What does Tennesee Williams mean by "the implacable fires of human desperation?". How is this connected the fire escape as a symbol?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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In the stage directions of Tennessee Williams's play The Glass Menagerie , scene 1, we find the following information regarding the Wingsfields' apartment:

The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation. The fire-escape is included in the set - that is, the landing of it and steps descending from it.

Certainly there is a strong allegory found in the fire-escape and the "implacable fires of human desperation". There is also symbolism in the way that Williams emphasizes that "the landing of it and steps descending from [the fire-escape]" should be featured and ever-present. The reasons are both physical, social, and psychological.

First, the human desperation that we encounter in the play is represented mainly in the character of Tom Wingfield. A young man with a sensitivity towards poetry and art, he is a victim of the economical limitations brought upon society by the Great Depression.

His love and talent for beautiful things is rendered worthless in a world where he has to work at whatever capacity to earn a living for himself, and his mother and sister. As a result, he feels trapped between his wants and his needs; between his dreams and his reality. The difference is that, in Tom's case, there seems to be no hope: his strong sense of duty toward his mother, and the co-dependence that the women of his family have toward him, make him, literally burn with human desperation. He is emasculated, weakened, and driven to mental desperation. 

All this considered, the fire escape his like another character in the play. Tom uses it consistently to vent by escaping his home life through it, or uses it to go to the places that help him escape such as the bar, or the movies. The fire-escape also serves as the ever-present reminder of the day when Tom's father abandons the family. After all, didn't he use that same fire-escape when he left? Finally, Tom acknowledges the fire-escape as the conduit through which he also follows the steps of his dad when he, too, decides to leave the family forever:

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

Therefore, the symbolism is definitely there: the fire of Tom's need to escape is often quelled by descending through same fire-escape which his own father used to escape the family forever. The fire-escape is an ever-present symbol of how desperation leads to extreme measures. 

 


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