The Glass Menagerie is a play that is very important to modern literature. Tennessee Williams describes four separate characters, their dreams, and the harsh realities they faced in the modern world. His setting is in St. Louis during the Depression-Era. The story is about a loving family that is constantly in conflict. To convey his central theme, Williams uses symbols. He also expresses his theme through the characters' incapability of living in the present.
The apartment that Amanda, Laura, and Tom Wingfield share is in the middle of the city and is among many dark alleys with fire escapes. Tom and Laura do not like the dark atmosphere and their mother always tries to make it as pleasant as possible. The two women do not get out much to socialize. Amanda sometimes goes to D.A.R. (Daughters of the Revolution) meetings, but Laura does not like to socialize at all. She has a slight limp and is extremely shy with people. When she does leave the apartment, she falls. She is unable to function in the outside world.
As previously stated, symbols play an important role in The Glass Menagerie. Symbols are substitutions that are used to express a particular theme, idea, or character. One symbol that is used over and over is the fire escape. This has different meanings to the characters. For Tom, it is a place where he can escape to. It is where he goes to escape from his mother's nagging. He is open to the outside world when he is on the fire escape. It is his way out. For Laura, it is where the gentleman caller enters and where the outside world is brought inside to her. But to Amanda, the fire escape is not only where the gentleman caller enters, but where he will come in and rescue her daughter from becoming a spinster.
Amanda feels that if the gentleman caller comes, then he will rescue Laura. The problem is that Jim, the caller, has not even met either of the two women yet. Amanda assumes that he will be the one for Laura. She has a difficult time distinguishing between reality from illusion. The same way she refuses to acknowledge Laura's handicap. She does not refer to it as a handicap, but rather as a "little defect," that is hardly noticeable.
In addition to the fire escape, Williams uses Laura's glass menagerie as an important symbol throughout the play. It represents Laura's sensitive nature and fragility. She is very innocent, very much like the glass that she polishes and looks at. Eventhough, it is very fragile, when put in the light the glass shines and produces a multitude of colors. This is the same way as Laura. When Laura is enrolled at the Business School she becomes very shy and embarrassed, hence causing her to become ill in the classroom. She can not bare to face those same faces again the next day and decides to give up on going to her classes.
Laura chooses to spend her time with her tiny glass animals, and she treasures them more than actually participating in daily contact with other people. She does not want to become involved with the world outside of their apartment. She prefers the comfort of her home and of her glass animals. Laura is just as easily broken and hurt as the glass unicorn, and she is just as unique. When Jim accidentally bumps into the unicorn and breaks it, the unicorn no longer looks unique. It becomes like all the rest. During that time, Laura feels more accepted and less self-conscious. She begins to open up and glow. Jim notices this and takes advantage of it by dancing with her, and, eventually, kissing her.
Part of the innocence Laura has lost is symbolized in the breaking of the unicorn. When Jim tells Laura of his engagement she is heartbroken. She no longer feels that uniqueness she once shared with the unicorn, but becomes more common like Jim.