The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams
"The Glass Menagerie" is set in the apartment of the
Wingfield family. By description, it is a cramped, dinghy
place, not unlike a jail cell. It is one of many such
apartments in the neighborhood. Of the Wingfield family
members, none of them want to live there. Poverty is what
traps them in their humble abode. The escape from this
lifestyle, this apartment and these relationships is a
significant theme throughout the play. These escapes may be
related to the fire escape, the dance hall, the absent Mr.
Wingfield and Tom's inevitable departure.
The play opens with Tom addressing the audience from the
fire escape. This entrance into the apartment provides a
different purpose for each of the characters. Overall, it
is a symbol of the passage from freedom to being trapped in
a life of desperation. The fire escape allows Tom the
opportunity to get out of the apartment and away from his
nagging mother. Amanda sees the fire escape as an
opportunity for gentleman callers to enter their lives.
Laura's view is different from her mother and her brother.
Her escape seems to be hiding inside the apartment, not
out. The fire escape separates reality and the unknown.
Across the street from the Wingfield apartment is the
Paradise Dance Hall. Just the name of the place is a total
anomaly in the story. Life with the Wingfields is as far
from paradise as it could possibly be. Laura appears to
find solace in playing the same records over and over
again, day after day. Perhaps the music floating up to the
apartment from the dance hall is supposed to be her escape
which she just can't take. The music from the dance hall
often provides the background music for certain scenes, The
Glass Menagerie playing quite frequently. With war
ever-present in the background, the dance hall is the last
chance for paradise.
Mr. Wingfield, the absent father of Tom and Laura and
husband to the shrewish Amanda, is referred to often
throughout the story. He is the ultimate symbol of escape.
This is because he has managed to remove himself from the
desperate situation that the rest of his family are still
living in. His picture is featured prominently on the wall
as a constant reminder of better times and days gone by.
Amanda always makes disparaging remarks about her missing
husband, yet lets his picture remain. Tom always makes
jokes about his dad, and how he "fell in love with long
distances." This is his attempt to ease the pain of
abandonment by turning it into something humorous. It is
inevitable that the thing which Tom resents most in his
father is exactly what Tom himself will carry out in the
end...escape! Through his father, Tom has seen that escape
is possible, and though he is hesitant to leave his sister
and even his mother behind, he is being driven to it.
Tom escapes reality in many different ways. The first and
most obvious is the fire escape that leads him away from
his desolate home. Another would be the movies that Amanda
is always nagging him about. She thinks he spends too much
time watching movies and that he should work harder and
find a suitable companion for Laura. The more Amanda nags,
the more Tom needs his movie escapes. They take him to
another world for a while, where mothers and sisters and
runaway fathers do not exist. As the strain gets worse, the
movie watching becomes more frequent, as does Tom's
drinking. It is getting harder and harder for Tom to avoid
real life. The time for a real departure is fast
approaching. Amanda eventually pushes him over the edge,
almost forcing him out, but not without laying overpowering
guild trips on him. Tom leaves, but his going away is not
the escape that he craved for so long. The guilt of
abandoning Laura is overwhelming. He cannot seem to get
over it. Everything he sees is a reminder of her. Tom is
now truly following in the footsteps of his father. Too
late, he is realizing that leaving is not an escape at all,
but a path of even more powerful desperation.
Williams uses the theme of escape throughout "The Glass
Menagerie" to demonstrate the hopelessness and futility of
each character's dreams. Tom, Laura and Amanda all seem to
think, incorrectly I might add, that escape is possible. In
the end, no character makes a clean break from the
situation at hand. The escape theme demonstrated in the
fire escape, the dance hall, Mr. Wingfield and Tom's
departure prove to be a dead end in many ways. Perhaps
Tennessee Williams is trying to send a message that running
away is not the way to solve life's problems. The only
escape in life is solving your problems, not avoiding them.
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