What is the lesson of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams?

The lesson of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is the necessity of living in the real world without illusions. Amanda and Laura, for different reasons, hide from the world and its many problems. It's up to Tom to face up to the harsh reality of life in the real world, no matter how difficult that may be. And this can only be done by leaving his mother and sister and making his own way in this world.

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The lesson to be learned in this great play is that the only thing to which one should be tethered is the present. Tethering oneself to an illusion or to material objects, as Laura does, can only lead to disappointment. Laura's mother, Amanda, makes the same mistake in pinning her hopes to the idea of Laura's future with Jim O'Connor.

There is no doubt that Tom has his sister's best interests at heart when he invites Jim, her former high-school crush, over for dinner. Jim, unbeknownst to him, is seriously involved with another woman. This, however, does not stop Jim from toying with Laura's emotions, dancing with her, and kissing her. Had Tom focused on the present rather than dragging up this figure from the past, Laura would not have been hurt.

Then, we need to look at Laura's fixation with her glass menagerie. She is very upset when Tom accidentally breaks one of her figurines, but she would not have felt this pain were it not for her unhealthy fixation with the figurines.

Laura's mother, Amanda, has her hopes pinned to a future in which Laura is married and therefore has a secure life in spite of her challenges. It could be argued that Amanda's life would be a lot simpler if she focused on the present, rather than on the potentially false hope of someone coming along to "fix" the problem of Laura's future.

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The character of Tom Wingfield, based not loosely on Tennessee Williams himself, finally managed to escape from the world of illusion and self-deception constructed by his mother. But it wasn’t an easy process, by any means. It took a long time for Tom to break free from his mother—and from his sister Laura—and head out into the big wide world to make his own way in life.

For a time, the illusory world of the Wingfields provided him with some degree of security and comfort. But at the same time, he was always more worldly than his mother and sister, and it was almost inevitable that he would be required to provide them with financial support at some point. This involves confronting the real world and all its problems without any illusions, something of which Amanda and Laura, for different reasons, are chronically incapable.

Illusions are pretty much all they have: Amanda's illusions lie with her nostalgia for a supposedly golden past and the painfully shy Laura's with her menagerie of glass animals. Amanda lives in the past, whereas Laura lives in a world of her own, a world of timeless fantasy. This means that they both live, indeed can only live, life on their own terms. And that means a life steeped in illusions.

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The moral lesson of The Glass Menagerie is that one can try to escape the past and one's ties to family, but to no avail. The hold one's family and past has on one is tenacious and strong. At the end of the play, Tom Wingfield leaves his mother and sister, Amanda and Laura, respectively, though his mother believes that he will protect and care for them forever. Instead, the pressure they place on him drives him away, as it had driven away his father years before.

Tom believes that he has escaped his sister's memory and her call for help, but wherever he goes, he sees her in his mind and thinks of her. He says at the end of the play, "Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!" The entire play is Tom's recollection of his sister and mother, as he has never been able to forget about them, and they still have a psychological hold on him.

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Major works of literature such as The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, unlike simple fables or sermons, rarely have singular lessons; in fact, it is precisely their complexity and lack of simplistic moralizing that contributes to their greatness. 

The characters in this play are all deeply flawed, especially in their refusal to see current reality clearly and to react to their actual situations in life. 

Amanda Wingfield is constantly reliving her past as a southern belle, unwilling to face the fact that the manners, conventions, and habits she learned as a child are not useful skills for a more modern world. Although she does attempt to enroll Laura in a business college, Laura too is fragile and unworldly, crippled by her shyness as well as a childhood illness, to complete her course work or find a job. Ultimately, both women still exist within a traditional mythos of femininity where they are fundamentally passive, taught a sort of learned helplessness and reliance on male generosity. Tom shows how this patriarchal dynamic also traps men in a web of obligations. All of the characters are trapped by the history of their families and of the south. 

While some people might take away from this play a belief in the importance of developing career skills to avoid the trap of dependency, others will in a certain way admire the tenacity of Amanda in holding the family together, however tenuously, and see the play as showing how people are cast adrift as the bounds of community fail. 

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