Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie offers a glimpse into the dark side of the American family. Representationally dysfunctional, the Wingfield family is a typical American unit who survive the unpleasant intrusion of reality upon their lives by creating their own illusions to deny the emptiness of their existence. It is the relationship between the mother, Amanda, and her daughter Laura that best exemplifies the play’s theme of the futility of attempting to escape reality which depicts a crippling dysfunctional relationship between a
mother and daughter. The Glass Menagerie offers a family that is systemically unable to fully live in the present so they search vainly for happiness and the capacity to become a functional unit by retreating into their own individual fantasy worlds as a way of coping with life’s unfortunate version of reality.
The Glass Menagerie is a dramatic play about human nature, the conflict between illusion and reality. The struggle between the love of freedom and the love of family. If there is a signature character type that marks Tennessee Williams’s dramatic work, it is undeniably that of the faded Southern belle. Amanda is a clear representative of this type; a faded belle from a prominent Southern family, who has received a traditional upbringing, but has suffered a reversal of economic and social fortune at some point in her life. Her relationships with men and her family are turbulent, and she staunchly defends the values of her past. Amanda is the play’s most extroverted and theatrical character.
A recurrent theme running throughout the plays of Tennessee Williams perhaps has its genesis in The Glass Menagerie: that familial happiness and unity may be eternally predestined for failure in the face of overpowering odds that are manifested in the form of misunderstanding and miscommunication between the one entity that should above all others be expected to strive toward interpersonal understanding. Because of decisions made in both the recent and long-ago past, the Wingfield family is breaking down. Amanda and her children Tom and Laura represent the fractured reality of the average family in America; the only difference is that the husband/father is physically absent instead of merely psychically detached from the workings of familial bonding. The play is starkly symbolic examination of that contemporary cliché so prominently on display in the media today, the dysfunctional family.
Amanda Wingfield demands of her daughter that she play a role and as a result Laura grows up to fulfill a social role that has predetermined for her by her mother’s needs to control and shape her children’s destiny. Amanda’s failing is that she is incapable of judging her role objectivity and only sees what she wants. Her greatest fear is that her children will abandon her like her husband and the irony is that instead of taking steps designed to nurture their love, she engages in behavior that alienates her son and sends her daughter spiraling further and further into her own dream world. The fear of abandonment results in Amanda’s stubborn refusal to let her children develop into emotionally mature adults to the point of even refusing Laura to use certain
Despite being oblivious to the inner turmoil of Laura that places her daughter on a path to extreme isolation, Amanda is intensely aware of the exterior life of both her children. As the devouring mother should, Amanda keep an eye on her children at all time, though it only takes in surface information and never attempts to see through to the inner core. What this amounts to is that Amanda has resorted to living vicariously by attempting to chart Laura’s destiny to coincide with her own shattered aspirations. The inherent problem is that Amanda cannot guide her children to successful lives if they are not doing what they want and the upshot is that Amanda is destined to experience failure again and again. And when those failures occur she doesn’t face them, but instead constructs a fantasy to explain them away. For instance, to explain why Laura never receives any gentlemen callers, Amanda explains it by rationalizing that the cause must the result of some external causes unrelated to Laura. When Laura attempts to honestly explain why she deceived her mother about dropping out of business college, Amanda’s response is curiously personal as she harangues her daughter about the potential for living a life of dependency.
Laura’s emotionally crippled state is due less to her physical defect than it is due to her mother’s manipulative parenting. Laura is exactly analogous to one of her treasured glass animals. Her delicacy and fragility extends even to the physical in that she shies away from actual human contact. It is almost as if she fears she can break as easily as the glass and so she responds by symbolically placing herself on a shelf. Laura has reached the state where she prefers to be treated like her lovely collection; looked upon but not touched. Indeed, she is well on her way to desiring to not only not be physically touched but not even to be emotionally touched. Laura is certainly cognizant of her mother’s hopes for her, but her mother’s plans have absolutely no value to her. The most essential thing for Laura is to keep the peace and family unity for she is the object of the most intense feelings when her mother and brother are quarreling. The fighting that takes place between mother and son is directly related to the relationship that has developed between mother and daughter.
