Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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According to Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play.” It is narrated from the perspective of the character Tom Wingfield. What Williams calls “personal lyricism” is employed in the play not so much to challenge the accountability of Tom’s narrative as to display, from a character’s point of view, the impact that illusion has on individuals. The play, for example, portrays a large group of characters whose obsession with the past complicates their connection to the present. Illusory worlds are created by these characters, either to cherish the not-so-accurate memory of an idealized past or to protect an already-tattered emotional integrity. It is typical of Williams, a self-proclaimed romantic dramatist, to create characters who prefer dwelling in a fantasy world. Yet, the playwright, aware of the inevitability of the conflict between illusion and reality, also leaves the audience with no doubt about his cynical and bitter attitude in dramatizing the sometimes self-deceptive but always debilitating nature of his characters’ illusory world. Flashbacks are used effectively to underscore the struggle that characters must undergo when they do not know how to disentangle themselves from the past.

The main plot of The Glass Menagerie centers on what happens to the Wingfield family on one unforgettable evening. A childhood illness has left Laura Wingfield crippled; one of her legs is slightly shorter than the other and is held in a brace. Self-consciousness and a lack of self-confidence have turned Laura into an extremely shy person. She prefers living in a dream world created through her fantasies and her collection of glass animals. Laura’s mother, Amanda Wingfield, believes strongly in tradition. Her faith in the traditional Southern practice of having a “gentleman caller” has led her to make an arrangement for Laura to meet with one of Tom’s coworkers at the warehouse.

Jim O’Connor shows up one evening at the Wingfields’ apartment as the “gentleman caller.” He behaves like a gentleman, charming Amanda and strengthening her belief in this tradition. During the meeting, Jim’s outward glamour and glibness temporarily rekindle hopes in Laura’s closed heart. She tells him how much she admired him in high school and entrusts him with her favorite glass animal, the unicorn. When Jim clumsily breaks the unicorn’s horn and tells her that they are not compatible with each other, Laura loses even more of her ever-dwindling confidence in herself and furthers her alienation from reality.

At the end of the play, Laura is apparently thrown off her emotional balance and ready to retreat permanently into her fantasy world. Amanda, holding Tom responsible for the fiasco of Jim and Laura’s meeting, blames him as the manufacturer of dreams and illusions. Tom, now fully aware of the detrimental effects of the conflicts between the past and the present and between illusion and reality, decides to leave the family and take on the challenge of shaping his own life.

Places Discussed

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Wingfield apartment

Wingfield apartment. St. Louis, Missouri, home of the narrator, Tom Wingfield, and his mother and sister. Along with its outside fire-escape landing, this apartment is the setting for the entire play. It is too small for the Wingfields’ needs—Laura sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room—and its contents are worn and aging. The contrast between the dingy apartment and the world in which Tom’s mother, Amanda, alludes to having grown up in is striking. During the play’s first scene, Amanda relates a well-worn story of her youth in Blue Mountain in rural Mississippi. Her story contains a significant allusion to the front porch on which she received gentleman callers—some seventeen young men by her account. Williams contrasts the porch in Blue Mountain with the apartment’s fire-escape landing, on which the family watches the moon rise over a delicatessen.


Alleyways. According to Williams’s opening stage directions, the play’s audiences should see alleyways running on either side of the apartment building and its rear wall before they see the apartment rooms in which the action will take place. The alleys are described as “murky canyons of tangled clotheslines, garbage cans, and the sinister latticework of neighboring fire escapes.” This is significant, as the alleys remain visible throughout the play. Williams uses them to generate a constant visual comment on the action within the apartment. The alleys strike a strong contrast to the idyllic life Amanda describes from her youth and are in conflict with Tom’s vision of a life of high adventure.

