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Themes in The Glass Menagerie

written by: Shelia Odak • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 2/14/2012

This article offers analysis of some of the themes found in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Understanding these themes provides a deeper understanding of the play and the motivations of the characters.

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    Memory

    When Tom Wingfield begins to speak in Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie, one of the first things he tells the audience is, “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic." The influence and power of memory is perhaps the central theme in the play and influences all the characters, who are all, in some way, trapped by memory. Tom is haunted by the memory of deserting his sister. Amanda can’t move past the memory of living a better life in Blue Mountain where it seemed possible that she could have married one of her seventeen gentleman callers. Laura allows herself to become lost in phonograph records left by their father, the records themselves holding memories of the past. Even Jim is entangled by the memories of his days as a high school hero instead of just another guy working at a factory.

    The idea of memory also directly influences how the play is presented. In Scene 1, using production notes and Tom’s introductory speeches, Williams says that the play is not meant to look like reality. There will be music, the lighting won’t be realistic, etc. The theme of memory influences the physical aspects of the play as well as the characters in it.

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    Yearning for / Impossibility of Escape

    All of the play’s characters make attempts at escape. The father is the ultimate symbol of escape because of his desertion. Laura continually escapes into a world of fantasy through the glass menagerie and the old phonograph records. Amanda tries to escape her current life by retelling stories of when she was young and life had limitless possibilities. Tom escapes his life and his mind-numbing job by going to the movies and sometimes getting drunk. Even the apartment where they live is something from which they would like to escape, though their economic circumstances make this impossible. Notice that when they leave the apartment, they leave down the fire escape.

    Even though all of the characters are looking for some type of escape, none of them, with the possible exception of the father, is able completely to achieve it. The entire play is about Tom’s failure at his attempt to escape. Some people read into the end of the play that when Tom asks Laura to blow out her candles, he is finally achieving escape for himself. Think about whether or not you agree and why.

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    Fantasy vs. Reality

    In their attempts to escape reality, all of the characters retreat into some kind of fantasy, whether it is films or glass animals. They find a source of comfort and contentment in these fantasy realms that they do not seem to find in reality. Laura especially chooses the world of the unreal over that of the real. While the other characters are able to function in the outside world, Laura’s inability to cope outside of her fantasy world is what makes her a cripple, much more so than her actual physical disability.

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    Duty to Your Family

    Many of the actions of the Wingfields are driven by the idea of familial duty. Their present circumstances are a direct result of the father abandoning his duty, leaving Amanda to shoulder the burden of supporting the family. Amanda knows that some day Tom will leave as well, and she feels enormous pressure to make sure Laura will be taken care of. She enlists Tom’s help because it is also his duty to see that his sister is married off to a nice boy. It is the duty of both Amanda and Tom to work for the money that keeps the family afloat. This role of breadwinner is especially hard on Tom because he hates his job, and it keeps him from pursuing the type of life and career he wants. When Tom leaves to join the Merchant Marines, he is abandoning his duty to his mother and sister, and it is this that haunts him.

Reading and Understanding The Glass Menagerie

This article series helps students to understand, analyze, and interpret the characters and dramatic action in Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie.
  1. Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie
  2. Studying the Character of Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie
  3. Themes in The Glass Menagerie

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