Amanda is haunted by the specter of Tom following in his father’s footsteps and abandoning her with no way to take care of herself and Laura. Hanging over the play is a fifth character, that of Amanda’s husband, and her actions seem predetermined by her fear that history will repeat between father and son the way it is repeating for mother and daughter in their unwillingness to face up to reality will follow in his father’s footsteps. The presence of Mr. Wingfield’s own occurrences of coming home drunk is the hammer that drives a wedge between mother and son and her expressions of trepidation that he will turn out like his father is instrumental in making those fears come true. The result of Amanda’s fear and her response to it is to engender two distinct roles for her children to play. Tom will be forced to accept the responsibility that comes with being the man of the house in a family without a father, while Laura remains fixed in childhood. Each child is forced to develop methods to cope with these enforced roles and Laura responds with nearly total withdrawal. Fearful of being disparaged because of physical limitations, Laura develops an intense shyness and disengages from a world she views as insensitive.
Amanda responds by attempting to forcibly assimilate her into the social order through such means as enrolling her in business school and arranging gentlemen callers. Laura proves herself thoroughly incapable of meeting the demands of the modern world by failing at her typing test as well as lacking the ability to socialize with other people. Laura’s life is decidedly lacking in excitement and she lives mostly within memories of her past and fantasies. This in turn makes things difficult for Amanda who knows that if Tom does abandon her she will have only Laura’s husband to depend on to take care of her. Laura is a classic example of the type of child who withdraws into fantasy as a defense against the pain of an unhappy home. The make-believe world becomes a sanctuary. Laura is more than content to spend countless hours enjoying her menagerie and listening to music.
It is equally often that a child in such circumstances withdraws not into fantasy per se, but in the soothing effects that alcohol has in creating an illusion of reality. That is the choice Tom makes.
Amanda is not immune to the effects of living in the void left by the departure of her husband and has her own method of coping with her unique difficulties; Amanda quickly regresses into her own nostalgia when the pain of the present becomes too much to bear. Almost instantly whenever the reality of what she had done to the lives of her children threaten to intrude upon her, Amanda’s consciousness returns to her days a pretty
southern belle. Her focus typically involves relating the oft-told story of what happened one long-ago Sunday in Blue Mountain; an occurrence that likely has been conflated over the years so that it bears little resemblance to the actuality of events. Whether or not there really were seventeen suitors the essential element is Amanda is fully convinced of her version of the truth. Amanda chooses the past over the present when the present becomes too much to bear and it is this steady retreat into the past to recapture a happier time instead of dealing with the problems of the moment that produces the dysfunction that ravages Laura and her brother. Amanda’s refusal to recognize Laura’s lameness as a crippling defect is a symbol for her larger refusal to recognize the crippling effect her own actions have had on her daughter.
The present is merely an unfortunate blip on the radar of denial they have each built. The subtle implication is one of emotional heredity; the fact that both Tom and Laura follow their mother down the path of retreating from reality suggests that it is the family dynamic itself that is most responsible for the dysfunctional state of most households and that, furthermore, there can be any real hope of freedom from the deadening responsibilities of keeping that dynamic from falling apart). exists for this family only to the degree that it can be verified by constant references to the past. This explains why none of the characters can succeed in their present situations. They exist through their past, but the problem is that the past no longer exists. While these characters stay the same, the outside world changes. This explains the characters’ repeated failures in the present world outside them. The story of the Wingfield family also suggests that is the inability to correspond on a functional level that causes the most pain and misery in the world.
The Glass Menagerie works both from and toward the abandonment of women by a man. Laura and Tom’s father abandoned the family earlier and it is his absence that permeates the course of the family’s destiny, determining Amanda’s ability to act as a parent. Amanda’s failure in this role then becomes the determining element of in the inability of both her children, but especially Laura, to properly mature into adulthood. Tom’s ultimate recapitulation of his father’s departure represents a step forward for him while at the same time assuring that Amanda and Laura remained destined to always be the ones who are abandoned.