In Tennessee Williams's play, The Glass Menagerie, the characters of Laura, Tom and Amanda are cast in traditional gender roles and we see the significance of this as the play progresses. Of additional significance is that the family are poor; neither mother, daughter, nor son possess the power to direct or control their own lives.The family reside in poverty because Amanda’s husband abandoned his wife and children due to his ‘addiction to long distances’. This has relegated them to the status of ‘single parent family.’ In America in the 1930s and 40s, that would have been quite a shocking thing to do on the part of the deserting husband but the women would have suffered the brunt of the social stigma, the humiliation and the domino effect of the resulting poverty. Ironically, the Wingfield's apartment is opposite The Paradise Dance Hall. Outside the seedy hall, couples kissed "behind ash-pits and telegraph poles." Tom as narrator, expresses that "this was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure." The setting is described as follows:
The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres of lower middle-class populations and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism.
....this building is flanked on both sides by dark, narrow alleyways which run into murky canyons of tangled clotheslines, garbage cans, and the sinister latticework of neighbouring fire escapes.
Nothing in Amanda’s growing up or in her role as a wife and mother prepared her to reside in a ghetto or a competitive, commercial workplace. She has not been steered towards self-sufficiency in the labour market either by obtaining a skilled trade or a proper academic career before marrying. Amanda is intelligent and could easily have been steered towards that. Instead, as with many young women [even today], Amanda was conditioned with the marriage market in mind. All she had to do was learn to show interest in the pastimes of the men in her social circle in order to secure a man to provide for her and any future children. She has been inadvertently infantilized by dependency. But when the bough breaks the baby will fall* and if finances are tight, women in this situation bear the brunt of the descent. Marriage as a career or a trade renders dependant women with dependent children extremely vulnerable especially if they are, or have been, wedded to partners with mediocre to meagre earnings. Now, ‘off the market’ and rendered too old to secure yet another man, unskilled and relegated to a Western style scrimp-scrape existence, Amanda is trapped. Women, skilled or unskilled, could not earn the same wages as men. She possesses little or no means of extricating herself or her family from this situation. Since there is no husband, the economic role falls to the only other man in the house, her now-grown son, Tom. Since Amanda cannot possibly support herself or her daughter, she lives in constant fear that Tom will leave them in a helpless and hopeless state. The play is set during the American Great Depression. Tom works as a warehouseman in a shoe factory but warehousemen’s wages are insufficient for a man who has to pay rent and supply essentials for himself, his mother and his sister.
All three characters live anxiety filled lives. They are dissipated. The poverty, their inability to escape from it, renders the family perpetually stultified and plagued by fear. The continuous bickering between Tom and his mother is the result of that fear. It has the same effect on the diffident Laura as bickering parents have on a small child. The child [in this case Laura] constantly tries to distract the bickerers from each other and takes on the responsibility of trying to pacify and diffuse the situation.The bickering between mother and son exacerbates Laura’s acute anxiety since in order to gain self-confidence, Laura needs moral support. She needs a calm, mature psychologically-aware family but her brother and mother are too stressed with the precariousness of their basic situation. Basics must be secured before human beings can properly move on to emotional and intellectual development.
Amanda’s adherence to the Southern belle image is her psychological safety mechanism; her comfort. With all her worries and devoid of intellectual or social stimulation she has little else to talk about. She has memories of grandeur in her youth, of ‘gentlemen callers’, her euphemism for past admirers and potential suitors and wonders whether her life would have turned out differently had she married one of them instead. Amanda reflects a Victorian culture in the beautiful South which emphasised that females should be ladylike and charming but never breadwinners. She has received a traditional Southern upbringing. She has genteel manners and ideas but circumstances have reduced her to residing in a seedy apartment in a ghetto. Little wonder that none of them want to be participants in what is outside their fire-escape door. Tom begrudgingly interacts outside because he does not want to be confined by the oppressive atmosphere inside and he needs to earn money. Laura only wants to be inside and Amanda does not know what to do. Like her ex, she could have run away years ago. She could abandon the situation and find a job with sufficient salary to support herself. But consider that she never has, and never intends, to abandon her family.
