Arguably the most poignant scene in Tennessee Williams’s play begins with Laura Wingfield showing Jim-the gentleman caller-her glass menagerie. Up until this point, the audience has watched Laura, shy and awkward, draw deeper and deeper into herself as she suffers in a troubled home. Her father has deserted the family years before; her mother Amanda is caught in the memory of better times. By day, her brother Tom works listlessly in a factory; by night he disappears in dark movie houses and other more mysterious places, harsh reality trapping him and hampering his dreams.
Tom and Amanda clash constantly, disagreeing over the future. Able to rely on neither Tom nor her husband, Amanda has come to see a gentleman caller, someone to whisk Laura away, as the only salvation that remains. Until Jim, none has come. We learn that Laura and Jim attended the same high school, and that Laura had been in love with him. Jim does not remember her when he visits. Although nervous at first, Laura lets down her guard with Jim, and brings him into the world of her glass menagerie.
Symbolically, the first person we see represented in the menagerie is Laura, but Tom and Amanda belong there as well: the glass menagerie is a etaphor for the frailty of the human condition; we all, like glass, can break if pushed in the wrong direction. Of all the animals in the menagerie, the unicorn is the only one of its kind. He is Laura’s favorite figurine, who, she tells Jim, sits quietly with the other “normal” horses, not complaining. This delicate animal, which Laura trustingly hands over to Jim for examination, represents Laura herself.
She lets her gentleman caller hold the unicorn to the light so he can see its beauty; she also lets him shine light through her. Despite the walls that she has so carefully built around erself, Laura lets down her guard with Jim, allowing herself to be analyzed by someone she barely knows. As she goes to give Jim the unicorn, Laura warns: “Oh be careful-if you breathe, it breaks! (83),” reminding the audience of her own delicacy and past experiences. She then goes on to say, however: “Go on, I trust you with him! [She places the piece in his palm] (83).
Laura places not one, but two, frail unicorns into Jim’s hands, with the faith that neither will be shattered. Unicorns traditionally symbolize chastity, and we see Laura as not only literally “pure,” but also untouched by the world. As Jim observes, there’s no place for someone like Laura anymore: “Jim: Unicorns-aren’t they extinct in the modern world? (83). ” Throughout the entire play, the audience has the sense that Laura doesn’t belong. With the exception of Jim who, as Tom tells us in the beginning of the first act, represents hope, there is no one like Laura or able to understand her.
Laura is different from the horses of the world, but she is even more beautiful because of it: Jim: You’re one times one! They walk all over the earth. You just stay here. They’re common as- weeds, but-you-well, you’re-Blue Roses! (87) Laura is made of glass; Jim finds both beauty and frailty in her. When he takes her in his arms and begins to waltz, the unicorn is knocked off the shelf by their dancing. Its horn is broken: Jim: Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken? Laura: Now it is just like all the other horses Jim: It’s lost its- Laura: Horn!
It doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise… Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns (86). Jim’s kindness and warmth have initially brought Laura some discomfort, but now they have helped her shed her own psychological “horn. ” Jim breaks the arrier that existed between Laura and the rest of the world; in the same way, he breaks the unicorn’s horn, the very thing that made it feel, in Laura’s words “freakish. ” Laura is finally more comfortable with herself and with others.
She has opened up to Jim and us in the audience, and we can feel that all is right with her now. On the surface, it may seem as if Laura is the only character made of glass; she is the only one who recognizes that she has weaknesses. Laura aware of her own frailty, but she can also see that it exists in others: Jim: How about cutting the rug a little, Miss Wingfield?… Laura: Oh, but I’d step on you! Jim: I’m not made out of glass (84) In this exchange, one has the sense that under Jim’s joking tone there is a deeper message: Don’t be ridiculous; people aren’t that fragile.
The bold declaration is ironic, for though it may not appear to be so, all the other characters belong beside Laura’s unicorn in the menagerie. The audience watches as Amanda’s relationship with her son rapidly deteriorates, and it kills her. We are almost nervous as she retreats further and further back in time, from her days of marriage to her days of girlhood. Her husband’s desertion, her son’s unhappiness, her daughter’s awkwardness, and her own ense of failure shatter Amanda. On the other hand, Tom is suffocated by his mother and his own feelings of obligation.
He is disenchanted with the world, and knows that at home, he can never pursue his dreams or be truly happy. His disillusionment manifests itself in nightly habits of drinking and movies. Tom, like Amanda, is slowly breaking. They may not recognize how frail they are, but if pushed in the slightest wrong way, both will shatter. We see Tom and Amanda’s frailties played out in their arguments, and in the last dispute, the audience watches as Amanda pushes her son too ar off the shelf: Amanda: … Just go, go, go-to the movies!
Tom: All right, I will! The more you shout about my selfishness to me the quicker I’ll go, and I won’t go to the movies! Amanda: Go, then! Go to the moon-you selfish dreamer! Tom: I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further… (96) What neither Tom nor Amanda realized was that one day, one of them had to crack. Like broken glass, Tom is gone for good. In stores, parents often tell their children, “Stop playing with that; it’s glass. You’ll break it. ” If only someone had been there to warn Amanda all the times she provoked her son.
Part of what makes us identify with the characters in the Glass Menagerie is their fragility. They are not up on a pedestal; they are ordinary people whose problems are just as painful and tragic as Oedipus’s. We can see parts of ourselves in Laura, Amanda and Tom; we are just as fragile as they are. As Laura tells Jim: “Glass breaks so easily. No matter how careful you are. (86)” Her words put the characters of the Glass Menagerie, Macbeth, Hedda Gabbler, and Death of a Salesman on the same level as the audience: we’re all human, and there is only so much we can handle before we break.