Laura Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie by Williams

Introduction

The play The Glass Menagerie describes a unique experience of people during 1940s and their relations with the outside world. Laura Wingfield symbolizes unmitigated difference. Her “morbid shyness” (to use a phrase Williams had applied to himself as a boy) prevents her from having any kind of normal relationship with others. Her lameness, and more precisely, the brace she has to wear, materializes this difference. The uniqueness of the play is that readers perceive and understand the character of Laura Wingfield through her relations with other characters, Tom, her brother, Amanda her mother and Jim, her fiancé.

Thesis

The play is based on irony and symbolism which allow Tennessee Williams to create a unique atmosphere and appeal to emotions of readers and their feelings. The purpose of the paper is to give readers better understanding of Laura Wingfield and to get better understanding of the role in which plays and actions that she makes. Symbolism

The materialization of values and traditions is reflected in the symbol of unicorn, Laura’s favorite little glass animal. Revealingly, dancing with Laura, Jim accidentally causes it to fall and lose its single horn. Laura muses: “Now it is just like all the other horses… Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.” She will just imagine that he had an operation: “The horn was removed to make him feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns” (Williams 108). The brace and the brittle glass menagerie–most strikingly, the unicorn that has to be symbolically castrated to merge with the group–are significant theatrical props (materializing the misery and splendor of difference), but in the Glass Menagerie the true textual symbol of difference is that of the “blue roses.” A few years before the stage action begins, Laura had had to stay away from school. Having thought that Laura had said “blue roses” Jim had jokingly nicknamed her “Blue roses.” Today he comments that, if ordinary people are as common as weeds,

“but–you–well–, you’re–Blue Roses!” Laura: But blue is wrong for–roses… Jim: It’s right for you! (Williams, p. 108).

As the play begins, a long time after the events related, the sailor whose domain is limitless fluidity returns to the now empty apartment, incapable of forgetting his sister who remains in his mind as the embodiment of unmitigable alienation (Bloom, p. 47).

Laura’s glass animals, especially the unicorn, which is broken, symbolize the tenuousness of her hold on reality, the ease with which her illusion may be shattered. Of her, Williams says, “the lovely fragility of glass which is her I mage.” This symbol is relevant to the other characters also, for their ability to exist at all in the world rests on illusions as easily destroyed as the unicorn (Bloom, p. 62).

Glass Menagerie is a symbol of false dreams and inability of the main character to see the truth about her life. The Glass Menagerie suggests the wholesome use of a living tradition to the artist. Unlike his fellow Mississippians William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, Williams has no strong feeling for place. Like Tom Wingfield, he is a rover; and when he returns to Mississippi for a setting it is more often than not for exotic effect, not for cultural reasons (Tischler, p. 28). Williams’s use of the South for shock value is gross and deliberate, but the part the South plays in shaping his moral vision is more impressive because it is unselfconscious. In the character of Amanda, The Glass Menagerie moves almost imperceptibly into mythic meaning. The character of Laura Wingfield is unveiled through the symbol of unicorn and the glass menagerie she admires most of all (Bloom, p. 49).

Irony

Ironic details allow Williams to unveil reality of life and false ideals imposed by Amanda on Laura. This consideration brings us finally to a reassessment of the end of the play: Tom’s command, “Blow out your candles, Laura—and so goodbye” (Williams, p. 12) that plunges both of them into the dark. We have seen a similar effect at the end of The Two Character Play described by Williams as a Liebestod (but one that must not be blatant); and we must associate it with the “holy candles” said to glisten in Laura’s eyes, with the fact that the candlesticks came from a church that was struck by lightning, and with the way that the final blackout reenacts Tom’s previous betrayal of the family to darkness when he misappropriated the electricity money—just as his deliberate smashing of his glass at the end, in exasperation at his mother, recapitulates his earlier, accidental smashing of Laura’s glass animals and Jim’s disfigurement of the unicorn (both light and glass being symbols for Laura herself, who is described as resembling “transparent glass touched with light”) (Tischler 32) If readers take into account, furthermore, the fact that Tom bids Laura put out her own candles, surely what we are faced with at the end is not only a regretful, tender and pathetic mood (though, of course, we do have that, very powerfully), but also a ruthless reenactment of Tom’s original violation of his sister’s trust. The gentlemen callers begin as a joke (Bloom, p. 25).

