The Glass Menagerie is a memory play by Tennessee Williams.
Tom delivers his first monologue not on the stage but in the alley near the fire escape, thus projecting the time-lapse. At the same time from his out of place marine merchant uniform it is evident that he has escaped the family- the stage. In his monologue, he talks about truth and illusion. According to him, magicians show illusions on stage which the audience accepts as the truth. But here Tom is going to represent the truth in the guise of an illusion. It is the illusion that Tennessee Williams has created in the garb of Tom and decided to tell his autobiographical story in the form of a memory play.
The fire escape works as a symbol throughout the play. It is the means of escape for Tom, who is trapped in the drudgery of his work at a shoe warehouse and the responsibilities of the family. It is also a symbol of the American psyche, trapped in the social and economic condition of the 1930s and wanting to escape from reality.
As Tom announces that it is a memory play, the audience can perceive the time travel that Tom is going to undertake through the fire escape; the very mechanism that worked as a mediator between his past and present in the first place.
As the audience is first introduced to Amanda, they can easily deduct her character traits. She commands her son to join them at the dinner table, almost making him feel guilty. She continuously nags her son about miniscule things and she is not even aware of it. She is insecure about losing her son as she has already lost her husband. As she tells the story of the gentlemen callers of Blue Mountain, it is evident that she is trapped in her reality and tries to find escape in the memories of her youth. The question arises whether her stories are true or not- if examined closely one observes that all the gentlemen callers were either rich or became rich, unlike Amanda’s current position. So, her stories can be a made-up fantasy, an escape from the wretched reality of the present. But she continuously pushes Laura to attend to gentlemen callers, which points towards her fixation on fulfilling her own desires through her daughter. She is worried about Laura’s future, that’s why she asks her to practice her typewriting skills and to stay fresh for attending gentleman callers.
In the first part of this scene, Laura is seen lost in her own world- a personal world of escape- a world of glass figurines and old records.
Amanda’s dramatic stance after the revelation of Laura’s deception is surprising; she is shocked, not because of the deception but at the wasted money and Laura’s uncertain future. She does not want Laura to turn out like her; left alone and forced to live a pitiable life. Now that she is certain that her daughter is not cut out for work, she focuses on finding a husband to look after her.
Amanda asks about the boy that Laura liked and the audience learns about Jim for the first time. Laura was infatuated with this boy in high school and she shows her mother pictures of Jim in an endearing fashion. It is evident that she liked this man. She is lost in her memory, the tone when she talks about the girl Jim used to date in high school is not only disheartening but also shows the pain that Laura has always felt, being different from other girls because of her disability. When her mother talks about marriage, she calls herself crippled. Amanda wants Laura to cover her disability with charm; she asks Laura to cultivate some charm, which seems impossible, given Laura’s innocent disposition.
Unlike her children, Amanda possesses the quality of determination. Once she sets her mind on something she does not quit until it’s done. Her telephone campaign is an illustration of this determination. In this scene, Tom is writing something, assumably creative but Amanda disturbs him. This leads to a brawl between the son and the mother. Tom is trapped in a harsh reality, where he has lost not only his peace of mind but also his privacy. Amanda informs him that she has returned a book of D.H. Lawrence as she does not approve of even bringing such books in her house- this shows how impossible it is for Amanda to understand Tom and what he wants in his life.
Amanda successfully nags Tom to the brink of his patience and the audience now knows that Tom is tired of the warehouse work. His marine merchant uniform in the beginning now makes sense- he is not only trapped in the responsibilities of his family but also in his work; he does not enjoy it and uses movies as an escape. Amanda with her obvious controlling attitude wants to monitor his whereabouts; she does not want him to stay out late at night. Though she means well for her son, she lacks understanding. She pushes him too much. Tom breaks a glass figurine and the whole family is warned about the reality and fragility of their situation.
Laura speaks nothing; throughout their argument the focus is on her expressions. Her face shows continuous guilt as she thinks that the tension between her mother and her brother is mostly because of her. She believes that being a cripple, she is a burden on them, thus causing unhappiness to both Amanda and Tom. As the glass figurine breaks, Laura is shattered and the focus shifts to her. Tom lovingly consoles Laura; throwing new light on Tom as a brother.
In this scene, Tom is seen coming back from the movies and Laura, like a caring mother, shows her concern. When Tom explains the magician’s trick, the similarity to his situation is striking. The dull apartment, lack of privacy and pressure of his responsibilities have made his life like a coffin; he wonders whether he can ever get out of it. The act of getting out of this coffin-like existence will be nothing less than resurrection for him. He wants to rise from the ashes and live a completely new life. Laura works as a mediator and a buffer zone between Amanda and Tom. She convinces Tom to apologize to Amanda. Amanda cleverly sends Laura to buy some butter as she wants to talk to Tom about Laura’s future. Laura trips on the fire escape. This shows her fear of the outer world. For Tom, the fire escape is an escape from reality to the free outer world but to Laura it is an escape from the dreadful outer world into her secure world of the glass menageries. As Tom apologizes to Amanda, she keeps her stance intact and says that it is her concern for her children has turned her into a witch. But the reality is that she is way too concerned about them- she is over-protective, nagging and controlling to such an extent that she is almost annoying. As she starts nagging Tom again, we come to know that Tom is an adventurer. He wants to live according to his instincts, he has a poetic outlook on life; he wants romance, adventure and love in his life. He does not want to live trapped in the harsh reality of warehouse work. Amanda knows these attributes too well. She has seen the hunger for this way of life in her husband and thus dreads Tom will abandon them, just like he did. But she is realistic enough to understand that she cannot stop him from leaving and that’s why she reveals that she knows about his plan to join the Marine Merchant. She is pragmatic and so, wants to make sure that Tom takes care of his sister’s future before leaving them.
