Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

The main ideas, themes, and stylistic elements of The Glass Menagerie


The Glass Menagerie explores themes of memory, family dynamics, and the struggle between reality and illusion. It delves into the fragility of human aspirations and the impact of societal expectations. Stylistically, the play employs expressionistic techniques, such as lighting and music, to enhance its dreamlike quality, reflecting the characters' inner lives and their disconnection from reality.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main idea of The Glass Menagerie?

In The Glass Menagerie, Amanda Wingfield has expectations about herself, her life, and her children, but these expectations are not met. Amanda was once a beautiful Southern belle who thought her life would be perfect. She is always remembering her past, but the past is far from the present. Amanda's husband left her many years ago, and she now lives in poverty, even selling magazine subscriptions to try to make ends meet. Her life is certainly not meeting her expectations. Her children, too, fail to meet their mother's hopes. Tom tends to be rather rebellious, and Amanda thinks he is too much like his father. He has ambitions of his own that his mother cannot accept. Laura is extremely shy, and she walks with a pronounced limp. She drops out of business school, to her mother's horror, and she fails to attract men as her mother hopes.

Tom, too, knows the difference between expectations and reality. He is caught in a job he doesn't like, expected to behave as the man of the house, and even encouraged to find a husband for his sister. What he wants to do is write his poetry. Tom leaves his family at the end of the play, but even this newfound freedom does not meet his expectations, for he is plagued by guilt.

Laura actually doesn't have many expectations about her life. She is too shy. But when Jim O'Connor comes to dinner, Laura gets her hopes up just a little bit. Jim is friendly to her, and he treats her nicely. She can talk to him in a way she has not experienced before. Jim even calls her pretty and kisses her. But then Laura's hopes are destroyed. Jim has a girlfriend whom he intends to marry. There is no room for Laura in his life.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the most appealing theme of "The Glass Menagerie"?

This is an interesting question, because actually I think this is rather a depressing play, and its themes are certainly no exception. So, to try and identify an "appealing" theme as your question puts it is a bit of a challenge. I suppose one theme that we could look at and develop is that of growing up and gaining independence. This is something that of course Tom finally gains at the end of the play as he leaves his mother and sister and, much like his father before him, breaks out to live his own life free from the ties that he feel oppress him and prevent him from discovering and expressing himself and who he is.

I am trying to couch this in positive terms, but the truth is that even this "victory" for Tom is bittersweet, as he himself reflects in the final lines of this play. He talks about how something will remind him of Laura and how he is unable to escape her:

Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am morefaitful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger--anything that can blow your candles out!

Even though Tom has gained what he wanted, he is left to eke out his days trying desperately to combat the unremitting sense of guilt that overpowers him and from which he can never escape. Therefore this is my best answer, as I don't actually think any of the themes are necessary "appealing" in a positive sense!

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of The Glass Menagerie?

One of the main themes of the play is the power of illusion. In The Glass Menagerie, nothing is ever quite what it seems, with illusion taking on a reality all of its own. This is the inevitable result of action that's constructed from the mind, pieced together from the shattered fragments of memory. One's memories can often play tricks, and the unreliability of memory admirably serves Williams's resolutely anti-realist approach.

Memories, of their very nature, tend to be selective, and we're left in no doubt that Tom's highly selective memories present us with a version of events steeped in illusion. The illusionary atmosphere of the play is heightened by the use of music and expressionistic lighting techniques, which deliberately prevent anything like a realistic reconstruction of events from emerging.

Laura's collection of glass animals—the glass menagerie of the title—symbolizes the general sense of illusion on stage. The achingly vulnerable Laura is simply incapable of living in the real world, with all its harshness and cruelty. So she's forced to retreat into a fantasy world, a world where she is guaranteed to find safety and repose.

For her part, Laura's mother Amanda also prefers illusion to reality. She seems unable to accept Laura's fraught emotional condition and persists in her unrealistic plans to have her daughter married off to some eligible bachelor. To a large extent, this is a result of Amanda's remaining stuck in the past, a much happier time when all those handsome gentlemen callers came beating a path to her door. For Amanda, no less than her daughter, the big old world outside is just too hard to deal with, and so living out an illusion acts as a kind of security blanket.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the style and themes of The Glass Menagerie?

The style of the play is that of a memory play. This is explained in detail by Tom, who is both a character in and the narrator of The Glass Menagerie. Tom tells the audience that what they are about to see is not a direct reflection of the truth, but more of a compilation of his memory, editorialized with his emotions and prejudice. This effect is achieved through surreal and expressionist artistic decisions such as minimalist lighting and mimed stage action.

The theme of the play is family, and the friction between self-care and dependence that occur when the head of the family leaves all of the responsibility on the young Tom's shoulders. Tom's mother and sister live in a delusional state, with his mother living in the past and his sister avoiding reality at all costs. Though Tom bears the weight of this dysfunctional family dutifully, the resentment eventually builds enough to the point that his duty is not worth fulfilling, and he abandons them.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the style and themes of The Glass Menagerie?

The style of The Glass Menagerie is expressionist. The primary themes are the love of family and the relationship between dependence and independence.

In expressionism, discrete elements are combined and juxtaposed to create an overall effect. While there is truth in that effect, it is also admittedly composed of illusions. Tennessee Williams provides production notes that indicate the setting, music, and lighting that will create such an effect, along with projections onto a screen in front of the stage.

Tom Wingfield deeply loves his mother and sister, who rely on him for financial and emotional support; his role is rather paternal because his father abandoned the family. However, Tom realizes that he cannot stay with them and support them indefinitely. The events that he remembers in the play are those that finally sparked his departure.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the style and themes of The Glass Menagerie?

The Glass Menagerie is described by the playwright, and by Tom Wingfield, the narrator, as 'a memory play'. Therefore, it is not meant to be a straightforwardly realistic representation of events, but rather a collection of scenes that is constructed through remembrance.

The fact that this is a memory play - drawing on the playwright's own life - has important consequences for its style. For example, at the very beginning when the Wingfield family are shown at dinner, the actors are simply meant to mime the gestures of eating, without any actual dishes on the table. The play is concerned less with such routine details than with artistic concerns like the use of symbolism, lighting and music to represent the essential quality of Tom’s remembrances.

The playwright also draws attention to the play’s artifice by use of a screen device which flags up important aspects of a scene to the audience. For example in scene five when Tom reveals to Amanda that they are going to have a gentleman caller, at long last, the word 'Annunciation' is put up on the screen as the scene opens, and then, at the moment of Tom’s announcement, there is an accompanying image of ‘caller with bouquet’ and a burst of music.

The theme of the family is perhaps the predominant theme in this play. This includes family conflict (particularly Tom and Amanda’s quarrels), family duty (the burden placed on Tom to provide for his mother and sister in the wake of his father’s desertion), and the tension between family duty and duty to oneself (Tom longs to be free in order to follow his own path).

Another important theme is that of daydream and illusion. All the Wingfields live in a make-believe world of their own to some extent, most of all Laura who generally appears immersed in the world of her little glass animals and constantly plays old 'worn-out records', as Amanda disapprovingly notes (scene 4).  Amanda meanwhile attempts to escape to the happier world of her past while Tom concocts romantic imaginings about a future life of freedom and adventure and also seeks vicarious excitement at the cinema.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on