Explain what The Glass Menagerie suggests about the human capacity for happiness.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the beginning of Tennessee Williams's Expressionist play, Glass Menagerie, the playwright states,

The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic.  Memory takes a lot of poetic license.  It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.

That memory is a key element in this play is problematic because memory is in the heart, and it involves a confrontation with the past in which one is not what one is now.  Thus, one often creates illusions so that he/she can reconcile the past with the present.  This is the case with Amanda, who reconstructs the past, creating wistful illusions of what has really occurred or what will occur.  For instance, she often reflects on her gentleman callers and how popular she was in order to feels a sense of having had happiness.  She imagines Laura's marriage in an effort to effect happiness for Laura and contentment and security for herself.  However, the nostalgia of Amanda for the past evinced in her appearance in a dress of her youth indicates that Amanda has created an illusion and thereby ignores the needs of her adult children.

Tom, too, dwells in illusion, always going to the movies and dreaming of being a writer.  But, rather than wistfully dreaming of the past like his mother, Tom dreams of the future.  Yet, he cannot completely cut himself from the Wingfield tenement as he finds himself looking toward it in the last scene;  therefore, his illusion is that of the future in which he seeks happiness, but he is yet tied inextricably to the past and, thus, prevented from acquiring this happiness.

For Laura, the illusions are neither of the past and the future, but are, instead, the present, and these are forced upon her. For, whenever she attempts to assert her independence and achieve her own happiness, Amanda steps in and redirects her efforts.  One example is the scene in which Amanda confronts Laura for not attending the Rubicund Business College.  But, Laura does not want to attend; she tries to tell her mother how much happier she was at the museum or the zoo, but Amanda will not listen.  Instead, her mother makes arrangements for the gentleman caller and forces Laura to enter he dream of security in her old age.

The Glass Menagerie, a fragile collection of individuals, demonstrates how each character's dream of success or happiness cannot be satisfied by the creation of an illusion.  For, the characters own turbulent creative processes mask memory or the future or even the present; thus they live without escape, without happiness, only with illusion.  The final lines of Amanda are, indeed, ironic,

"You don't know things anywhere!  You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions.!"
lsumner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is almost impossible to be happy with a mother like Amanda. In The Glass Menagerie, Amanda has chosen not to be happy. For this reason, her children have a difficult time being happy. Amanda is too preoccupied with finding a suitor for Laura. She becomes totally consumed with finding a mate for Laura. It appears that Amanda desires a suitor for Laura more than Laura does for herself.

The human capacity for happiness is so determined by outward circumstances. Amanda cannot be happy. She won't allow herself to be happy. She is controlled by her circumstances. Laura has a brace on her leg, and Tom is only a show salesman. There is no way to climb the ladder of success. Truly, happiness is controlled by outward circumstances. Amanda is so critical until no one can be happy around her:

Throughout the meal, Amanda instructs and criticizes Tom in his eating habits, until Tom responds with disgust. At once, the audience realizes that Tom and Amanda live in a state of tension.

Because of the tension in the play, there is rarely a happy moment. Amanda only shows a sign of happiness when Tom agrees to bring Jim home. Of course, this happiness does not last. When Amanda learns that Jim is engaged, she is most unhappy, and she blames Tom for her unhappiness. Truly, happiness is mostly nonexistent in the play. Because of the hard circumstances in life, Amanda, Tom and Laura have trouble finding happiness. The play is quite depressing. Life is difficult and Amanda makes it even more difficult for Tom and Laura.

With a mother so demanding, how could Laura or Tom be happy? Laura feels second best to her mother who was so popular when she was young:

When Laura indicates that she's not expecting any gentlemen callers, Amanda appears to be astonished, although this conversation seems to be a frequent one. Laura explains that 'I'm not popular like you [Amanda] were.'

No doubt, the capacity for happiness is controlled by the outward circumstances. Amanda cannot or will not be contented. Outward circumstances cause so much unhappiness for Tom and Laura. There is no changing Amanda. She will continue to criticize her children.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The drama finds its hope for happiness in Laura.  While Tom and Amanda do the lion's share of fighting and battle, it is Laura that silently embodies hope and carries it throughout the end of the play.  Laura is the one figure who straddles both reality as well as the hope of subjectivity.  Tom and Amanda both also display a hope in living one's life in accordance to one's own subjectivity, but these narratives do not end happily.  Tom leaves, but the distinct feeling is that his departure, embodying that of his father, is not a happy one.  Amanda might have her own subjective reality, but it is one filled with unhappiness as both of her children are emotionally distant from her and the only companion is her fading past, which is something that ends up only haunting her and not something that comforts.  In the end, it is Laura who is able to balance both her own subjectivity and the lack of caring in the world to create a vision where she does find happiness.  The fact that she is able to adapt the broken unicorn into the rest of her collection, as well as give to Jim as a representation of her strength are examples of how her strength has given Laura some semblance of happiness.  When she blows out the candles to her own birthday cake, it is a moment where the audience recognizes that she might be the happiest of all of the family members and that while difficulty and challenge will be there for her, it will not be something that will cripple her.  Just as she overcame her brace, Laura will be able to find happiness.  In the end, I think that she is the hope for human happiness that Williams sees.

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The Glass Menagerie

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