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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams-Book Notes
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THE CHARACTERS

TOM WINGFIELD

When Tennessee Williams created Tom he pulled a neat trick. He created a character who exists outside and inside the play's action at the same time. When you see him standing on the fire escape adjoining the Wingfield apartment, Tom is the narrator. He is outside the action. He is a seasoned merchant sailor who's traveled on both land and sea. He's a good talker, too, the kind you might like to spend an evening with over a few beers. He can be funny, as when he describes his runaway father as a "telephone man who fell in love with long distances."

One actor's reading of Tom's lines can give you the impression that Tom regrets being a wanderer. Another actor can create the sense that Tom looks back with relief, pleased that he broke away, at least from his mother. Regardless of the interpretation you favor, you know that Laura, Tom's sister, has a firm hold on his affections. "Oh, Laura, Laura," he says in the play's final speech, "I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!" Evidently, memory is a potent force, one that Tom can't escape. Or, looking at Tom's character yet another way, you might conclude that he has stepped beyond the bounds of a brotherly concern for Laura into a more forbidding relationship.

Because the whole play is Tom's memory brought to life on the stage, Tom may be the most important character. However, you could make a case for Amanda's importance as well. Either way, Tom sets the sentimental mood of the play and reveals only what he wants you to know about his family. If Amanda narrated the play, can you imagine how different it would be?

Tom calls himself a poet. He writes poetry at every opportunity. You hear poetic speeches pour from his lips. A co-worker at the warehouse calls him "Shakespeare." Does he deserve the name? Do any of his speeches sound like poetry to you?

In addition, Tom claims a poet's weakness for symbols. In fact, the story bulges with symbols of all kinds, some obvious (the little glass animals signifying Laura), some more obscure (frequent references to rainbows, for example). For a full discussion of symbolism in the play, see the Symbol section of this volume.

You rarely see Tom in a cheerful mood. He complains, groans, sulks, argues, or pokes fun at others, especially at Amanda. He bristles under her constant nagging. He quarrels about inviting home a beau for Laura. Most of all, he is repelled by Amanda's repeated references to her long-ago past. Why do Amanda's stories bother him so? Is his reaction typical of children listening to parents recount tales of their youth?


Tom's resentful manner leads his mother to accuse him of having a "temperament like a Metropolitan [Opera] star." Does Amanda have a point? Is Tom preoccupied with pleasing himself? Or do you sympathize with Tom? Tom's obligations seem to tear him apart. He's caught between responsibilities to his family and to himself. In short, he faces a dilemma that's often part of growing up. Which, in your opinion, ought to take precedence: family responsibility or personal ambition?

To cope with frustration and pain Tom sometimes uses bitter humor. When Amanda accuses him of leading a shameful life, he knows it's futile to argue. So he jokes with his mother about his second identity as "Killer Wingfield" and "El Diablo," the prince of the underworld. Or when Amanda is about to start reminiscing about Blue Mountain, he comments ironically to Laura, "I know what's coming."

Humor provides only a little relief, however. That's why he rushes off to the movies whenever he can. Watching someone else's adventures on the movie screen offers Tom another diversion from his own dreary existence. But since he has to come out of the dark theater and face life again, escape to the movies solves no problems. At great cost Tom learns that running away from problems never clears them from your mind. Even when he flees St. Louis, he takes along his memories as mental baggage. He can't escape the past, however hard he tries. Escape, he discovers in the end, is an illusion, too.

What Tom tells you as he stands at the edge of the stage may be more than just the story of one young man's disillusion. You might think of Tom as a representative of a whole generation of young people coming of age just as the world is exploding into war. They have high hopes and rich dreams. But the future they wish for never comes. It is destroyed by forces beyond their control. "The world is lit by lightning," Tom says.

Tom's story, then, may be both personal and generally symbolic of life at a bleak time in our history. You can read it either way.

AMANDA WINGFIELD

In the production notes of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams tells you that Amanda is "a little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place.... There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at." Do you agree? Do you find her as
difficult to bear as Tom does?

In contrast to Tom, who sets the mood in the play, Amanda is a mover, the character who sets the story into motion. Therefore, you might consider her the play's main character. Throughout the play Tom, Laura and Jim respond to Amanda's stimulating and complex personality. Even her husband, who has run from her, showed a distinctive response to Amanda. Tom shares a few tender moments with his mother, but more typically, he's put off by her scolding and nagging. Laura, unlike her brother, usually obeys Amanda's wishes and tries to understand her. Jim, during dinner with the Wingfields, is caught up by Amanda's vibrant cheerfulness.

What are you likely to remember most about Amanda? Is it her irrational and inappropriate belief in the romantic past? Or might it be her pathetic conviction that her children are bound to succeed in life because of their "natural endowments?" She refuses to accept the fact that Tom is a malcontent with a dead-end job. As for Laura, Amanda denies that her daughter has anything wrong with her that a little charm and a typing course won't fix. Even Jim O'Connor, quite an ordinary young man, strikes Amanda as a shining prince destined to rescue and marry Laura. Amanda's wishes for her children sometimes leave her blind to reality.

