Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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What is the lesson of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams?

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The lesson of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is the necessity of living in the real world without illusions. Amanda and Laura, for different reasons, hide from the world and its many problems. It's up to Tom to face up to the harsh reality of life in the real world, no matter how difficult that may be. And this can only be done by leaving his mother and sister and making his own way in this world.

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The lesson to be learned in this great play is that the only thing to which one should be tethered is the present. Tethering oneself to an illusion or to material objects, as Laura does, can only lead to disappointment. Laura's mother, Amanda, makes the same mistake in pinning her hopes to the idea of Laura's future with Jim O'Connor.

There is no doubt that Tom has his sister's best interests at heart when he invites Jim, her former high-school crush, over for dinner. Jim, unbeknownst to him, is seriously involved with another woman. This, however, does not stop Jim from toying with Laura's emotions, dancing with her, and kissing her. Had Tom focused on the present rather than dragging up this figure from the past, Laura would not have been hurt.

Then, we need to look at Laura's fixation with her glass menagerie. She is very upset when Tom accidentally breaks one of her figurines, but she would not have felt this pain were it not for her unhealthy fixation with the figurines.

Laura's mother, Amanda, has her hopes pinned to a future in which Laura is married and therefore has a secure life in spite of her challenges. It could be argued that Amanda's life would be a lot simpler if she focused on the present, rather than on the potentially false hope of someone coming along to "fix" the problem of Laura's future.

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The character of Tom Wingfield, based not loosely on Tennessee Williams himself, finally managed to escape from the world of illusion and self-deception constructed by his mother. But it wasn’t an easy process, by any means. It took a long time for Tom to break free from his mother—and from his sister Laura—and head out into the big wide world to make his own way in life.

For a time, the illusory world of the Wingfields provided him with some degree of security and comfort. But at the same time, he was always more worldly than his mother and sister, and it was almost inevitable that he would be required to provide them with financial support at some point. This involves confronting the real world and all its problems without any illusions, something of which Amanda and Laura, for different reasons, are chronically incapable.

Illusions are pretty much all they have: Amanda's illusions lie with her nostalgia for a supposedly golden past and the painfully shy Laura's with her menagerie of glass animals. Amanda lives in the past, whereas Laura lives in a world of her own, a world of timeless fantasy. This means that they both live, indeed can only live, life on their own terms. And that means a life steeped in illusions.

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The moral lesson of The Glass Menagerie is that one can try to escape the past and one's ties to family, but to no avail. The hold one's family and past has on one is tenacious and strong. At the end of the play, Tom Wingfield leaves his mother and sister, Amanda and Laura, respectively, though his mother believes that he will protect and care for them forever. Instead, the pressure they place on him drives him away, as it had driven away his father years before.

Tom believes that he has escaped his sister's memory and her call for help, but wherever he goes, he sees her in his mind and thinks of her. He says at the end of the play, "Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!" The entire play is Tom's recollection of his sister and mother, as he has never been able to forget about them, and they still have a psychological hold on him.

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Major works of literature such as The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, unlike simple fables or sermons, rarely have singular lessons; in fact, it is precisely their complexity and lack of simplistic moralizing that contributes to their greatness. 

The characters in this play are all deeply flawed, especially in their refusal to see current reality clearly and to react to their actual situations in life. 

Amanda Wingfield is constantly reliving her past as a southern belle, unwilling to face the fact that the manners, conventions, and habits she learned as a child are not useful skills for a more modern world. Although she does attempt to enroll Laura in a business college, Laura too is fragile and unworldly, crippled by her shyness as well as a childhood illness, to complete her course work or find a job. Ultimately, both women still exist within a traditional mythos of femininity where they are fundamentally passive, taught a sort of learned helplessness and reliance on male generosity. Tom shows how this patriarchal dynamic also traps men in a web of obligations. All of the characters are trapped by the history of their families and of the south. 

