This paper will study the usage of symbolism and imagery in the play Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. The pattern of ideas that emerge in the play will be researched and subsequently the symbols and imagery will be discussed in regard to the way in which such a pattern is structured. An analysis will also be made of the methods in which the different ideas are represented and how the amalgamation of thematic and dramatic content is provided with the symbolic expressions.
Williams has used symbolism primarily to exhibit the persistent themes in the play and to introduce multifaceted characters. The different symbols emerge through out the play and are normally covered up as imagery or objects. A study in this regard enables the readers to understand the personalities of the characters and their internal traits. The symbols add meaning to the themes which can be seen developing as the play progresses.
The thesis will pertain to the evidence in regard to the glass menagerie, Jim, the unicorn, fire escape, blue roses, music, lighting and rainbows as being dominating symbols in the play. Glass symbolizes fragility and is used as a means to make decorative objects and is deemed to be beautiful. Menageries are known to be a collection that represents diversity.
The Glass Menagerie is best seen as a compilation of symbols that are used in adding value to the complete theme in the play. The play gives different meanings to the glass menagerie, Jim, the unicorn, fire escape, blue roses, music, lighting and rainbows. If one examines the meaning deeply it is possible to see the inter-relationship of every symbol and the life of the author. While taking a glimpse at the life of the Wingfield family during the pre-war depression the play depicts the characters, objects, symbols and imagery in expressing the techniques of escape and the hopes and aspirations that the characters have, although they are ultimately left entirely disappointed. The play has a lot of symbols that portray disappointment resulting from unfulfilled dreams and destroyed hopes (Thomas R. Arp et al, 2008).
The symbol that appears the maximum is the glass menagerie which comprises of glass animals that are placed in the house of the Wingfield family. Lot of meaning is attached to the glass menagerie for all the characters. In essence, the glass menagerie symbolizes the shattered dreams of the characters because they are unable to achieve what they aspired for and ultimately the members of the Wingfield family have to face the reality in seeing their dreams become a collection of broken images.
The menagerie consists of glass animals as frozen in their respective forms and so is the ultimate fate of the Wingfield family members. They have always limited themselves in leading a particular way of life which they find difficult to break away from. All characters are seen as making hectic attempts to escape from the harsh realities that they are surrounded with, but they fail every time, which in turn shatters the dreams just like shattered glass.
The glass animals in fact represent different facets of Laura’s personality. Like the glass figures Laura is a little old fashioned while at the same time being delicate and fanciful. Since glass is transparent, it reflects different colours as in a rainbow when light is directed through it. In a similar vein, Laura radiates a similar aura of delight and happiness when people meet her with the right intentions, although with others she may prove to be rather unappealing. The glass menagerie is also representative of the imaginary world in which Laura is devoted to; a world that may be alluring and colourful but is based on delicate illusions.
Laura’s favourite figure amongst her collection is the glass unicorn which represents her strange personality. Jim remarks quite meaningfully in pointing out that unicorns are extinct in the modern world and that they are forlorn due to being different as compared to other horses. Similarly Laura too is bizarre, lonesome and unable to adapt to the world that she lives in. Laura’s fate is almost the same as that of the unicorn which is evident when Jim kisses her while dancing with her and the unicorn falls, breaking its horn, thus it appears like an ordinary horse.
The violent advances made by Jim towards Laura are indicative of the normalcy that is restored in Laura’s life, but it also implies that such a normalcy is thrust upon her through a shattering experience. Ultimately the unicorn is given as a souvenir to Jim by Laura, but without its horn, which also proves to be quite appropriate for him since the broken piece represents how he had broken her internally.
Blue Roses represents the nickname given by Jim to Laura while in high school and symbolizes her attraction and uniqueness for him. The name undoubtedly indicates Laura’s attraction for Jim and the joy and happiness that his kindness brought to her. The name Blue Roses is similar to the name of Tennessee Williams’ sister, Rose, which is the character on which the author has established Laura’s character. Laura is aware that though roses are beautiful, they are not blue, which is symbolized by the fact that although she is a woman, she is too weak to be regarded as one.
There is a fire escape that leads out of the apartment that the Wingfield family resides in. The fire escape aptly represents what is implied by its name; a means to escape from the repeated agony of the fire of frustration and failures that the family is made to go through repeatedly. The fact that Laura is unable to free herself from her circumstances is amply demonstrated when she slips and falls in the fire escape. Conversely, Tom is repeatedly seen stepping out on the fire landing to smoke in anticipation of eventually getting away from there one day. For him it represents a means to get away from the fiery frustrations that he experiences repeatedly.
