Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is a story which gives many symbolisms in an attempt to draw the connection between reality and illusion, fact and fiction. More importantly, the characters in the story appear to face certain difficulties in relating to reality, or accepting reality at the least. It goes to show that the story is one which emphasizes the shortcomings of human beings or their dire attempts to understand the things that go beyond the capacity of their minds to comprehend.
There are several symbolisms or images in the story which highlight the attempt to bridge reality and fiction, to the point that creates an image of the surreal. For instance, the fire escape scene in the beginning part of the story illustrates Mr. Wingfield’s world of illusion bridged by the fire escape towards the real world. The bridge which is symbolized by the fire escape appears to be a one-way passage, although this would have to vary in context especially in terms of the perception of every character. For example, Tom sees the ‘bridge’ as the escape route away from the illusory world of Laura and Amanda and into the real world.
On the other hand, Laura sees the bridge as the way that leads straight into her world, one which is a path that gives an escape from the world of reality (Bluefarb, p. 515). This variation in the interpretation of the ‘bridge’ or of the fire escape tells us something which can hardly be noticed on first reading. Given the observation that there is a difference in the perception of Tom and Laura about the fire escape and, hence, their desire to go for the real world or the illusory world, it tells us that The Glass Menagerie initially presents the ways in which people could prefer one over the other (King, p. 09).
It gives us the initial impression that certain individuals may prefer the world of illusions over the world of reality, and the other way around can also be said about other people. In the long run, the disparity regarding the appreciation of either worlds by certain individuals tells us that one can hardly express one’s ‘world’ to others when others are unwilling to be a part of that world. The case of Tom and Laura presents the contrast wherein one wants the real world whereas the other wants to get away from it.
It’s not only a simply disparity of beliefs or of inclinations. It is also a disparity of what one abhors or seeks to get away from which, ironically, does not apply to everybody else. Tom also has the habit of going to movie houses watching films, one which symbolizes his desire to escape reality and go towards places which can draw him nearer to a world of fantasy. His routine of escaping his apartment and proceeding to the movies tells us how his preference for the movies has become ‘habituated’, thereby pushing Tom to lose his interest for the real world.
It pushes him to the point of having more interest for the movies than having more interest for his life in the apartment. More importantly, it pushes him to the point of having more interest for the world of fantasy, or of illusion, than having more interest in the real world. Mr. Wingfield’s absorption into the thought of long distance voices from people he could not see but only hear through his telephone company led to his abandonment of the family.
This symbolizes the idea that one’s responsibilities towards those
Despite the fact that Jim is more of an ‘average man’ lacking any outstanding qualities in life, he is a person who Laura sees as the representation of reality—the reality which Laura fears and seeks to escape. For Amanda, Jim is the type of person who symbolizes her youthful days, the times when she gone frolicking with many men. Apparently, Amanda and Laura see Jim as a person who reminds them of quite different things. For Amanda, Jim is reminder of her younger days. On the other hand, he is a fearful reminder of the real world for Laura.
This situation gives us the impression where two people have differing interpretations of the importance or role of other people in their lives. One person can reflect differing reminders to others, which is indeed ironic precisely because there is only one person where the ‘reminders’ emanate from. This goes to show that the things which sow fear into our hearts and cast reminders of our younger days can only do so through the ways in which we comprehend those things. It can then be said that the ways in which we relate others to our fears and memories depend on the way in which we appreciate others.
That is one of the symbolisms being taught to us by The Glass Menagerie, giving the readers the idea that the ways in which we view the world really depends on how we appreciate the world, and that the divide between the world of illusions and the world of reality is either diminished or reinforced depending on what we make out of that apparent division. Laura’s glass menagerie is perhaps one of the most obvious objects of symbolism in the story which further highlights the apparent division between the real world and the illusory world.
Laura’s glass collection symbolizes who she is, relating to those glass objects very strongly as if she and her glass collection are one and the same beings (Gunn, p. 370). For the most part, whatever that the glass menageries represent is also the same representation for Laura. For example, the time when Laura told Jim that the unicorn is different from the rest of the glass menageries can also be said to symbolize how Laura is different from other people. Laura also pointed out that even though the unicorn is different from the rest, it does not complain out of that difference.
