“The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams: Tom and His Irony
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Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” has achieved a firmly established position in the canon of American plays. However, the play itself is traditionally misunderstood or distorted in terms of analysis of key topics and characters. From my standpoint, Tom, and not Amanda, though she is a powerful and striking character, is a central and the most important figure of “The Glass Menagerie.” Tom opens the play and he closes it; he also opens the second act and two further scenes in the first act – his is the first word and the last. Indeed, Amanda, Laura, and the Gentleman Caller do not appear in the play at all as separate characters, in a sense, as Merle Jackson noted, Tom is the only character in the play, for we see not the characters but Tom’s memory of them -Amanda and the rest are merely aspects of Tom’s consciousness (Jackson, 86). Practically, the complete meaning of the scenes between the soliloquies is embedded not in themselves alone but also in the commentary provided by Tom standing outside the scenes and speaking with reasonable candor to the readers and audience.
The nature of the narrator’s role as artist figure is indicated by Tom’s behavior in the scenes. He protects himself from the savage in-fighting in the apartment by maintaining distance between himself and the pain of the situation through irony. For example, when he gets into a fight with Amanda in the third scene and launches into a long, ironic, and even humorous tirade – about how he “runs a string of cat-houses in the valley,” how they call him “Killer, Killer Wingfield,” how, on some occasions, he wears green whiskers – the irony is heavy and propels him our of the painful situation and out of the argument.
Irony remains to be the dominant note of the second soliloquy, at the beginning of the third scene. In the first soliloquy, Tom has provided the audience with a poignant picture of Laura and Amanda cut off from the world “that we were somehow set apart from.” If in the second soliloquy irony almost completely obliterates the poignancy, the third soliloquy begins with the Paradise Dance Hall: “Across the alley from us was the Paradise Dance Hall. On evenings in spring the windows and doors were open and the music came outdoors. Sometimes the lights were turned out except for a large glass sphere that hung from the ceiling. It would turn slowly about and filter the dusk with delicate rainbow colors.” Paradise Dance Hall provides the rainbow colors that fill and transform the alley. The irony breaks through in only a few places: when Tom disrupts the mood of magic by pointing out that you could see the young couples “kissing behind ash-pits and telephone poles,” and, as usual, at the end when he says, “All the world was waiting for bombardments.”
The soliloquies are of a great importance: they all alternate between sentiment and irony, between mockery and nostalgic regret, and they all end with an ironic tag, which, in most cases, is humorous. They show us the artist manipulating his audience, seeming to be manipulated himself to draw them in, but in the end resuming once more his detached stance. When Tom departs, the audience is left with Laura and Amanda alone before the dead, smoking candles, and Tom escapes into his artist’s detachment having exorcized the pain with the creation of the play.
Jackson M. The Broken World of Tennessee Williams, Madison, Wisconsin, 1966