Accepting Reality: Symbols in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie
Symbols are concrete objects, images, characters, places, or actions emphasized throughout a literary work that represent an underlying abstract idea or concept. In his piece The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams uses symbolism in order to develop multifaceted characters and to convey the recurring themes of the impossibility of true escape, and the difficulty of accepting reality, that permeate the drama. The most influential symbols throughout The Glass Menagerie are the three characters of the Wingfield family: Amanda, Tom, and Laura, each of whom represent a different stereotype of humanity. By interpreting these characters as symbols, Williams communicates a message about humanity and various themes of life within the pages of his play. Williams’ use of symbolism helps the play generate meaning because they allow the reader to know the characters’ personalities and innate characteristics. Viewing the major characters as symbols helps to highlight and assist the major themes of The Glass Menagerie.
Amanda Wingfield, mother of Laura and Tom, suffers from a “great but confused vitality” in which she clings “frantically to another time and place” (Williams in Schlib and Clifford, 344). Amanda’s demeanor keeps her out of touch with reality, and she constantly recalls her youth and her “glory days” which serve as a testament to her preference to live in the past as well as a source of embarrassment for her children. She is protective to a fault, and effectively stunts Laura’s growth and independence by babying her, despite stating her desire for Laura to step out into the world. Amanda is constantly preventing Laura from doing much of anything, from clearing the table to doing the dishes, in order to “stay fresh and pretty” for gentlemen callers (Williams 1). Amanda represents wishful thinking and the inability to let go of the past. Because The Glass Menagerie is a play set in memory, all of Williams’ characters blur the line between reality and exaggerated imagination, yet Amanda’s character epitomizes the symbolic reference of being stuck in a fantasy world and unable to extricate oneself. Amanda herself is symbolic of the counterproductive fantasizing and both the allusion to and illusion of reality that takes hold of all members of the Wingfield family.
Amanda’s character embodies the difficulty of accepting reality. While her children are not motivated by social and financial success, this is what Amanda longs for. Her extreme attachment to these values is exactly what prevents her from accepting the reality of her situation. Amanda is unwilling to accept that she is anything other than the pampered belle she was in her youth, or that she may be responsible for the unhappiness and flaws of her children. Laura’s fragility and peculiarity, and Tom’s lack of desire to become a successful businessman sends Amanda to retreat further into her illusion of a wistfully distorted reality. Furthermore, the dingy apartment that serves as the setting of the play functions as a fully-operating place inside Amanda’s dream world. Within the apartment, Amanda has full access to her two adult children and they cannot escape from her. She dictates when meal-time is, when to be excused from the dinner table, as well as the proper way to chew food, to name a few (Williams 1). Nearly every action that takes place within the apartment leads to Amanda segueing into her constant reminiscing about her past. The apartment is symbolic of Amanda’s presence and space, and within the walls of the apartment, there is no place to hide from her influence. Additionally, Amanda’s character truly shines through when the gentleman caller, Jim, arrives for supper. In her element, the show Amanda puts on brings her right back into her youthful, carefree glory days, when she received “seventeen! - gentlemen callers… one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain” (Williams 1). The charade...
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