*Famous-Barr Department Store

*Famous-Barr Department Store. St. Louis’s leading department store at the time in which the play is set, in whose lingerie department Amanda works. Williams uses the store to emphasize Amanda’s frustration over the way her life has turned out. In the opening scene when she talks about her suitors, she blames her poor choice as the cause of her public humiliation of having to sell bras at Famous-Barr.

Historical Context

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World War II
Although the setting of The Glass Menagerie is the 1930s, during the Great Depression and slightly before the beginning of World War II, Williams wrote the play after America had entered the war but before a decisive victory had been achieved. After being produced in Chicago in 1944, the play arrived in New York in 1945, the year the war ended. For Americans, the most significant historical event of the first half of the 1940s was the entry of the United States into World War II. Although the United States had not been eager to enter this war, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, making U.S. participation inevitable on the side of the Allies—primarily England, France, and Russia. In addition to Japan, the Allies fought against Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, and Italy, led by Benito Mussolini. Through most of the war, Franklin Roosevelt was President of the United States, until he died on April 12, 1945; he was succeeded by his vice president, Harry S. Truman. The European phase of the war ended in May 1945, and the Pacific phase ended with the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan (in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in August of 1945.

Women in the Workforce
Among the American ramifications of World War II was the sudden increase of women in the workplace. Primarily because so many men were serving in the armed forces, women began performing jobs that had not previously been open to them, in factories for example; such work was now considered patriotic. "Rosy the Riveter" is a famous character who represents this trend. When the war ended and men returned home, however, women were expected to leave their jobs so that the men might find employment. Women did not enter the workforce in significant numbers again until the 1970s.

The Boom Years
Another effect of returning soldiers was the passage of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which provided education benefits and home loans for many veterans. As a result, college enrollment increased substantially and began to become more available to middle and lower class students. New home construction and suburban development also expanded. This meant that many middle-class people moved out of major cities. On the other hand, because of work available in factories, this decade also saw mass migration from rural areas into cities.

Technological innovations also occurred, although contemporary standards make them seem decidedly dated. In 1944, the first general-purpose digital computer began to operate at Harvard University—although it needed four seconds to perform multiplication problems and eleven seconds to perform division! This computer had been built with 760,000 parts and 500 miles of wire—clearly neither a desktop nor a laptop version. Although its inventors might not have anticipated the electronic age of the late twentieth century, they clearly initiated a technological revolution.

More pertinent to average Americans was the development of Kodacolor, a color film marketed by Eastman Kodak. This film permitted individuals to take color pictures with inexpensive cameras.

The Growth of Post-War Arts
Within the arts, Tennessee Williams worked in a rich context. Other plays performed in New York or major European cities included The Searching Wind by Lillian Hellman, No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, and/Remember Mama by John Van Druten, which included Marlon Brando in its cast. W. Somerset Maugham published his novel, The Razor's Edge, in 1944. Stephen Vincent Benet won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry that year, and T. S. Eliot published his Four Quartets. Such well-known and talented painters as Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo produced much of their work during this period. Cole Porter, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, and Gene Kelly were popular entertainers. On a more humorous note, 1944 also saw the introduction of the Chiquita Banana song, which encouraged consumers to identify the fruit with a particular brand name—a trend that reached mammoth proportions by the late twentieth century.

Literary Style

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Although the action in The Glass Menagerie occurs over only a couple of days, nearly every scene is laden with overt conflict. The most obvious conflict occurs between Tom and Amanda, since Tom needs to remove himself from the family in order to achieve his goals, while Amanda needs him to stay. This conflict is most evident during their frequent bickering about the way Tom chews his food or the number of cigarettes he smokes. A more significant conflict, however, occurs within Tom's character. In order to follow his dream, vague as it is, he will have to abandon not only Amanda but also Laura.

Although most plays do not rely on a narrator, The Glass Menagerie is structured so that Tom can fulfill two roles. He is both a character in the play and the person who, at times, tells the story directly to the audience. This occurs particularly at the beginning of the play, when Tom summarizes the events that have preceded the action and describes the setting, and at the end of the play, when Tom reveals what has happened to him during the intervening years.

