Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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What role does abandonment play in The Glass Menagerie and how does it affect the play's overall meaning?

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Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie incorporates abandonment into the experiences of his three main characters—Amanda, Tom, and Laura—through the physical and the metaphysical. The first clear example of abandonment comes within Tom’s introduction to the play, in which he asserts that his and Laura’s father plays the fifth character, only present as a “larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel” (scene 1). The father left long ago, abandoning his children, his wife, and his home, but even before his physical departure, it seems that he was already far from them through his characterization and career. “He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town,” Tom explains (scene 1). In this quotation, we learn that the father, long before he skipped town, abandoned his family through his work as a telephone man, preferring to be mentally far away despite his family being nearby.

Similarly, we later find out that Laura has abandoned her schooling and instead spends her time walking the city. Her ties to the physical world are slowly disintegrating as she drifts farther and farther into the mystical world she seems to have in her head. She is abandoning the world as it is, where she is crippled, dependent, and alone save for her overbearing mother and loving but flighty brother. She flits closer to the idea of the glass menagerie she so adores rather than to the reality around her.

In contrast, Amanda clings more and more to her children as she senses their inclination toward abandoning her and the life she has shaped around them. Her son’s long absences and supposed vices wear at her, as she sees these as examples of him slipping away, much like her husband. She desperately tries to bring Laura closer to a life she believes she herself lived, with gentleman callers and respectable social connections, while she senses her daughter floating farther into her own imagination and delusion.

There is also abandonment on the part of Jim, when he suddenly introduces the fact that he is to be married to another after having kissed Laura. Laura’s and her mother’s visions of love and a life beyond her current situation are quickly extinguished as he departs.

Eventually we see Tom indeed abandon his mother and sister, but he can’t seem to extricate himself entirely from his emotional connections. He has left them physically but is struggling to bring his heart, mind, and memory with him. In his final monologue, he bursts out, “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” (scene 7). This suggests that perhaps the abandonment we see woven throughout the play is more dimensional than is laid out prior to this scene and asks us to re-examine our understanding of abandonment as it is referenced in the rest of the work, both in the physical and metaphysical senses.

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The Wingfield family long ago endured abandonment when the father of the family left them. The father's abandonment of the family has resulted in their living in straightened circumstances and in Amanda's worry over her daughter, Laura, who walks with a limp. Laura and Amanda fear that Tom, like his father, will abandon them and he does at the end of the play. Therefore, the abandonment of the family by the father and the abandonment of the family by the son serve to bookend the play. In the middle, Laura is abandoned by Jim, who tells her that he is engaged after he kisses her.

The play is marked by the abandonment of Laura and Amanda by three men. The women are left, in the end, to fend for themselves and to withdraw further into their personal world, away from the wider world. The three examples of abandonment underscore the theme of the unreliability of men and the way in which women, who are ironically raised to rely on men, must in reality fend for themselves. The dreams Amanda harbors (first, when she is young, of her own marriage and later of the marriage of her daughter) are just that—dreams—and do not represent reality.

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Perhaps the best way to explore the prominent theme of abandonment in the play is through the lives of the three principal characters, Amanda, Laura, and Tom Wingfield. All three struggle in some way with the phenomenon of being forsaken or forsaking others.

Amanda, her son, and her daughter have literally been abandoned by her husband (their father), "a telephone man who fell in love with  long distances." His absence has put Amanda in the financially and emotionally precarious position of having to support herself and her daughter, Laura, with help from her son Tom.  Amanda becomes a pitiable character who clings to memories of her desirability as a younger woman and who fears another abandonment should Tom decide to leave the family.  

Laura experiences abandonment both passively and actively. Her father has left the home, and, because of her handicap, she has chosen to withdraw from society and abandon any hope of a life outside her mother's apartment.  The ultimate rejection by her longtime object of desire, Jim O'Connor, confirms for her the inevitability of the life of a spinster.

Tom struggles with his desire to leave his mother and sister.  He dreams of a life as a poet and resents his role as the de facto provider of financial and emotional security for Amanda and Laura.  His ultimate decision not to abandon his dream makes his abandonment of his family necessary. The audience is left with the knowledge that his absence from Laura's life will temper the joy of his freedom. He admits, ""Oh Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!"

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The first bout of abandonment one knows about in the play is Amanda's husband leaving the family way back and crippling apparently her common sense, the security of the family, and the self-esteem of Laura from what one can gather.

Second, it almost seems as if both Tom and Laura have an issue with abandoning goals, plans, opportunities. Laura left her typing courses due to what one would call social anxiety, and Tom basically has abandoned his responsibilities at work and as a family member in search of a dream that he cannot even concretize.

In the end, Tom does end up leaving the family, and the entrapment he feels from his mother who is overbearing and still lives in her own past world. Leaving the house means abandoning Laura as well. In the same Act, Jim, Laura's life-long fantasy reveals that he is engaged to marry, thus there is another abandonment that Laura feels inside, this time from one of her fantasies. When Tom leaves in the end, Laura blows out a candle as if the uncertainty of each character will not be cleared nor enlightened by any other cues.

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