Amanda exaggerates her glories, like the number of gentlemen callers, but the idea of a very different way of life is real, and this is enough to establish her as the dominant interest in the play. When she talks of Blue Mountain, her children patronize her and laugh behind her back. “I know what’s coming,” Tom says. “Yes. But let her tell it,” Laura says. “She loves to tell it” (Williams 34). Then Amanda simpers and capers in a mere burlesque of the high life she recalls as a Southern belle. Tom wants to know how she managed to entertain all those gentlemen callers. She knew the art of conversation, she says. A girl in those days needed more than a pretty face and figure, “although I wasn’t slighted in either respect”; she had to know how to talk and to discuss significant things. “Never anything coarse or common or vulgar” (Williams 87). Amanda’s escape from the dreary present is different from Tom’s and Laura’s. They try to escape reality, but she in her own way is coming to grips with it, by trying to make a breadwinner out of Tom and by securing Laura’s future with a career or marriage. “Both of my children—they’re unusual children! Don’t you think I know it? I’m so—proud!” (Williams, p. 86).

The gentlemen callers are not designed to reflect her popularity so much as to suggest to her children the larger possibilities that life has to offer which they from limited experience are unable to see (Tischler, p. 33). The gentlemen callers begin as a joke; Amanda herself is a joke, in the eyes of her children and of the generation which they represent; but Williams’s concept of a very different way of life in his native South enables him to transmute the silly mother and her dreams into something which is noble and true. In its larger meaning, Amanda’s tragedy becomes a parable of the inadequacy of modem life (Bloom, p. 95).

Tom having said to their mother, “Laura is very different from other girls,” Amanda replies, “I think the difference is all to her advantage” (Williams, p. 65). On stage, the objective correlative of imagination and art into which Laura has retreated is the eponymous glass menagerie that she spends hours taking care of. The sparkling glass also represents the more or less imaginary shining past nostalgically remembered by Amanda: when Tom insults his mother, brutally bringing her back to reality, to the present, he makes a violent gesture and upsets the glass menagerie: “there is a tinkle of shattering glass. Laura cries out as if wounded” (Williams, p. 42). In this way, the playwright highlights the absence of flexibility, the lack of fluidity in Amanda’s and Laura’s dreams which can be shattered by the intrusion of reality. The most dramatic scene between the representative of reality and that of imagination, between normalcy and difference, occurs when Jim and Laura find themselves alone. In high school Laura had had a secret crush on Jim; now, a few years later, she comes into close contact with him for the first time: trying to boost her morale Jim goes so far as to kiss her. Amanda herself is ridicules, in the eyes of her children and of the generation which they represent; but Williams’s concept of a very different way of life in his native South enables him to transmute the silly mother and her dreams into something which is noble and true. In its larger meaning, Amanda’s tragedy becomes a parable of the inadequacy of modem life (Bloom, p. 54).

Imagery

Imagery is another important stylistic device which helps Williams to create emotional tension and intensify feelings of the play. Tom and Laura relationship not only is more central to the play’s action than might have been assumed from the critics’ concentration on the mother (Amanda), but also is treated with a startling range of moods: in particular, with a considerable variety of attitudes to the Laura character, ranging all the way from quiet, stoic heroism at one extreme to sheer neurasthenic bitchiness at the other. “She shrinks from strangers, from confrontations. We see her as a pale shadow of her dominating mother, lacking her vivacity, courage, and grit” (Tischler 29). The key to both these problems lies in the ambiguity of Tom’s attitude to Laura. This attitude is, of course, basically one of loving regret for having abandoned her. There are hints of complexity in the brother’s remembrance of his relation to his sister, then, that seem directly linked to the very innovative “plastic theatre” devices of the staging (to use Williams’s own terminology in the production notes to the play) (Bloom, p. 66).