Tom informs Amanda about the gentleman caller and initially she is uncomfortable because there is too little time to dress up their humble apartment. But she instantly starts shooting questions. Though Tom asks her to not fuss over the guest, Amanda takes the leap and assumes, from the first sentence itself, that Laura will get married to this gentleman. She asks practical questions, like his drinking habit and his earnings. Both these questions arise from Amanda’s experience of being married to a drunkard and she does not want the same future for her daughter. Her over-enthusiasm shows how desperate she is to marry Laura off. She does not want to acknowledge Laura’s own will. Tom reminds Amanda that Laura is a cripple but she avoids the topic. But Tom wants to make her understand- how Laura is different from others, how she lives in her own world of glass figurines and phonograph records. He does not show any emotion but it is evident that he loves his sister; he is well aware of her innocence and he wants to save her from Amanda’s fixation on charm and coquettish behaviour. But Amanda wants to fulfil her desires through her daughter and as the play progresses her fixation becomes stronger, only to get shattered in the last scene.
Here it is mentioned that Jim is taking radio engineering classes. Williams includes many references to emerging technologies in the play but as far as the Wingfield family is concerned, they fail to embrace its potential. The play is punctuated with references to an array of the everyday products of twentieth-century technology; expanding the play’s significance beyond the personal, even as it illuminates the narrow lives of its protagonists. (Reynolds,1991, p-2) Amanda is not interested in the whys of technology or the wonder of science, it is the mysterious nature of it that awes her; “Isn’t electricity a mysterious thing? Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who tied a key to a kite? We live in such a mysterious universe, don’t we? Some people say that science clears up all the mysteries for us. In my opinion it only creates more!” (Williams, pp. 84-85).
It is not the women alone who are unable to understand technology; Tom is equally unaware of its functioning. That’s why Amanda asks Jim to check the fuse. Williams situates Jim as a foil to the whole Wingfield family, when it comes to technology. Technology is clearly identified as the specific agent for change, that Williams alludes to time and again in the play; the strongest force that will redirect society in the twentieth century. While only one character, the “realist” Jim O’Connor, sees the future of America as tied to progress in technology, the play consistently reiterates the failure of technology to achieve social or individual values or, for that matter, even to function at a practical level. Lights go out, the telephone is hung up; cinema and phonograph serve merely as escapes, for men whose lives are governed by impersonal commercial enterprises embodied in warehouses, and for women who are expected to live by serving business through mechanical clerical work, or by marrying successful radio engineers. (Reynolds, p. 3)
In his monologue Tom introduces Jim to the audience. From his description it is evident that Jim is a foil to Tom. Unlike Tom, Jim is satisfied with his work at the warehouse. He takes night classes to improve his prospects- thus a family man with future financial plans. Amanda pushes Laura too much and she becomes more anxious because of her mother. The padded breasts show how Amanda wants to sexualize her daughter in front of a total stranger. It is clear that Laura does not even want to attend a gentleman caller, it is Amanda who wants to. Amanda wears a ridiculous dress and carries some summer flowers; which she wore the day she met her husband. She wants to return to her youthful days, maybe to mend her mistakes. She also feels trapped in her present situation and this is the only escape that she has got.
When Laura comes to know that Jim is the gentleman caller, she becomes flustered. She does not want to confront the present reality; she wants to keep her memories intact. She feels sick and she does not want to be present at dinner; her illness is psychosomatic. Amanda pays no attention to Laura’s turbulent state and pressurizes her. She can not miss this chance to marry her off. She forces her to open the door. It should be noted how Laura instantly flees to the phonograph record after opening the door. She seeks refuge in her collection of records and glass figurines as the stranger from the dreadful outer world has come here to disturb her memories. Her crippled self is too scared to face this reality. Amanda bursts into conversation and overwhelms Jim; her behavior shows how desperate she is to get back her past glory. It is only after seeing that Laura cannot even walk on her own that Amanda is convinced that she is actually sick.
In this scene, we get to know for the first time that Tom has taken a decisive step to get away from his reality. He has decided to give the money for the electricity bill to the Marine Merchant.
In this scene Amanda plays the perfect hostess. She is clever enough to send Tom aside and give Jim and Laura a chance to know each other. She asks Jim to take some wine with him to loosen Laura up. Amanda knows her tricks too well.
As Jim goes to Laura, for the first time we see Laura as an individual with wholesome expression and a unique charm. She is shy at first but gradually becomes comfortable. She knows how to converse deeply. She asks Jim if he sings or not, thus intelligently placing herself back in his memory. Jim behaves like her savior; one who will help her recognize her potential. But Jim also recognizes her as a rare, unique woman.
Laura’s infatuation with Jim compels her to show him her glass menagerie. She shows him the unicorn. Jim complains that it is different from other animals but to Laura it is an emblem of her own identity- it is different from others but it gets along with the others. As Jim breaks the horn of the unicorn during the dance, it turns into a normal horse. The broken unicorn is the symbol of Laura’s shattered hopes. Jim has come into her world and broken her. Her beautiful memories of her unrequited love for Jim, the high school hero, are tainted by the news of Jim’s engagement to Betty, after he has kissed her during the dance. When she gives the broken unicorn to Jim as a token, it is the broken memory that she is handing over. After this, she emerges a woman; she is not that innocent crippled girl anymore.
As Amanda comes to know about the engagement she is brought back to reality, her disposition changes and her charm vanishes. The façade remains the same but the inner nagging, broken soul comes to the fore. She reacts like she has been betrayed and blames Tom for everything. The play ends showing Tom’s emotion towards his sister. His love for his sister will remain same no matter what.