Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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The symbolism of the fire escape in The Glass Menagerie for each character

Summary:

In The Glass Menagerie, the fire escape symbolizes different things for each character. For Tom, it represents a means of escape from his suffocating life. For Laura, it is a barrier between her and the outside world, reflecting her shyness and isolation. For Amanda, it signifies both a hope for escape from her past and a trap of her current reality.

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What does the fire escape symbolize in The Glass Menagerie?

One of the major symbols of "The Glass Menagerie," the fire escape is the means of exit for the characters, an escape from the fires of frustration and rage that burn in the hearts of Williams's personages, and an exit for the father and eventually Tom. At the beginning of the drama, Tom describes this stairway as part of the setting,

The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.

It is interesting that all the characters also use the fire escape to enter the apartment when these stairs are only made for escape.  For, climbing these stairs must be rather difficult for Amanda, and especially challenging for Laura, suggesting that the safety of the apartment is preferable to the real world at the foot of the stairs. For Laura and Amanda, the fire steps are, indeed, not an escape. In Scene Four, Laura slips on the fire escape, indicating that she truly is incapable of leaving her home.

That Tom steps out frequently onto the landing of the fire escape in order to smoke foreshadows his final departure, while it also suggests his ambivalence about his own motives and about abandoning his sister and mother.  In addition, his leaving the rooms of the apartment indicate his inability to face and resolve conflicts.  Significantly, the fire escape is the path of escape for all the male characters involved in the play: the father flees his responsibilities to his family, Tom emulates his father in also fleeing, and Jim, the "gentleman-caller" makes a hasty exit from Laura. The women, damaged psychologically and physically are left to live their desperate lives inside the apartment from which there is no escape except through illusions.

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How does the fire escape function as a symbol to reveal something about each character's personality in the Glass Menagerie?

For Tom, the fire escape is a vital symbol of his life. As the play begins, he says:

The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.

Toms speaks these lines from the fire escape as he remembers the years of his life spent in the apartment with his mother and sister. And it was from the fire escape that Tom finally made his getaway to a life at sea as a Merchant Marine. For Tom, the fire escape is a means of escape from a humdrum existence to a world, hopefully, filled with romance and adventure.

All entrances and exits in the play are done via the fire escape.

For mother and daughter, Amanda and Laura, the fire escape offers not much hope for escape or personal expansion. For Amanda, it is the place from which her husband left her years ago never to return. The fire escape for her, then, is but a poignant reminder of what she and her family has lost. And sadly, too, for Laura, it is from the fire escape that Jim, the long-awaited gentleman caller made his brief entrance and hasty retreat, back into the loving arms of his girlfriend Betty.

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What does the fire escape symbolize in The Glass Menagerie?

In Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie, the symbolic fire escape reveals something about each of the major characters in the play.

Tom, who is unhappily supporting his family in a job that he hates is the character most associated with the fire escape. He is in dire need to get away from his life: the job he hates and the restrictive existence forced upon him as the only man (and provider) in the apartment. The fire escape offers him the opportunity to escape...to the movies:

AMANDA:

Where are you going?

TOM:

I'm going to the movies!

AMANDA:

I don't believe that lie!

Tom also goes out to have a smoke, another escape:

AMANDA:

...Where are you going?

TOM:

I'm going out to smoke.

AMANDA:

You smoke too much. A pack a day at fifteen cents a pack. How much would that be in a month?...

Amanda also accuses him of drinking, coming home "in that—terrifying condition!"

For Laura, Tom's sister, there is no escape. In fact, when she is sent out on an errand by her mother, Laura slips.

[A second later she cries out. Tom springs up and crosses to the door. Tom opens the door.]

TOM:

Laura?

LAURA:

I'm all right. I slipped, but I'm all right.

AMANDA:

If anyone breaks a leg on those fire-escape steps, the landlord ought to be sued for every cent he possesses!

Laura lives in a world of her own imagining and could not survive outside. She tried to take some classes in typing and shorthand at Rubicam's Business College, but when she got there the first day she threw up on the floor because she was so nervous. She never went back.

Amanda has no need to escape. She has her children to care for and worry about. She also spends a great deal of her time in the past. She remembers her days in the South when she was greatly sought after by "gentlemen callers"—before she married her husband. Amanda loves to tell her children the same story...

My callers were gentlemen—all! Among my callers were some of the most prominent young planters of the Mississippi Delta—planters and sons of planters!

Amanda's husband abandoned the family sixteen years earlier. However, while Tom cares for them financially, Amanda escapes into her memories, with no need to leave the apartment.

Tom needs the escape symbolized by the fire escape. Laura is unable to use it (even if she wanted to), and Amanda has no need to leave the apartment.

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In The Glass Menagerie, how can the fire escape be a symbol to the characters?

The word "escape" is used repeatedly in the play, and the fire excape is the physical manifestation of the escape which is central to all the characters. Tom escapes to the movies, before literally escaping the clutches of his family by joining the Merchant Marines. Amanda escapes to the "Blue Mountain" of her youth. And of course, Laura escapes in her glass menagerie.
Significantly, there is only one entrance and exit to the apartment that we ever see. For Tom, the room of his memory consists only of the living room, a half-formulated kitchen and bedroom, maybe, and the fire excape. The fire escape is his route to the outside world, and Tom begins and ends his story there.

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In The Glass Menagerie, how can the fire escape be a symbol to the characters?

A good question. The fire escape is something that could be a literal escape, in the case of a fire. However, it is also a symbolic escape in at least three other important ways.

First and most simply, it allows one character to escape from the others for a while—to not be around them, and to be…separate. That family is uncomfortably wrapped together, and that's necessary.

Second and a bit more symbolically, while the family can go out there, they go out into an alley. It isn't much of an escape compared to their grand dreams, just as the jobs they hold or try to hold don't much compare to the mother's faded glory.

Third, and most symbolically, it serves as kind of a stage for dreaming. Look at Tom's opening lines and you'll see this.

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What does the fire escape symbolize for each character in The Glass Menagerie?

As with any open ended fill in the blank question where options are not provided, I think that you could find many different approaches to the answer.  I tend to think that the fire escape represents the idea of escape to many of the characters.  This escape indicates that the characters feel trapped or imprisoned by the lives they lead.  Tom certainly feels this.  It is for this reason that escape is something that proves to be so elusive for him, something so powerfully a lure for him.  Amanda escapes into her past, into a time when she was so much more than what she is.  Laura escapes into the world of zoos and the glass menagerie, into a world that is so radically different from what she lives now.  Even Jim escapes into a world of unfulfilled dreams and hopes.  For these characters, the fire escape can come to represent that notion of liberating escape, freedom from a world of being pinned down by convention, responsibility, and the pain of dutiful obligation.  In this, the fire escape can be seen as being symbolic of how each character feels trapped.

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