The motif of alienation in Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie Essay
One of the reasons why Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie continues to be referred, as such that represents a particularly high literary value, is that the themes and motifs, contained in it, are discursively relevant. That is, by being exposed to how the play’s characters address life-challenges, viewers do recognize these characters’ innermost psychological anxieties, as such that relate to the ones of their own.
In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, while focusing on the significance of the motif of an existential alienation, which I believe is being prominently featured, throughout the play’s entirety.
Even though that there are a number of clearly defined modernist overtones to how the play’s plot unravels out on the stage, due to the plot’s structural simplicity, grasping it mentally does not represent much of a challenge. In essence, it can be outlined as follows. The character of Amanda Wingfield, who shares a household with her son Tom and her daughter Laura, tries her best to help Laura to find a man who would be willing to marry her.
This, however, is not easily accomplishable, due to both: Laura’s physical deficiency (she limps) and the fact that she happened to be an unnaturally shy individual, afraid of socializing with ‘strangers’. The character of Tom (narrator) temporarily works at a shoe-warehouse, while striving to support his mother and sister.
However, being endowed with artistic aspirations, he finds the routine of addressing his professional duties increasingly unbearable – hence, Tom’s tendency to overindulge in drinking. Being emotionally involved with Laura, Tom also tries to set her up with a potential husband – he invites his coworker Jim to a family-dinner, so that he would be able to get to know Laura better, and eventually to decide to marry her.
Despite her shyness, Laura does become relaxed in Jim’s presence and begins to experience the sensation of being romantically attached to him. However, it does not take too long for her to find out that Jim plans to marry another woman, which results in Laura having sustained yet another emotional blow. The play’s ending implies that Laura effectively gives up on her hope of being able to lead a conventional lifestyle, and becomes socially-withdrawn for the rest of her life.
Thus, it will only be appropriate to suggest that the very subtleties of the plot create objective preconditions for viewers to perceive the play’s characters, as such that do not quite ‘fit’ into the reality that surrounds them. This simply could not be otherwise, because, as the earlier provided outline of Williams’s play implies – these characters never ceased experiencing the sensation of an existential alienation.
The manner, in which the character of Amanda goes about trying to exercise a parental authority within the family, illustrates the legitimacy of this statement perfectly well. For example, in her conversations with Tom and Laura, Amanda never ceases to promote the so-called ‘traditional values’, deeply imbedded in the notion of religion.
Hence, Amanda’s insistence that it is not only that people must utter a prayer, before they have a dinner, but that neither of the household members may skip attending this ritual: “Amanda: We can’t say grace until you (Tom) come to the table!” (Williams 753). Apparently, it never occurred to Amanda that the very realities of living in the early 20th century’s America were exposing the sheer erroneousness of Biblical fables.
This is why the Amanda’s traditionalist approach to parenting could not prove effective, by definition. As a result, Amanda was becoming increasingly frustrated with her inability to instill Laura and Tom with ‘proper morals’, which in turn was causing her to suspect that she probably was not a ‘good mother’, after all.
It is needless to mention, of course, that this could not result in anything else, but in making Amanda ever more psychological uncomfortable with the surrounding socio-cultural environment.
This is exactly the reason why Amanda would never skip an opportunity to reflect upon how things used to be back in the past: “Amanda: One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain – your mother received – seventeen gentlemen-callers! We had to send the nigger over to bring in folding chairs from the parish house” (754).
The very delight, with which Amanda expounds on her memories of the past, leaves no doubts as to the fact that, psychologically speaking, Amanda was growing increasingly tempted to submerge into the ‘reality’ of the past, while ignoring the actual reality of the present (Bluefarb 513).
Essentially the same thesis applies to the character of Laura, even though that, unlike her mother, she was not overly fascinated with the ‘good ole’ days’. Being an emotionally sensitive girl, who used to experience the sensation of inferiority (due to having to wear braces on her leg), Laura could not help creating her own ‘world’ of little figurines of exotic animals, made out of glass, among which she felt thoroughly comfortable.
As time went on, Laura was becoming progressively withdrawn, while preoccupying herself with taking care of her beloved figurines. This, of course, used to cause Amanda a great deal of worry: “Now all she (Laura) does is fool with those pieces of glass and play those worn-out records. What kind of a life is that for a girl to lead?” (758).
