Tom wishes to escape from his life, just as the magician escaped from the coffin. He is most impressed by the magician's ability to escape without destroying the box or removing a single nail, and he marvels that anyone can accomplish such a feat. Tom's goal is to likewise extricate himself from his life without damage to the coffin that is his family – Amanda and Laura make him feel buried alive – but in the end this turns out to be impossible. Tom escapes, but he remains haunted by the memory, a bent nail forever poking at his conscience. Laura and Amanda, on the other hand, have no possibility of escape - they are both trapped in that coffin by financial insecurity and lack of social opportunity, but Amanda feels it most acutely because it is she who has known and can imagine the outside world. Ultimately, Tom realizes that escape cannot come without an internal price - that there is no such thing as freedom without a terrible cost.
Responsibility to Family
The principal tension in the Wingfield family is responsibility – who is accountable for, and to whom. Tom struggles the most with his role as the breadwinner and caretaker of the family, as it keeps him from expressing himself and living his own life. But Amanda also feels the strain of having a daughter that she will always have to care for, and this is the fear that motivates her desperate search for a husband on which to foist Laura. Mr. Wingfield escapes his responsibility by running away without a trace, while Laura, on the other side of the spectrum, is responsible only for her little glass animals, leaving Tom and Amanda to carry the weight. Try as Tom might, this responsibility is not something easily shirked. Although he ceases to be responsible for his family when he leaves them, he never stops feeling responsible to them.
Each member of the Wingfield family has experienced abandonment. As a unit, they were all abandoned by Mr. Wingfield when he left the family, but this especially applies to Amanda – for her, being abandoned by her husband meant being abandoned by her childhood understanding of men and the world. Laura has been abandoned by the world at large, falling into her own quiet little rhythm outside the perimeter of everyday society. Jim, her one entrance into the real world, also deserts her, pushing her farther back into a hermetic existence. Finally, Tom fears being abandoned by his dreams and goals, and chooses instead to abandon his family the way his father did – becoming another looming absence in the Wingfield family, tantamount to the man whose portrait hovers over the sitting room.
Laura's high school nickname symbolizes her outcast status – delicate and beautiful as a rose, but of an impossible, non-existent form. This symbolism contrasts with her mother's connection to jonquils, or daffodils – a beautiful yet commonplace flower. Laura, the blue rose, is a misfit, something that can't exist in the real world, no matter how lovely it is as an idea. This symbol also extends to the glass unicorn, a figure that is also beautiful and impossible, and easily broken. Laura, however, is impossibly passive, as well, unable to fit into or take initiative in the normal world. No matter how beautiful or delicate she is, the world rejects her and ultimately will leave her all alone, unappreciated.
Illusions and Reality
Amanda is caught up in the illusion of her genteel old Southern upbringing, which has taught her that a man will support a woman and that there are certain foolproof rules for snagging one. Her experience, however, proves this to the contrary - specifically, when her husband runs out on the family and leaves her to fend for herself, and later when Laura's shyness prevents her from normal socialization. Still, Amanda never stops believing that a gentleman will soon call upon her and make everything right. At the same time, she inflicts these illusions and reality on her children - insisting that if Tom finds a husband for Laura, it will take care of all their problems. The idea that Tom can solve all their problems with a replacement is itself an illusion, one that's quickly eradicated by reality once he brings home a caller for Laura.
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, and Tom makes it clear from the beginning that we are seeing events through the lens of his memories, heightening emotions and drawing out significances as memories do. We are also privy, however, to memories within memories – the recollections of Amanda as she speaks of her girlhood, and her futile attempts to relive it. Even Jim is trapped in a cycle of memory, as he yearns to recapture the glory days of his high school career and becomes attached to those who remember him from that time. In the end, however, we are left with the haunting image of Tom's last memories, as he describes the figure of Laura following him through the rest of his guilt-stricken life.
The symbol of shattering glass is used in two contrasting yet prominent ways in Williams' script. The first time a glass animal is broken corresponds to the shattering of illusions – Tom's angry speech about where he goes at night, and the Wingfields' first realization that he will inevitably leave them. But when the unicorn breaks, it is in a moment of rare confidence for Laura, as she is dancing with Jim. In that case, the breaking of the glass is a breaking of the shell that holds her in – and the piercing of a hole in her defenses that welcomes a great amount of pain. In the end, Tom reveals in his final recollections that he will forever associate his sister with bits of colored glass behind shop windows – glass hidden (protected?) behind more glass, something too delicate to touch the outside world.
The Glass Menagerie Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Glass Menagerie is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.