The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

The Glass Menagerie book cover
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At a Glance

  • In The Glass Menagerie, the themes of illusions and impossible dreams offer an escape from reality, but they cannot be sustained.
  • The past informs the present, and the possibility of escaping the past is only an illusion.
  • Resolving the conflict between personal desires and responsibility to others exacts an emotional price that is difficult to bear.
  • Overwhelming fear is more powerful than love in motivating human behavior.  
  • The twentieth century is fraught with turmoil, economic depression, and war.

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(Drama for Students)

Appearances and Reality
Throughout this play, emerging in every scene and through the actions of every character is the theme of Appearances vs. Reality. Characters believe in a future and a past which are not realistic, and these beliefs affect the decisions they make regarding their relationships with each other. For example, Amanda frequently describes the days of her youth, when she claims she received "seventeen!—gentlemen callers!" during one Sunday afternoon. Although she describes these men as if they either are wealthy or have died a tragic/heroic death, the man she married was apparently both unsuccessful and irresponsible. And despite all evidence to the contrary, Amanda seems to believe that Laura, too, will one day be visited by similar gentlemen callers.

Rather than fantasizing about his past, Tom believes that his future holds excitement, if he can only escape his family. Yet he fails to escape completely even though he does leave. In his last monologue, Tom reveals that he is not running toward something but away from his past: "I was pursued by something." And although he travels continually, he fails to find the excitement he longs for, as the "cities swept about me like dead leaves.''

Even Jim O'Connor, the most conventional character, continues to believe in unattainable dreams. Although he apparently is talented, he has been unable to make choices that will guarantee him professional success. He refers enthusiastically to his public speaking class, but readers understand that Jim is attributing more significance to this course than it perhaps deserves.

Laura, however, is the character who is most obviously detached from reality. She cannot have normal interactions with other people without becoming ill. Her emotional energy is invested in her collection of glass animals, which may be exotic and delicate but are nevertheless "unreal," especially the unicorn she claims is her favorite. For the unicorn doesn't even represent a realistic animal. Even the nickname Jim once gave her, Blue Roses, is a flower that doesn't exist. By the time the play ends, Laura seems to be more detached from reality rather than able to adjust.

Coming of Age
Although most pieces of literature which have "coming of age'' as a major theme discuss younger characters, in some ways The Glass Menagerie also considers this theme. While all of the characters are technically adults, they do not relate to each other as adults. Amanda instructs Tom about his eating habits as if he is still a child, and he reacts to her with the resentment of an adolescent. In this regard, Tom is in a double bind, for he cannot simultaneously exercise all of the...

(The entire section is 706 words.)