But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. . . . There is a trick that would come in handy for me—get me out of this two-by-four situation! . . . You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?
At the beginning of Scene Four, Tom, returning home from the movies, tells Laura about a magic show in which the magician performs the coffin trick. Tom, who dreams of adventure and literary greatness but is tied down to a mindless job and a demanding family, sees the coffin as a symbol of his own life situation. He has been contemplating an escape from his private coffin since the beginning of the play, and at the end, he finally goes through with it, walking out on his family after he is fired from his job. But Tom’s escape is not nearly as impressive as the magician’s. Indeed, it consists of no fancier a trick than walking down the stairs of the fire escape. Nor is Tom’s escape as seamless as the magician’s. The magician gets out of the coffin without disturbing one nail, but Tom’s departure is certain to have a major impact on the lives of Amanda and Laura. At the beginning of Scene One, Tom admits that he is “the opposite of a stage magician.” The illusion of escape that the magician promotes is, in the end, out of Tom’s reach.
Well, in the South we had so many servants. Gone, gone, gone. All vestige of gracious living! Gone completely! I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me. All of my gentlemen callers were sons of planters and so of course I assumed that I would be married to one and raise my family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants. But man proposes—and woman accepts the proposal! To vary that old, old saying a bit—I married no planter! I married a man who worked for the telephone company! . . . A telephone man who—fell in love with long-distance!
This quote is drawn from Scene Six, as Amanda subjects Jim, who has just arrived at the Wingfield apartment for dinner, to the full force of her high-volume, girlish Southern charm. Within minutes of meeting him, Amanda introduces Jim to the broad arc of her life history: her much-lamented transition from pampered belle to deserted wife. As she does throughout the play, Amanda here equates her own downfall with that of a system of “gracious living” associated with the Old South, which contrasts starkly with the vulgarity and squalor of 1930s St. Louis. Naturally, Amanda’s intense nostalgia for a bygone world may have something to do with the fact that neither she nor her children have managed to succeed in the more modern world in which they now live.
Amanda’s memories of her multitudinous “gentlemen callers” are responsible for the visit of Jim, whom Amanda sees as a comparable gentleman caller for Laura. Amanda’s decision to tell Jim immediately about her gentlemen callers demonstrates the high hopes she has for his visit. Indeed, the speech quoted might be taken as rather tactless move—a sign that Amanda’s social graces have a touch of hysterical thoughtlessness to them and that putting herself and her story at the center of attention is more important to her than creating a favorable atmosphere for Laura and Jim’s meeting.
LAURA: Little articles of [glass], they’re ornaments mostly! Most of them are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest little animals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie! Here’s an example of one, if you’d like to see it! . . . Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks! . . . You see how the light shines through him?
JIM: It sure does shine!
LAURA: I shouldn’t be partial, but he is my favorite one.
JIM: What kind of a thing is this one supposed to be?
LAURA: Haven’t you noticed the single horn on his forehead?
JIM: A unicorn, huh? —aren’t they extinct in the modern world?
LAURA: I know!
JIM: Poor little fellow, he must feel sort of lonesome.
This exchange occurs in Scene Seven, after Jim’s warmth has enabled Laura to overcome her shyness in his presence and introduce him to the collection of glass animals that is her most prized possession. By this point in the play, we are well aware that the glass menagerie is a symbol for Laura herself. Here, she warns him about the ease with which the glass figurines might be broken and shows him the wonderful visions produced when they are held up to the right sort of light. In doing so, she is essentially describing herself: exquisitely delicate but glowing under the right circumstances.
The glass unicorn, Laura’s favorite figurine, symbolizes her even more specifically. The unicorn is different from ordinary horses, just as Laura is different from other people. In fact, the unicorn is so unusual a creature that Jim at first has trouble recognizing it. Unicorns are “extinct in the modern world,” and similarly, Laura is ill-adapted for survival in the world in which she lives. The loneliness that Jim identifies in the lone unicorn is the same loneliness to which Laura has resigned herself and from which Jim has the potential to save her.
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. . . . [smiling] I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!
This exchange, also from Scene Seven, occurs not long after the previous one. After persuading Laura to dance with him, Jim accidentally bumps the table on which the glass unicorn rests, breaking the horn off of the figurine. Apparently, Laura’s warning to him about the delicacy of the glass objects reflects a very reasonable caution, but Jim fails to take the warning seriously enough. The accident with the unicorn foreshadows his mishandling of Laura, as he soon breaks her heart by announcing that he is engaged.
Just as Jim’s clumsy advances make Laura seem and feel like an ordinary girl, his clumsy dancing turns her beloved unicorn into an ordinary horse. For the time being, Laura is optimistic about the change, claiming that the unicorn should be happy to feel like less of a misfit, just as she herself is temporarily happy because Jim’s interest in her makes her feel like less of an outcast. Laura and the glass unicorn have similar fragility, however, and Laura, perhaps knowingly, predicts her own fate when she implies that no matter how careful Jim might be, her hopes will end up shattered.
I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. . . . I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. . . . I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!
The play closes with this speech by Tom, at the end of Scene Seven. Here, Tom speaks as the narrator, from some point in time years after the action of the play. He describes how he leaves Amanda and Laura after being fired from his job and embarks on the life of the wanderer, just as his father did years ago. This escape is what Tom dreams of aloud in Scene Four, and it is Tom’s chosen means of pursuing the “adventure” that he discusses with Amanda in Scene Four and Jim in Scene Six. From Tom’s vague description of his fate after leaving home, it is unclear whether he has found adventure or not. What is clear is that his escape is an imperfect, incomplete one. Memories of Laura chase him wherever he goes, and those memories prove as confining as the Wingfield apartment.
Tom’s statement that “I am more faithful than I intended to be!” indicates that Tom is fully aware that deserting his family was a faithless and morally reprehensible act, and the guilt associated with it may have something to do with his inability to leave Laura fully behind. But the word “faithful” also has strong associations with the language of lovers. A number of critics have suggested that Tom’s character is influenced by an incestuous desire for Laura. The language used in this sentence and the hold that Laura maintains over Tom’s memory help to support this theory.
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The Glass Menagerie is a five-character memory play by Tennessee Williams that premiered in 1944 and catapulted Williams from obscurity to fame. Highly recommend it to everyone!
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