Discuss the significance of the unicorn in The Glass Menagerie. How does the unicorn relate to the play’s major themes?
In The Glass Menagerie, Laura Wingfield’s unicorn represents a pure, unique soul that is damaged by contact with the world. Likewise, Laura herself radiates delicacy and purity, which she isn’t able to retain fully after her dinner with the gentleman caller. In subtler ways, the play’s three main characters lose some of their youthful hope and idealism to the constricting realities of adult life. The unicorn thus introduces Williams’s theme of lost innocence, and it emphasizes his interest in the sacrifices his characters make as they grow older.
Williams emphasizes the uniqueness and purity of Laura’s unicorn—qualities that are diminished when the outside world intrudes on the Wingfield dining room. Williams reminds us that the unicorn is glass, transparent, and completely unclouded. The unicorn’s horn sets it apart from the other animals in the glass menagerie, because such a creature does not really exist in the world. Laura gives it special attention, emphasizing its distinction among its neighbors. When Jim, a representative of the outside world, visits for dinner, he remarks on the big, ungainly shadow he casts across the living room, begins a clumsy dance with Laura, knocks over the unicorn, and breaks its horn. Jim is the opposite of the unicorn—glass objects, after all, don’t cast shadows—and his presence reduces the unicorn to a damaged, ordinary object. A unicorn without a horn is nothing more than a mundane horse. By contact with the world, the unicorn has lost some of its distinctiveness and purity.
Like the unicorn, Laura initially radiates uniqueness and innocence. Her high-school nickname, “Blue Roses,” suggests not only delicacy but also otherworldliness: Blue roses, like unicorns, do not exist in the real world. Laura stays home all day to tend to her glass figures, but in reality her hobby provides her with an excuse to avoid real-world adult commitments, such as typing school and dating, that her mother tries to force on her. Like the unicorn, Laura loses some of her purity through contact with Jim. Having thought she could indulge a childhood fantasy and fall in love with Jim, she learns that he is already engaged and has merely been flirting with her. Laura now has an understanding of the way the world works: People do not always say what they mean, and men have a startling capacity to hurt her. Laura offers the unicorn to Jim as a “souvenir,” suggesting that the unicorn and its wounds symbolize the pain she has experienced over dinner. Contact with Jim has stripped her of some of her childlike innocence, leaving her slightly more ordinary and damaged, like her unicorn.
The other three characters in The Glass Menagerie are not as fragile and childlike as Laura; however, each of them has also lost a precious, youthful hope in the draining struggle to survive adulthood. Jim recalls high-school dreams of glory in basketball and music, yet the economic realities of 1930s Missouri have reduced him to a factory worker who spouts clichés about the “inferiority complex,” the importance of public speaking, and monogamous bliss with a “girl” he finds “just fine.” Amanda longs to return to youthful days of courting and chivalry, and the peals of her girlish laughter that echo throughout the climactic scene make audible her struggle to return to the past. The husband who deserted her has crushed her dream of having a simple, romantic life. Tom yearns to write poetry and escape, but his helpless, needy family has forced him to take a factory job. (Williams brutally reminds us that, when he finally does decide to begin an artistic career, Tom must abandon his family and stop paying the light bills. As a result, the electric company shuts off the Wingfields’ lights in the climactic scene.) In each case, exposure to the devastating economic and interpersonal realities of adult life reduces, saddens, and damages the characters in The Glass Menagerie.
Laura’s unicorn thus symbolizes the painful transition each of Williams’s four characters makes from a hopeful, confident childhood to a timid and deadening existence as an adult. The unicorn has a radiance, transparency, and rarity that Jim damages in his brief visit to the Wingfield house, just as he also damages Laura’s own extraordinary innocence and fragility. Each of the characters has surrendered major dreams: Tom, his poetic ambition; Amanda, her belief in romance; Jim, his high-school talents. Williams uses the unicorn to quickly and unforgettably symbolize the devastation life has wrought on each of his tragic characters.