While some people might take away from this play a belief in the importance of developing career skills to avoid the trap of dependency, others will in a certain way admire the tenacity of Amanda in holding the family together, however tenuously, and see the play as showing how people are cast adrift as the bounds of community fail. 

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What are some themes in "The Glass Menagerie"?

One of the most important themes in the play is the characters' persistence in clinging to dreams, past or future, that have little to do with the reality of their day-to-day existence. The most obvious example of this is Amanda, who looks back on the day when she was apparently a beautiful and highly desirable woman. Not only does she cling to this past in a way that is counterproductive, but she projects it on Laura. Tom also dreams of a future, persuading himself that a life of excitement awaits him if he can only rid himself of his family, who he blames for his unhappiness.

Another theme is the obligations that go along with family. Obviously, some people find meaning in these obligations, seeing them as more than something that is imposed on them. But for Tom, they are confining, keeping him in what he sees as not only a state of boredom, but of almost childhood. In order to become a man, he seems to think, he needs to cast off the very obligations that most would associate with masculinity. His mother and sister depend on him, and this is like a weight around his shoulders, as he tells his mother during an argument:

You think I'm crazy about the warehouse? You think I'm in love with the Continental Shoemakers? You think I want to spend fifty-five years down there in that - celotex interior! with - fluorescent - tubes!...Every time you come in yelling...'Rise and Shine!'...I say to myself, 'How lucky dead people are! 'But I get up. I go! For sixty-five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever! And you say self - selfs' all I ever think of. Why, listen, if self is what I thought of, Mother, I'd be where he is -GONE!

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What are some themes in "The Glass Menagerie"?

There are at least four prevalent themes in Tennesse Williams's The Glass Menagerie.

Reality vs. Self-Deception

Each of the three main characters have great difficulty in dealing with reality. In the final scene, Amanda accuses Tom, "You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions!" Tom seeks distraction at the movies at night and in the literature of D. H. Lawrence. Further, he dreams of being a poet; Laura, whose inner life is extremely fragile as she is unable to go into the real world, retreats to her glass menagerie at home; Amanda has unrealistic goals for her children, expecting Laura to be able to work in the business world, and planning on Tom's unending support of the family.  Amanda does not understand why Laura has no gentleman callers because, she frequently reminisces, she had so many herself. In self-delusion, she criticizes her children, telling Laura,

"I'm sick too--of your nonsense!  Why can't you and your brother be normal people? Fantastic whims and behavior.  Preposterous goings on!"

Responsibility vs. Escape

Throughout the drama, the portrait of Mr. Wingfield looms over the characters as a reminder of the one member of the family who has eschewed his responsibilities. Because he has deserted his family, Amanda places undue pressure upon Tom, forcing him to act as a surrogate father.  When he finally goes out the fire escape for the last time, Tom abandons his family, but he should not have been forced into the role Amanda assigns him.

While Laura does not accept the responsibility of earning a living for herself by attending Rubicam's Business College, for which her mother has paid. Instead, she walks around at the zoo; at home she toys with her glass menagerie and plays music. However, she does respond to Jim's encouragment that she be who she really is and not be ashamed.

Amanda Wingfield places too much responsibility for the family upon Tom in her effort to escape the anxieties of her life without a husband. And, while she worries about the family's future, she retreats in the final act to the memory of her youth and her gentleman callers in the "slow and impacable fires of human desperation."

Dependence vs. Independence

Both Laura and Tom feel trapped in their lives, although for different reasons.  Tom conflicts with his sense of duty and his desire to flee his role as supporter of the family. Even after he departs, he is ridden with guilt for having abandoned Laura,

"Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!...."

The power of memory

As the play opens, the stage directions in Scene I state,

The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. it omits some details; others are exaggerated....

Acting as both narrator and character, the point of view of Tom shades the drama. Music and symbolism, therefore, play an important part in expressing the message of this play with its characters who are surrounded in illusion.

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Discuss the theme of the play The Glass Menagerie by Tennesse Williams.

One theme you could look at is what we live for, what keeps us going, what floats our boat.

