you would have...

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The Glass Menagerie Media Adaptations

The Glass Menagerie was released as a film by Warner Brothers in 1950. This black-and-white version was produced by Jerry Wald and...

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The Glass Menagerie What Do I Read Next?

Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947. It features another frustrated family, though here the interactions become...

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The Glass Menagerie Bibliography and Further Reading

FURTHER READING
Berkowitz, Gerald. "The 'Other World' of The Glass Menagerie" in Players, Vol. 48, no. 4,...

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The Glass Menagerie Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama. 3 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982-1985.

Devlin, Albert J., ed. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

Donahue, Francis. The Dramatic World of Tennessee Williams. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964. A discussion of Williams’ plays, with a focus on The Glass Menagerie.

Leavitt, Richard F., ed. The World of Tennessee Williams. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978. A competent introduction to the playwright and his plays, focusing on his themes.

Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown, 1995.

Nelson, Benjamin. Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work. New York: Obolensky, 1961. The first comprehensive study of the playwright and his work.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. The first complete critical biography of Williams. Delineates the connections between the playwright’s work and life.

Stanton, Stephen S., ed. Tennessee Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977. Cogent, in-depth analysis of Williams’ plays, including The Glass Menagerie.