The characters in The Glass Menagerie display many behavioral symbols that reflect the feelings and desires of lower-class America. The setting is indicative to this status, as well. This paper examines some of these symbols and how they connect the characters to such a status.
The environment of the Wingfield’s residence is the first and most obvious symbol of despair. The author’s first comments in the introduction of scene 1 set a vivid picture of this. It states, “The Wingfield apartment is located in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population…” (Exposition, paragraph 1). This reveals the obscurity and unpleasantness of urban living in lower-class society. Words such as ‘warty growths’, ‘conglomeration of cellular living units’ and ‘vast hive-like’ define a crowded condition. People are compared to bees whereas there is little to no distinction between them.
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The location is an important symbol, too. The apartment is in the rear of the building with the primary means of egress being a fire escape into an alleyway. This delivers a sense of disconnectedness from the outside world and of being anonymous and unknown. The addition of garbage cans strewn about in the alley and the “sinister latticework” (Exposition, paragraph 4) of fire escapes leading to neighboring apartments pushes the audience to understand that this is very low, middle-class on the verge of poverty and illustrates a lack of distinction.
In addition, the use of dim lighting is designed to set a mood of sadness and depression. Being a play based on memory, the lighting concepts used exaggerate the emotions of Tom, who this play is about. Brighter elements represent stronger, and sometimes, exaggerated emotions, while dim lighting represents dull or unimportant memories.
The character developments of Amanda, Laura, and Tom each reveal the various tactics used to create illusions of lives better than reality presented. Amanda is the mother of Tom and Laura, while Tom is the breadwinner. Laura lacks the character strength to an extent, and she is very withdrawn and will not leave the apartment unnecessarily.
These three each act in metaphoric ways that symbolize their escape from their depressed circumstances. Tom constantly escapes the apartment by spending time on the fire escape. This is where he finds freedom, though very limited, from the confines of the apartment and the hounding of his mother. His smoking symbolizes time, time to imagine life as he might desire. It is also a vice, a freedom. Tom also retreats nightly to the movies. This is his primary escape. He is in such despair, that his retreats typically last all night and usually result in his getting drunk. The drinking aspect is amplified today with the psychological belief that this is a behavior of denial.
Amanda wants to escape, too, and she does this through her past. She frequently refers back to her youth when gentlemen callers called on her, specifically recalling the unlikely number of 17 male callers at one time. She refers to this with ease. A surprising aspect of Amanda’s delusion is her lack of anger and blame at her husband for leaving her. Instead she directs this hostility towards Tom. Amanda is perpetually disapproving of Tom over his apparent lack of ambition. She compares him to her absent husband in virtually every transaction between them, constantly referring to the father’s better qualities, although obviously the father has deserted them. When not harping on Tom, Amanda is obsessed with breaking Laura of her reclusive nature by asking Tom to bring home gentleman callers.
Unlike the other characters, Laura has totally retreated from the world. She gets physically sick when under the mildest of pressures. She focused on the older music played on the Victrola. This nostalgia of the music helps her live in a different time. She automatically moves to the Victrola when she senses pressure. She refers to her glass collection as living entities with feelings, as if they were imaginary friends, because she has no friends of her own.
Jim O’Connor is a reflection of Amanda, Tom, and Laura’s desire for a different life. Jim is the average guy who has had his ups and downs. He was the ‘dreamboat’ on campus. In the short dialog between Amanda and Laura (speech 34-45), Laura reveals Jim’s successes to Amanda. Amanda constantly praises Jim as Tom describes him to her. Jim proves to be a character who is not content with his life, but is making positive strides to improve it, which Amanda responds to in dramatic fashion.