Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
As the title of the play informs us, the glass menagerie, or collection of animals, is the play’s central symbol. Laura’s collection of glass animal figurines represents a number of facets of her personality. Like the figurines, Laura is delicate, fanciful, and somehow old-fashioned. Glass is transparent, but, when light is shined upon it correctly, it refracts an entire rainbow of colors. Similarly, Laura, though quiet and bland around strangers, is a source of strange, multifaceted delight to those who choose to look at her in the right light. The menagerie also represents the imaginative world to which Laura devotes herself—a world that is colorful and enticing but based on fragile illusions.
The glass unicorn in Laura’s collection—significantly, her favorite figure—represents her peculiarity. As Jim points out, unicorns are “extinct” in modern times and are lonesome as a result of being different from other horses. Laura too is unusual, lonely, and ill-adapted to existence in the world in which she lives. The fate of the unicorn is also a smaller-scale version of Laura’s fate in Scene Seven. When Jim dances with and then kisses Laura, the unicorn’s horn breaks off, and it becomes just another horse. Jim’s advances endow Laura with a new normalcy, making her seem more like just another girl, but the violence with which this normalcy is thrust upon her means that Laura cannot become normal without somehow shattering. Eventually, Laura gives Jim the unicorn as a “souvenir.” Without its horn, the unicorn is more appropriate for him than for her, and the broken figurine represents all that he has taken from her and destroyed in her.
Like the glass unicorn, “Blue Roses,” Jim’s high school nickname for Laura, symbolizes Laura’s unusualness yet allure. The name is also associated with Laura’s attraction to Jim and the joy that his kind treatment brings her. Furthermore, it recalls Tennessee Williams’s sister, Rose, on whom the character of Laura is based.
Leading out of the Wingfields’ apartment is a fire escape with a landing. The fire escape represents exactly what its name implies: an escape from the fires of frustration and dysfunction that rage in the Wingfield household. Laura slips on the fire escape in Scene Four, highlighting her inability to escape from her situation. Tom, on the other hand, frequently steps out onto the landing to smoke, anticipating his eventual getaway.