The fire escape has significance for Amanda in symbolizing her inherent desire to have a suitable man as her daughter Laura’s husband. When an entry is made by Jim from the fire escape, Amanda’s hopes rise and she becomes excited about him being her daughter’s probable spouse, but after she comes to know that he is already engaged her dreams are shattered and she feels much disillusioned. In effect the fire escape becomes for Amanda, a means to escape from the uncertainties surrounding her daughter’s barren future. She is fearful that if no solution is found her daughter may ultimately end up as an old maid. Her dreams rest on the anticipation that a young man will come one day and take Laura away with him (Harold Bloom, 2007).
The character of Jim has lot of significance for Laura in symbolizing the real life situations that confront her. Jim is portrayed as an ordinary man who has an abnormal passion for technology. Once inside the Wingfield apartment he symbolizes the glass animals which are immobile and motionless.
Jim ultimately understands that he should go back into the real world which is changing constantly. In remaining at the dysfunctional and dormant apartment makes him feel depressed and after declaring that he is already engaged to another woman he departs. For Amanda, Jim symbolized her younger days when handsome men would visit her. Amanda is depicted as spending a lot of her time in reminiscing about her past life which keeps her separated from the realities of the present. Jim symbolizes the hope and youth present in Amanda’s mind.
Rainbows are also seen as having immense symbolic connotations in The Glass Menagerie. Rainbow is an entity that signals hope, but in the play almost every time the rainbow appears it does not result in a situation that is hopeful. The characters are viewed as having very high expectations which invariably end up in being devastating instances of disillusionment. After having seen a magic show Tom returns home with a scarf that is rainbow coloured and which can transform gold fish into canaries.
The birds leave and Tom is also left wishing to fly to a distant place with them. Tom does leave the house but he repeatedly gets troubled with anxiety for his sister and misses his mother. The rainbow symbolizes how the dance that Jim and Laura are engaged in is prefigured by the light emanating from the chandeliers in the dance hall. The dance is full of hope but Laura has her dreams shattered by way of the rainbow created by the glass menagerie which is indicative of her inside beauty while she hides from the world.
Symbolism is also used in the play in showing the pattern of shattered illusions as experienced by the members of the Wingfield family. The moment the glass unicorn falls and its horn gets broken the illusions start fading as the truth begins to surface. Laura lives in a world which is detached from reality by the glass objects. She makes efforts in escaping from the real world by using the glass menagerie.
When Jim comes to the Wingsfield house he showers lot of praise on Laura which makes her to agree in dancing with him. While they danced the glass unicorn falls down and its horn breaks, which symbolizes Laura’s shattered dreams. Instead of reacting in disapproval of all that was happening, she picked up the broken unicorn and gave it to Jim as if this was something which was expected. This shows that Laura expected such atrocities to happen and is indicative of her breaking away from the glass world that she had engulfed herself into. This symbolism relates to what Laura experienced recently but Tom is faced with situations in this regard at a later stage.
Tom is portrayed as being fed up with his mother and looks forward to an opportunity to break away. After the unicorn breaks Tom decides to break away from his mother in the guise of pursuing his dreams of working as a sailor. This action of Tom indicates that he can no longer cope with always trying to please his mother and that he requires the freedom to live the way he likes. This symbolism in the play brings significant change in Amanda.
She does not get through with her illusions on her own but because of the realization she has on account of Tom and Laura. The breaking of the unicorn symbolizes the breaking away of Tom and Laura into the real world and also symbolizes the breaking into reality by Amanda as a result of her children. She is forced to catch up with the hard realities after Tom moves out and Laura comes out of her glass world (Nicole Mohr, 2006).
Imagery is used very effectively in the play with the creation of lighting effects. Most of the scenes have been depicted with lighting techniques that add meaning to the given situations in highlighting the pitch and tone. The lights are symbolic of hope just as the rainbow is. However all hopes are seen as being rapidly shattered. In one scene while Tom and Amanda are quarrelling some pieces of Laura’s glass objects get broken.
The audience can see a single ray of light that shines in highlighting Laura’s face which reveals her as being highly disappointed and sad. This light on her face is a token of the sadness and grief that she is going through. When Amanda asks Tom to make a wish, a light can be seen from the moon which symbolizes the hope that Tom has in making the wish to become a reality. The lights suddenly go out in the play which connotes that the resulting darkness is a symbol of the change from hope to pain. The flickering lights of the candles depict the vacillation between hope and disappointment and the flickering of the main lights symbolize lightning (Ben Brantley, 2005).
Ben Brantley, A “Menagerie” Full of Stars, Silhouettes and Weird Sounds, 2005, The New York Times.
Harold Bloom, The Glass Menagerie, 2007, Blooms Literary Criticism.
Nicole Mohr, Symbolism in Tennessee Williams’ Play The Glass Menagerie, 2006, Associated Content.
Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie, 1998, Dramatists Play Service Inc.
Thomas R. Arp, Greg Johnson, Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, 10th edition, 2008, Wadsworth Publishing.