Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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How does Laura's character contribute to the theme of The Glass Menagerie?

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Among the themes in Tennessee William's play The Glass Menagerie , we find "coming of age" as one of the most important ones. This theme is more evident in the characters of Tom and Laura Wingfield, who are young adults living with their mother. The social and historical context of the play render the characters unable to come out and become independent. This is because the play develops during the aftermath of the Great Depression, and just prior to World War II. 

As the world is undergoing changes, negative ones, that is, these changes manifest in the characters of the play. Laura represents stagnation, immaturity, fear of change, and naivete in levels that go from sublime to near-crippling. 

Laura who has a foot malformation is a young woman of marriageable age who, years after graduating high school (this makes her around 24 to 26 years old), still dreams of things that occurred in her past. 

Her character is extremely fragile and feeble; she is socially anxious to the point of making her sick. She also seems to relate to things that are equally breakable, namely, the glass menagerie that occupies most of her time. Since she is socially anxious and awkward, she drops out of vocational school, not even being able to complete a course in typewriting. Like her brother, Tom, Laura uses personal methods of escapism that would at least help her keep some of her sanity. In her case, she enjoys going to the glass house at the gardens (a symbol of breakable nature as well), and well as to the zoo. 

AMANDA: From half past seven till after five every day you mean to tell me you walked around in the park, because you wanted to make me think that you were still going to Rubicam's Business College?

 [...] LAURA: I went in the art museum and the bird-houses at the Zoo. I visited the penguins every day! Sometimes I did without lunch and went to the movies. Lately I've been spending most of my afternoons in the jewel-box, that big glass-house where they raise the tropical flowers.

AMANDA: You did all this to deceive me, just for deception? [LAURA looks down.] Why?

LAURA: I couldn't face it.

Laura's keeping of the unicorn is representative of her own unique and otherworldly innocence, which is evident in her inability to keep up with the modern world. Moreover, when the unicorn accidentally falls when Jim O'Connor bumps into the glass menagerie, the loss of the horn symbolizes the unicorn losing its awkwardness the way that Laura seems to lose hers in front of Jim. 

In the end, Laura cannot help it; Jim O'Connor is engaged to be married, which symbolizes his ability to move forward, and her inability to do the same. The disappointment only makes her more unable to dare and take a chance for herself; it should be harder now that she is aware that she is capable of being normal- she just does not dare to do it. Since Tom will be leaving them forever, she will no longer have the male balance that she needs to equalize her character. She simply will have to live forever under the shadow of her mother, and her own innate insecurities. 

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