How are the themes of loneliness and separation present in The Glass Menagerie?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As an Expressionist play, Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, employs symbolism and dream-like elements that illustrate the characters' sometimes overwhelming feelings of emotion, loneliness, separation, and alienation. 


  • From the onset of the drama there is a feeling of separation from the father because of the photograph on the wall, a handsome young man who no longer co-exists with the Wingfields, but he is "ineluctably smiling." That is, the smile cannot be avoided, serving only to underscore the feelings of separation. The last letter from him has indicated that he must have been off the Pacific coast of Mexico. 
  • As Tom enters in Scene I, he is dressed as a merchant sailor, a uniform that indicates his complete separation from his family, a separation he has threatened for a long time.
  • Amanda dreamingly recalls all her youthful "gentlemen callers" in her psychological separation from reality.
  • The fire escape itself is symbolic of separation as Tom steps outside the family onto them, and as Laura leaves the security of her life at home and faces the threatening situation at Rubicam's Business College
  • The unicorn of the glass menagerie is symbolic of this alienation between mother and daughter.
  • Another symbol of the divide between Tom and his mother is the book by D.H. Lawrence that Amanda discovers Tom reading. He argues with his mother after she conficates the novel,

"...I've got no thing, no single thing--...In my life here tha Ican call my own! Everything is..."

        After saying this, Tom symbolically tears open the    portieres.

  • Laura's glass unicorn, different from the others and symbolic of Laura, is separate from the other figures until he is broken as Laura and Jim, the gentleman caller, dance.
  • One night, Tom returns from the movies where he seeks to vicariously feel adventure. He tells Laura, "You know it don't take much inteligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail? (...the father's grinning photograph lights up.)  [This incident foreshadows Tom's leaving his family and separating himself.]
  • In Scene 7, Tom describes Jim O'Connor as "an emissary from that world of reality that we were set apart from."  Amanda underscores this separation when she tells Tom, "You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions!" but she speaks as well of herself and Laura, who are also separated from reality.


  • When they eat supper, Amanda scolds Tom for his lack of good manners and harps so much at him about his obligation to the family that Tom feels estranged from her..
  • Tom resents hearing the stories about Amanda's gentleman callers, stories to which he, living where he does, cannot relate.
  • Laura, too, feels some estrangement from Amanda after she is confronted by her mother for not having attended typing classes. She seeks comfort from her loneliness with her glass menagerie
  • Her unicorn represents Laura's loneliness
  • Tom attends the movies because he feels alone in his creative urges, misunderstood by his mother.
  • At the beginning of Scene 4, as part of Williams's Expressionistic imagery, Tom

shakes a little noise-maker or rattle as if to express the tiny spasm of man in contrast to the sustained power and dignity of the Almighty.

  • In Scene 5, after scolding Tom about his smoking, Amanda turns to the husband's picture. The stage directions say,

Alone, she turns to look at her husband's picture.

  • Describing Laura to his mother, Tom says,

"...she's terribly shy and lives in a world of her own and those things make her seem a little peculiar to people outside the house."

  • As the play closes, Tom tells Laura, "Blow out your candles, Laura--and so goodbye...."