That can also be said to directly represent Laura’s view that even though she is seen as different from other people she does not even bother complaining about that. There is also the time when Tom accidentally broke some of Laura’s glass menagerie after rushing to go to the movies which symbolizes the instance where Tom broke his responsibilities to Laura. It should also be noted that glass, when shone upon with light, refracts that light into a spectrum of colors like a rainbow. In the same manner, the life of Laura, when penetrated by other people—like Tom, Amanda and Jim—will also show the different sides of Laura.
The variety of her glass collections tells us that she is indeed not only a dull person living a monotonous life. Rather, the inner part of her self will reveal the multitude of personalities she has once shone into by the light of others. Perhaps it can also be said that Laura has the capacity to reveal to others the many sides to her personality if only those who are close to her will have the time to pause for a while and give her enough attention. One of the more interesting parts of the story is the scene where the horns of Laura’s unicorns are broken off, making the unicorn just any other ‘normal’ horse.
That scene symbolizes the idea that one need first be ‘broken’ in order to become normal just like other people. That idea very much applies to Laura since she is seen as an ‘unusual’ individual trapped in her world of illusions. The part where Jim breaks the heart of Laura can also be said as the part where the horn of the unicorn is broken off, thus making Laura any other normal person in the real world. Breaking a person is oftentimes needed just to awaken that person back to the real world where ‘normal’ people live.
Glass is also said to be a very delicate object that can easily be broken when not properly taken good care of. In the story, it is obvious that the glass menageries of Laura represent her delicate personality, one which can easily be shattered into many pieces and never to be put back to their original state again once broken (Rogoff, p. 89). And like the case when the unicorn’s horn was broken, the time when Laura seemed broken after Jim’s revelation would separate her from her world of illusions for the rest of her life.
In real life, people do not change quite easily to the point that they would first have to experience a life-shattering moment in their lives. Sometimes it requires an experience which is truly life-changing in many ways, one that challenges the very personality of the person in both heart and soul, mounting into like an insurmountable challenge that pierces right through one’s emotions. The hardest part of it all would have to be the part where everything seems to be unclear, the part where everything seems to be in their harshest levels, thus prompting one to almost give up on life.
Yet those who are able to transcend the hardest moments in life are perhaps those who are able to break away from their shells, out of their world of fantasies and illusions and into the real world, taking them back to a normal life where they rightfully belong. Indeed, the glass collections of Laura deeply represent her personality, and that whatever happens to the glass objects has something to do with Laura as well. Given the fact that the glass objects are ‘clear’, it can also be said that one can easily see through the personality of Laura no matter how hard she may try to hide it in her illusory world (Scheidler, p. 5). With that in mind, it should be the case that people close to Laura should very well be able to understand her situation and comprehend her feelings without difficulty. Apparently, this is certainly not the case as those people close to her even have a hard time putting enough attention to Laura. That is so because each of the individuals in the story do not share the same world that Laura has. Tom, Amanda and Jim all have their own respective ‘worlds’, so to speak. There is also hardly any ‘convergence’ among the worlds of the characters as each of them is busy trying to live with the world that they each live in.
Perhaps the most intriguing analysis of the symbolisms in the story is that they transcend the characters in the story. That is, the symbolisms in the story actually represent the life of the author, Tennessee Williams, given the fact that the story is a ‘memory’ play. If indeed it is the case that The Glass Menagerie represents the life of Tennessee Williams, then it can hardly be doubted that for at least once in his life the author has experienced moments in his life where he was broken, taking his life back to the real world away from the world where his illusions once defined who he is (Loney, p. 9). In conclusion, there are many ways of interpreting the symbolisms and imageries in The Glass Menagerie inasmuch as there are numerous symbols and images in the story where representations can be made. Nevertheless, the substance of the story tells us that the story as a whole reflects the idea of breaking away from the world of illusions in order to be truly normal.