The family's unhappiness, especially Amanda's nagging and Toms's dissatisfaction, cannot be understood without understanding the sociological implications at their root.This is very important. Tennessee Williams possessed deep sensibilities and a profound social conscience. The family are oppressed by poverty. They are lonely, frustrated, stressed and bored. Human beings are cut out for adventure, as Tom states. People need knowledge, stimulation, freedom, variety and exploration, not confinement as slavish automata mass-producing goods to make profit for corporations in exchange for their basic keep. Where fulfilment is extensively thwarted, stress prevails and pathologies creep in. Tom has his poetry and his movies for comforts but these are insufficient stimulation for him. He wants to be out in the world. Amanda's life is a virtual negation. Poverty is hard work. She must spend a great deal of her time, cleaning, shopping, cooking and trying to wash and dry clothes, towels and bedding for three people without modern amenities.That in itself is a full-time job albeit a very mundane one. And where is Mr Wingfield in all this? He has not even returned to connect with his grown son, not even as a buddy. All they ever received from him was a 'hello-goodbye' postcard from Mexico. That is why Mr Wingfield's portrait still hangs in a prominent position in the apartment. It is to emphasise that the family is still being controlled by his abandonment and abdication of financial responsibilities. With money, the family could move away, enhance their skills, get professional help for Laura and Tom could go his own way and the stress would be alleviated but it is not to be.
Amanda’s upbringing and the family’s psychological make-up is out of synchronisation with their environment. It is very difficult for them to adapt to ghetto life. They all live in daydreams desperately trying to ameliorate the pain of their existences. There is no prospect of the American Dream for this family. If Laura cannot gain employment, the only option is for Amanda to perpetuate the pattern and get her daughter married off. This is not a particularly unusual thing for women. It happens all over the world, even today, as a means of economic control and survival. Economic depressions always affect those on low incomes more than anybody else and Williams condenses the situation to reveal what can happen to individuals on a personal or microcosmic level. Amanda is worried about Laura's future. Due to hindsight, she is well aware of the limitations for women :
….I know so well of what becomes of unmarried women who aren’t prepared to occupy a position. I’ve seen such pitiful cases in the South – barely tolerated spinsters living upon the grudging patronage of sister’s husband or brother’s wife ! – Stuck away in some little mousetrap of a room…………….little birdlike women without a nest – eating the crust of humility all their life !
Tom, Laura and Amanda do not matter in the wider social context. Tom and his workers alongside him are invisible. They live like battery hens in the hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units; they are instruments to serve the elite - like insects - like worker bees ensuring the queen gets fat. They are part of the seething mass of nameless cogs; batteries for the system. The characters live in worlds of their own in order to escape from the harsh realities of their predicaments in the wider socio-economic one. They are all emotionally and financially insecure but Laura's emotional insecurity is the most profound. She would never be able to survive without her family and would probably end up institutionalised. She plays her father's old records over and over again suggesting that his departure could have traumatised her as a young child. To a child, a mother or a father, is their world. They possess a projected, romanticized or fairytale-like mental image of the loved parent and cannot generally perceive the reality of him or her until well into maturity. Laura's leg brace adds to her self-consciousness and acute anxiety. Laura, is the most detached from reality. Amanda, understanding how her own lack of education and skills have limited her life, sends Laura to Rubicam’s Business College to encourage her prospects of independence. But Laura cannot bear the thought of venturing into the outside world of colleges and work. She does not want to play the game. Tom only plays it begrudgingly. Although he sometimes displays immaturity due to his circumstances, he is an intellectual at heart and knows his brain is being wasted. Laura fears the world outside the home; neither does she possess the confidence to believe that she could ever gain a husband. All she wants to do is live in the fantasy world of her glass menagerie which she tenderly arranges, rearranges and cleans. She too, is like a piece of glass:
Laura is like a translucent piece of glass touched by the light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting.
She is a tragic figure, totally lacking in self-confidence. She seems unreal, like blue roses, as Jim calls her. She has an angelic, glass-like nature symbolised by the glass creatures which she tends and arranges. She is a glass figurine in human shape, equally fragile, easily damaged, easily broken if not handled carefully. Her most treasured glass animal is the unicorn. The unicorn is a mythological creature, as unreal and unique as Jim perceives Laura to be.