Nevertheless, contrary to what Amanda used to believe, her daughter’s mental condition could hardly be remedied by the mean of encouraging Laura to socialize more. Apparently, Laura’s obsession with the ‘glass menagerie’ extrapolated her cognitive and emotional incompatibility with the functioning of the American materialistic society.
Hence, the symbolical significance of Jim’s rhetorical question: “Unicorns, aren’t they extinct in the modern world?” (774) – without intending to do it rationally, Jim did hint that individuals like Laura (the ones that indulge in a socially withdrawn daydreaming) will never be able to adjust to the real world.
Therefore, there is nothing utterly surprising about the fact that, throughout the course of the play’s entirety, Laura is being represented as an individual, whose biological vitality has been irrevocably undermined. In its turn, this explains why, as opposed to what it happened to be the case with her mother, the Laura’s sense of existential alienation has strongly defined tragic undertones to it.
Even though that, formally speaking, the play’s narrator (Jim) does not appear to experience the sensation of a societal alienation, this is far from being the actual case. This is because, despite the fact that Jim does tend to indulge in a number of different socialization-related activities, without seeming to suffer any emotional damage, as a result, he finds it increasingly difficult adjusting to his social role of a warehouse-worker.
There is a memorable scene in the play, where Jim comes up with the emotionally-charged speech, on the subject of his deep-seated incompatibility with the idea that working at a warehouse accounts for his ‘true calling’: “You think I’m crazy about the warehouse? You think I’m in love with the Continental Shoemakers?
You think I want to spend fifty-five years down there in that – celotex interior! with – fluorescent – tubes! Look! I’d rather somebody picked up a crowbar and battered out my brains – than go back mornings!” (757). Apparently, being an idealistically-minded young man, Tom could never adjust to the prospect of spending the rest of his life, working as a manual laborer.
This is the reason why, throughout the play, Tom acts as a socially alienated individual, who strives to overcome the sensation of being ‘unfit’ to lead the conventional lifestyle of a laborer by the mean of uttering sarcastic remarks, every time he finds it appropriate.
As King (1973) noted: “Tom toys with the same madness in which his sister Laura is trapped but saves himself with irony” (209). Therefore, just as it happened to be the case with the earlier mentioned characters, Tom appears to have suffered from his deep-seated suspicion of himself being not quite ‘normal’ – hence, the clearly defined motif of alienation to the manner, in which this particular character addresses life-challenges.
Even the play’s most conventional character Jim, also seems to be affected by his realization of the fact that he is not quite as successful, as he hoped he would be: “I hoped when I was going to high-school that I would be further along at this time, six years later, than I am now” (778).
In fact, this appears to be the actual reason why he was able to get along with Laura right away – apparently, Jim was no stranger to the sensation of being a ‘loser’, which is why he could well relate to the Laura’s emotional state of being. However, unlike what it was the case with Tom, Jim never had any aspirations of grandeur, which is why he was able to successfully deal with his alienation-related anxieties (Cluck 87).
The deployed line of argumentation does substantiate the idea that, in The Glass Menagerie, it was specifically the main characters’ subtle understanding that they do not quite belong to this world, which prevented them from being able to enjoy their lives to the fullest. Therefore, it would only be logical to assume that in Williams’s play, the theme of alienation affects plot’s developments more than anything else does.
Given the fact that, it was implied earlier, the realities of a post-industrial living do cause more and more Americans to grow increasingly detached from the classical (euro-centric) conventions of what should be considered one’s ‘purposeful life’, there is nothing too surprising about the cult-status of this particular Williams’s play.
After all, just as it was the case with the characters of Amanda, Tom and Laura, many contemporary Americans (particularly Whites) do realize themselves being in no position to be able to keep up with the pace of a social progress – hence, their tendency to choose in favor of socially-withdrawn lifestyles. I believe that this conclusion fully correlates with the paper’s initial thesis.
Bluefarb, Sam. “The Glass Menagerie: Three Visions of Time.” College English 24.7 (1963): 513-518. Print.
Cluck, Nancy. “Showing or Telling: Narrators in the Drama of Tennessee Williams.” American Literature 51.1 (1979): 84-93. Print.
King, Thomas. “Irony and Distance in ‘The Glass Menagerie’.” Educational Theatre Journal 25.2 (1973): 207-214. Print.
Williams, Tennessee 1945, The Glass Menagerie. Web.
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