Symbolism of The Glass Menagerie

In the play “The Glass Menagerie,” Tennessee Williams the author presents the glass menagerie as a metaphor for the Wingfield family and other families during the Great Depression. The author highlights the concept of the family’s vulnerability and how easily it can be shattered like glass. Laura shares a connection with the glass, and through the descriptive stage directions the audience can view the bond that links her to the collection. Williams uses foreshadowing through the breaking of a symbolic figurine to show the events that will occur within the Wingfield family and how everything will be forever different and broken, just like the figurine. A menagerie is a varied mixture or a collection of foreign animals that are kept specially for exhibition. The glass menagerie is a metaphor for the Wingfield family. Each character is a different piece of glass that when together composes a family within a menagerie. Through their differences from the outside world the Wingfields a menagerie that is stared at for being different from the rest of the world. Laura and Tom are dreamers, but they cannot act on their dreams and desires. Amanda lives in the past and is separated from her children by this. The family composes a collection of a strange mixture of personalities that cannot incorporate themselves into the world. For example, Tom describes Jim as his “best friend at the warehouse,” but the audience later questions this as he is unknowing of his friend’s engagement. “Glass is something that you have to take good care of,” and similarly a family must be taken care of to flourish. The members of the Wingfield family all strive for what they personally believe will be best for them or the family, without really understanding what that means. The inability to understand each other and take care of the family causes it to slowly fall apart. Laura is the person who holds the family together through their differences for as long as possible. She is the force that causes Tom to stay and endure the life he hates, and later she is the ghost that haunts him. Laura is compared to the glass unicorn, and Jim perceptively remarks “unicorns, aren’t they extinct in the modern world?” Laura is a loner who does not fit in with society. Her differences separate her from others and her magnified crippled leg creates a gap between her and other people. Unlike the ladies that spend their evenings at the dance hall, Laura spends “a good deal of time” polishing her glass collection. This collection has set a trance over Laura, she loves her “little animals made out of glass, the tiniest animals in the world.” If the animals are symbolic of the family, then the family is also the “smallest” – an obsolete and unimportant family that will hardly leave an impact on society. The feeble layer of glass that contains the family within the menagerie is shown to be easily broken, and Williams shows that without the proper care it will surely shatter.Laura shares a personal relationship with the figurines, because unlike her father and nonexistent friends, they can never leave or forsake her. Whenever she is nervous about anything, her immediate tendency is to reach for the glass: “Laura utters a startled, doubtful laugh. She reaches quickly for a piece of glass.” The ability to have her glass friends available whenever necessary is comforting to Laura; unlike so many other factors in her life, these animals are in her control. Over time, Laura’s bond with the animals deepen until they are almost a part of herself. When describing the glass to Jim, Laura is basically describing herself: “Oh, be careful- if you breathe, it breaks.” Here Laura is telling the audience here how fragile she is, and that she is worried that Jim might crush her. When he holds the figurine Laura is delighted that he is taking an interest in her collection: “you’re holding him gently! Hold him over the light, he loves the light! You see how the light shines through him?” The animal is personified with the usage of “he,” because it is her best and only friend. Here, Laura shows him the wonderful visions that can be created when they are held before the correct type of light. Here Laura describes herself, exquisitely delicate, but glowing under the right circumstances. The bond that she has with the glass is highlighted through the usage of stage directions. Whenever something is harmful to the glass, it directly impacts Laura. When her figurine is unknowingly smashed by Tom, “there is a tinkling of shattering glass. Laura cries as if wounded.” The breaking of Laura’s glass symbol, and Tom deliberately shattering his glass foreshadows the Wingfield family being forever shattered and split into numerous direction, never to be together again. Laura states that “Glass breaks so easily. No matter how careful you are.” This last scene highlights this concept, because the family’s personal glass menagerie is forever broken. The unicorn, Laura’s favorite figurine, is clumsily broken, and this foreshadows how Jim will clumsily mishandle Laura and break her heart. Before she knows of his fiancé Laura is optimistic, believing that perhaps the unicorn was broken as “a blessing in disguise.” By losing its horn the unicorn became “just like all the other horses.” Similarly, Laura was temporarily like other ladies as she danced with Jim and he made her more typical. When Jim abandons Laura, she leaves him with “a-souvenir…” that suggests she knows he is her first and only love; she doubts she will ever again dare to fall in love. She also knows that things will be different in her household, so she does not need the reminder of the changed unicorn. The Wingfield family members rely upon each other, and as Tom realizes that Laura will be dependent upon him for much longer than expected, he knows that if he wishes to do something for himself he must leave. Here the stage directions read: “Tom smashes his glass on the floor. He plunges out on the fire escape.” Tom breaks the glass and his departure symbolizes that just like his shattered glass, the impact this will have upon his family can never be repaired. With Tom leaving, the Wingfield family is shattered. Amanda is lost in her past, Tom in his hopes for a future, and Laura in her imaginary world of glass. The ties that the family share as so strong, though, that even when running away Tom cannot escape from his sister. “The window is filled with little pieces of colored glass…then all at once my sister touches my shoulder.” Glass will forever symbolize his sister, and thus his shattered family. The Wingfield family is to be forever changed and it will never again be pieced back together.Tennessee Williams uses glass throughout the play as symbolism for the Wingfield family and to foreshadow later events. The “glass menagerie” is a unique and effect way to portray this troubled, fragile family.

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