Since Laura’s profound diffidence cannot withstand the pressure of dealing with life outside the safety of their home she skips her business school classes and spends the time walking. Her family think she has been attending her courses. She walks, mostly round the park, sometimes to the museum and bird aviaries from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. She then returns home.The reader of the play can picture the anxiety laden Laura, full of dread at the prospect of attending the college, despondently walking in the freezing winter wind, encumbered by the leg brace that clumps as she walks. To Laura, the orthopaedic calliper is a constant reminder of her physical ‘deformity’ and symbolic of her perceived ‘abnormality’ in addition to her feelings of social isolation. She seeks solace in the tropical greenhouses. The warmth of the tropical greenhouses provide comfort. They are symbolic of the fact that flowers can be hardy but like Laura, some need to be hot-housed. Laura is mostly mute but the play revolves around her. When she does speak she says,
I can’t…………There’s just too much pain. I can feel everyone staring at me, staring at my leg. That’s why I dropped out of high school. I felt everyone’s eyes and I heard all the giggles they tried to suppress as I clumped and limped down the hall. Jim, Jim would never want to be around me again. I am the limping girl who makes such a racket. Nobody would want to be near me. So I tuned out from the rest of the world before it could cause me anymore pain than I’ve already suffered. And it seems that whatever crippled my leg crippled the rest of my being throughout time....
Human beings can be cruel. Laura’s affliction is in itself hard enough for her to bear without the remarks and laughter that the ignorant and insensitive often direct at the disabled or different. Her physical disability is not terribly severe. Jim later tries to reassure her of this but the suffering and humiliation she has endured, mostly in the school environment, has rendered her totally devoid of all self-esteem, particularly because it occurred during her formative years. She is emptied of self. She has received no counselling for this problem. She has not learnt how to handle it and therefore will go out of her way to avoid all social contact.
Laura possesses a malady that today we might call, 'social anxiety disorder'. Such psychological conditions may not have been conceptualised or named at the time the play was written. The condition not being labelled or widely understood makes it seem stranger in the context of the play than it is in reality because of the devastating effect in can have on sensitive individuals such as Laura. In essence it is 'only' a profound lack of self-confidence. She could be cured under the right circumstances. Such individuals are often labelled ‘maladjusted’ as a social evaluation in that their diffidence is incompatible with the stress of the world of work, production, commerce and capitalism. She cannot cope with stress. Many of us have met, or know of, people with this disposition and they are generally much more sincere and warmer-hearted than the average 'adaptable' individual. Tennessee Williams based the character of Laura on his sister, Rose, who in reality, is purported to have had schizophrenia rather than non-psycotic anxiety problems. She was eventually given a lobotomy which quelled her symptoms but left her without character. It is significant that Tom is also the narrator of the play. He is playing the part of Tennessee Williams telling his story albeit altered or embellished to a certain degree. Tom as narrator does in fact, tell the audience that 'this is a memory play and not realistic.'
We see Laura’s utter devastation at the end of the play when she is rejected by Jim, the long awaited 'gentleman caller'. Jim does not want to mislead Laura. He tells her that he is soon to be married to somebody else. Her dream is over. It was the last resort. She is eclipsed. Her romantic illusions are smashed to smithereens . She had elevated Jim to an idol in her mind. Due to her insecurity, her loneliness, desperation and social isolation she had placed him on a pedestal, retained a school girl crush and convinced herself that she loved him. She confessed that she went to see him three times in The Pirates of Penzance but he could barely remember her. She kept his photograph from school and hoped above hope that he would be her saviour only to learn that he is engaged to marry somebody else. By accident, Jim broke the horn off the glass unicorn. The horn symbolises Laura's heart; the unicorn itself symbolises her detachment from reality. Jim leaves.Tom also leaves, using the electricity money. He leaves his sister and mother in darkness due to his desire to move on and his intent on self-preservation. He no longer wants to support the family or tolerate the continuous bickering. It is up to the audience to imagine what happens to Amanda and the dissipated Laura.
*Rock-a-bye Baby. Lullaby - nursery rhyme