Themes are important for understanding any piece of literature. Without a theme, a story is just a sequence of events with characters. But a theme provides meaning, flow and context to a story. Moreover, themes in a story are based on the author’s observation of a truth or fundamental fact about human nature, or the times in which that literature is written. Studying themes helps us get a better understanding of the times and life of the author and the truths about human nature. Some of the themes in The Glass Menagerie are mentioned in detail below.
The use, nature, and function of memory is a dominant theme in The Glass Menagerie. As discussed in Unit 1, The Glass Menagerie is a memory play. Let’s look at some different ways in which memory has been used by the author in the play.
Memory as an emotional lens: The audience gets to know about the characters and their lives through Tom’s memories. Since the memory of a person or an event changes with time and is often influenced by emotions we, as an audience, can raise questions on how accurate Tom’s portrayal of Laura’s fragility is. In other words, what we see on stage is Tom’s version of Laura. Memory then, is different from fact. Our memories are subject to time, our emotions and our perception of past events. As Tom says in his opening monologue in Scene 1;
“The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.”
Memory as a means of escape and unhappiness: Memory becomes a hindrance to the characters’ happiness and robs them of their ability to live in the present. Amanda is plagued by the memories of her near-perfect youth which serve as nothing but a reminder of the stark difference between her past and present circumstances. Tom is embittered by the memory of his father’s abandonment and after he leaves, his own. Even when he is finally where he always wanted to be, he is unable to be happy because he is haunted by memories of the past and the guilt they bring.
Memory as nostalgia: The play and its ending are a comment on the inevitable presence of nostalgia and the power of memory in our lives. We not only remember things but also carry the baggage of emotions that memories bring with them. At the end of scene seven, Tom says;
“I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!”
It is clear in these lines that even though Tom has left Laura behind, he is haunted by her memories and feels guilty about it.
Memory is used as a powerful tool to escape from the present because the past is safe and familiar, the future is not. We might not have control over past events as past cannot be changed, but we do have some degree of control over our memories of the past. We cannot change the past, but we can, in most cases change the way we feel about it.
Familial Duty vs Individual Aspiration
We as human beings, who live in society and with our families, carry multiple identities within us. Some of our identities are given to us by the virtue of the families we are born in. We are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands, and wives. But at the same time we are individuals defined by not just our families, but our likes and dislikes, dreams and aspirations, desires, which in turn give us an individual identity. It is when these identities clash and we are compelled to choose one over the other, that we feel confused and conflicted. Even when we are able to choose what we want to be, there is a possibility that we might feel regretful about our choices. This conflict is what we see in Tom’s character.
Tom dreams of becoming a merchant sailor and travels in search of adventure. He is stuck with a mundane job, that he only does to pay the bills. But he is a man stuck between his individual dreams and his family’s expectations from him. His mother wants him to be the ideal son and brother, to stay and provide for the family. He feels suffocated and wants to leave but his mother sensing that, just like his father, he will eventually leave, bargains with him to at least stay and get his sister married to a suitable man. He leaves in order to fulfill his individual dreams and aspirations but is plagued by regret and guilt for leaving his sister behind. Telling the audience, the story of his abandonment is the only way he can move past this guilt and regret.
As humans, we build coping mechanisms to deal with the harsh realities of life. Life can often be unfair and we figure out ways to deal with this unfairness, throughout our adult lives. When we want to run away from reality, we resort to escapism in many ways. We either lose ourselves in the good old days of the past or the anxieties and daydreams of the future. Some take refuge in entertainment, some get paralyzed by negative emotions and inaction, and spend their days simply doing nothing. The desire to escape reality is omnipresent in human nature and we get an insight into it through the characters of the play.
Amanda finds her escape from reality in talking and thinking about the days of glory in her past. She clings to her long-gone youth, which makes her a figure of ridicule and embarrassment in the eyes of her children. She dresses in her old dress that she wore as a young woman for Jim’s visit and engages him in girlish banter. Amanda is unable to accept that she is no longer the Southern belle of her youth, surrounded by wealth and suitors who fawn over her. Her reality is that she lives in a cramped, dingy apartment, in a dysfunctional relationship with her children, and is financially dependent on her son. She finds it difficult to come to terms with her situation
To avoid dealing with reality, Laura clings to her father’s music and a few souvenirs from high school, which remind her of Jim. She tries to avoid the arguments revolving around her future, marriage, and appearance with her mother by turning up the volume of the music to drown Amanda’s voice. To escape the world of work and business, she walks around the city, taking walks in the park and visiting the zoo. But her most prominent escape from reality lies in her collection of glass figurines. She can control the glass pieces by polishing and arranging them the way she wants, unlike the events in her life. Even though Laura does not live in denial of her reality: her disability and her thin marriage prospects, she does not confront the economic reality that after Tom leaves, she might be forced to go out into the world of hustle and work, which so overwhelms her, in order to make ends meet for herself and her mother. To evade that, she takes refuge in the glass figures. Similarly, Tom struggles to come to terms with the reality of the times, that demand a more pragmatic approach to balance one’s economic needs and individual desire for freedom.
Tom resorts to escaping reality in physical ways. He escapes the boredom of his job at the shoe factory by looking for adventure in movies and drinking. He finds windows of escape for his creative sensibilities by sneaking off at the warehouse and scribbling poetry on the lids of shoeboxes. He escapes the controlling presence of his mother by going to the fire exit and smoking. At last, his final act of escape is to leave.
