Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
Almost from the outset you know that The Glass Menagerie is going to be a poetic play. Your first clue is Tom's playful use of words. Tom announces, "He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." He also uses metaphors ("the middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind"), and his language is often alliterative as in "fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille...." But in case you missed all that, Tom declares outright, "I have a poet's weakness for symbols."
It is not only Tom who endows the play with poetry. Amanda also has a gift for words. She's especially fond of colorful, figurative language. You'll find some in almost all her lengthy speeches, as in her lecture to Laura about the hopelessness of the future (Scene Two): "-stuck away in some little mousetrap of a room... like birdlike women without any nest-eating the crust of humility...."
Because Tennessee Williams had his own mother in mind when he created Amanda, he tried to make her sound like a dignified Southern lady. (Her lines ought to be spoken with a Southern drawl.) Nothing tasteless or vulgar passes her lips. She often uses the sort of flowery language you'd expect to hear on a veranda in the Old South: "liquid refreshment" for drink, "position" instead of job, and "handsome appearance" rather than good looks.
In addition, Amanda wants to impose her taste in words on her children. She rejects Tom's books as "filth." Also, because she thinks the word "cripple" is offensive, she won't permit Laura to use it. Of course Amanda may deny the word because she refuses to allow Laura to pity herself.
As you study the play some of the symbols, such as Laura's glass menagerie, will virtually explain themselves. You can't miss the similarity between the delicate glass animals and Laura's fragility. On the other hand, you'll have to dig a little to find symbolic meaning in, say, the breaking of the unicorn. At first Jim is a unique hero. But he turns out to be quite ordinary, after all, just as the broken unicorn resembles an ordinary horse. Similarly, during the evening of Jim's visit Laura emerges briefly from her make-believe world into the world of real people leading ordinary lives.
Symbols come in a variety of forms in The Glass Menagerie. You can readily assign symbolic importance to objects (e.g., candles, rainbows, typewriter chart) and to actions (Laura's tripping on the fire escape, Tom's moviegoing). Tom describes Jim O'Connor as a symbolic character who represents deferred hopes for the future. Many of the images projected on the screen suggest deeper meanings, too. Take, for example, "Jolly Roger" (Tom's desire for adventure) and "Annunciation" (the news that Jim is coming to dinner). Perhaps the whole play, acted out behind transparent screens and dimly lit, symbolizes the workings of memory. As you search through the text for symbols you're not likely to come up empty handed. But guard against turning everything into a symbol. You need to support your interpretations with solid evidence from the play.