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Past vs. Present
Amanda is a woman caught between the past and the present. On the one hand, she is well aware that her family’s situation is dire. Little money is coming in, they live in a run-down apartment, and both of her children are drifting, though in different ways. For a mother, this is a terrible situation, and no matter what you may think of Amanda’s over-the-top personality, she truly wants a good life for her children.
Amanda tries to help their situation (bringing in more money through her magazine sales, pushing Laura toward business school and then toward marriage, trying to keep Tom away from corrupting influences such as books by D.H. Lawrence), but she is ill equipped to cope with their situation. Amanda was raised to be a woman of privilege. She did not expect to be a deserted single mother. It is this stress between her real life and what she expected her life to be that causes her to retreat into the stories of her past.
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Faded Southern Belle
Along with Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire, Amanda is Williams’ finest example of a type of woman about which he loved to write—the gentile, upper-class Southern belle who has fallen on hard times. Williams’ Southern belles attempt to keep alive what they see as the airs and graces of a way of life that is no longer part of their existence.
In The Glass Menagerie, there are enormous differences between Amanda's memories of her girlhood in Blue Mountain and her current life in a Depression-era tenement in St. Louis. Her attempts to ignore these differences can make her look ridiculous, for example when she goes overboard on the dinner for Jim, but they can also create sympathy as you realize how far she has fallen from her glory days in the Mississippi Delta.
Amanda is most alive and vibrant when telling the stories of her former life as a Southern gentlewoman in Blue Mountain. Unfortunately, these are also the moments when she is the farthest away from the real world. She is a woman continually caught between fantasy and reality.
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Amanda and Tom
Amanda sees her son as both an adult and a child. She sees him as an adult in that he is the primary breadwinner of the home. She and Laura need him in order to survive. However, she spends much of her time treating him like a child. A primary example of this is when she tells him how to chew his food.
The way she treats Tom is a reaction to the family’s desertion by her husband. In Tom’s restlessness, she sees echoes of that desertion and is afraid that Tom is going to leave her as well. This causes her to cling harder to her son, and her clinging turns into an attempt to micromanage his life and a refusal to treat him as an adult. Her attitude triggers Tom’s decision to enact his escape to the Merchant Marines.
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Amanda and Laura
Amanda’s larger-than-life personality contrasts greatly with Laura’s shy demeanor. Amanda cannot understand Laura’s self-consciousness and has expectations regarding her daughter that Laura is unable to meet. Because of this, she sets up Laura for failure, whether it is in business school or in relationships.
An argument can be made that Amanda is being cruel to push Laura so hard, but it is hard to see that she has any other choice given her own personality and her fears regarding her daughter. Her biggest worry is what will happen to Laura as she and her daughter get older. She doesn’t want Laura to be reduced to relying on the grudging kindness of relatives in order to survive. She wants Laura to have a secure home and family of her own. Most importantly, she does not want Laura to end up in the situation Amanda herself is in.
By trying to find a suitable husband for Laura, Amanda is trying to have a “do over" with her own failed relationship. If she can find a good man for Laura so that her daughter will not follow in her footsteps and end up alone, Amanda will find a kind of redemption. That is why the announcement that Jim has a fiancée is such a disappointment to her.
Studying the Character of Amanda Wingfield in 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.