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Teaching Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie

written by: Shelia Odak • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 9/5/2013

Featured are two activities designed to help students identify and interpret the symbols in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie.

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    Define Symbolism

    The Glass Menagerie No matter how many times you think you have said it in class, before starting a symbolism exercise it is always good to remind students of its definition and give some easy-to-understand examples.

    • Remind them that a symbol is an object, a person, an event, or a relationship that has a meaning beyond the literal one.
    • For example, a four leaf clover is literally a plant, but it has come to symbolize luck.
    • Through class discussion, have them come up with more examples of common symbols.

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    Activity 1

    Have the students divide into groups of two or three. Each group should make a list of the symbols in the play that relate to the idea of escape. On a piece of paper, have them list the symbol itself, explain which character the symbol corresponds to, and explain how the object/person/event symbolizes the theme of escape. You can do this act by act or after the class has finished reading the entire play. Follow the written portion of the assignment with a group discussion of what they have discovered.

    Some examples of symbols that relate to escape are:

    1. The glass menagerie and the phonograph records:Laura uses these to escape into fantasy and avoid a world with which she is unable to cope.

    2. The photograph of the father:For all the family members, he is the ultimate symbol of escape because of his desertion. It is telling that the picture has remained in the apartment all these years, reminding the family every day of his absence.

    3. The seventeen gentleman callers: Amanda tries to escape her current life as a deserted wife who must constantly scramble for money by retelling stories of when she was young and life had limitless possibilities. This is most represented in the tale of when she was courted by seventeen Southern gentlemen who came from the finest families.

    4. For Tom, the idea of escape is most important. He constantly escapes to the unreality of the movies. Tom also admires a magician he sees who is able to escape from a coffin without removing a nail. He sees his current situation and his family life as a coffin. When he tries to escape from them by joining the Merchant Marines, he discovers how trapped he truly is. He is haunted constantly by images of home, especially of Laura. Notice that Tom begins and ends the play at the fire escape. This is literally a way to escape the Wingfield apartment and enter the outside world. It allows him to leave physically, but he can never escape mentally. Also notice that in scene 4 of the play, Laura slips on the fire escape, a reminder of her inability to navigate in the outside world.

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    Activity 2

    Have the students write a literary analysis on one of the following three symbols related to the character of Laura: the glass menagerie, the unicorn, or the nickname “blue roses." This paper works best if done after the students have finished the entire play.

    Their paper should include the following:

    • A clear indication in the thesis statement of the symbol they have chosen.
    • Their interpretation of the non-literal meaning of the symbol.
    • References to specific passages in the play that help explain/develop their interpretation.
    • Whether or not the meaning of the symbol changes over the course of the play.
    • How the symbol relates to an overall theme they see in the play (Here, it is helpful to have had a prior discussion of themes found in the work).

References

Teaching Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie

This series offers teachers tips and activities for teaching Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie.
  1. Teaching Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie
  2. Teaching Character Analysis in The Glass Menagerie: Amanda Wingfield
  3. The Glass Menagerie Activities on the Theme of Memory
  4. Teaching Characterization in The Glass Menagerie