In Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie, the characters’ perspectives of reality are mixed with those of appearance. Amanda, the mother, tries to make the lives of her children perfect, but in doing so, only causes them grief and anguish. Amanda still lives in the past and sees no reason why her two children should live anything but perfect lives. However, her children, Laura, a crippled and unsociable girl; and Tom, an ambitious young man, believe they should be able to choose their own paths of life. William conveys the theme that several people feel a need to set unreasonable standards for those they love. Amanda’s unwillingness to see Laura for what she really is causes her to make expectations for Laura that are out of her reach, and forces Tom to escape his family so that he no longer feels the pressure of being good enough for his mother.
Amanda sets goals of unreachable status for her children and will not see them for what they really are. Amanda sees no reason why her children should not be perfect and forces her upon visitors, by saying “It’s rare for a girl as sweet an’ pretty as Laura to be domestic! But Laura is, thank heaven, not only pretty but also very domestic” (Williams 14). Amanda distorts her mind in a way that makes Laura’s vices invisible. She believes Laura should have every chance at life that she once had as a young woman and tries to block out all of her inabilities. Amanda believes that if her children failed in life, then she is a failure as a person. She is not able to “accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented” (Truman). Amanda feels the need to control her children’s’ lives, not recognizing their own capability for survival. She has preconceived notions of how her family should live and will not stop in her to quest to find them happiness. Amanda can not find happiness in the life she has lead, instead depends on Tom and Laura to “bring her the happiness that her husband failed to give her” (www.pinkmonkey.com). Amanda does not fully understand the needs of her children, only focuses on their faults. She refuses to accept that Laura is different, forcing her into uncomfortable and awkward situations, that cause them both stress.
Amanda’s expectations of Laura cause her to lead a life filled with loneliness and a lack of self-respect. Laura’s glass animals are very delicate, and a slight pressure can make the “glass break so easily. No matter how careful you are” (Williams 19). Laura’s fascination in plants and animals becomes a world of adventure in her mind, a world of dreams, a world of disappointments. Laura’s love for rare glass specimens is also a love for herself, being that Laura is a rare specimen in a world of perfection that her mother has created. Laura’s memories of her childhood and previous encounter with Tom have been twisted into a bizarre fantasy, making it clear “that her memories are really illusions” (Lumley 61). Laura has a distorted image of herself, resulting in a lack of self-confidence. This trait leads Laura to become quiet and mysterious and misunderstood in public. She begins to lose all base with reality, almost encountering the edge of insanity. However, once Laura is able to break through the barrier of social nervousness and inexperience, she begins to “love the light” (Williams 18). The glass unicorn is a representation of Laura; and in certain conditions, both objects can begin to gleam. Laura begins to shine through the tests she has been put through and for a few moments, is accepted by the outside world.
Amanda’s frustration and nagging begins to wear on Tom, eventually causing him to break all ties with his mother. Amanda wants to give Tom “the chance to lead a normal life” (Truman) but in doing so, increases Tom’s desire to start a life of his own. Tom is contradicted in his dreams of exploration and adventure and his devotion to his sister. He believes that casting Laura into the cold world outside of the Wingfield household is cruel, and attempts to convince Amanda that she is not fit for a normal life. Tom’s dreams of escape come with a price. He is not able to leave “his coffin without removing one nail” (Williams 7). Tom’s departure causes despair and tension in the house. In order to escape this situation, Tom must see Amanda and Laura as their true selves and be able to cut all ties with them.
Amanda’s unfulfilled life causes her to nag her children constantly, which in turn, creates a daughter with little self-confidence and knowledge of the outside world and a son who can not decide what is more important to him—his family or his dreams. This relates to all of us, having had to make a decision between two objects that are close to our hearts. In the 1963 movie Tom Jones, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Albert Finney, the main character Tom, cannot decide on whether a life of mischief and lust or one filled with love is right for him. Combined with the pressures that his uncle, Squire Allworthy, force upon him, Tom goes through many adventures before deciding what life means to him.
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Fire Escape in The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is replete with symbolism, and the fire escape is an important symbol in the play.
Leading out of the protagonists’ – the Wingfield’s – apartment, is the fire escape that has a landing. This physical structure represents an escape from the dysfunction and the fires of frustration in the Wingfield household. Tom makes his opening address to the audience from the fire escape.
Different characters see the fire escape in different ways. For Tom, the fire escape is a golden chance to get away from his nagging mother. For Amanda it is a door through which gentleman callers for Laura can come. For it is a pathway towards the unknown and the dangerous.
The fire escape in The Glass Menagerie serves two functions. One is as a tool for characterization, and the other is as a symbol for a central theme of the play, which is “escape.”
Characterization in the play is brilliantly done by means of the contrast between the two central characters: Laura and Tom. Laura, who is symbolized as the fragile glass menagerie, stumbles on the fire escape, signaling her inability to escape her life circumstances. She is helpless and fragile to the point of being unable to use an escape route. Herman (2008) suggests that Laura has a disability, which makes her socially unsuccessful and shy. This is compounded by the fact that her mother Amanda is overprotective and smothering.
Tom, on the other hand, has the will and the ability to escape from the dysfunctional family, and he often steps out on to the fire escape landing to light a smoke. His independent streak is very well demonstrated by his frequent trips to the fire escape landing. As a natural culmination of his yearning to be independent, he stands on the fire escape landing at the end of the play, ready to go out into the world and escape from the world of the glass menagerie.
The fire escape is integral to the theme of escape too in the play. Escape or the inability to escape, is a theme of The Glass Menagerie. When there is a means of escape available, do people make use of it? Alternatively, do people get caught in their own life so much that they lose the will and the ability to escape? For Laura, escape is impossible, as the only time she tries the fire escape, she stumbles. Tom, however, wants to and is able to escape. He shows that many times by moving to the fire escape landing for a smoke, and finally at the end of the play by deciding to move away from the family.
The Glass Menagerie examines the universal conflict that arises when individuals must choose between self-fulfillment and family commitment (Janardanan, 2007). The fire escape in the play is the symbol of a path to self-fulfillment, which in the end, Tom takes, though he can never really forget his mother and sister.
Herman, Terah, (2008). The Disabled Family Dynamic In Drama: The Glass Menagerie, A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg And Time For Ben. University of Kentucky Master’s Theses. Paper 528. http://uknowledge.uky.edu/gradschool_theses/528
Janardanan, D. (2007). Images of Loss in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Marsha Norman’s night, Mother, and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Dissertation, Georgia State University, 2007. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/english_diss/23
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