Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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In Tennessee William's play, The Glass Menangerie, Tom says that the stage magician “gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth, I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” What does he mean?  

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In Tennessee William's play The Glass Menagerie, in Tom's introductory soliloquy, he likens himself to a magician.

...I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

This statement presents the sense of appearance vs. reality, a major theme in the play. The lack of reality swirls around all of the characters. Tom dreams of being a writer, but he works at a shoe warehouse. Amanda returns to memories of a happier past when she was pursued by many eligible young men. Laura lives a fantastic world that she has created with her glass menagerie of animals. Jim, who is not caught in the dysfunction circle of this family, claims to have real potential for success, but since graduation he has been unable to do anything with his life.

Tom's quote introduces this theme's relevance to the play with his comparison between himself and a magician. The magician, he points out, is able to make illusions look real. Tom says he presents the truth under the cover of illusion. Illusion, however, is not truth. Disguising the truth with illusion is lying—and deception is another theme in the play. 

From the play's beginning, Tom is the fractured voice of reality in the Wingfield family. 

Tom presents the illusion of the successful provider, but he hates his job, is not very close to his co-workers (except Jim—and even then, knows little about him), continually escapes into the unreal world of the movies, and (as Jim tells him) is in danger of losing his job. However, the illusion he presents to the family is that he's carrying his weight. He also presents the illusion that he is different than his father, but inside he knows he is his father's son. 

I’m like my father. The bastard son of a bastard! 

Tom provides an illusion of why he goes to the movies. He says he does it for adventure—for excitement that he does not get in his job.

AMANDA: ...Tom...Where do you go to, nights?

TOM: I—go to the movies.

AMANDA: Why do you go to the movies so much, Tom?

TOM: I go to the movies because—I like adventure. Adventure is something I don’t have much of at work, so I go to the movies.

AMANDA: But, Tom, you go to the movies entirely too much!

TOM: I like a lot of adventure.

This seems comic at first, but it is really tragic. The movies are an escape: he feels trapped supporting his family—and dreams of leaving as his father did. His mother nags him and treats him like a child. He feels confined, and "fleeing" to the movies gives him a temporary sense of freedom.

Tom give the illusion of responsible respectability. However, he admits to Jim that he used the money for the electric bill to pay he dues to the Merchant Marines. This shows not only his tragic tendency to be irresponsible, but exposes his selfishness as well. He is totally unconcerned for his family at this point: he doesn't care if the power is shut off, which it is in the last scene.

TOM: [Finds paper.] Look—

JIM: What?

TOM: I’m a member.

JIM [reading]: The Union of Merchant Seamen.

TOM: I paid my dues this month, instead of the light bill.

JIM: You will regret it when they turn the lights off.

TOM: I won’t be here.

Perhaps Tom is not anything more than his family might expect. They live surrounded by the illusions of their choosing. Tom does the same. However, at the play's end, the illusions Tom has created will shatter as the women realize they have been abandoned again.

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