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Sexuality in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie


The Glass Menagerie was written and premiered by Tennessee Williams in 1944. The play drew the audience’s attention to the author and gained theatrical success (Adler 18-19). The characters of the play, Amanda Wingfield, her son Tom, and her daughter Laura, can be described from different perspectives, but it is important to interpret their behavior in the context of their sexuality. The reason is that the focus on sexuality can help explain the characters’ motives and actions. Even though the sexuality of Williams’s characters depicted in The Glass Menagerie is not discussed openly, the specifics of drama allow the author to interweave Amanda’s sexuality based on her flirtatious behavior, Tom’s possible homosexuality, and Laura’s sexual innocence into the plot.

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In contrast to prose and novels, sexuality is presented in drama and theatrical performances with the help of non-verbal means, such as glances, touches, movements, and characters’ behaviors, and this genre is more effective in accentuating these cues. In novels, the ideas regarding characters’ sexuality are shared with readers concerning describing protagonists’ thoughts, dialogues, and behaviors (Adler 19-20). In drama, it is possible to reveal the sexuality of characters naturally, as it is in the real world – through their interactions. As a result, some cues made by the author in the text of a play can be emphasized with the help of acting on the stage. For example, when Jim asks Laura to dance with him – “How about cutting the rug a little, Miss Wingfield?” (Williams 98) – it is important to look at the man to understand whether he has a sexual interest in Laura. In this play, the sexuality of the main characters is not reflected in words, but it can be demonstrated by actors.

Although Amanda, a responsible mother, needs to act as a strong leader in her family, she is still a Southern belle in her thoughts, and this fact makes her demonstrate sexuality while communicating with men. To accentuate her attractiveness, Amanda refers to the example from her youth even though her children heard that story many times: “One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain, your mother received seventeen! gentlemen callers! Why sometimes there weren’t chairs enough to accommodate them all … I understood the art of conversation … Girls in those days knew how to talk, I can tell you” (Williams 4). Even when Jim O’Connor comes to her house as a potential gentleman caller for her daughter, Amanda uses flirting: “Mr. O’Connor, nobody, nobody’s given me this much entertainment in years -as you have!” (Williams 77). In this way, she uses her understanding of sexuality and communication with male individuals to attract his attention to her daughter, and the performance on the stage can be more illustrative for this behavior than just the presentation of Amanda’s words in the play.

However, as Tom cannot perform the role of the head in the house, Amanda has also to demonstrate her masculine features of a strong mother, as well as her ability to suppress her weak son. As a result, Amanda’s faded sexuality, a new role in the changing world, and the resentment at her husband make her behave hysterically and authoritatively at the same time. For instance, Amanda ventures to confiscate Tom’s book by Lawrence: “I took that horrible novel back to the library-yes! That hideous book by that insane Mr. Lawrence … I won’t allow such filth brought into my house!” (Williams 17). This act is the demonstration of her power in the house, but in this case, she seems to suppress her son and his will to act as an independent person who can freely choose what to read and how to live.

In the context of the atmosphere in the house, in which Tom Wingfield lives, his homosexuality can be assumed after focusing on some aspects depicted in the play: Tom’s impossibility to effectively perform his masculine role, his ignoring of traditional norms, and his final escape. According to Debusscher, Tom’s “restlessness, his impatience, his swearwords, his outbursts, his drinking, and his final flight may all be symptoms of the bottled-up frustrations of the gay person in the straight-laced environment created and instead on by Amanda” (55). He cannot openly reveal all his concerns to his family, and the only escape for him at this stage is going to the movies. With the help of performance and acting, it is possible to realize how desperately can sound his words to Amanda: “There’s so much in my heart that I can’t describe to you!” (Williams 30). Thus, there are no open cues or prompts regarding Tom’s homosexuality in the play, but there is still evidence of his suffering at home, being unable to speak openly to his relatives.

In contrast to her mother, who accentuates her sexual attractiveness and the ability to seduce, Laura is not interested in focusing on sexuality, and her child-like behavior emphasizes her innocence. However, her mother does not accept that fact, trying to make a Southern belle from her daughter using powder puffs: “All pretty girls are a trap, a pretty trap, and men expect them to be!” (Williams 54). Still, this accentuated sexuality is not for Laura despite her feelings for Jim O’Connor. Being involved in a dance with Jim and kissed by him can mean losing her innocence for Laura, like a unicorn losing his horn: “Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise” (O’Connor 101). Not only Laura’s character and personality are symbolized concerning the figure of a glass unicorn but also her sexuality is also illustrated by the author with the help of this symbol.


The sexuality of Williams’s characters in The Glass Menagerie seems to be not the main topic of the play. However, drama allows the author to reveal hidden ideas with the help of performance and interlace Amanda’s sexuality, Tom’s possible homosexuality, and Laura’s innocence into the plot. There are no direct discussions of the characters’ sexual identity, but Williams provides subtle cues to accentuate how the sexuality of these characters influences their behavior. These cues can become more noticeable and obvious concerning the performance, and actors’ touches, movements, and glances can add more to understanding the scenes. Although the words of the characters presented in the play provide some references to their concerns regarding sexuality and sexual identity, these cues can become more evident when being performed on the stage. In this context, it is possible to state that drama provides more tools for discussing the topic of sexuality in comparison to prose.

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Works Cited

Adler, Thomas P. “The Life of Tennessee Williams.” Family Dysfunction in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, edited by Dedria Bryfonski, Cengage Learning, 2015, pp. 18-29.

Debusscher, Gilbert. “There Are Similarities between the Dysfunctional Williams and Wingfield Families.” Family Dysfunction in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, edited by Dedria Bryfonski, Cengage Learning, 2015, pp. 48-60.

Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. E-book, Penguin, 2014.

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