Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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The Glass Menagerie is a play about coming-of-age. Tom’s maturity is demonstrated by his final decision to leave the family, a decision that is made with the awareness of the inevitable clash between illusion and reality, between reaction and action, and between what life has given him and what he can control. In the opening of the play, Tom announces that unlike a stage magician who “gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth,” he gives the audience “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Amanda is just such a stage magician, manufacturing illusion in the appearance of truth. Her problem is neither that she is insensitive nor that she is an overprotective mother attempting to keep her children under her wings. Her dilemma is that she is an anachronistic figure who clings “frantically to another time and place.” Tradition, the main cause of Amanda’s obliviousness to changes in society, is as important to her as her relationship with reality. Her faith in the “gentleman caller” tradition not only results in a failed marriage but also leads to the disastrous meeting between Jim and Laura.

Amanda’s husband does not appear in the play, but his character plays an important role in demonstrating and accentuating Amanda’s blindness. Mr. Wingfield, a bona fide gentleman caller, was hand-picked by Amanda to marry. He was also an irresponsible pleasure-seeker who later deserted the family for his own enjoyment of life. His abandonment of the family, in addition to announcing the death of the marriage, challenges the credibility of the “gentleman caller” tradition. Amanda is too nostalgically myopic, however, to see the portentous implication and too hopelessly dazzled by its glamour to admit its destructive potential. Thus, the circular movement of the play is not only underlined by the fact that Laura ends where she starts but also displayed in the emotional toll that two generations have to pay for living in an world of illusion.

Laura’s tie to her make-believe world is as strong as Amanda’s is to the past. Because of her apparent physical deformity, she has become sensitive to what people think of her. Her physical condition thus represents her mental distress; she is crippled both physically and mentally. In search of companionship, she builds her own fantasy world with her glass-animal friends and with a Victrola and many old records. Laura, however, is more than a prisoner of her own deformed consciousness. She is also a victim of moribund traditions, such as that of the “gentleman caller.” The tragic nature of her life is made even more painful when the audience realizes that she is cognizant of the delicate nature of her fantasy world but that she does not see any alternative that can substitute for the security and companionship that her fantasy world provides her.

Jim is another magician who manufactures illusion in the appearance of truth. During his visit to the Wingfields’ apartment, he tries to act like a gentleman, but his selfishness and egotistic nature are reminiscent of those of Amanda’s former husband. Jim’s interest in Laura arises only when he discovers that she still remembers all his “glorious” achievements in high school. He then practices public speaking skills on Laura, insensitively invites her to dance although he is aware of her physical condition, and continues to talk about the power of love after he bluntly breaks Laura’s heart by refusing to see her again.

The Glass Menagerie ends with Amanda blaming Tom as the one who lives by dreams and illusions. Tom is not content with his work and dreams of becoming a poet. He represents the awakening generation of young people who are in a desperate search of their true identity. Tom is acutely aware of his responsibility, not in the traditional terms of being loyal to a family but in the sense of human choice. By deciding to break away from dying traditions, he has taken over control of his own destiny and turned himself into the speaker of “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

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Critical Context