”The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams Argumentative
- Pages: 8
- Word count: 1875
- Category: Play
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The Glass Menagerie was written by Tennessee Williams in 1944-45. it was a turning point in his life and career as it was a major success and commercially and also won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1947. The play is unique because it is difficult to classify it into a genre. It is a ‘memory play’ with a haunting, mystical and yet lyrical quality and provides insight into the melodramatic quality of family life. With its autobiographical implications, the play acquires an even more enchanting status as all the characters are easily identifiable with Williams’ own life.
A number of critics have expressed their opinion and understanding of the play. An unbelievable number of articles and books have been written on it and yet it continues to be an enigma. Every aspect of the play is so intricate that there is obviously a difference of opinion among the critics on a number of issues. Each different criticism lends its own dimension to the play.
The characters of the play are a matter of vast speculation. Tom, being the centre of the play as the narrator, is obviously the target of vast discussion. Even though all criticisms of Tom’s character are based on some common foundations, yet they diverge into vastly different directions and each direction is a revelation in its own way. Since the play proceeds as Tom remembers it, tom is arguably the most important character. Thomas L. King in “Irony and distances in The Glass Menagerie” feels that tom is in fact the only character in the play. The others are only tom’s remembrances and are shown to us through Tom’s point of view. His soliloquies are the essence of the play and the characters have no consciousness independent of Tom. King’s criticism provides a very important insight into the central message of the play which perhaps Williams sought to deliver. It is an insight into an artist’s life which shows how art is created through an artist’s own material life. Tom being an aspiring poet portrays this message convincingly and effectively.
King’s interpretation of Tom’s character is furthered by critics who conform with King about tom being the only character and go further to ay that all the other characters are in fact different facets of Tom’s own personality, personified as characters. Amanda is Tom’s endurance and his frailty and foolishness. Laura is Tom’s low self esteem and inferiority complex, Jim O Connor is the ideal, young man belonging to the real world which Tom would like to be. His father is the escapism in his personality taking effect and he himself is the artist who derives art through his own life.
Harold Bloom in his book “Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie” asserts that though Tom is the central character and the driving force of the play, but the play’s central theme is Tom’s relationship with his crippled sister Laura. Tom loves his sister and wishes the best for her. Even after he leaves home to pursue his dreams, Laura’s memory does not leave him and he is forever clutched into th guilt syndrome. Laura also seems to be the on- screen projection of Williams’s own sister Rose. Thus the relationship between Tom and Laura, reminiscent of the relationship between Williams and Rose, is one of the most important aspects of the play. The autobiographical implications are further given weight when we consider that even Amanda had certain stark similarities with Williams own mother and Tom is almost identical to Williams himself. It is for this reason that the play is even more interesting as the playwright seems to have a bit of himself in the play and this strikes a chord with the audience.
There are several critics who approach the play through Amanda or Laura. Those that assert that Laura is the main protagonist of the play argue that Williams, who was very affected by his own sister rose, incorporated something crippled in his major characters and this fact alone makes Laura the central character of the play. It is her life’s story, her quest for something more, her inferiority complex at being crippled and in all her glass menagerie. Many critics even believe that Amanda, the mother of Laura and Tom is the central character in the play. She makes things happen by constantly pestering Tom to improve his life and that of his sister. She makes him bring Jim O Connor in their lives which results in heart breaking for Laura and Tom leaving home for good to pursue his dreams. As the nagging yet concerned mother, she is the central character. These lines of thought, though difficult to identify with, exist and that alone is the uniqueness of the play. We can approach it from so many different directions and find something new, something beautiful and worth remembering.
Several critics believe that the characters of The Glass Menagerie have biblical implications. They believe that God and morality are the central themes of all plays by Williams and The Glass Menagerie is no exception. All characters are in fact metaphorically represented biblical characters. Judith J. Thompson points out in her book “Tennessee Williams: Memory, Myth and Symbols” that even though a bit difficult to notice, yet the references to The Bible are certainly there. The father, whose portrait looms large over the house and who is omnipresent in all conversations and daily activities, is in fact a reference to God himself. Tom Wingfield symbolizes both the priest and the Cain (the Old Testament’s “wandering Jew”) who wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps but cannot summon up the courage to do so until the end of the play. Jim O Connor is a subtly represented Jesus Christ because of his status as the potential rescuer and saviour for Laura who plays the wounded saint.
