This paper provides an interpretation of one of the aspects of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. It is stated that the collection of glass figurines in the play symbolizes one of the characters of this piece of literature, Laura Wingfield. The paper argues that the glass animals, being beautiful, but fragile, reflect the similar characteristics of their owner and that the unicorn, being simultaneously the most otherworldly creature in the collection and Laura’s favorite piece, shows the nature of the girl with the most precision. This paper offers a possible interpretation of the play, but, as it often is the case with the works of fiction, there might exist other interpretations of the text. Future studies might attempt to offer some new readings of The Glass Menagerie.
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The Glass Menagerie (1944) is a well-known play by Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), a prominent American playwright; in fact, it was the first play to make him famous. The Glass Menagerie tells a story of the Wingfield family abandoned by the father; the mother, Amanda, dreams about her youth and attempts to push her children to success by moralizing at them, the breadwinner son, Tom, works for a hateful shoe warehouse, and the daughter, Laura, suffers from mental frailty and an inferiority complex. Her collection of glass animals, “the glass menagerie,” plays an important role in the play – it symbolizes its owner, Laura.
Laura and Her Collection of Animals
Laura is a beautiful, gentle young woman who is haunted by her mental frailty. She is afraid of talking to people she does not know well, she feels extremely shy, and she is isolated from the outer world. When her mother insists that Laura goes to Rubicam’s Business College in order to learn how to type, the young girl feels so confused that her hands are shaking, and, eventually, she throws up on the floor (Williams, 1945, p. 756). The incident makes her drop out of the college, and her future “business career” is broken, perhaps forever; it is argued that the college symbolizes the Rubicon River; Laura couldn’t cross it successfully, which causes her to fail (Ardolino, 2010, p. 131). The girl seems unable to find a place in this world; like glass animals, she does not belong to it.
Laura’s “menagerie” is her only solace and sanctuary – she spends most time caring for it, polishing the animals, arranging and rearranging them. It appears that she has created her own world of fairy tales, a world where she lives together with her creatures. The menagerie, therefore, symbolizes Laura’s escapism. Not only that; the girl is very much like her figurines herself – beautiful, especially when there is enough metaphorical “light” of love falling on her for others to see it, but fragile and somewhat old-fashioned.
The girl does not seem to belong to this world; even her nickname, Blue Roses, is unusual. The girl explains how she received it: “When I had that attack of pleurodesis – he [her high-school love interest Jim] asked me what was the matter when I came back. I said pleurodesis – he thought I said, Blue Roses!” (Williams, 1945, p. 757). It is stated that the blue flowers “symbolize her yearning for both ideal or mystical beauty and spiritual or romantic love” (Cardullo, 2010, p. 77). It is also no wonder that Laura’s favorite animal is the unicorn, the most otherworldly creature in her collection.
However, as her mother invites Jim to their house, planning that he will become Laura’s “gentleman caller,” there seems to appear a chance that Jim will “bring back” the girl to this world. Despite being shy at first, Laura is left alone with him, and she overcomes her shyness eventually. They start waltzing around the room, and bump into the table; the unicorn falls, and its horn breaks off. Laura says: “I’ll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him less – freakish!” (Williams, 1945, p. 781). It is as if the girl herself becomes closer to reality.
However, this hope fades very quickly when Jim tells Laura that he has a girlfriend. And now the unicorn becomes a completely different symbol – a broken figurine made of fragile glass instead of a horse that is closer to the world than a unicorn. Laura gives her broken unicorn to Jim for him to keep it as a “souvenir” (Williams, 1945, p. 782) as if giving up herself. Her glass menagerie will never be the same again – from now on, she will look at it and think of the unicorn and of the young man who she was ready to devote herself to, but who rejected her.
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To sum up, the glass menagerie in the play symbolizes Laura, a gentle girl, beautiful – which can be seen easily when there is enough “light” to illuminate her, just as it happens with her figurines – but otherworldly and fragile. Laura finds her solace in her animals, and her favorite one – the unicorn – is most similar to the girl. As the unicorn’s horn is broken off by Jim, it briefly appears that Laura will find an anchor in this world; but as Jim abandons her, she remains similar to her unicorn – now a broken figurine that was given away to be a memory as the girl loses her hope.
Ardolino, F. (2010). Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” The Explicator, 68(2), 131-132. Web.
Cardullo, R. J. (2010). Liebestod, romanticism, and poetry in “The Glass Menagerie”. ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, 23(2), 76-85. Web.
Williams, T. (1945). The Glass Menagerie. Web.