Manufacturing Illusions: Irony in The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is a play founded on illusion. Williams uses the devices of illusion and metaphor to illustrate truth, which he sometimes reveals through the use of irony. In the production notes that preface the play, Williams writes that “expressionism and all other unconventional techniques” in a play “should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are” and that “truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest.”
The role of Tom, the poet, is as a fabricator or conveyor of illusions: Tom functions as the play’s narrator and “as an undisguised convention of the play” (Sc. 1). He states in his introductory monologue: “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” (Sc. 1). His statement removes any doubt that he is the play’s primary illusionist, controlling the memories of his family like puppets on strings for the audience to witness.
Critic Joven indicates that the isolation of the Wingfields and their “untenability” with the modern world necessitates their removal into something more illusory: “The Wingfields cannot co-exist with the real world around them because to live as they wish is to deny the existence of [the outside] world.” Additionally, she points out that the entire family has fallen victim to worlds of their own making: “Amanda’s dreams deny the passage of time. Laura’s life denies the outside world completely” (54).
Tom, as the messenger of memory (“This scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic”), and the conveyor of poetic device, is accused by his frustrated mother of precisely what he has already admitted to (Sc. 1). Amanda, after her efforts to find a match for Laura have been frustrated, blames Tom: “You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions!” (Sc. 7).
Amanda’s accusation is both fitting and ironic. The reader of the play has already been informed that such is Tom’s function, but his mother fails to see the truth behind the illusions—perhaps because she is within the play and therefore part of the past and Tom’s memory. Joven notes that “[i]t is Tom the poet who associates Laura with bits of colored glass and with familiar phrases of music. It is the poet’s mind which perceives the ironic contrast between the hopes of Amanda and Laura and the harsh reality of Paradise Dance Hall” (60).
In a similar manner, Amanda’s accusation is ironic; she misses the point entirely. She is, on one hand, a practical woman, a planner of occasions, and it may not be within her scope to comprehend the underlying truths that Tom attempts to project. But on the other hand, the irony lies partly in the fact that she manufactures her own illusions, and accuses Tom of something she is guilty of as well. Presley supports this idea, noting: “Ironically what the playwright reveals is a cast of characters caught up in illusions of their own making. All of them…have built their lives on insubstantial premises of deception” (34). Their deception is an intentional self-deception created from necessity and self-preservation.
But what is the truth that Tom intends to convey? The answer may be multi-faceted. One aspect may be social commentary. Williams indicates in the notes to Scene 1 the harsh conditions in which the family lives. Their building is, he describes, “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society.” The term “enslavement” can be fittingly applied to the Wingfields. The illusion they create is an attempt at escape from the very environment in which they are trapped. Laura is more a bird in a cage than anyone else in the play: in addition to her environment, she is both physically disabled and emotionally stunted.
The play’s tragic characters indicate another potential truth. At the play’s end, Tom’s narrative is wrapping up and the reader comes to understand the guilt he carries with him. The colored glass he sees in shop windows in his travels reminds him of Laura. He exclaims, “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” Bigsby’s interpretation indicates the narrative itself as a catalyst to the tragic events, and possibly, even, Tom’s guilt:
For Williams, narrative itself is the origin of painful ironies. It implies causality, the unraveling of a time which can only be destructive of character and relationship. […] Hence he and his characters try to stop time. They react, in a sense, against plot. In a way the narrative of their lives does not generate meaning; the meaning ascribed to those lives by history and myth generates the narrative. And as a result they wish to freeze the past and inhabit it, or they spin their own autonomous fictions and submit themselves to a logic dictated by symbol and metaphor (95).
Tom’s guilt over leaving his sister has resulted in his “freezing” the past and weaving a narrative “dictated by symbol and metaphor;” their lives are without meaning except by whatever truth is ascribed to them by the reader, the audience.
Seen in this light, Amanda’s accusation to Tom is all the more tragic. It holds both more truth and irony than she will ever understand. After all, she is only a figment of Tom’s imagination, and more Tom, even, than she is herself. The same is true of Laura—like the other characters in the play; they are all facets of Tom: his imagination, his memory, his poetic interpretations and illusory, ironic narrative weaving.
Bigsby, C. W. E. “Celebration of a Certain Courage.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. 89-99.
Joven, Nilda G. “Illusion Versus Reality in The Glass Menagerie.” Readings on The Glass Menagerie. Ed. Bruno Leone, et al. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 52-60.
Presley, Delma Eugene. The Glass Menagerie: An American Memory. Woodbridge, CT: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
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