Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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The Glass Menagerie Themes

The main themes in The Glass Menagerie are memory and nostalgia, filial piety and duty, and gender roles.

  • Memory and nostalgia: The Glass Menagerie takes place in Tom's memory. Tom, Laura, Amanda, and Jim each feel the pull of both painful memories and nostalgia.
  • Filial piety and duty: Tom's father abandoned his duty to his family, and Amanda now demands that Tom fulfill that duty in his stead, a demand Tom ultimately rejects.
  • Gender roles: Amanda clings to traditional notions of femininity and masculinity and tries to impose these roles on her children, expecting Tom to act as head of household and Laura to marry.

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Memory and Nostalgia

In the stage notes, Tennessee Williams describes the play as a “memory play,” setting an impressionistic tone from the beginning. This description indicates that Williams does not intend for the audience to understand the play as a depiction of reality; after all, memories are inherently unreliable and subjective. Rather than communicate a series of facts through the lines of the play, Williams chooses to communicate a collection of impressions and feelings. When Tom introduces himself at the start of the play, he explains that the entire play takes place in his memory, which emphasizes the unreliability of the story; Tom even points out his selectivity and subjectiveness, cautioning the audience to remember that the play is not a depiction of his life as it actually happened.

Amanda is also attached to her memories, but her attachment prevents her from engaging fully with her present life. Amanda, a former Southern belle, is vivacious and talkative, and much of her conversation with her children involves her idealized memories of herself as a young woman. Amanda remembers her youth as happy and exciting, so it makes sense that she prefers to live in her memory. When Amanda must acknowledge the present, she becomes unhappy and bitter, lamenting her mistakes and her losses. Amanda’s appearance in a dress from her youth the evening Jim comes to dinner highlights her inability to move on from her nostalgia.

Laura, on the other hand, remembers the past with less idealism than her mother. When she talks to her mother about her high school days, she reveals mixed feelings about the whole experience. Laura’s attachment to the past is less intense than her mother’s, emerging only during her conversation with Jim in the living room. Laura momentarily idealizes the past and indulges a nostalgic impulse only when she believes that Jim is genuinely interested in her; as soon as Jim tells her the truth about Betty, the true object of his affections, her nostalgia evaporates, and she lives in the present day once again.

Jim’s own memories of Laura from high school are vague, but they still endear him to Laura. The fact that he doesn’t remember the sound of her awkward gait adds to his appeal when juxtaposed with his more vivid memory of his old nickname for Laura. Laura, at this moment, places more value on his friendly nickname for her than it warrants. Jim is a friendly person, and the fact that he, too, remembers “Blue Roses” makes the memory more poignant to Laura than it deserves to be.

Filial Piety and Duty

Amanda, a single mother, is obsessed with the notion of filial piety, and much of her conversation with Tom concerns his duties and responsibilities to his family. She speaks often of her disappointment and rage at being abandoned by her husband, and when she is angry at Tom, she compares his behavior to his father’s. When Mr. Wingfield rejected his family, he abandoned his filial duties, broke his wife’s heart, and damaged his wife’s self-perception. The effects of these consequences play out throughout every scene of the play.

Tom’s natural desire for freedom violates the sense of duty Amanda believes he should prioritize, and this conflict of interests creates tension in the Wingfield household. Amanda believes that Tom’s role as the man of the household is to provide and to ensure that the female members of the family are looked after. Tom is a young man, however, and he is full of curiosity and wanderlust; he resents his mother’s insistence that he take over the duties shirked by his father, especially because Tom works a job he dislikes in order to pay the bills for his mother and sister. Every bit of poorly timed criticism that Amanda sends his way damages their relationship and gives Tom even more motivation to leave.

Amanda’s interpretation of her responsibility to her children is as flawed as her approach to communication. Her desire to take care of Laura is authentic but clumsy, and she refuses to listen to either of her children. Amanda’s inept parenting lets both Laura and Tom down, and while Tom can leave to go to the movies when the pressure builds, Laura cannot. Her disability holds her back in multiple ways, and her fragile nature suggests that she will not be able to endure Amanda’s forcefulness for long.

Gender Roles

Throughout the play, traditional gender roles influence the behaviors of every character. Though old-fashioned notions of femininity have betrayed Amanda, she continues to live according to these notions and to pressure her daughter to follow them. In her youth, Amanda’s beauty and vivacious personality, both feminine ideals typical of this time and place, attracted her husband’s attention, but this attraction did not last. Mr. Wingfield’s abandonment of his family proves that Amanda’s notions of femininity are not reliable; no matter how pretty her dress or how energetic her conversation, Amanda is unable to keep her husband at home and her family intact. Ironically, Amanda insists that Laura attend secretarial school. This decision suggests independence and self-sufficiency, but Laura is incapable of attending the classes, her confidence compromised by her disability and by her mother’s constant badgering.

Amanda also pressures Tom and Laura to live according to these stereotypical gender roles. She expects Tom to fulfill the role of provider that his father left open; for a time, Tom sacrifices his own desires in order to support his mother and sister, but by the end of the play, Tom leaves, no longer able to live according to his mother’s terms and demonstrating the dark and selfish side of the masculine stereotype. Amanda also reveals her attachment to masculine ideals when she quizzes Tom about Jim O’Connor. Her questions about Jim’s drinking and his salary reflect her focus on Jim’s potential to take care of Laura, which she believes is the most important aspect of Jim’s personality. Amanda talks incessantly of Laura’s need to marry; even small gestures of concern communicate Amanda’s obsession with Laura as a female object. For example, Amanda tells Laura not to worry about certain household chores, but her solicitous attitude has more to do with her desire that Laura remain fresh and pretty in case a man comes to call than it does with genuine concern for Laura’s health.

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