In The Glass Menagerie all the characters: both the members of the Wingfield family and the gentleman caller –Jim, live in worlds of their own making. Theirs is a painful environment; one that has been produced from dashed expectations. With such harshness surrounding them, each of the characters finds a way to filter it out; to suppress the truth by replacing it with illusion. Only then can they cope.
The imagery of blindness symbolizes what has happened to these people: “The huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes.”(scene 1, 23).They cannot see what to do. Since they have lost their way, they create an illusory path.
Tom, Laura and Amanda Wingfield live in reduced circumstances in a lower middle class apartment in St. Louis. Amanda’s husband left the family to travel as a phone salesman, and just kept going; never to return.
This contributes to major financial difficulties and worry. It necessitates Tom’s working at a warehouse job he hates to such a degree that he is envious of dead people who don’t have to get up and go to work they despise.
At the opening of the play, Tom formulates the predicament:
“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
(scene 1, 22.)
To escape from his truth, Tom wishes to be transported away, to leave just as his father did. He sends in money to the Merchant Seamen in the hopes of doing so. In the interim he writes poetry and frequents movies.
His mother becomes frustrated:
AMANDA: But why–why, Tom, are you always so restless? Where do
you go to, nights?
TOM: I– go to the movies.
AMANDA: Why do you go to the movies so much, Tom?
TOM: I go to the movies because–I like adventure. Adventure is
something I don’t have much of at work, so I go to the
Tom is quite aware of his illusions. But his boss is also aware of his deceptions. As Jim conveys to him the seriousness of his circumstance:
“You’re going to be out of a job if you don’t wake up,” Tom responds that he is waking up: “I’m right at the point to committing myself to a future that doesn’t include the warehouse and Mr. Mendoza or even a night school in public speaking.”(scene 6,79).
Restless, he wants to “remove the nail out of his coffin and escape”…is tired of the movies and wants to move himself. “People go to the movies instead of moving!…of watching Hollywood characters have adventures while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them.”(scene 6,79).
Meanwhile, his mother Amanda also copes with her situation through escape. Only she retreats into the past; into the genteel traditions of the Old South: a time of gentlemen callers, cotillions, cotton planters, and jonquil filled refined living; a time in which she never spoke of anything “coarse or common or vulgar.” Although she lost that world by marrying the telephone salesman, she constantly returns to it in her conversations because it shields her from her coarse and vulgar present– in which she says that: “I’m just bewildered by life.”(15) and “ I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me.” (scene 6, 82 ).
Because of her confusion, she is easy prey. Deception defines her as she even mutters the word in scene two: “Deception? Deception?” Not only is Amanda deceived by marrying a man who left her, she is deceived by Laura dropping out of business college, and by thinking Jim was an actual gentleman caller for her daughter; a prospective suitor, when he actually was already engaged.
Her hopes for Jim are such that she beautifies the apartment, reverts to wearing an ancient cotillion dress and even pretties Laura in anticipation of his visit, pinning all her expectations for a new future on the gentleman caller, even while deceiving him as to Laura’s presence.
But Laura, who is crippled, has retreated from life, living in her own world of illusion that revolves around her collection of glass animals which she can order and control. In fact, Williams describes her “like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisite to remove from the shelf.” The menagerie and playing the Victorola are her way of escaping from unpleasantness and her own sense of futility. (Presley,1990,40).
A drop out from business college, she finally ceases deceiving her mother once she has discovered the truth, telling her she really goes walking.
Just as the unicorn, hers is a precarious existence. When Jim breaks off the unicorn’s horn, it looks like a horse, but nevertheless remains a damaged unicorn. This is what Amanda has done to the damaged Laura; distorted her true childish nature, plying her with “gay deceivers” to make her appear like any other normal young woman who is being courted. (Tischler, 2000,33).
Jim lives for his former glory and his bright tomorrow. He is friends with Tom because he knew him in high school where he was a star. His present is not as appealing, so he depends on his future. Yet Jim’s vision of himself as this man “with the promising future is as deceptive as Amanda’s vision of herself as a woman from the gallant past.(Presley,48).
Although Amanda tells Tom, “You live in a dream. You manufacture illusions!”, the truth is that the pathos of the play comes from the illusions created by all the characters. Though the glass menagerie pertains to Laura, all four characters have redirected their reality to beautify their lives. Laura has her glass collection, Tom his movies and poetry, Amanda her jonquil filled past, and Jim his cliché of progress. (Cohn, 1987, 59).
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New York: Chelsea House.
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Presley, Delma.(1990). The Glass Menagerie. An American Memory.
Boston: Twayne Publishing Co.
Tischler, Nancy.(2000). Student Companion to Tennessee Williams.
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