When meaning is attached to an object, action, or thing, and it represents an idea of the author’s, it becomes a symbol. Symbols help writers add meaning, depth, and complexity to their writing and convey their ideas to the audience in an indirect, yet subtle manner. Let us look at some of the symbols in The Glass Menagerie.
The Glass Menagerie
A glass menagerie is a collection of glass animals. In the play, it represents and symbolizes different facets of Laura’s personality. The qualities of purity and fragility of glass represent her inner nature. Just like her glass animals, Laura is transparent, she is what she appears to be; she does not pretend, hide or hold any malice or grudges against anyone. Glass shines and refracts a multitude of beautiful colors when light shines on it. Similarly, we see Laura in a different color when she is happy and validated in Jim’s company. We see how unique she is, even with all her flaws, when we see her with the right perspective. Both the glass menagerie and Laura represent something that must be protected, something that is too delicate to hold on its own, in a harsh world.
The unicorn is a mythical animal that does not exist in the real world. The unicorn represents Laura, her peculiarity, and rarity. Like the unicorn, Laura is different from other girls, she is one of a kind. However, the unicorn is accidentally broken when she dances with Jim in the last scene. The broken horn of the unicorn represents the sliver of innocence that is taken from Laura in her exchange with Jim. It symbolizes how Laura cannot move towards normalcy and learn to survive in the world outside, without losing a part of her that makes her unique.
The Fire Escape
The fire escape represents Tom’s temporary escape from the frustrations of his work and domestic life. It also gives us an insight into the spatial confinement of a woman within the four walls of the house as opposed to a man. While it is easy for Tom to storm out of the house onto the fire escape to avoid talking to his mother; Laura slips on the stairs of the fire escape when she tries to stop Tom. Her slipping symbolizes her inability to leave her mother and her family, unlike Tom. Tom’s ability to distance himself and to protect himself from the debilitating atmosphere of the apartment makes him different from Laura. Laura does not have this refuge; she is unable to detach herself completely from the situation and she is destroyed by it.