Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The plot of The Glass Menagerie is structured around a series of abandonments. Mr. Wingfield’s desertion of his family determines their life situation; Jim’s desertion of Laura is the center of the play’s dramatic action; Tom’s abandonment of his family gives him the distance that allows him to shape their story into a narrative. Each of these acts of desertion proves devastating for those left behind. At the same time, each of them is portrayed as the necessary condition for, and a natural result of, inevitable progress. In particular, each is strongly associated with the march of technological progress and the achievements of the modern world. Mr. Wingfield, who works for the telephone company, leaves his family because he “fell in love with [the] long distances” that the telephone brings into people’s consciousness. It is impossible to imagine that Jim, who puts his faith in the future of radio and television, would tie himself to the sealed, static world of Laura. Tom sees his departure as essential to the pursuit of “adventure,” his taste for which is whetted by the movies he attends nightly. Only Amanda and Laura, who are devoted to archaic values and old memories, will presumably never assume the role of abandoner and are doomed to be repeatedly abandoned.
One of the play’s most unique stylistic features is the use of an onstage screen on which words and images relevant to the action are projected. Sometimes the screen is used to emphasize the importance of something referred to by the characters, as when an image of blue roses appears in Scene Two; sometimes it refers to something from a character’s past or fantasy, as when the image of Amanda as a young girl appears in Scene Six. At other times, it seems to function as a slate for impersonal commentary on the events and characters of the play, as when “Ou sont les neiges” (words from a fifteenth-century French poem praising beautiful women) appear in Scene One as Amanda’s voice is heard offstage.
What appears on the screen generally emphasizes themes or symbols that are already established quite obviously by the action of the play. The device thus seems at best ironic, and at worst somewhat pretentious or condescending. Directors who have staged the play have been, for the most part, very ambivalent about the effectiveness and value of the screen, and virtually all have chosen to eliminate it from the performance. The screen is, however, an interesting epitome of Tennessee Williams’s expressionist theatrical style, which downplays realistic portrayals of life in favor of stylized presentations of inner experience.
Music is used often in The Glass Menagerie, both to emphasize themes and to enhance the drama. Sometimes the music is extra-diegetic—coming from outside the play, not from within it—and though the audience can hear it the characters cannot. For example, a musical piece entitled “The Glass Menagerie,” written specifically for the play by the composer Paul Bowles, plays when Laura’s character or her glass collection comes to the forefront of the action. This piece makes its first appearance at the end of Scene One, when Laura notes that Amanda is afraid that her daughter will end up an old maid. Other times, the music comes from inside the diegetic space of the play—that is, it is a part of the action, and the characters can hear it. Examples of this are the music that wafts up from the Paradise Dance Hall and the music Laura plays on her record player. Both the extra-diegetic and the diegetic music often provide commentary on what is going on in the play. For example, the Paradise Dance Hall plays a piece entitled “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” while Tom is talking about the approach of World War II.