Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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In The Glass Menagerie, what is the symbolism of lightning and candlelight?

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Lightning is wild, uncontrollable, and more often that not, fatal. This is how the world, that big old scary world outside, seems to Amanda and her family, especially Laura. Candlelight, on the other hand, is delicate and fragile, easy to control, and just as easy to extinguish, making it almost the perfect symbol for Laura.

Candlelight is also used to symbolize Laura's emotional state. Observe how her face lights up as if illuminated by a candle when Jim smiles at her. And observe once again how the "holy candles on the altar of Laura’s face have been snuffled out" when she finds out that Jim has become engaged to a woman named Betty. This demonstrates the extent to which it's always someone else, and not Laura herself, who gets to control the light in her life, thus blurring the symbolic distinction between lightning and candlelight.

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In his introduction to the play, Tom establishes that the setting is the 1930s. At the end of the play, Tom makes his reference to the world now being "lit by lightning." This is an allusion to World War II which began in Europe in the very late 1930s, with the United States entering the war in December 1941. Lightning, then, becomes symbolic of the chaos, death, and destruction of war.

The candlelight motif is found throughout the play, especially in Laura's scene with Jim O'Connor and in the final scene when Tom acts as narrator to conclude the drama. In contrast to lightning, candlelight is soft and concealing; it creates momentary illusion. Candlelight blurs the edges of reality. Within the shabby apartment, Laura sought to escape the reality within which she could not live or function. In the apartment lit by candles, she falls into a momentary illusion of romance. Candlelight, like Laura, is fragile. It flickers but soon goes out, just as Laura's momentary connection to life while in Jim's company was soon extinguished.

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