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The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. Tom calls Laura “peculiar,” but Amanda bristles at this word. What is “peculiar” about Laura?

When Amanda asks Tom to explain what he means when he calls Laura “peculiar,” he refers to the fact that she never goes out and says that “[s]he lives in a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments.” Her inability to talk to strangers is also unusual, as is the violent illness that overtakes her when she is faced with the most minimal of social pressures. One of her legs is shorter than the other, and it is quite possible that this physical deformity contributes to her pathological shyness. Jim suggests another possible explanation for her oddity: he believes that all of her peculiarities stem from an inferiority complex and that they would disappear if she could only learn to think more highly of herself. Another more complex explanation for Laura’s odd behavior is that she lives in a fantasy world of her own creation. Like the glass menagerie, this fantasy world is dangerously delicate. Because direct contact with the real world threatens to shatter Laura’s fantasies, much as the touch of any solid object will pop a soap bubble, she is terrified of any interaction with reality. If such is the case, then Laura begins to look a little less peculiar. After all, Amanda and Tom also live to some extent in fantasy worlds—Amanda in the past and Tom in movies and literature. The only difference between Laura and them, perhaps, is that she inhabits her fantasy world much more completely than they inhabit theirs.

A single line from Laura reveals the complexity of the question of exactly how peculiar she is. In Scene Seven, she says to Jim that she has never heard her glass horses argue among themselves. If we are meant to believe that she actually expects the glass figures to talk, then this quote demonstrates that she is deeply and unhealthily engrossed in her fantasies. Yet the stage directions indicate that she should say this line “lightly.” It seems that she is just making a joke, which would indicate that she can, on the right occasion, distance herself enough from her fantasy world to find humor and absurdity in it.

2. Why is the fire escape important in the play?

On the most concrete level, the fire escape is an emblem of the Wingfields’ poverty. In Amanda’s youth, she would have stepped onto a veranda or a porch for fresh air. But she and her children now live in a tenement in an urban center, and outdoor space is hard to come by. Yet in Scene Five, in one of the play’s few cautiously optimistic moments, the Wingfields still manage to find romance and hope on the fire escape, when Tom and Amanda wish on the moon. The fire escape also represents exactly what the name implies: the promise of escape from the overheated atmosphere of the apartment. Williams describes life in these tenements as the constant burning of the “slow and implacable fires of human desperation.” Tom, for one, is suffocated by the heat of these fires and occasionally steps onto the fire-escape landing to have a smoke. “I’m starting to boil inside,” he tells Jim in Scene Six. The photo of Mr. Wingfield operates with the fire escape to remind Tom and the audience that leaving is possible, and at the end of the play, Tom does indeed walk down the fire escape steps, never to return. Yet this possibility does not exist for everyone. In Scene Five, Laura slips and falls on the fire escape while on her way to a nearby store. For her, escape is impossible, and the fire escape, which takes the people she loves away from her, represents only the possibility of injury and destruction.

3. Which aspects of The Glass Menagerie are realistic? Which aspects are the most nonrealistic? What function do the nonrealistic elements serve?

In the Production Notes to The Glass Menagerie, Williams writes disparagingly of the “straight realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice cubes.” Generally, Williams found realism to be a flat, outdated, and insufficient way of approaching emotional experience. As a consequence, The Glass Menagerie is fundamentally a nonrealistic play. Distortion, illusion, dream, symbol, and myth are the tools by means of which the action onstage is endowed with beauty and meaning. A screen displays words and images relevant to the action; music intrudes with melodramatic timing; the lights rise or dim according to the mood onstage, not the time of day; symbols like the glass menagerie are hammered home in the dialogue without any attempt at subtlety. The play’s style may best be described as expressionistic—underlying meaning is emphasized at the expense of realism. The play’s lack of stylistic realism is further explained by the fact that the story is told from Tom’s memory. As Tom puts it, the fact that what we are seeing is a memory play means that “it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music.”

Though the style of the play is overwhelmingly nonrealistic, its content is a different matter. Williams also claimed that inventive stylistic devices like those he favored must never lead a play to “escape its responsibility of dealing with reality.” Emotions like Tom’s boredom, Amanda’s nostalgia, and Laura’s terror are conveyed with all the vividness of reality. So are the sorrowful hostility between Tom and Amanda and the quiet love between Tom and Laura. Similarly, the bleak lower-middle-class life of the Wingfield family is portrayed with a great deal of fidelity to historical and social realities. In fact, it often seems as if the main effect of the play’s nonrealistic style is to increase the sense of reality surrounding its content. The play, as Tom says, is committed to giving its audience “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Who do you think is the main character of the play—Tom, Laura, or Amanda? Why? Is the main character the protagonist? Is there an antagonist?

2. What might happen to Laura after Tom’s departure? What might happen to Amanda?

3. What is the effect of the images and phrases that appear on the screen throughout the play? Do they enhance or detract from the mood of what is occurring onstage?

4. Discuss the symbol of the glass menagerie. What does it represent? Does it represent the same things throughout the play, or does its meaning change?

5. Generally, plays do not have narrators. How does the fact that Tom is the narrator affect the style and content of the play? Would your appraisal of the events be different if there were no narrator?

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