Keeping in sync with the symbology, numerous symbols have been used throughout The Glass Menagerie. Since it is a memory play, magic and symbolism play a very important role in creating the correct aura and setting for the play. Critics are almost univocal when it comes to interpreting these symbols as they are quite noticeable and easy to understand. There are two references to Shakespeare. Tom’s role as the narrator seems to be inspired from Propero who was the narrator in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The opening and closing soliloquies by Tom stand testimony to the above fact. Malvolio, the magician who inspires and impresses Tom by his tricks, is a character in The Twelfth Night. The other symbols, abounding as they are in The Glass Menagerie, are easy to notice and interpret.
The Glass Menagerie is a symbol of Laura’s own private world which she has created to escape from the harsh realities. The unicorn which breaks in the Sixth Scene is a symbol of Laura herself who is shattered on discovering that Jim was engaged to another woman. The blue rose is also a symbol for Laura’s beauty as well as her uniqueness and unreality. Jim O Connor, as pointed out by Tom himself in the beginning, is a symbol of the outside, real world. The fire escape is a means of escape from the human desperation in the house. The magician’s impressive trick symbolizes all that Tom wished for in his life- to escape from the house without hurting or harming his sister and mother.
The idea conveyed throughout the play, is therefore of image as opposed to realty. All the characters, except Jim, seem to be living in their own private world to escape the reality of their situation. These private worlds are contrasting and that is the reason for discord among the members of the Wingfield family. Amanda is constantly in her memory of being the Southern belle and that evening when seventeen ‘gentlemen callers’ came to her. She wishes to seek a similar world for her daughter and in the process forgets that her daughter is an individual in her own rights and wishes for something else. She also keeps on pressurizing Tom to secure some gentle men callers for her daughter and irritates him to no end. In short, she is the nagging mother to perfection.
Laura on the other hand is the image of self consciousness and inferiority complex and wishes to remain engrossed in her own private world symbolized by the glass menagerie. All attempts to draw her out are futile and when her does come out in the open with Jim, it turns out to be all the more devastating for her and perhaps she curls up even more and refuses to face the world. Tom is caught up in the vicious web of his affection for his sister on the one hand and his own dreams on the other. Throughout the play, we can see him struggling to reach a decision and finally when he does so in the end, it is more out of frustration than anything else. He is haunted by the memory of his sister wherever he goes on his travels and cannot come above the guilt of leaving his sister.
The ending of the play is just that. It is not a conclusion, things do not straighten themselves out and there is no solution presented to the problems of the Wingfield family. It ends suddenly and that too on a tragic note and even the tragedy leaves behind questions as to who is the tragedy directed. Some critics believe that it is Laura’s tragedy as she closets herself even more in her private world after the devastating incident with Jim. She is left with no hpes for improvement in her condition and with Tom gone, she can no longer hope for any sudden change. It may be Amanda’s tragedy as she is unable to meet the goals that she had made for her children particularly her daughter. With Tom gone, there is no hope of any improvement in their financial condition as well. it may as well be Tom’s tragedy as even after leaving home to pursue his dreams, he is not able to seek his pleasures with a free mind. He is always weighed down by Laura’s memory and caught in guilt for not doing anything for his sister whom he loved a lot.
Thus, the play, though debatable, is a joy to read and a luxury to watch. It opens up many issues and leaves them to the interpretation by the audience and each on can do so in accordance with his thoughts. This is the ultimate beauty of the play and that is why it continues to draw readers and admirers even after many decades of its conception.
Bloom Harold, Introduction Tennessee Williams Ed. Harold Bloom, New York, Chelsea House, 1987, 1-8.
King, Thomas L. Irony and Distances in The Glass Menagerie In Tennessee Williams, Harold Bloom, New York, Chelsea House, 1987, 85- 94
Thompson Judith J. Tennessee Williams’s Plays: Memory, Myth and Symbols New York, Peter Lang, 1989.
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol 31, Detroit, Gale.
Cardullo Bert, Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, The Explicator, Spring 97, Vol 55, Issue 3, 161.