The Glass Menagerie
Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks!
A half hour later, dinner is winding down. Laura is still by herself on the living-room couch. The floor lamp gives her face an ethereal beauty. As the rain stops, the lights flicker and go out. Amanda lights candles and asks Jim to check the fuses, but of course, he finds nothing wrong with them. Amanda then asks Tom if he paid the electric bill. He admits that he did not, and she assumes that he simply forgot, as Jim’s good humor helps smooth over the potentially tense moment. Amanda sends Jim to the parlor with a candelabra and a little wine to keep Laura company while Amanda and Tom clean up.
In the living room, Jim takes a seat on the floor and persuades Laura to join him. He gives her a glass of wine. Tongue-tied at first, Laura soon relaxes in Jim’s engaging presence. He talks to her about the Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago and calls her an “old-fashioned” girl. She reminds him that they knew each other in high school. He has forgotten, but when she mentions the nickname he gave her, Blue Roses, he remembers. They reminisce about high school and Jim’s glories. Laura also remembers the discomfort and embarrassment she felt over the brace on her leg. Jim tells her that she was far too self-conscious and that everybody has problems. Laura persuades him to sign a program from a play he performed in during high school, which she has kept, and works up the nerve to ask him about the girl to whom he was supposedly engaged. He explains that he was never actually engaged and that the girl had announced the engagement out of wishful thinking.
In response to his question about what she has done since high school, Laura starts to tell Jim about her glass collection. He abruptly declares that she has an inferiority complex and that she “low-rates” herself. He says that he also suffered from this condition after his post–high school disappointment. He launches into his vision of his own future in television production. Laura listens attentively. He asks her about herself again, and she describes her collection of glass animals. She shows him her favorite: a unicorn. He points out lightly that unicorns are “extinct” in modern times.
Jim notices the music coming from the dance hall across the alley. Despite Laura’s initial protests, he leads her in a clumsy waltz around the room. Jim bumps into the table where the unicorn is resting, the unicorn falls, and its horn breaks off. Laura is unfazed, though, and she says that now the unicorn can just be a regular horse. Extremely apologetic, Jim tells her that she is different from anyone else he knows, that she is pretty, and that if she were his sister he would teach her to have some self-confidence and value her own uniqueness. He then says that someone ought to kiss her.
Jim kisses Laura on the lips. Dazed, Laura sinks down onto the sofa. He immediately begins chiding himself out loud for what he has done. As he sits next to her on the sofa, Jim confesses that he is involved with an Irish girl named Betty, and he tells her that his love for Betty has made a new man of him. Laura places the de-horned unicorn in his hand, telling him to think of it as a souvenir.
Amanda enters in high spirits, carrying refreshments. Jim quickly becomes awkward in her presence. She insists that he become a frequent caller from now on. He says he must leave now and explains that he has to pick up Betty at the train station—the two of them are to be married in June. Despite her disappointment, Amanda bids him farewell graciously. Jim cheerily takes his leave.
Amanda calls Tom in from the kitchen and accuses him of playing a joke on them. Tom insists that he had no idea that Jim was engaged and that he does not know much about anyone at the warehouse. He heads to the door, intending to spend another night at the movies. Amanda accuses him of being a “dreamer” and rails against his selfishness as he leaves. Tom returns her scolding. Amanda tells him that he might as well go not just to the movies but to the moon, for all that he cares about her and Laura. Tom leaves, slamming the door.
Tom delivers his passionate closing monologue from the fire-escape landing as Amanda inaudibly comforts Laura inside the apartment and then withdraws to her room. Tom explains that he was fired soon after from the warehouse for writing a poem on a shoebox lid and that he then left the family. He says that he has traveled for a long time, pursuing something he cannot identify. But he has found that he cannot leave Laura behind. No matter where he goes, some piece of glass or quality of light makes it seem as if his sister is at his side. In the living room, Laura blows the candles out as Tom bids her goodbye.
Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!
As Scene Seven begins, Laura’s face is made beautiful by the new floor lamp and its lampshade of “rose-colored silk.” Williams marshals the force of metaphor through the accrued weight of symbols. The delicate light represents Laura, and the rose represents Laura, whom Jim used to call “Blue Roses.” The glass unicorn that Jim breaks accidentally is yet another symbol that points to Laura. Like the unicorn, Laura is an impossible oddity. Jim’s kindness and kiss bring her abruptly into the normal world by shattering the protective layer of glass that she has set up around herself, but this real world also involves heartbreak, which she suffers at Jim’s hands.
Though Jim is an emissary from a very different world, he also shares some fundamental qualities with the Wingfields, each of whom is somehow unable to connect to the world around him or her. Jim seems to be well integrated into the outside world, to accept its philosophy of life, and to have latched onto a number of things that keep him afloat: public speaking, radio engineering, and Betty. But his long-winded speeches to Laura reveal an insecurity that he is fighting with all his might. He has somehow strayed off the glorious path on which he seemed destined to travel in high school. Lacking an inherent sense of self-worth, he is scrambling to find something that will give him such a sense. Jim talks as if he is trying to convince himself as much as all the others that he has the self-confidence he needs to succeed.
Each character in The Glass Menagerie is trying to escape from reality in his or her own way: Laura retreats into her imagination and the static world of glass animals and old records, Amanda has the glorious days of her youth, and Jim has his dreams of an executive position. Only Tom has trouble finding a satisfactory route of escape. Movies are not a real way out, as he comes to realize. Even descending the steps of the fire escape and wandering like his rootless father does not provide him with any respite from his memories of Laura’s stunted life and crushed hopes. Yet, in one way, he has escaped. A frustrated poet no longer, he has created this play. Laura’s act of blowing out the candles at the play’s end signifies the snuffing of her hopes, but it may also mark Tom’s long-awaited release from her grip. He exhorts Laura to blow out her candles and then bids her what sounds like a final goodbye. The play itself is Tom’s way out, a cathartic attempt to purge his memory and free himself through the act of creation.
Even so, when one considers the trajectory of Tennessee Williams’s life and writings, one senses a deep ambivalence in the play’s conclusion. The rose image continued to show up in Williams’s writings long after The Glass Menagerie, and the ghosts haunting Williams would eventually lead him to drug addiction and a mental hospital. For Williams and his character Tom, art may be an attempt to erase all pain. But although Williams’s world includes some survivors of deep pain and torment, they invariably bear ugly scars.
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