Each of the characters in The Glass Menagerie live for something different, have different views of their lives, different, visions of the present the past and the future.

Amanda is worried about her daughter, Laura. She is concerned that, with her brother gone and she, her mother, dead, Laura will not be able to take care of herself. Amanda is afraid that Laura may not survive without someone to care for her. What Amanda lives for is the coming of a "gentleman caller" who will sweep Laura off her feet and take her away and love her and cherish her.

Tom lives for the possibility of something more dynamic than his daily, dreary, humdrum existence. He works in a shoe warehouse and desires desperately to get out of his present life. He wants to (and will) join the Merchant Marine and set sail for ports unknown... places that he hopes will give him freedom to search out romance and adventure.

Laura is happy with her old phonograph records and her collection of little glass animals, her glass menagerie. Hard as it may be for one to believe, polishing her little glass animals and making up stories about them is just about all Laura needs to make her content. Would she be any different if she had a real relationship with a gentleman caller? Maybe. But her glass collection fulfills most of her needs.

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Discuss the theme of the play The Glass Menagerie by Tennesse Williams.

There are several themes worth studying in The Glass Menagerie. The most evident is likely the difference between appearances and reality.

Many of the characters believe in an idealized future. Another issue is characters living in the past. This is likely very indicative of the Great Depression era in which the story is set because for some, hope is all that they had left.

The character who most embodies the difference between reality and fantasy is Laura. We see this most clearly in her relationship to her glass animal collection.

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Analyze what the play The Glass Menagerie is about.

The Glass Menagerie revolves around the dynamics of a basically dysfunctional family, the Wingfields. Tom Wingfield, the narrator, lives with his mother Amanda and his sister Laura. Laura is very awkward, and shy to the point of neurosis. Her mother is constantly worried about her daughter, though she seems to be in denial regarding her desirability to young men. She always wants her daughter to stay pretty for "gentlemen callers."  Tom feels frustrated and constrained and wants to leave his family, which, we discover, his father had done earlier. As he tells his friend Jim:

I’m starting to boil inside. I know I seem dreamy, but inside—well, I’m boiling! Whenever I pick up a shoe, I shudder a little thinking how short life is and what I am doing!—Whatever that means, I know it doesn’t mean shoes—except as something to wear on a traveler’s feet! 

Amanda, understandably, is afraid that he will leave. The play, basically, is about the interactions within this unhappy family, and it ends with Tom's departure after an unsuccessful attempt to introduce Laura to an actual "gentleman caller," his friend Jim.

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What are some of the themes of The Glass Menagerie?

One of the major themes of this play is that of illusion. All the major characters live in some kind of illusory world, in order to escape from painful reality. Amanda reminisces endlessly about her gilded youth in the South, Laura takes refuge in her world of little glass animals and old records, and Tom harbours romantic notions of running away to sea.

Even Jim, who appears more in touch with normal reality than the Wingfield family, basks in glowingly naive visions. Having seen an exhibition which showcases technological advancements, he waxes lyrical on his own prospects and those of the country as whole:

Gives you an idea of what the future will be in America, even more wonderful than the present time is! (scene 7)

Jim is actually not much better off than the Wingfields in terms of social and financial success, and the play continually stresses the grim economic conditions of the time and the ominous threat of world war looming on the horizon, but Jim shows no awareness of such things, or perhaps chooses to ignore them.

Another important theme is that of the family, with its attendant notions of family responsibility and conflict. The tensions within the Wingfield household, and particularly the conflict between Tom and Amanda, dominate almost every scene. Tom resents the burden of family responsibility placed upon him; he has to sacrifice his own dreams to financially provide for the family, and also has to help Laura get settled, which is not easy as Laura is so shy. Amanda, too, is constantly pre-occupied with trying to ensure her daughter’s future, and lashes out at Tom for not doing more to help all of them.

There are also frequent reminders of the absent father, who deserted his role as head of the household; and Tom is finally driven to follow in his footsteps, although he can never shed his family memories and sense of guilt at abandoning his sister.

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