Symbolism is a major aspect in Tennessee William’s famous play, “The Glass Menagerie.” On the surface, the short slice of life story seems to be simple. However, if the reader digs deeper they will find that there are several symbols that give each character a deeper meaning. Each character defines each symbol in a different way. Aside from character symbols, there is overall symbolism in this play. It is set in a memory, so it creates a soft, dream-like setting. This lends to the whole idea behind the play that the characters are unable to function in reality.
There are some very noticeable symbols in “The Glass Menagerie.” The first is the actual glass menagerie that represents the fragility of the Wingfield’s dreamlike existence. The second is the fire escape, which reflects each character’s tendency to escape from reality in their own ways. The third is the yellow dress, which represents youth and the past. The gentleman caller, Jim O’Connor, represents change and also hopes for the future, as well as a reflection of Amanda’s past. Tom also has his own symbols of escape. He uses his poetry and the movies to run from his problems at home.
The actual animal collection, or glass menagerie, symbolizes each character and the story. Like the glass animals, the character’s realities are very fragile and in danger of being shattered. It is also as though the characters are stuck in glass, unable to move or change, also like the glass animals. They are inanimate, as the characters have learned to be to hide and escape from the pain that life has given them. Laura loves the glass
animals because her family is like them. It will not take much, like Tom leaving, to shatter their whole world.
Laura is symbolized by her fragile collection of glass animals, the glass menagerie. Her favorite animal is the unique unicorn. The unicorn is different because it has a horn. When Laura was in high school, she wore a brace. The unicorn and Laura are alike in this way. When Jim dances with Laura, he knocks over the unicorn and the horn breaks off. Now it is like all of the other horses. The unicorn losing its horn is a symbol. The unicorn in its original state symbolizes something different. It is delicate, beautiful, and precious in it’s own unique way. This could symbolize Laura has natural beauty in an “unearthly way” that is hidden by her shyness and limp. When Laura starts to talk to Jim, she gets more confidence in herself and realizes that she is not that different from everyone else in the world. The horn symbolizes a difference, an obstacle to be overcome and admired. Like Laura has to overcome her shyness and limp to become like everyone else, the unicorn loses its difference.
The fire escape is a major symbol in this play. It represents a different symbol for each character. For Amanda, the fire escape is a way for her to be protected from the outside world, or reality. She cannot live in the present, and the lack of a front door makes it easy for her to avoid real life. She convinces herself that she isn’t capable of leaving the safe haven she has created by locking herself inside the strange apartment. She has become trapped by her memories.
Laura uses the fire escape as a symbol in a similar way. She, too, is protected from the outside world by the fire escape, and she is also limited by it because of her handicap. It will require an extra effort for Laura to overcome her limp and get out into the world using the fire escape, symbolizing how her life is more difficult because of her handicap and her delusional mother.
Tom uses the fire escape as an escape to the outside world. He cannot live in the depressed delusions of his mother and sister’s reality, so he goes out the fire escape to work, and to the movies. He even succeeds in bringing in a possible replacement for him, someone else to take care of his helpless family members, when he brings Jim O’Connor into the apartment.
The yellow dress that Amanda insists on wearing when Jim comes over symbolizes her desperate attempt to live in the past when she was young. The yellow and blue silk frock is a symbol of her youth and of the times in her life when she was happy.
She wore it when she won the cakewalk twice at Sunset Hill, and at the Governor’s Ball in Jackson. This reminds her of happier times when she didn’t have to worry about being a single mother with few skills to raise a family on her own.
Tom is known as Shakespeare at work. Jim calls him this when he comes over for dinner. Tom uses his poetry as an escape form his menial job. He wants more from life, to be an executive. His mother’s constant nagging forces him to escape to the movies on a regular basis. While he is watching the movies, he can forget that he has become the man of the house by default. He must put all of his dreams and ambitions on hold so he can work at a low paying job to help support his mother and sister. This dual existence becomes a trap for Tom, unable to leave (until the end) physically. When he finally does escape the apartment, he cannot escape the memories of his sister who he thinks needs him.
Jim O’Connor is the famed and hoped for gentleman caller that Amanda has been airily talking about this entire play. He represents the hopes and dreams of Amanda, that someone will be able to rescue her daughter from her crippling shyness, and be able to give her a better life then she is living right now. To Laura, Jim represents a chance for love that she had previously written off as a dream. Jim gets her to open up and feel like
a normal person. But, he eventually must admit that he is engaged to someone else, leaving these hopes in the dust. Tom also has hopes for Jim. He wants to be like Jim, the high school hero, who will no doubt be promoted at the plant they both work in. He also wants Jim to take over his chore of supporting his family, so, in this aspect, he hopes Jim will fall for Laura. He
wants his sister to be happy, and Jim seems like the key to her happiness.
The symbols in this story reflect the characters emotional states. Laura’s fragile glass animals represent her fragile emotions and low self-esteem. Amanda’s old yellow dress represents the lost youth she wishes she could live in again. She has the same dream for Laura that she had for herself, although both women’s dreams of being supported by a gentleman “caller” have failed. The fire escape represents Tom’s desire to escape the doldrums that he is trapped in while living with his mother and sister. He is the one that has the most contact with the outside world, and he is the one who will eventually escape the dreamlike state of the apartment. The dreamy apartment serves as an escape from reality for Jim O’Connor. He is temporarily able to relive his high school hero days, and the time when he was popular.
Amanda chooses to live in the past when” gentleman callers” came on Sundays. “All of my gentleman callers were sons of planters, and so, of course, I assumed that I would be married to one and raise my family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants,” Amanda exclaimed to Jim, explaining why she was not “domesticated,” and Laura was. Laura is so afraid of these modern things, perhaps because of what happened to her mother, that she cannot force herself to take the typing classes her mother enrolled her in. She becomes physically ill when she thinks of leaving her protective shell of the apartment. When she does go to class, she throws up on the floor.
When Jim comes over, she becomes faint. Then he breaks her unicorn’s horn. In this moment, it is as
though this trauma with Jim has desensitized Laura to her fear of the unknown. The reader can only hope that she gathers strength from this event, and she is able to get over her shyness and do something to better her chances for survival on her own.
The change for Tom is less evident. He is classified as a “dreamer.” In this new industrial world, there is little room for those who are not hard working and practical. Jim calls him Shakespeare, although he secretly laughs at him for being so whimsical as wanting to be a poet. Jim, on the other hand is a practical and loyal man. He has aspirations of love family, and success. That is why he cannot stay in the Wingfield dreamland, and leaves as quickly as he arrives there.
The many symbols in “The Glass Menagerie” define each character and their motive. Although they are subtle, the reader chooses which to identify and and which piece to place in the puzzle.