Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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Themes of escape, loneliness, and separation in The Glass Menagerie

Summary:

The Glass Menagerie explores themes of escape, loneliness, and separation. The characters seek escape from their harsh realities: Tom uses movies and literature, Laura retreats into her glass collection, and Amanda reminisces about her past. Loneliness pervades their lives, and their inability to connect with each other and the outside world emphasizes their emotional and physical separation.

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In The Glass Menagerie, how does each character symbolize being trapped and seeking escape?

Tom is trapped by his responsibility for supporting his mother and sister.  He has dreams of being a writer and of travelling.  Neither can be accomplished while he is trapped by his job in the shoe warehouse.  His escape is initially to alcohol and the movies, but he ultimately joins the Merchant Marines and abandons his family.

Laura is trapped by her disability and lack of self-confidence.  She is unable to function in a larger society, whether that is in high school or business school.  She can't bear what she feels as the scrutiny of others.  She escapes into the world of her glass menagerie, revelling in their beauty and fragility.

Amanda is trapped by her disappointment in her children.  Neither are able to achieve what she had hoped for them.  She escapes into her memories of her Southern belle past.

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How is the theme of escape explored in The Glass Menagerie?

Tom, the narrator of the play, and one of its three main characters, wants to escape from his deeply unsatisfying situation: the life he lives with his overbearing, neurotic mother and his shy, nervous sister. And a big symbol of the play is the fire escape where all the play's entrances and exits are made:

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.

Yes, Tom is desparate to get out, to escape. He wants what he says we all want: romance and adventure, and he is not finding either in his apartment or his work with The Continental Shoemakers.

Upon returning very late one night, he tells Laura of an imaginary magic show he just saw:

But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail, There is a trick that would come in handy for me - get me out of this 2 by 4 situation!

Down the alley from the apartment, Tom witnesses other attempts at escape from a world devoid of excitement down the alley outside the Paradise dance Hall :

Couples would come outside, to the relative privacy of the alley. You could see them kissing behind ash-pits and telegraph poles.
This was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure.

And, of course he says all this from his favorite vantage piont: the fire escape.

And what of Amanda and her daughter Laura? What is escape for them? Amanda wants to escape from worry. Worry about money, worry about Tom. But most of all she wants to escape from her worry about Laura. What is to become of her if Tom leaves and she dies? How will she take care of herself. Amanda's worry for her daughter is so great that she gets Tom to bring home a man, "gentleman caller" who she hopes will fall in love with Laura and sweep her away into the safety of wedded bliss. What a sad mistake.

As for Laura, she seems rather satisfied in her sad, meek way. She does escape briefly from the business college her mother enrolled her in. She went to visit the penguins in the zoo. Laura doesn't seem to want or expect much from the little life she has. Her ultimate escape is right there in the apartment. It's her glass collection. She spends lots of time looking at it and polishing the tiny, fragile pieces of glass. Late in the play, she shares the collection with the first person outside of her family, Jim, the gentleman caller:

LAURA:Well, I do - as I said - have my - glass collection...
JIM: I'm not right sure I know what you're talking about What kind of glass is it?
LAURA: Little articles of it, they're ornaments mostly. Most of them are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest little animals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie!

As the play ends Tom says:

I descended the step of this fire-escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father's footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space...

And so he makes his getaway, the final escape, at least in space. But in his mind, Tom can never really free himself from the old apartment and the memory of his dear and loving sister Laura.

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How do the themes of loneliness and separation manifest in The Glass Menagerie?

As an Expressionist play, Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, employs symbolism and dream-like elements that illustrate the characters' sometimes overwhelming feelings of emotion, loneliness, separation, and alienation. 

SEPARATION

  • From the onset of the drama there is a feeling of separation from the father because of the photograph on the wall, a handsome young man who no longer co-exists with the Wingfields, but he is "ineluctably smiling." That is, the smile cannot be avoided, serving only to underscore the feelings of separation. The last letter from him has indicated that he must have been off the Pacific coast of Mexico. 
  • As Tom enters in Scene I, he is dressed as a merchant sailor, a uniform that indicates his complete separation from his family, a separation he has threatened for a long time.
  • Amanda dreamingly recalls all her youthful "gentlemen callers" in her psychological separation from reality.
  • The fire escape itself is symbolic of separation as Tom steps outside the family onto them, and as Laura leaves the security of her life at home and faces the threatening situation at Rubicam's Business College
  • The unicorn of the glass menagerie is symbolic of this alienation between mother and daughter.
  • Another symbol of the divide between Tom and his mother is the book by D.H. Lawrence that Amanda discovers Tom reading. He argues with his mother after she conficates the novel,

"...I've got no thing, no single thing--...In my life here tha Ican call my own! Everything is..."

        After saying this, Tom symbolically tears open the    portieres.

