The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams is classified as a Memory Play (Williams, 5). Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic (Williams, 5). Memories often are biased to what people want to remember, or how they want to remember. Tom Wingfield, the narrator of the play, explains that In memory, everything seems to happen to music (Williams, 5). All of the characters in the play have been in some way affected by their past, and struggled to move on from it. From this, they gain specific traits and emotions that are important to their personality. Memories play a major role in The Glass Menagerie, as the story is told through what Tom Wingfield remembers about the past events in his life..
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Tom Wingfield, the narrator, struggles in his life, painstakingly remembering how his father had left him, his sister, and mother alone without warning. He explains that he has two situations to choose from: He can either live how he wants to, but abandon his mother and sister, just how his father did, or he can swallow his own dreams in life and stick with them. When he makes the decision to leave behind his family, he is overwhelmed with a sense of guilt. this division in his character, and his attempt to resolve it, creates a fundamental tension in the play (Bell). His mother and sister no longer had a provider, and he knows it is his fault. His mother even calls him out at one point when he tries to leave. Go to the movies, go! Don’t think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job! Don’t let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure! (Williams, 95) He does not want to become the same kind of man his father was, but he ultimately has a soliloquy that reflects his father’s behaviors, and then thinks about facing his sister after all that time.
I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further- for time is the longest distance between two places I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes(Williams, 96).
However, Tom is not the only one affected by his past. Laura Wingfield, Tom’s sister, is an emotionally distressed young lady, who struggles greatly with her past. In addition to her emotional pain, she is physically disabled as well, due to an illness from her childhood. She is incredibly shy and lacks confidence due to the leg brace she must wear. She keeps to herself, surrounded by records and her glass animals. She lives in a world of fantasy wherein she collects glass animals and takes daily trips to the zoo (Bell). She can even be compared to the animals in her collection; fragile and delicate. Laura explains that Most of them are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest little animals in the world (Williams, 82). Through her, the audience is constantly reminded of her father, whose records she plays throughout the play. It is a way she remembers her father. She clearly lacks a male-figure in her life, because of her father and brother leaving her and her mother behind. This becomes more evident when she is reunited with Jim O’Connor, a man who she had loved as a girl. While they are dancing, they accidentally bump into the table that held Laura’s glass animals. The unicorn falls off and the horn breaks, which can be a symbol of how peculiar she felt about herself before speaking with Jim, and how she felt normal around him, just as a unicorn without a horn is just a horse. It is clear she still loves him, but she is shot down when she hears that he is already engaged to someone else. She is overwhelmed by this, and is unable to move past it. Laura once again feels abandoned by a man. She remembers her past, compares it to her present, and feels like giving up on her future.
Amanda Wingfield, Tom and Laura’s mother, has also struggled with her past, but handles it differently. She is not crippled by it, but pushed to make positive situations out of negative ones. She believes that in the end everything will turn out okay. Reflecting on her past, she feels that she had missed out in a world of young men and experiences. She was very popular, and often remembers how many gentlemen callers she had in order to feel a sense of happiness and wholeness. However, she met her husband and married him instead. She hopes that Laura can find a husband, because she feels a sense of security in knowing her daughter does not go down the same path as she did. Unlike Laura, Amanda is very open about her emotions, as she struggles in her own childhood. When she was a young girl, she was faced with social situations she did not know how to deal with. Amanda grew up impoverished in a St. Louis house in an alleyway. With heroic desperation, Amanda attempts to keep the family together although her background and temperament provide her with few strategies to do so (Bell). Her struggle is not overcoming her memories of the past, but reaching freedom in her life, where it is difficult not to feel trapped. Her biggest apparent fear is that she will become weak, like most unmarried women she sees. She explains that those unmarried women are pitiful cases, and little birdlike women without any nest (Williams, 16). Amanda does not want her or her daughter to suffer from their past events.
Jim O’Connor, Laura’s prospective caller, is the most realistic out of the other characters. However, he does struggle with his own past successes. Jim is a former hero of the high school Tom and Laura Wingfield attended (Heintzelman). However, as he grew older, he found it incredibly difficult to excel elsewhere. He would reminisce and try to bask in the glory of his high school days, hoping others would address him for what he used to be as well. “I was valuable to him as someone who could remember his former glory” (Williams, 50). Jim is settled down and engaged, trying to feel comfortable in his new, more low-key lifestyle. While Jim did not face the same hardships as the Wingfields, he still has to recover from his exciting and popular lifestyle. He has to learn how to stop living through the past, and start moving forward. It is also quite possible that these great memories flood his mind, and that he blocks out the hardships, making it even more difficult for him to remember that his life was not always perfect.
A person’s memory can sometimes be selective and unreliable. In other words, certain things are forgotten in order to focus on others. In the case of the Wingfields, they went through an abundance of pain and suffering. They have become so focused on what they have been through, and they forget many of the positive times in their life, when things were not so bad. Tom Wingfield recalls most of his life in a negative way, however life is full of ups and downs. Tom just subconsciously chooses to focus on the negative, since it was so relevant to his life. In the case of Jim O’Connor however, the brain can also block out the negatives, and focus solely on the positives. He often thinks about his life as the superstar of his former sports’ team, but forgets (for example) about the training and grueling practice it took to get there. He tries to keep reliving his successes without addressing his hard work and endeavors to reach that point. In both cases, memories can have a negative effect on a person’s ability to move forward. Memory omits certain details, and overemphasizes others. Tennessee Williams Emphasizes how subjective memory is with the visual of stage directions, saying He tears the portieres open. The dining-room area is lit with a turgid smoky red glow (Williams, 22). Psychologists at Harvard University think that a malfunction in this system may be to blame for mood disorders like depression and anxiety ” where simulations of the future are repetitively negative, and hammer home a distortedly negative worldview(Beck). This theory supports the idea that memories affect them mentally, causing them to grow weak and delicate.
These characters form their own glass menagerie, fragile, easy-to-break people, who are trying to live a life of illusion blurred by their memories. They get in their own heads and are unable to actually accomplish anything. Because of Tom Wingfield narrating this story through memory, his inner thoughts are worn on his sleeve. Just like glass, their emotions are shining through, the characters are transparent in how they are feeling. It is evident that they are all facing their own inner demons. Tennessee Williams writes When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken (Williams, xxi). This can be said about the characters in the play as well. Life is beautiful, but can easily become destroyed by inner thoughts and emotions. In this case, the emotions and inner thoughts all stem from their recollections in their lives. While Tom Wingfield is the narrator, it is not Tom’s memory alone that serves as the focal point. With careful scrutiny, one finds that each character is frozen in time because of his or her memory (Bell). Laura is fascinated by these glass animals, relating them to herself and the others in the play. These figurines also cannot move on their own, which can relate back to the fact that their inability to move forward is caused by the inability to overcome failed dreams (Bell).
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