Historical Context of The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie is based on the short story Portrait of a Girl in Glass by Tennessee Williams. The play was first staged in 1945 and instantly became famous. It has already been mentioned that the play is based on memories. The play is based on Williams’ love for his sister Rose and his angst at being trapped; he is a victim of the social and economic condition of America in the 1930s. Williams introduces The Glass Menagerie through a context of social upheaval- war in Spain, imminent war in Europe; labor unrest in American cities. Tom’s opening narrative, announcing the “social background of the play” sounds like a manifesto of both aesthetic and social reform. Yet, the only specific allusions to these events during the rest of the play are the incidental; headlines about Spain in Tom’s newspaper, and Toms contrasting the Europe of Berchtesgaden, Chamberlain, and Picasso’s Guernica with the St. Louis of the dance halls. Roger B. Stein sees in the allusions to the Depression and impending war a “note of social disaster [that] runs throughout the drama, fixing the lives of individuals against the larger canvas.’” (Stein, 14)

The play was written in the economic deflation known as The Great Depression. Though it started in 1929 it stayed throughout the 30s. Unemployment was grave and wages were lowered. Tom is the representative of an economic era where factory workers were trapped in wretched working conditions, got minimum wages and faced continuous strikes. “The cost of share prices rose to record highs and encouraged even more people to invest. All of this action created what is known as an economic bubble” (Great Depression: Business). The last nail on the coffin was the huge price fall in the stock market, it made the news with the panic selling of shares on October 29th known as ‘The Black Friday’;

On October 24th, 1929 the market finally turned down and panic selling started. Over twelve million shares were traded in a single day. Prices kept going down for over a month, by November the DOW sank from 400 to 125. This mass migration of shares is what effected the market and is known as a large contributing factor to the start of the great depression (Watkins, The Great Depression 41).

The consequence of this economic downfall was that families started losing their jobs. This economic catastrophe touched each and every part of society. The institutions were intact physically but there was no scope of work. Factories remained closed with no money to pay the workers. Desperate people started working for food. Many people were seen on the street, carrying placards saying they were willing to offer their labour in exchange for food, in place of money. “People had to survive on stale bread and whatever canned foods that they had left in their homes” (Social Trends).

Many families were ashamed of their financial situation and tried to maintain the façade by improving the exteriors of their houses (note how Amanda relies on chintz and covers up broken lamps before Jim’s visit). Socialization among people reduced drastically and club memberships were cancelled (note that part of the play where Amanda is pushing other women to renew the subscription of a magazine).

It was mostly men who were the sole providers for their families. The loss of work and the downfall of the market traumatized them; they lost all hope and a large section of working men found escape in alcohol. Cases of domestic violence increased. Giving in to their failure to provide for their families, a lot of men abandoned their homes, never to return. “A survey in 1939 stated that 1.5 million American women had been abandoned” (20th Century America 104). Note how Amanda is a representative of the American wives; she has a drunkard husband and was abandoned by him.

In extreme cases, men committed suicide in shame. The specter of failure continuously haunted them, the same can be seen in Tom too. With the men succumbing to trauma, traditional gender roles in America began to change. Women started working. They became strong and started finding out different ways to bring in pay-checks. “They saved money by buying day-old bread, relining coats with old blankets, cutting adult clothing down to children’s sizes, and saving anything that might be useful someday, such as string and broken crockery or could be sold as scrap, such as old rags” (Watkins, The Hungry Years 87). Amanda too tries to earn some extra money by convincing people to subscribe to a magazine. She continuously urges Laura to get a job and to improve her typing skills.

The Great Depression also pushed women to get an education in order to find jobs to support the family. Amanda admits Laura to a business school even though the fee is too high for her and she breaks down when she comes to know that Laura has left the school, thus closing the opportunity to education and job altogether. “What are we going to do? What is going to become of us? What is the future?” (Williams 16). The most long-lasting effect of the Great Depression was the emotional one. Poverty and societal pressure made both men and women aggressive. Families started living together as they could not afford to live separately, thus worsening the situation. Louis Adamic writes, “On the one hand, thousands of families were broken up, some permanently, some temporarily, or were seriously disorganized. On the other hand, thousands of families became more closely integrated than they had been before the Depression” (The Great Depression). This tension that comes from living in cramped spaces with the whole family, can be felt in the play. Amanda continuously nags Tom; she doesn’t even realize how eccentric she is. The situation has changed her; the southern belle has turned into a nagging working-class mother, who is overprotective of her last resort, her son Tom. At the same time, as families started living together, they became emotionally closer too. Amanda does not understand Tom at all but her concern for him is not fake. Close living also led to a lack of privacy, thus hindering the emotional growth of younger people. The younger generation postponed marriage and their plans to settle down independently, as their focus remained on making ends meet. During the Great Depression not many people were looking to find love. Less people were starting a family of their own. Many single couples in their twenties could not afford to break away from their parents and move out. “Marriage and birth rates declined, as many couples decided to wait until they could afford marriage and children” (Urban, 4).

In the play Tom also mentions Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, and Picasso’s Guernica. The Second World War was brewing when the play was written. Hitler had just secured the highest position in Germany and the whole world was topsy-turvy. References to the civil war and the continuous frustration shown by Tom throughout the play is representative of the pain of the Americans trapped in a difficult socio-economic era.

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