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THEMES ANALYSIS - IMAGERY / SYMBOLISM / TITLE MEANING
The main theme of Glass Menagerie is appearance vs. reality. All of the Wingfields live in a world of dreams and illusions. Amanda romanticizes her past, living the belief that she was a wealthy Southern belle with lots of suitors. She also refuses to accept the limitations of her children. She wants Tom to attend college and make something of himself, but he lacks ambition. Amanda refuses to see Laura as a cripple with eccentric behavior; instead, she dreams of marrying her daughter to a gentleman caller who will take care of her forever.
Both of Amanda's children also escape from reality. Tom hates his boring and depressing existence and escapes by going to the movies and dreaming of his own real life adventures. He thinks about sailing to South Sea islands and going on safaris; he even admits that "I seem dreamy." Laura hates being a cripple and facing the outside world; she hides herself away in the coffin-like apartment, playing with her glass menagerie and listening to her father's phonograph records. None of the Wingfields can successfully function in the real world. The name Wingfield even suggests an unreal and illusory life, as if they were birds on flights of fancy.
The title of the play, Glass Menagerie, supports the theme of illusions. A menagerie, a zoo, refers to a group of inhuman creatures. Since the creatures are glass, they are very fragile and not real. The title specifically refers to Laura's collection of glass animals, mainly horses. To escape the harshness of her real existence, Laura spends hours playing with the menagerie; it is an illusory world for her. But the glass menagerie is larger than just Laura's collection. All of the Wingfields are strange creatures who are fragile enough to break easily. Each of them burns "with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation." Like animals in a zoo, they are trapped in their dreary existence, barely making ends meet. The box-like apartment, entered from a fire escape, is a perfect symbol of their confinement.
The theme of illusion is further developed by the glass unicorn, a symbol for Laura. Like the strange horse with an aberration on its head, Laura feels that her handicap is an aberration; it keeps her from participating in life. It is significant that while she is dancing with Jim, an act engaged in by active people with average lives, the couple accidentally bumps against the table; the unicorn falls over, and its horn breaks off. Laura notices that the hornless unicorn looks more natural and states that it will now "feel more at home with the other horses". For an illusory moment, Laura herself has forgotten her handicap and appeared "normal" for the first time in the play. The breakage of the unicorn also foreshadows the outcome of the play. Jim breaks the dreams of Amanda and Laura by revealing that he is engaged to Betty.
There is also a religious theme running throughout the play. Amanda is portrayed as being a woman who practices religious rituals; yet she fails to live out Christian beliefs by treating her children with a lack of respect and ignoring their individual needs. Tom and Laura obviously sense the hypocrisy of their mother's religious overtures and are not at all religious themselves. Tom uses Christian terms only in blasphemous ways, saying things like, "What in Christ's name." Amanda always denounces his curses. At both meal times, when Amanda demands that Grace be said, the prayer is interrupted, first by Tom in Scene One and then by Laura in Scene Six.
There are additional small religious images to be found in the play. Amanda tells an impatient Laura to "possess your soul in patience." She also fears that if Laura does not marry, she will have to eat "the crust of humility" all her life. Amanda denounces Tom's philosophy of living by instincts and tells him that "Christian adults don't want it". The music played for Amanda is "Ave Maria", and there is a martyred look on her face when Laura admits she has stopped attending business school.
The most important of the religious symbols is the fact that Jim is depicted as a potential savior for Amanda and Laura. It is appropriate, therefore, that the scene where Amanda learns that Jim is scheduled to come to dinner the next evening is aptly titled "Annunciation." With an air of expectancy about Jim's arrival, both women dress ritualistically. Amanda "resurrects" a girlish dress from the trunk, and Laura wears a new frock. It is also appropriate that Amanda has chosen to prepare fish for dinner, and both she and Laura serve him. When Laura is alone with Jim in the living room, her reactions to him are described in religious terms; she "is lit inwardly with altar candles." The stage direction after Jim's kiss informs the reader that "the holy candles in the altar of Laura's face have been snuffed out." Jim is not to be her savior.
There is also the scene in the play where "The Resurrection" is figuratively performed by the magician called Malvolio, a name which means hatred. This sham Christ figure converts water into wine and extends it further, converting it into beer and ultimately whisky; in so doing, he sacrileges the miraculous act. He even brings in fish, gold fish, to indicate that modern society worships wealth. The ultimate trick is when Malvolio rises unscathed from a nailed coffin, clearly a reflection of Christ's Resurrection. Tom, who witnesses the trick, metaphorically compares the coffin to his own home. Like the magician, his father has already escaped from the coffin-like existence and Tom will soon do the same disappearing act. Moreover, the only paradise that any of the Wingfields know is the Paradise Dance Hall, located across the alley.
Williams also makes a strong, negative comment about marriage and familial relationships throughout the play. Amanda was deserted by her husband and left to raise two young children. In hoping to fulfill her own misplaced dreams through them, she becomes an overbearing and manipulative mother. As a result, both Laura and Tom feel alienated from her. Laura withdraws into her own world, playing with her glass menagerie and listening to phonograph records left behind by her father. Tom escapes through dreaming about adventures and watching movies. Neither of them seems interested in marriage, probably due to their own father's desertion and Amanda's desperate attempt to find her daughter a husband. Williams makes marriage seem like a cruel game of trade and loss.
The responsibility of the individual is another theme developed in the play. Williams is obviously criticizing the father who has abandoned his two children, only sending them one postcard from Mexico through the years. When Tom follows in his father's footsteps, deserting his mother and sister in order to selfishly seek his own adventures, he is riddled with guilt. Williams is clearly stating through these two characters that responsibility to family is vitally important.
On the surface, The Glass Menagerie seems to be a warm, deeply personal drama rooted in autobiography. But the "social background of the play" that Tom speaks about in his Prologue cannot be disregarded. The time of the play, 1939, indicates the period when Europe was in the thick of fighting. In fact, Tom makes reference to Chamberlain and Guernica and the Spanish Civil War. America will soon be drawn into that war. Therefore, the dreary, non-functioning existence of the Wingfields becomes symbolic of the non- functioning of a larger world beyond St. Louis.