The protagonist of a literary work is the main character, who must change in some way during the course of the events, even if the change is entirely internal. Tom is clearly the protagonist of The Glass Menagerie. Although he is not heroic and will probably never triumph over his obstacles, he does take action by the end of the play.

The broad setting of The Glass Menagerie—as described in Williams's stage directions—is "one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population." In other words, it is a fairly large apartment house in a comparatively poor neighborhood. The specific city is unnamed, as if details are unnecessary since these neighborhoods so closely resemble each other. All of the action occurs within the living room and dining room of the Wingfield's apartment; the primary importance of the setting is to reinforce the cramped feeling the characters struggle against. The time is also vague. Obviously, the play is set several decades ago, since Tom can support (although inadequately) a family of three on sixty-five dollars a month; yet, were it not for details such as these, the play could easily be set in the current generation.

The Glass Menagerie achieves part of its effect through the prominent display of symbols. The father's portrait looms above the family on their wall, although he has been absent for years; obviously, he remains psychologically present and significantly affects the attitudes of the other characters. The candles also function symbolically. When Tom fails to pay the light bill, Amanda lights the apartment with candles, suggesting that this will lend a more romantic atmosphere to their home. The last action of the play is when Laura blows the candles out, as if this will erase her from Tom's memory in a death-like moment.

The primary symbol in this play, however, is Laura's glass menagerie, particularly the unicorn. The glass animals are fragile, as Laura is both emotionally and physically. Although they might imitate reality, they are not in themselves real, and their primary value lies in Laura's imagination. When the unicorn's horn breaks off, Laura describes him as now like the other horses, as if one must be broken in order to be normal. Laura is already "broken," however, and has never had the mythic status of a unicorn; she will never attain normalcy.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: Adolf Hitler begins to achieve power in Germany. Some Americans fought in the Spanish Civil War, although the United States did not officially participate. World War II began in Europe in 1939, but the United States declared its neutrality.

1940s: During World War II, most men served in the military, unless they were exempt for health or other reasons. Because so many people were affected, this war received prominent attention both in politics and in individual daily lives.

Today: Although The United States has engaged in comparatively minor military engagements during the last generation, no given war has become a cultural obsession since the Vietnam War ended in the mid-1970s. While men must register for the draft when they reach the age of 18, no one is currently drafted, and the military consistently speaks of "down sizing."

1930s: The major economic event was the Great Depression, which lasted most of the decade. Unemployment reached 13.7 million in the United States in 1932. Although men were considered the family's primary breadwinner when possible, women were also grateful for and sought out work.

1940s: During the war women entered the workforce but returned to homemaking when the war ended. They worked in factories and other places formerly identified with men in order to patriotically support the men who were overseas fighting.

Today: Many women work outside the home, even those with young children. They often do so in part because one salary can no longer adequately support a family. Another factor is the women's movement which has argued for equal treatment of men and women in politics and business and which has provided more diverse opportunities for women.

1930s and 1940s: Works of literature could be easily censored when they were considered obscene, even if the material was subtle. Writers such as James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence often received a scandalized response from the general public.

Today: Artistic merit and censorship remain an issue today. Although the works that were considered pornographic in the 1940s are frequently taught in high schools today, other works continue to be attacked. This is most evident when Congress considers the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.

1930s and 1940s: Romantic interactions between men and women were often formal and constrained. Men were expected to initiate dating situations and were also expected to introduce themselves to the woman's parents. A woman generally lived with her parents until she got married.

Today: Although some relationships are "conventional," the range of acceptable behavior between men and women is quite broad. Gender roles are no longer as rigid, although women still do the vast majority of housework and child care. In part because the age of marriage has risen, women as well as men often live independently before they get married, and couples frequently live together before they get married. Simultaneously, women can remain single if they choose without being considered "old maids."

