Study Guide

The Glass Menagerie Memory and the Past

By Tennessee Williams

Memory and the Past

The audience hears and sees the opening scene in the dining room through both the transparent fourth wall of the building and the transparent gauze portieres of the dining-room arch. It is during this revealing scene that the fourth wall slowly ascends, out of sight. This transparent exterior wall is not brought down again until the very end of the play, during Tom's final speech. (Stage directions, Scene One).

Williams uses many visual devices to create a scene of memory, rather than live action or fact.

Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things u p my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. (1.1, Tom).

It is interesting that Tom claims that his altered memory scene is truth in the disguise of illusion, since all of Amanda’s reminiscence of the past is illusion in a mask of truth. This begs the question as to how accurately this narrator Tom is revealing his story.

A blown-up photograph of the father hangs on the wall of the living room, to the left of the archway. It is the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy's First World War cap. He is gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling, as if to say "I will be smiling forever." (stage directions, Scene One).

Just as the portrait of Amanda’s husband hangs in the house, so does the past (when he was there in person) hover over the present of the play.

To begin with, I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, where the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy. (1.1, Tom).

Because of the narrative nature of the play, issues of the past and future necessarily dominate.

Legend on screen: "Ou sont les neiges." (Scene One, stage directions).

The legend reading, "Where are the snows of yesteryear," in French underscores Amanda’s longing for the past.

To begin with, I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, where the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy. (1.1, Tom).

The elaborate and flowery descriptions in the play can be attributed to the nature of its narrator, Tom, who recalls the scenes, poeticized, from his memory.

The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings. (1.1, Tom).

Williams uses light to emphasize the subjective and memory nature of the play.

The scene is memory and therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic. (stage directions, 1.3)

The nature of memory is not only a central theme in the play itself, but also dictates the way in which the play is presented to the audience.

"Sometimes they come when they are least expected! Why, I remember one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain-" (1.16, Amanda).

To Amanda, memory has a detrimental effect, dragging her away from reality to live in the past.

"One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain - your mother received - seventeen! - gentlemen callers! Why, sometimes there weren't enough chairs to accommodate them all. We had to send the n***** over to bring in folding chairs from the parish house." (1.21, Amanda).

The believability of Amanda’s stories is brought into question.

"Girls in those days knew how to talk, I can tell you." (1.25, Amanda).

Amanda finds the standards of her present to be inadequate when measured by those of her past.

"There was young Champ Laughlin who later became vice president of the Delta Planters Bank. Hadley Stevenson who was drowned in Moon Lake and left his widow one hundred and fifty thousand in government bonds. There were the Cutrere brothers, Wesley and Bates. Bates was one of my bright particular beaux! He got in a quarrel with that wild Wainwright boy. They shot it out on the floor of Moon Lake Casino. Bates was shot through the stomach. Died in the ambulance on his way to Memphis. His widow was also well provided-for, came into eight or ten thousand acres, that's all. She married him on the rebound - never loved her - carried my picture on him the night he died! And there was that boy that every girl in the Delta had set her cap for! That beautiful, brilliant young Fitzhugh boy from Green County!" (1.29, Amanda).

For Amanda, all memory is infused with a twinge of regret.

"No, dear, you go in front and study your typewriter chart. Or practice your shorthand a little. Stay fresh and pretty! - It's almost time for our gentlemen callers to start arriving. [She flounces girlishly toward the kitchenette] How many do you suppose we're going to entertain this afternoon?" (1.35, Amanda).

Amanda’s movements and body language strengthen the notion that she is living in her own past.

She has on one of those cheap or imitation velvety-looking cloth coats with imitation fur collar. Her hat is five or six years old, one of those dreadful cloche hats that were worn in the late Twenties, and she is clutching an enormous black patent leather pocketbook with nickel clasps and initials. This is her full-dress outfit, the one she usually wears to the D.A.R. (Scene Two, stage directions).

Amanda’s clothes strengthen the notion that she is living in her own past.

He tears the portieres open. The dining-room area is lit with a turgid smoky red glow. (Scene Three, stage directions).

Williams uses light to emphasize the subjective and memory nature of the play.

"I was valuable to him as someone who could remember his former glory." (6.1, Tom).

Jim, like Amanda, revels in the memory of his glory days.

The light dims out on Tom and comes up in the Wingfield living room—a delicate lemony light. It is abut five on a Friday evening of late spring which comes "scattering poems in the sky. (Scene Six stage directions).

Williams uses light to emphasize the subjective and memory nature of the play.

A faraway, scratchy rendition of ‘Dardanella" softens the air and gives her strength to move through it. (Scene Six, stage directions).

Williams uses music to emphasize the subjective and memory nature of the play.

The music seems to answer his question, while Tom thinks it over. He searches his pockets. (Scene Six stage directions.)

Williams uses music to emphasize the subjective and memory nature of the play.

"There was a Jim O'Connor we both knew in high school-[then, with effort] If that is the one that Tom is bringing to dinner-you'll have to excuse me, I won't come to the table." (6.30, Laura).

"You remember that wonderful write-up I had in The Torch?"

"Yes!"

"It said I was bound to succeed in anything I went into!" (6.126-6.128, Jim and Laura)

Jim, just like Amanda, spends excessive time discussing both the glory days of his past and his dreams for the future.

Just as Amanda, Laura is so haunted by her own past that it debilitates her living in the present.

Laura is still huddled upon the sofa, her feet drawn under her, her head resting on a pale blue pillow, her eyes wide and mysteriously watchful. The new floor lamp with its shade of rose-colored silk gives a soft, becoming light to her face, bringing out the fragile, unearthly prettiness which usually escapes attention. (Scene Seven, stage directions.)

Williams uses light to emphasize the subjective and memory nature of the play.

"I—don’t suppose—you remember me—at all?"

"You know I have an idea I’ve seen you before. I had that idea soon as you opened the door. It seemed almost like I was about to remember your name. But the name I started to call you—wasn’t a name? And so I stopped myself before I said it." (7.75, 7.76, Laura and Jim),

Although to a lesser degree than her mother, Laura, too, lives in a piece of the past, recalling her feelings for Jim.

"Blue Roses! My gosh, yes—Blue Roses! That’s what I had on my tongue when you opened the door! Isn’t it funny what tricks memory plays?" (7.78, Jim).

Jim’s line about memory playing tricks has a greater context in the play as a whole – raising the question as to what tricks Tom’s memory might be playing on us.

"You modern young people are so much more serious-minded than my generation. I was so gay as a girl!"

"You haven’ changed, Mrs. Wingfield."

"Tonight I’m rejuvenated! The gaiety of the occasion, Mr. O’Connor." (7.276-7.278, Amanda and Jim).

The presence of only a single gentleman caller sent Amanda back to her role as a Southern Belle.

"No, Ma’am, not work but—Betty!"

[He crosses deliberately to pick up his hat. The band at the Paradise Dance Hall goes into a tender waltz.]

"Betty? Betty? Who’s—Betty?"

[There is an ominous cracking sound in the sky.] (7.289, 7.290, Jim and Amanda, Scene Seven stage directions).

Williams uses obvious and dramatic effects in this play on the grounds that memory can dramatize and alter reality. Interestingly enough, just like the characters we are watching, we become ensconced in an alternate reality.

"Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura—and so, goodbye… (7.321, Tom).

Although he escapes his family in body, Tom’s memory is forever stuck in his past, just as Amanda’s.