Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams
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In Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie, how is the fire escape a symbol that reveals something about each character’s personality?

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In Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie, the symbolic fire escape reveals something about each of the major characters in the play.

Tom, who is unhappily supporting his family in a job that he hates is the character most associated with the fire escape. He is in dire need to get away from his life: the job he hates and the restrictive existence forced upon him as the only man (and provider) in the apartment. The fire escape offers him the opportunity to the movies:


Where are you going?


I'm going to the movies!


I don't believe that lie!

Tom also goes out to have a smoke, another escape:


...Where are you going?


I'm going out to smoke.


You smoke too much. A pack a day at fifteen cents a pack. How much would that be in a month?...

Amanda also accuses him of drinking, coming home "in that—terrifying condition!"

For Laura, Tom's sister, there is no escape. In fact, when she is sent out on an errand by her mother, Laura slips.

[A second later she cries out. Tom springs up and crosses to the door. Tom opens the door.]




I'm all right. I slipped, but I'm all right.


If anyone breaks a leg on those fire-escape steps, the landlord ought to be sued for every cent he possesses!

Laura lives in a world of her own imagining and could not survive outside. She tried to take some classes in typing and shorthand at Rubicam's Business College, but when she got there the first day she threw up on the floor because she was so nervous. She never went back.

Amanda has no need to escape. She has her children to care for and worry about. She also spends a great deal of her time in the past. She remembers her days in the South when she was greatly sought after by "gentlemen callers"—before she married her husband. Amanda loves to tell her children the same story...

My callers were gentlemen—all! Among my callers were some of the most prominent young planters of the Mississippi Delta—planters and sons of planters!

Amanda's husband abandoned the family sixteen years earlier. However, while Tom cares for them financially, Amanda escapes into her memories, with no need to leave the apartment.

Tom needs the escape symbolized by the fire escape. Laura is unable to use it (even if she wanted to), and Amanda has no need to leave the apartment.

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