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The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams

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full title  ·  The Glass Menagerie

author  · Tennessee Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams III)

type of work  · Play

genre  · Tragedy; family drama

language  · English

time and place written  ·  1941–1943; a number of American cities, including New York, St. Louis, and Los Angeles

date of first publication  ·  1945

publisher  · Random House

narrator  · Tom Wingfield

point of view  · Tom both narrates and participates in the play. The older Tom remembers his youth and then becomes a younger Tom who participates in the action as scenes from his youth play out. The point of view of the older Tom is reflective, and he warns us that his memory distorts the past. The younger Tom is impulsive and angry. The action sometimes consists of events that Tom does not witness; at these points, the play goes beyond simply describing events from Tom’s own memory.

tone  · Tragic; sarcastic; bleak

tense  · The play uses both the present and past tenses. The older Tom speaks in the past tense about his recollections, and the younger Tom takes part in a play that occurs in the present tense.

setting (time)  · Tom, from an indefinite point in the future, remembers the winter and spring of 1937.

setting (place) · An apartment in St. Louis

protagonist  · Tom Wingfield

major conflict  · In their own ways, each of the Wingfields struggles against the hopelessness that threatens their lives. Tom’s fear of working in a dead-end job for decades drives him to work hard creating poetry, which he finds more fulfilling. Amanda’s disappointment at the fading of her glory motivates her attempts to make her daughter, Laura, more popular and social. Laura’s extreme fear of seeing Jim O’Connor reveals her underlying concern about her physical appearance and about her inability to integrate herself successfully into society.

rising action  · After Laura admits to leaving a business course that would have allowed her to get a job, her mother, Amanda, decides that Laura must get married; Tom tells Amanda that he is going to bring Jim O’Connor to dinner; Amanda prepares extensively, hoping that Jim will become Laura’s suitor.

climax  · Each character’s struggle comes to a climax at different points. Tom’s decision not to pay the electric bill and to use the money instead to leave his family in search of adventure reveals his initial, decisive break from his family struggles. When Jim breaks the horn from Laura’s glass unicorn and announces that he is engaged, the possibility that he will help her overcome her self-doubt and shyness is also destroyed. When Amanda discovers that Jim is engaged, she loses her hope that Laura will attain the popularity and social standing that Amanda herself has lost.

falling action  · Laura gives Jim the broken unicorn as a souvenir; Jim leaves the house to pick up his girlfriend; Amanda accuses Tom of not having revealed that Jim was engaged. Addressing the audience, Tom explains that not long after that incident he left his family but was never able to emotionally leave Laura behind—in his later travels, he frequently felt a connection to her.

themes  · The difficulty of accepting reality; the impossibility of true escape; the unrelenting power of memory

motifs · Abandonment; the words and images on the screen; music

symbols  · Laura’s glass menagerie; the glass unicorn; “Blue Roses”; the fire escape

foreshadowing  · Tom’s departure is foreshadowed by his frequent retreats to the fire escape and the image of a sailing vessel on the screen; the music from the Paradise Dance Hall across the street foreshadows Laura and Jim’s dancing; Jim’s breaking of the unicorn foreshadows his breaking of her heart.

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