  • Laura's glass unicorn, different from the others and symbolic of Laura, is separate from the other figures until he is broken as Laura and Jim, the gentleman caller, dance.
  • One night, Tom returns from the movies where he seeks to vicariously feel adventure. He tells Laura, "You know it don't take much inteligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail? (...the father's grinning photograph lights up.)  [This incident foreshadows Tom's leaving his family and separating himself.]
  • In Scene 7, Tom describes Jim O'Connor as "an emissary from that world of reality that we were set apart from."  Amanda underscores this separation when she tells Tom, "You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions!" but she speaks as well of herself and Laura, who are also separated from reality.

LONELINESS

  • When they eat supper, Amanda scolds Tom for his lack of good manners and harps so much at him about his obligation to the family that Tom feels estranged from her..
  • Tom resents hearing the stories about Amanda's gentleman callers, stories to which he, living where he does, cannot relate.
  • Laura, too, feels some estrangement from Amanda after she is confronted by her mother for not having attended typing classes. She seeks comfort from her loneliness with her glass menagerie
  • Her unicorn represents Laura's loneliness
  • Tom attends the movies because he feels alone in his creative urges, misunderstood by his mother.
  • At the beginning of Scene 4, as part of Williams's Expressionistic imagery, Tom

shakes a little noise-maker or rattle as if to express the tiny spasm of man in contrast to the sustained power and dignity of the Almighty.

  • In Scene 5, after scolding Tom about his smoking, Amanda turns to the husband's picture. The stage directions say,

Alone, she turns to look at her husband's picture.

  • Describing Laura to his mother, Tom says,

"...she's terribly shy and lives in a world of her own and those things make her seem a little peculiar to people outside the house."

  • As the play closes, Tom tells Laura, "Blow out your candles, Laura--and so goodbye...."
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What is the theme of escape in The Glass Menagerie?

Your question asks "what" is the theme of escape, and that is a bit vague. I assume what you mean is how does the theme of escape manifest itself or work in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. The idea of escaping is probably the only thing every character in the play has in common.

Father has already escaped; he is the telephone man who fell in love with long distance.

Tom looks at his father's picture and is envious. From his opening statement, the audience knows Tom is just biding his time until he can leave. And not only does he simply want out of his house and his monotonous, unproductive warehouse job, he wants to escape every aspect of his life as he travels abroad with the Merchant Marines.

Amanda wants to escape from her fears about the future. She is afraid she and her daughter will end up living as spinsters who have nothing.

Laura wants to escape from the realities of her life, which is why she hides from almost every real-world experience she encounters. She escapes through her glass menagerie and her music.

Even Jim, the gentleman caller who seems to have everything going for him, wants to escape his warehouse life and become more.

Escaping is something every character who appears in the play--and even one who never makes a physical appearance--wants to one degree or another.

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What is the theme of escape in The Glass Menagerie?

Besides the obvious “escape” theme imbedded in Tom’s character (he wants to escape the family “prison”), there are several more subtle “escape” situations.  First, Laura’s escape from reality, signified by her collection of fragile fantasy figures (the unicorn is central here), however passive on her part, is unsuccessful, as dramatized in the visitor “gentleman caller” scene; the unicorn’s “escape,” is accomplished when he loses his “horn” and becomes a normal horse – this is a strong metaphor for the whole “escape” theme.  The family cannot escape from a fictional, constructed world into the real world free from self-illusion.  What makes the play work is that Tom (“I like a lot of adventure”) escapes into a fantasy world, that of the movies, to escape the stultifying prison of his family obligations; he never escapes his affection for Laura.  Amanda, however, is in the strongest prison of all (and, to her, invisible): the prison of her (largely imagined) past—the Old South with its rules of etiquette, sexism, etc.  The underlying exposition (the father’s desertion of the family – “he fell in love with long distance”) drives the escape theme through all its variations; Tom's "escape" parallels his father's.  Recognizing the kinds of imprisonment in the play makes the “escape” theme clearer.

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Discuss three ways in which the theme of "escape" is symbolized in "The Glass Menagerie".

Each member of the Wingfield family has a different way of escaping reality.

1. For Laura, escape means playing with her glass menagerie. This helps her make up all kinds of fantasies and escape from the reality of dealing with life and people.

2. Amanda escapes to the past. Her constant retelling of her past in "Blue Mountain" is a reminder that she has never really left her childhood home. She always reminds her children of the day she entertained 17 gentlemen callers. When Jim is about to arrive, she even puts on an old gown she wore during her younger days when she "lead the cotillion " and gathered jonquils in the afternoon.

3. Tom's way of escaping is to physically leave and join the merchant marines. He thinks if he is physically away from his family, he will have escaped them. But, as he says at the end of the play,"Oh Laura,Laura. I thought I had left you behind but I am more faithful than I intended to be." His memory of Laura still haunts him, even to the point of supposedly writing the play we see on stage.

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