Glass Menagerie Symbolism Essay

This essay has a total of 2420 words and 9 pages.

Glass Menagerie Symbolism


In his drama, The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams uses symbolism in order to develop
multi-faceted characters and to display the recurring themes of the play. These various
symbols appear throughout the entire piece, and they are usually disguised as objects or
imagery. They allow the reader to know the characters' personalities, and their true
inside characteristics. These symbols also add to the major themes, which develop as the
play gains momentum. In the drama, symbols play the most important role.

One of the most recurring symbols is the glass menagerie itself. It consists of glass
animals frozen in form and it is housed at the Wingfield's apartment. The glass menagerie
has a high amount of meaning for all of the characters in this play. 'Ultimately, the
glass menagerie is symbolic of all their shattered dreams, failing to fulfill their
transcendent aspirations, the Wingfields find themselves confined to a wasteland reality,
their dreams become a 'heap of broken images''; (Thompson 15). Just as the menagerie
itself is frozen in time, the Wingfields are also. They are restricted to the one way of
living that they have practiced as time had passed, so they do not know how to break free
of that confinement. All the characters as a whole have tried to escape the harsh reality,
but in every case they manage to fail, and in turn shatter their dreams like glass. This
continuing struggle is a large part of the major theme of The Glass Menagerie.

Just as the glass menagerie represents all of the characters as a whole, it also
represents each character individually. 'Though the glass menagerie is most directly
relevant to Laura, all four characters have sublimated their animal drives into esthetics.
Laura has her glass animals, Tom his movies and poems, Amanda her jonquil-filled memories
distorted into hopes, and Jim his baritone cliches of progress'; (Cohn 101). Though Amanda
blames her children alone for relying on false illusions, she too carries this fault.
Although it is obvious that the glass menagerie represents Laura because of her frailty,
Tom, Amanda, and even Jim are exemplified too. They all concentrate their powers in
illusions, only in different ways.

More specifically, the glass menagerie unravels the character of Laura and lets the reader
into her true personality. The glass menagerie 'embodies the fragility of Laura's world,
her search for beauty; it registers sensitively changes in lighting and stands in vivid
contrast to the harshness of the outer world which can (and does) shatter so easily';
(Stein 110-111). Glass itself, being so fragile, is the perfect item that can symbolize
Laura. Just as it can shatter so easily when exposed, Laura can too. The glass being
translucent also symbolizes Laura's struggle to become her own person and to let her
inside feelings know to the world. Though it is learned that Laura has a physical
handicap, and emotional handicap lies within her also. It enables her to lead a normal
life, and restricts her to illusions. The glass menagerie symbolizes this because it shows
that Laura as an unreal image, not made of the human characteristics others possess.

Drained of the courage and self-esteem needed to face the world, all that is left is a
defenseless girl unable to face the world. The glass menagerie's 'frozen animal forms
image her own immobilized animal or sexual nature, her arrested emotional development, and
her inability to cope with the demands of a flesh-and-blood world'; (Thompson 15). The
menagerie also symbolizes the change, which takes place when Laura is exposed to Jim. Jim
reveals a side of Laura that the reader is not familiar with at this time. He recharges
her self-confidence and boasts her courage and trust, but this does not last. As described
by Williams, 'A fragile, unearthly prettiness has cone out in Laura,'; when with Jim, 'she
is like a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary, not actual, not
lasting'; (Williams 69). It is obvious that Laura has changed, but this change does not
become permanent.

Just as the menagerie represents Laura, it also holds significance for Laura's mother,
Amanda. Throughout the drama, Amanda tells her children about the life she lived when she
was young and living at Blue Mountain. She recalls her dozens of gentlemen callers and her
popularity at the time. Seeing how time has changed for Amanda from her youth to the time
presented in the play, it is plain to understand why she would try to relive her past.
Amanda wishes that her life would be as simple and enjoyable as it was when she was young.
She also wants to create such a happy childhood for her two children. Amanda tries to
force upon her views to Laura and Tom, and in turn wants to live in the past. She yearns
for Laura to have gentlemen callers as she had, and tries to make this dream a reality.
'It is Amanda who names Laura's collection a 'glass menagerie,' in which animal drives are
frozen into esthetic objects, and it is she who longs for gentlemen callers in an ungentle
world'; (Cohn 101). Amanda tries to freeze her life to preserve the girl she once was. The
glass menagerie, being frozen in time, symbolizes Amanda's wishes for Laura to live the
life Amanda once had.

One specific member of the glass menagerie, the unicorn, plays an important part in
symbolizing the situation between Laura and Jim (the gentleman caller). As Jim and Laura
become more closely acquainted, Jim changes Laura and makes her a more solid being.
Symbolically, the horn of the glass unicorn (Laura's favorite piece) breaks off when Jim
is exposed to it. Metaphorically, this occurs right after Jim reveals his marital
situation to Laura. When Laura finds out that Jim is engaged to be married, a part of her
breaks too. When Jim breaks the glass unicorn's horn, he is unintentionally bringing Laura
into the real world. This also symbolizes the breaking of Laura's hope, which adds to the
major theme of the drama (Adler 2069-2070). In high school, Laura was the unicorn in a
society full of horses. Because she was shy and had a leg brace, she was considered an
outcast, and overall, different. Symbolically, the unicorn's horn breaks off just as Laura
breaks out of her closed shell (Mendez 1). Originally, Laura is delicate and unique, as is
the unicorn. She is different because of her disability, but internally, she is a girl who
missed a couple steps while growing up. When the unicorn loses its horn and becomes like
the rest of the animals in the glass menagerie, it loses its uniqueness. Likewise, when
Laura gains confidence through Jim, she realizes that she is not too different from
everyone else. This is a characteristic that is able to be overcome, but just needs some
assistance (Ross 1). Jim brings out Laura's inside, but then destroys it when the truth is
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