Williams’s “memory play” uses the box-within-box structure perfected by Pirandello as a comment on the self-referentiality of theatre; and its final effect is rather like that famous mime of Marcel Marceau in which a man trapped in a small box worms his way out of it only to find himself trapped in a bigger box outside. “Taking it as a symbol of Laura herself, fragile and beautiful, the author plays with the more specific figure of the unicorn. Here we see the complete development of a complex idea, hinted at in the dialogue” (Tischler, p. 33). This “memory play” is often spoken of as an exorcism of the past, but, if so, it is no more than an attempt to exorcise. It is better understood as an obsessive reliving of the experience in an attempt to come to terms with it, which recurs to Tom against his will, as is clear from the end of his last speech: “Oh, Laura Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be.” (Williams, p. 143). Similarly, understanding of the pattern throws light on the element of laborateness, of slightly false posturing, poeticizing and self-conscious symbol making in some of Tom’s framework speeches, especially towards the end (Bloom, p. 39).

The very sense of “forcing” in the style makes us question the integrity of the speaker, alerting us to ambivalences in his attitude: his wish to justify himself as well as to grieve, his surrender to emotion but at the same time his ironic, self-defensive distancing from it. And this sense of ambivalence, of wishing to withdraw and deny at the same time as to relive and accept, is particularly important for the much maligned projection device. Like the theatricalism of having the characters mime eating or Tom playing the first scene “as though reading from a script,” projections such as the sailing vessel with the Jolly Roger which accompanies Tom’s dreams of adventure (and links them, incidentally, to Jim’s high-school swaggering in The Pirates of Penzance) serve to maintain an ironic distance between the early Tom-within-the-play and the later Tom-remembering, through whose presentation the audience must willy-nilly experience the play (Bloom 40). It creates a gap between the commentary of Tom-remembering and the audience’s own emotional reactions to events, like that Texas draft in which Tom is made to argue about the play directly with the audience. this appears most disturbingly in relation to Laura, who is otherwise a wholly sympathetic character without the dimension of absurdity that is clear in Amanda, Jim, and Tom himself. She is given such a dimension (Tischler, p. 33).

This ambiguity extends to the Tom-Laura relationship, which, far more than the cruder, more obvious relation to Amanda, determines the play’s tone and mood; and its main key lies in the expressionistic dramaturgy of The Glass Menagerie—the various devices that ironize, distance, and complicate emotional response—which is so often ignored or unjustly dismissed. That dramaturgy anticipates from the first the obsessions and techniques with which Tennessee Williams’s career concluded. The changes made in Jim’s lines provide a sharper contrast to the future predicted for his personality. Like the hospitality of the old South, Jim’s politeness seems destined for extinction. Amanda Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie, a faded belle from Blue Mountain, Mississippi, with recollections of seventeen gentlemen callers in one afternoon, exults in her Southern past to make more bearable the St. Louis industrial slum where an unfortunate marriage has brought her. Following Tischler: “Laura is the gentle portrayal of a girl fixed forever in childhood. She plays with her glass animals and enjoys her victrola but is unable to cope with typewriters, offices, flirtations, and strangers”.

A garrulous and silly woman, she torments her son about his drinking and his movie-going and makes her daughter’s life miserable because Laura, unable to cope with a physical infirmity and a natural shyness, seeks refuge in an imaginary world of a glass menagerie. Amanda’s patter about the gentlemen callers begins as a tiresome joke; but in the course of the play by some obscure alchemy of which the author himself seems unaware, the Southern past confers on Amanda a tragic depth which her children do not share (Bloom, p. 111).

Conclusion

Using symbolism and imagery, Williams portrays that Laura is crippled, physically and emotionally. Amanda is stronger than either, but under the pressure of circumstance she also gives way to littleness, in her constant nagging and in impossible demands on her children. In what way, then, does the play rise above littleness? It is in Amanda Wingfield’s memory, “seated predominantly in the heart,” of her life before she came to an urban industrialized North, which Williams refers to as “the fundamentally enslaved section of American society.” The tragic dimension of the play is centered in Amanda, for neither of her children is capable of seeing, as the mother sees, their starved present in the light of a larger past. Mother, son, and daughter are all personal with the author and their sufferings deeply felt, but no one of them has a certain preeminence in the author’s mind. Only in the mother, as the story progresses, does a definite meaning emerge.

Works Cited

  1. Bloom, H. Tennessee Williams’s the Glass Menagerie. Chelsea House, 2000.
  2. Tischler, N. M. Student Companion to Tennessee Williams. Greenwood Press, 2000.
  3. Williams, T. The Glass Menagerie. New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1999.