Written by Sahib Al-shemeri
for Prof. Bassel Atallah
When individuals are stuck in a life of monotony and desperation, then their imaginations begin to wander because they are seeking escape from the daily routine that deprives them of adventure. In most instances, people have a healthy understanding of reality and can function normally. The Wingfield family is an example of individuals who can no longer bear the strain of their existence, causing each of the family members to break down at different psychological levels. The characters in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie are not only seeking to escape reality, but are also each a personification of America’s detachment from reality during the early twentieth century. Williams’ play, in many ways, offers subtle hints of social criticism towards America by pointing to specific flaws and injustices that plague the Wingfield family and, by extension, the entire lower classes of American society. All three characters of the family are victims of stagnating social mobility, but their inability to overcome their own detachment from reality is equally to blame for their misery.
The feelings of desperation are highlighted by the unhealthy and unnatural surroundings in which the Wingfield family reside. This is made abundantly clear in the play’s opening scene. We are given a description that goes beyond simply the physical apartment, as it sets a tone that the problems facing the family are a microcosm of a much larger ugliness that has been festering and growing out of the societal injustices,
One of those hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in an over-crowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved sections of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism. (994)
The manner in which each of the three main characters will handle this reality will place them as unique personifications of America’s past, present and future. The exception is Tom, the narrator, because he is the least susceptible to escapism. Tom demonstrates himself to be self-aware of the injustices around him and cognisant of the temptations of escapism to ease the burden of reality.
Amanda’s detachment personifies America’s past, and a collective yearning to return to a simpler time. Memory has warped the past though, as segregation and gender-roles are twisted into a bitter sweet recollection of a simple and reliable class-based society. She is in denial about the injustices of the past, instead romanticising them much in the same way the country romanticises its past. Amanda is incapable of reconciling with contemporary America of the nineteen-thirties. This sentiment is proven by her irrational hopes for a gentleman caller arriving at her lonely apartment door, asking for Laura’s hand in marriage. By reminding her daughter to “Stay fresh and pretty! – It’s almost time for our gentlemen callers to start arriving … How do you suppose we’re going to entertain this afternoon.” (999). This escapism of believing that southern chivalry lives on in the cold urban metropolis puts Amanda at odds with her children. When Amanda directs her attention towards her son Tom, she then becomes antagonistic by telling him that “You are the only young man I know of who Ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” (1019). Her constant criticism of Tom, the sole provider of the family is unfair and truly makes her the most out of touch character of the play.
Understanding the past has a strong influence on being able to understand the present. This is personified much in the same way as Amanda’s influence on her daughter’s understanding of her own self-worth. To say that Laura is detached from reality would be incorrect, as Laura is hyper aware of the inconveniences of her reality. So overbearing are her thoughts of inferiority that the feelings of nausea push her to seek isolation, leading into depression. The outcome is similar to her mother, as Laura and Amanda are both incapable of dealing with the world around them and remain housebound. This makes Laura a personification of America’s present predicament during the nineteen-thirties. Both stricken by depression, she and the nation are unable to shake off their anxieties in order to overcome the hardship and move forward. Feelings of inferiority for Laura are compounded by her mother’s past; as Amanda recounts her glory days as a southern belle, it further emphasises Laura’s trouble in not measuring up to her mother’s ambitions. Insensitive comments made by Amanda such as “flat-chested” and “crippled” only further demoralize her. This strained mother-daughter relationship is an allegory for a young generation struggling through the economic depression, while also having to live up to the ambitions of more prosperous generations before them.
As the nation puts its dreams for the future on hold, Laura’s biggest hope for salvation presents itself in the form of Jim O’Connor, an old high school acquaintance who, by chance, is invited over to dinner by Tom. With his confident spirit and trust in Laura, Jim is a personification of America’s future. With Laura never having been able to focus on the positive aspects of herself, she is conflicted when Jim attempts to guide her out of being hopelessly lost in ruminating memories that stop her from fulfilling her potential. In their brief encounter, Jim does not allow Laura to escape to the psychological safety of indulging in the beauty of her glass collection. Instead, Jim attempts to instill a certain amount of resilience in Laura by appreciating her unique beauty, and reminding her that “They’re as common as weeds, but –you- well, you’re –Blue Roses” (1043). Jim represents the unique American optimism that pulls it through hardship.
Tom is the most grounded character of the play and is most in touch with reality by being the sole provider for his sister and mother. His escapism of visiting late night movies is well balanced as he is self aware and critical of his need to find temporary reprieve from his responsibilities. In key moments, he offers insight into his true opinions of the movies he and much of America use to escape,
All of those glamorous people, having adventures, hogging it all, gobbling the whole thing up! You know what happens? People go to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are suppose to have all the adventure for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them! Yes until there’s a war. That’s when adventure becomes available to the masses! … I don’t want to wait till then. I’m tired of the movies and I am about to move! (1028)
These observations given by Tom offer the play’s most poignant social criticism. When Tom decides to leave it all behind, it is not purely for escapism. Tom is also rebelling against a perceived system that was unsuited to his needs, his only regret being that his sister could not make her own move. Thus, he repeats history by abandoning Laura and Amanda, just like his father did before him. Tom is the personification of history and, not unlike how history repeats itself, it is also written by the victor. The audience has no choice but to trust Tom, the narrator of the play, and to take him at his word.
In summary, Williams’ play is an allegory for the American psyche and offers its audience a warning that individuals have a breaking point, at which their world view no longer connects with reality. Once they have reached that point of giving into escapism, then they no longer have much control over their own lives. Amanda and Laura are victims, but there are no innocent victims either. Jim embodied the future Laura wanted, but was ultimately out of her reach, only able to offer her the hope that her aspirations were possible, but required more from her in order to achieve them. Perhaps the need for these characters to indulge in escapism was best expressed by Tom: “Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter, and none of those instincts are given much play…” (1013).
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Writing, 3rd Edition. Ed. X.J. Kennedy & Gioria. Pennsylvania: Pearsons/Longman, 2010.