What is the meaning of the title The Glass Menagerie?

The title of The Glass Menagerie symbolizes the physical and emotional fragility of Laura Winfield, a shy, disabled young woman who lives in her own world, where she devotes most of her time to caring for her collection of small glass animals. Laura's favorite glass animal, a unicorn, symbolizes Laura herself as a solitary, other-worldly creature who is shy, delicate, and vulnerable and requires special care.

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The character of Laura, the protagonist of the story, uncovers the meaning of the title. Laura has a glass menagerie—a collection of small glass figurines that are very dear to her; she's very careful with them because she knows that they're fragile and can easily break or get damaged. Laura's glass menagerie essentially symbolizes her own fragility and vulnerability, both physically and emotionally, but also her uniqueness and her character depth.

Williams names that play The Glass Menagerie not only because it represents his main character, but also because it represents the entire Wingfields family, as well as the themes of isolation, illusion, and emotional and mental weakness. The Wingfields are a weird bunch; they're a family that doesn't conform to social standards and lives in their own special world of dreams and illusions. They appear to be mentally isolated from society, almost broken, and metaphorically trapped in a glass menagerie—they can see the real world and the real world can see them, but it cannot reach them; no one can get out and no one can get in unless they break the glass.

It's notable to mention, however, that when the light hits the glass ornaments just right, it reflects and changes the entire atmosphere of the space, transforming it from something dull and simple to something magnificent. Similar to this, when people give Laura and even her family a chance to show their true colors and when they try to see them in a different light, then they'll see that they're actually very interesting and fascinating individuals, just like everyone else.

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The Glass Menagerie, written by Tennessee Williams in 1944, derives its title from the collection of small glass animals that belongs to Laura Wingfield, an extremely frail, shy, and reclusive young woman, who spends most of her time attending to her glass collection.

The glass animals are symbolic of Laura's physical and emotional fragility. Laura is physically disabled—according to Williams's character description, "one leg slightly shorter than the other, and held in a brace"—and she lives in her own world of loneliness, dreams, and imagination, almost wholly estranged from reality.

Laura is self-conscious, has a strong sense of inferiority, and finds it almost impossible to come to terms with the world in which she lives, either within her own family or in the world at large. As her brother Tom says, "She lives in a world of her own―a world of―little glass ornaments...She plays old phonograph records and—that's about all" (scene 5).

The play of The Glass Menagerie evolved from a short story, "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," which Williams wrote in 1941 and which provides further insight into Laura's character. In the short story, Tom says about Laura,

She made no positive motion toward the world but stood at the edge of the water, so to speak, with feet that anticipated too much cold to move.

In scene 6 of the play, Jim O'Connor, one of Tom's high school classmates and now a coworker, "the only one at the warehouse with whom I was on friendly terms," (scene 6) comes to dinner at the Wingfield's house. Laura remembers Jim as the only boy she liked in high school, although he barely knew she existed, and she's too overwhelmed to sit at the dinner table with him.

After dinner, Laura overcomes her shyness to sit alone with Jim on the couch in the living room and reminisce about high school, and she shows him her glass animal collection. "Mother calls them a glass menagerie!" she says (scene 7). Laura lets Jim hold her favorite, a unicorn.

JIM: Unicorns, aren't they extinct in the modern world?

LAURA: I know!

JIM: Poor little fellow, he must feel sort of lonesome (scene 7).

Jim later kisses Laura and even talks her into dancing with him, but during their dance they bump into a table and knock the unicorn to the floor, breaking the horn off the glass animal.

LAURA. I'll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish !

[They both laugh.] Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don't have horns (scene 7).

The symbolism of the broken unicorn becomes clear when Jim tells Laura that he's engaged to be married, and is further emphasized when Laura gives Jim the broken unicorn as "a souvenir" (scene 7), a symbol of her broken heart and her broken life.

Laura then retreats into her own familiar world. "She rises unsteadily and crouches beside the Victrola to wind it up" (Stage directions, scene 7) and doesn't say another word to Jim.

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The title The Glass Menagerie brings to prominence the collection of figurines composed of delicate glass and shaped like animals that the equally delicate Laura owns. This title also helps to draw attention to the symbolism of the fragile glass animals who come to represent anything that is too delicate to last in the day-to-day outside world.

Because life is harsh and difficult for Laura, she has fabricated an imaginary world symbolized by the glass menagerie. Laura is even compared to the glass animals in the stage directions in Scene 6:

She is like a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not natural, not lasting. 

In a similar fashion, Amanda longs for the world of her youth, in which she was comfortable as a Southern belle. Tom desires a world that is beyond the mundane and trivial, escaping in books and at the picture shows (the movies).

Much like the glass menagerie, all three Wingfields prove to be unrealistic. They each hold another world in their minds, and, like the glass figures, it is a much too fragile world to last. Thus, the title of The Glass Menagerie helps to bring to the front the themes of illusions and impossible dreams.

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