Dysfunctional families are common to films, novels and plays. They contain the drama and escape that people search for in entertainment. In Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie, the author explores the memory of Tom Wingfield, investigating the family dynamic with the absence of a father figure, the presence of an overbearing matriarch and the constant need by each family member to find an escape.
Amanda Wingfield is the matriarch of the Wingfield household. She was born in the deep South and grew up in the life of luxury. Living in a tenement in an alley in St. Louis, abandoned by a husband, was not part of her plan. She mentions her lavish past casually to her children, dreaming of a better life. It is her favorite story to tell:
AMANDA.One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain—your mother received—seventeen!—gentleman callers! Why, sometimes there weren’t chairs enough to accommodate them all. We had to send the nigger over to bring in folding chairs from the parish house.
TOM.How did you entertain those gentleman callers?
AMANDA. I understood the art of conversation!
In telling this story, Amanda is attempting to bring her dead but beautiful past into the present. She wishes she had fallen for another man, perhaps one of those gentleman callers. If she had, she believes that she could have what she desires; a secure future for her daughter with a husband; a respectful and caring son; a happy life of her own. Instead, though, she fell in love with Mr. Wingfield, who is represented by a blown-up photograph hanging on the wall in the living room in the Wingfield tenement. Tom describes his father in the opening scene of the play:
TOM.There is a fifth character in the play who doesn’t appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel. This is our father who left us a long time ago He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town…The last we heard of him was a words: “Hello—Goodbye!” and no address. I think the rest of the play will explain itself…
With this photograph hanging in the apartment, dominating the small room, Mr. Wingfield is unintentionally present in the life of the Wingfields. Yet although Amanda keeps her husband’s photograph on her wall, she seems to forget that she chose to marry a “less-than-ideal man” (Domina). Mr. Wingfield’s absence affects Amanda by her relying on Tom for financial support to pay the bills. In her reliance on Tom, she is the cause of tension. She controls him, trying to prevent him from acting as his father might have. She knows that Tom desires escape and adventure, but refuses to let him leave because that would be irresponsible.
Tom Wingfield’s need for escape is sprouted by the adventures he witnesses every time he goes to the movies. He is a frequenter of the local cinema, escaping to view another adventure when Amanda becomes too overbearing on him. Sometimes he goes to the bar to drink afterwards. He escapes from Amanda, his job at the factory, and familial responsibility. He is a dreamer who aspires to travel the world. It is only natural for him to dream different lives for himself, especially when his life is not spectacular.
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play. Tom explains in the opening scene what Tennessee Williams meant by that:
TOM.The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic…I am the narrator to the play, and also a character in it.
Being a memory of Tom’s, some things are emphasized or looked over. One does not always remember every detail of one’s life. As stated earlier, the picture of Mr. Wingfield is “larger-than-life-size” and dominates the living room. This is an example of the exaggeration...