1930s and 1940s: Women seldom attended college or received any higher education. (Even for men, college was generally restricted to those who were financially comfortable.) If women attended a business school, they studied such subjects as typing and shorthand and prepared to be secretaries for bosses who would not have such skills.

Today: The percentage of women and men attending college is nearly equal, although some fields, such as technology and engineering continue to be dominated by men. A person who aspires to work in an office, however, needs many more sophisticated skills. Shorthand, for example, is an outdated practice, and a person who can type is often not employable unless he or she also knows one or more computer programs.

Media Adaptations

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The Glass Menagerie was released as a film by Warner Brothers in 1950. This black-and-white version was produced by Jerry Wald and Charles K. Feldman and directed by Irving Rapper. It starred Jane Wyman as Laura Wingfield, Kirk Douglas as Jim O'Connor, Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda Wingfield, and Arthur Kennedy as Tom Wingfield. It also included roles for several characters who are only referred to in the play.

Another version of The Glass Menagerie was filmed by Cineplex Odeon and released in 1987. It was produced by Burtt Harris and directed by Paul Newman. Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward played Amanda; John Malkovich played Tom; Karen Allen played Laura; and James Naughton played the gentleman caller. It is available on video through MCA/Universal Home Video.

A television adaptation also aired on CBS in 1966. This version starred Shirley Booth as Amanda, Hal Holbrook as Tom, Barbara Loden as Laura, and Pat Hingle as Jim. David Susskind was the producer and Michael Elliott the director.

Another television version was broadcast on ABC in 1984.

A sound recording has also been produced by Caedmon. This two-cassette version was released in 1973; the cast consists of Montgomery Clift, Julie Harris, Jessica Tandy, and David Wayne.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Berkowitz, Gerald. "The 'Other World' of The Glass Menagerie" in Players, Vol. 48, no. 4, April-May 1973, pp. 150-53.
Berkowitz argues that the setting or "locus" of The Glass Menagerie as well as of other of Williams's plays influences perceptions of the characters to the extent that they seem "normal," while the "normal" people seem outsiders.

Bunan, Jarka M. "The Glass Menagerie" in International Dictionary of Theatre-1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 187-89.
Burian provides several character analyses, focusing especially on Tom.

Chesler, S. Alan. "Tennessee Williams: Reassessment and Assessment" in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, edited by Jac Tharpe, University Press of Mississippi, 1977, pp. 848-80.
Chesler describes Williams's characteristics as a playwright and contextualizes his career in terms of his effect on American drama.

Hirsch, Foster. A Portrait of the Artist: The Plays of Tennessee Williams, Kennikat Press, 1979.
Hirsch analyzes Williams's plays according to their autobiographical influences.

Londre, Felicia Hardison. "Tennessee Williams" in American Playwrights since 1945 - A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance, edited by Philip C. Kohn, Greenwood, 1989, pp. 488-517.
Londre provides a thorough discussion of Williams's work and reputation, including a production history of several of his plays.

Moe, Christian H. "The Glass Menagerie" in Reference Guide to American Literature, edited by James Kamp, third edition, St. James Press, 1994.
Moe traces the development of this play from a short story and describes the plot.


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Suggested Readings

Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama. 3 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982-1985.

Devlin, Albert J., ed. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

Donahue, Francis. The Dramatic World of Tennessee Williams. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964. A discussion of Williams’ plays, with a focus on The Glass Menagerie.

Leavitt, Richard F., ed. The World of Tennessee Williams. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978. A competent introduction to the playwright and his plays, focusing on his themes.

Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: Crown, 1995.

Nelson, Benjamin. Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work. New York: Obolensky, 1961. The first comprehensive study of the playwright and his work.

Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. The first complete critical biography of Williams. Delineates the connections between the playwright’s work and life.

Stanton, Stephen S., ed. Tennessee Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977. Cogent, in-depth analysis of Williams’ plays, including The Glass Menagerie.

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