Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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In scene two, Amanda comes home and accuses her daughter of deception. Amanda tells Laura that she had just visited the business school to inquire about her progress and discovered that she had not been attending. Amanda is not only upset about losing the fifty dollars, but she also worries about her daughter's future. Amanda wonders what will become of Laura, who cannot work because she is too sensitive and does not have any gentlemen callers. Amanda then tells Laura,

"I know so well what becomes of unmarried women who aren't prepared to occupy a position. I've seen such pitiful cases in the South—barely tolerated spinsters living upon the grudging patronage of sister's husband or brother's wife!...encouraged by one in-law to visit another—little birdlike women without any nest—eating the crust of humility all their life! Is that the future that we've mapped out for ourselves? I swear it's the only alternative I can think of!" (Williams, 12).

Ironically, Amanda is describing her exact experience without acknowledging the fact that she too is a struggling single woman. It is also ironic that Amanda criticizes Laura for lacking the essential skills to attain a job and independently support herself because Amanda does not possess any prerequisite skills herself. Amanda was a "barely tolerated spinster" who had to rely on her family's support and suffered humility her entire life. However, she refuses to acknowledge that she has squandered her own opportunities to become independent and speaks about the disastrous effects of being unskilled and alone in a harsh world as if she had not personally experienced that exact situation.

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There are a few other examples of irony besides the one that the first educator response excellently explains.

The strongest example of irony is when Amanda preaches to Laura about her future now that she has dropped out of business college.

Amanda describes “barely tolerated spinsters” who eat “the crust of humility all their lives.” The irony is that Amanda herself is a kind of spinster. Although she did marry, her husband deserted her years ago. Moreover, her strained relationship with both Tom and Laura indicates that she is “barely tolerated.” Amanda is referring to Laura’s dismal potential future if she has neither a career nor husband, yet Amanda is also talking about herself—whether she is willing to admit it or not.

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Let us remember that irony is defined as the gap between appearance and reality and how it is exploited. There is an excellent example of situational irony at the beginning of this scene when Amanda comes back into the appartment and surprises Laura when she is polishing and cleaning her glass menagerie. Note Laura's reaction when she greets her mother:

Hello, Mother, I was-- (She makes a nervous gesture toward the chart on the wall. AMANDA leans against the shut door and stared at LAURA with a martyred look.)

What is ironic about this section of the play is that Laura pretends to be busy working at her typewriting course, when she has given that up months ago. However, Laura doesn't know that such gestures are completely unnecessary because her mother has just gone to her college where Laura is supposedly studying and found out the truth. Laura cannot pretend to be working hard on her studies any more.

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What are some examples of irony in The Glass Menagerie?

There are plenty of instances of irony in Tennessee Williams's play The Glass Menagerie. Let's look at a few.

Amanda Wingfield, the mother of Tom and Laura, is a dreamer. She lives in the past and in the future rather than in the present. She is always telling stories of her days as a Southern belle and dreaming of how Laura could marry and have a good life. Yet Amanda accuses Tom of being a “selfish dreamer” who lives “in a dream world” and manufactures illusions, not taking care of his responsibilities to his family.

There is a deep irony in her words. Tom has been working in a warehouse, putting his dreams on hold to care for his mother and sister while Amanda clings to the illusion that Laura will marry a fine man, and that she herself is still the Southern belle she once was. The reality is much different. Tom knows it, and the audience knows it.

We can also find a good example of dramatic irony when the lights go out during the Wingfields' dinner with Jim O'Connor. Tom has not paid the light bill, and this comes as no surprise to the audience. We have already witnessed the conversation between Tom and Jim about how Tom used the money to enter the Union of Merchant Seaman. Amanda is quick to blame Tom for not paying the bill, but she does not know his motive. She thinks he merely stupidly forgot and blames him for his carelessness. The dramatic irony comes in the fact that the audiences know that she is wrong. If she had asked rather than scolded, she might have discovered the truth.

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