Although the characters spend a large part of their lives escaping their reality and each other, the ending of the play seems to suggest the impossibility of true escape. We may be able to escape from the physical places that confine us but we cannot escape our own emotions and memories, just like Tom. In the end, Tom’s fate is a comment on the complexity of human emotions: The inability to be happy and content even if we get what we want is a failing of human nature.
The Unique vs The Ordinary
In the play, we see a juxtaposition of the unique and the ordinary by comparing the characters of Jim and Laura. Laura’s character represents the unique, pure, and innocent; which is also symbolized by the unicorn in her glass menagerie and the nickname given to her by Jim, ‘blue roses’. The unicorn and blue roses both symbolize rarity as they do not exist in the real world. They suggest otherworldliness. On the other hand, Jim represents the ordinary, outer world. Jim flirts with her and she learns later that he is engaged. Her contact with Jim exposes her to the ways of the world. She realizes that people don’t always mean what they say. Contact with Jim reduces some of her purity and uniqueness, symbolized by the broken unicorn.
Laura’s and Jim’s characters illustrate how the world treats and perceives both the ordinary and the unique. While everyone admires uniqueness, it is ordinariness that survives better. Jim was unique in his achievements in high school, now the harsh economic conditions have reduced him to a factory worker. Through his character, the author is telling us that we all are unique as children and in order to survive, in the process of learning the ways of the world, we lose our uniqueness and become ordinary. In our attempts to fit better in the world, we sometimes end up trading off the personality traits that make us unique.
As a society, we struggle to break gender stereotypes even today, all over the world. The idea that society should decide what is appropriate for men and women, based on their gender continues to be the root cause of suffering and social evils. The norms of gender were even more stringent in the America of the 1930s than they are now, almost a century later.
In the play, we see the fates and struggles of the characters being shaped by the necessity of subscribing to their gender roles. From the beginning of the play till the end, Amanda’s quest is to find a suitable husband for Laura, she must get married because she is a girl and Tom must hold a job, earn and provide for his mother and sister because he is a man. Although we do see Amanda trying to break away from her conditioning regarding gender roles. Amanda wants Laura to do a typing course and become a secretary, to become financially independent before marriage. Amanda also tries to earn some money by selling subscriptions. By the 1930s, women had begun to join the workforce, out of necessity. However, we also see Amanda clinging to her traditional constructs of masculinity and femineity. She tells Laura; “Girls that aren’t cut out for business careers usually wind up married to some nice man.” (Scene 3) She forces Laura to look ‘fresh and pretty’ for her gentlemen callers and her understanding of a relationship between a man and woman is extremely orthodox;
LAURA: You make it seem like we were setting a trap.
AMANDA: All pretty girls are a trap, a pretty trap, and men expect them to be. (Scene 6)
Her belief in the traditional notions of femineity along with her belief that women should be financially independent place her at the cusp of modernity. Her efforts to earn money and make her daughter independent, yet remaining dependent on her son, highlights the difficulty of breaking away from gender roles completely.
The act of leaving behind or abandoning one’s family is a prominent theme in the play. The play deals with the aftermath and impact of such an act on those who are left behind. Mr. Wingfield’s going away leaves the family broken. It renders the children without a father figure, the mother burdened with the responsibility of raising her two children, and the burden of providing for the family on Tom. The abandonment also deteriorates the economic situation of the family; pushing them into poverty, and struggling to make ends meet.
Mr. Wingfield’s abandonment affects Amanda the most, who is left a single parent after her husband leaves. Through Amanda’s character, we see the challenges of being a single parent. In her attempts to love her children and shape them into perfect individuals, she nags and criticizes them, unfortunately pushing them away from her. The abandonment affects Tom too, although his reaction to it is confusing. He feels bitter about it, yet intends to do exactly what his father did. In the end, Tom’s act of leaving can be seen as the author’s comment on the parent-child relationship. We, as children, subconsciously emulate our parents. Tom had a negative role model in his father and giving up on the family when his duties clash with his aspirations is the only plan he has. The family never really heals from Mr. Wingfield’s departure even after 16 years.
A lot of writers find inspiration for their writing in their own life experiences and the people close to them. Similarly, The Glass Menagerie contains a lot of autobiographical elements from Tennessee William’s life. Just like the Wingfield siblings, Williams also grew up in St Louis and the characters in the play are thought to have been modeled on his sister, mother, and himself.
Williams is speculated to have based the character of Laura on his sister, Rose. Rose attended Sodan High, the same school that Laura attends in The Glass Menagerie. Rose struggled with mental health issues, possibly schizophrenia, all her life. Although Laura does not struggle with her mental health in the same way, but just like Rose, she also struggles with the isolation that comes with being different from the world. Laura’s fragility, purity, and uniqueness seem to be William’s tribute to the memory of his sister Rose.
The characters of Mrs. Wingfield and Mr. Wingfield are also similar to Williams’s own mother and father. Williams’s father was a traveling salesman and was often away from his family for long periods of time. Though he never went as far as leaving the family, he often complained about being tied down by familial duties. In his absence, the responsibility of raising Williams and his sister fell on his mother who raised them on strictly Southern values, much like Amanda does in The Glass Menagerie.
Tom’s character also has a lot of similarities to Williams’s. They both share the same first name because Williams’s given name was Thomas. Like Tom, Williams also worked at a shoe factory to provide for his family before he acquired fame as a writer. Tom’s thirst for travel and adventure is also inspired by Williams, who spent his late twenties and thirties traveling.
Illusion is another important theme of The Glass Menagerie. This theme is also reflected in the title of the play. The characters make up worlds of their own, which like Laura’s glass animals are not real. They keep themselves in an illusion made of past memories and dreams, which, like the collection of glass animals is too fragile to last and can be broken once reality intrudes.