To understand Amanda you should decide whether she is really as far gone as she often appears. Is she unaware of the truth, or does she simply refuse to accept it? Despite her frequent silliness, she evidently has a practical streak. She thinks seriously about the future. That's why she presses Tom to bring home a friend for Laura.

Obviously, Amanda acts foolish much of the time. But she nevertheless has admirable qualities. Amanda tries hard to be a good mother. After her husband runs off, she does the best she can to provide for her family. Above all, she is strong, stronger than Tom and stronger than her husband. When all her efforts have failed, she sticks by Laura. She emerges tender and noble. And you can depend on her never to give up hope. At the end of the play, with Tom enroute to the seven seas and Laura brokenhearted over Jim, Amanda shows "dignity and tragic beauty." What, in your opinion, is the source of Amanda's transformation? Or might she have had dignity and tragic beauty within her all along?

LAURA WINGFIELD

It's more than coincidental that the play's title refers to the collection of glass animals that belongs to Laura. She is so fragile that she can hardly function in the real world. Not surprisingly, her favorite figure in the menagerie is the unicorn, a creature which Laura calls "freakish," which is precisely the way Laura has felt much of her life. Can you think of other qualities of the unicorn that resemble Laura?

Laura frequently escapes to a private, imaginary world occupied by fragile glass animals. When you consider Laura's personality, can you speculate on why the menagerie is glass rather than some other material?

Of the three Wingfields, Laura stands in the greatest peril, for she lacks both the strength of Amanda and the potential to escape, like Tom. Laura creates the impression that she's forever going to be a misfit. The world is simply too harsh for her. She confesses to Jim how awkward she felt in high school. She wore a brace on her leg and believed that everyone in school noticed her "clumping" around. As people grow older they usually overcome feelings of shyness. Why didn't Laura?

In spite of her fragility, though, Laura is the most serene member of her family. She leaves the worrying to Amanda and Tom. Sometimes she may remind you of a child who creates havoc and doesn't know it. In her innocence, Laura doesn't realize how Tom and Amanda bleed for her.

It's possible to think of Laura as merely a timid, neurotic little girl, totally absorbed in her own troubles. But can you find more substance in her character? Is she sensitive to Amanda and to Tom in any way? Does she contribute to the well being of her family? You may not have to search far to find likeable and sympathetic traits in Laura's personality.

Laura hides in her make-believe world. Only once, during Jim O'Connor's visit, does she venture out of it into the world of reality. Jim has given Laura a bit of self-confidence. He even convinces her to dance with him. During the dance, they bump the table, knocking the glass unicorn to the floor and breaking off its single horn. Do you see the symbolism of this mishap? Laura, for a short time, feels like any other girl who has been swept off her feet by the boy of her dreams. Unfortunately for Laura, though, the time of her life lasts no more than a few minutes.

When Tom leaves home for good, why do thoughts of Laura haunt his memory? Is he plagued by guilt? Does he love her more than a brother should? Does Laura have charms that have gotten under his skin?

JIM O'CONNOR

Tom tells you in his opening speech that Jim is an emissary from the world of reality. If that is so, reality must be a fairly dull place, for Jim is a nice, but rather ordinary, young man. On the surface, he is well-mannered, hard-working, and responsible. He is a pleasant guest, and he dutifully entertains Laura after dinner. He does all you'd expect him to. Why, then, is Jim so disappointing?

Even Jim himself knows that he's a disappointment, although he puts up a smooth-talking and self-confident front. When you consider his admirable high school record, he should be racing up the ladder of success by now. Instead, he's still in the pack.

Common wisdom, which Jim believes, says that if you work hard, you'll succeed. Jim has worked hard, but he hasn't succeeded. So he takes self-improvement courses in public speaking, thinking that greater "social poise" will help him land the executive position of his dreams. He's also studying radio engineering in order to get in on the ground floor of the new television industry. He seems to be doing all the right things and saying the right things, too, about opportunity and progress in America. But the ideas sound trite, as though Jim is mouthing someone else's words.

Although he's trying hard, you never know if Jim will make it big. Perhaps he will. On the other hand, when you recall that illusion dominates the play, you might suspect that Jim's plans are pure fancy, and that he's placed too much faith in a hollow dream. In the end, he may just plod along like everyone else. After dinner at the Wingfields Jim is pleased with himself for winning Laura so easily. His conquest reminds him of his high school days when he held the world in his hands. Laura is good for his ego. He's driven to pursue his dream, even if he has to step on others as he goes. Finally, he dismisses Laura with the news that he's engaged. Dinner at the Wingfields' turns out to be only a brief stop along the way to elusive success.

Should Jim have revealed his engagement earlier in the evening? Was he under any obligation to do so? Or was it all right for him to wait until the end of his visit? If he had told his marriage plans earlier, Laura would have missed a few moments of happiness. Does that fact by itself justify Jim's action? What would you have done under similar circumstances?

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