Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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Did Williams make a slip in having Amanda say Laura is a "crippled"?

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Amanda does her best, throughout the play, to avoid referring to her daughter, Laura, as a cripple. As stated by Laura, herself, she had "an attack of pleurosis" in high school which left her with a weakened leg that necessitated the wearing of a brace. In the play, Laura walks with a visible, though slight, limp.

Twice during the play, the idea that Laura is a cripple arises and is quickly denied by her mother:


AMANDA: Girls that aren't cut out for business careers usually wind up married to some nice man. [Gets up with aspark of revival.] Sister, that's what you'll do !

[LAURA utters a startled, doubtful laugh. She reaches quickly for a piece of glass.]

LAURA: But, Mother

AMANDA: Yes ? [Crossing to photograph.]

LAURA [in a tone of frightened apology]: I'm - crippled !

AMANDA: Nonsense ! Laura, I've told you never, never to use that word. Why, you're not crippled, you just have a little defect - hardly noticeable, even! When people have some slight disadvantage like that, they cultivate other things to make up for it - develop charm - and vivacity and - charm! That's all you have to do ![She turns again to the photograph.] One thing your father had plenty of - was charm!


TOM: Mother, you mustn't expect too much of Laura.

AMANDA: What do you mean?

TOM: Laura seems all those things to you and me because she's ours and we love her. We don't even notice she's crippled any more.

AMANDA: Don't say crippled ! You know that I never allow that word to be used !

The last time the word is uttered, Amanda finally admits what she really thinks of her daughter's condition. It is said in a fit of anger and disappointement. It was not a slip of Amanda's or of the playwright. Amanda finally has to face one of the many bitter truths of her sad and all but hopeless life:

TOM: I'm going to the movies.

AMANDA: That's right, now that you've had us make such fools of ourselves. The effort, the preparations, all the expense ! The new floor lamp, the rug, the clothes for Laura ! all for what? To entertain some other girl's fiancé ! Go to the movies, go ! Don't think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who's crippled and has no job ! Don't let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure I just go, go, go - to the movies !

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Part of the reason for the word choice reflects the time period.  At the time of writing, terms such as "crippled" were used quite often.  We now look at such terms as derogatory, or at the very least, in poor taste.  Yet, those sensibilities were not as present at the time in which Williams is writing.  One of the advents of the modern setting is that language has become more inclusive, seeking to bring out more narratives into the discussion and the language employed to speak of these points are actually more sensitive in seeking to...

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be more humane.  Terms like "crippled" and "handicapped" are not used as much and writers in the modern setting have more effective terms to describe these conditions.

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Did Tennessee Williams make a slip in having Amanda say Laura is “crippled”?

In the most of literal senses, I would say that Williams did not make an error in having Amanda state that Laura is "crippled."  Given the time in which Williams is writing, the term was used quite often.  This doesn't make it right or appropriate, but by those social order's standards, it was accepted.  This is something that we see quite often in that the level of verbal and social sensitivity in the modern setting is more heightened than it was in the past.  It becomes a challenge to apply these standards to writers of the past.  Certainly individuals have all the rights to be able to say that Williams should have used more sensitivity than he showed.  (I still say that he gets a pass because he showed more sensitivity than most to the weaknesses of human beings.)  Yet, in the time in which he is writing, to have Amanda refer to Laura as "crippled" does make sense.  It's difficult to see what Amanda would have said about Laura in the modern setting because if we changed this element, the entire emotional timbre of the play changes.  This is what makes Williams' work so profound.  Change one element and it leads to other changes.  Call it the literary "butterfly effect."

In a more symbolic sense, I would say that Williams did exactly the right thing in having Amanda say Laura is "crippled."  For someone like Amanda, they would see Laura as somehow deficient.  Amanda is gregarious, willing to construct her sense of self in a public manner that reconfigures her past in a nostalgic light.  She is the type of individual that is not going to be at her best in trying to work with someone as Laura.  She is not going to be emotionally sensitive enough to be able to see her as unique in her own light.  Laura is nowhere near like Amanda.  It fits her characterization to see Amanda as labeling her own daughter as "crippled" in her state of being that is not like her mother's.  We can debate the use of language, but I think that given the point the Williams might have been trying to make about Amanda's character, he got it right.

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