Study Guide

The Glass Menagerie Weakness

By Tennessee Williams

Weakness

Laura is seated in the delicate ivory chair at the small clawfoot table. She wears a dress of soft violet material for a kimono – her hair is tied back from her forehead with a ribbon. She is washing and polishing her collection of glass. (Scene Two, stage directions).

Emphasizing her fragility, Laura is constantly surrounded by delicate and breakable objects, furniture, and clothing.

"‘I wonder,’ she said, ‘If you could be talking about that terribly shy little girl who dropped out of school after only a few days’ attendance?’

"And she said, ‘No – I remember her perfectly now. Her hands shook so that she couldn’t hit the right keys! The first time we gave a speed test, she broke down completely – was sick at the stomach and almost had to be carried into the wash room! After that morning she never showed up anymore. We phoned the house but never got any answer.’" (2.16, Amanda)

Laura’s shy qualities are so extreme as to inhibit normal activity.

"I couldn’t go back there. I – threw up – on the floor!" (2.25, Laura).

Laura uses her shyness to avoid reality and retreat into her own world.

"When I had that attack of pleurosis – he asked me what was the matter when I came back." (2.45, Laura).

Laura’s physical weaknesses and sickness highlight her shyness and mental fragility.

Laura utters a startled, doubtful laugh. She reaches quickly for a piece of glass. (Scene Two, stage directions).

Laura uses the glass animals as an escape from reality, just as Tom uses the movies.

"But mother—"

"Yes?"

[in a tone of frightened apology]: "I’m crippled!"

"Nonsense, Laura, I’ve told you never, never to use that word." (2.47-2.50, Laura and Amanda).

Amanda’s later frustration with Laura’s shyness stems from her inability to see Laura as having any issues at all.

With an outraged groan he tears the coat off again, splitting the shoulder of it, and hurls it across the room. It strikes against the shelf of Laura’s glass collection, and there is a tinkle of shattering glass. Laura cries out as if wounded.

[Music.]

[Screen legend: "The Glass Menagerie."]

"My glass!—menagerie…[She covers her face and turns away.] (Scene Three stage directions, 3.18, Laura)

The music "The Glass Menagerie" serves to connect Laura’s fragility with that of her glass ornaments.

She crosses through the portieres and draws them together behind her. Tom is left with Laura. Laura clings weakly to the mantel with her face averted. Tom stares at her stupidly for a moment. Then he crosses to the shelf. He drops awkwardly on his knees to collect the fallen glass, glancing at Laura as if he would speak but couldn't. (Scene Three, stage directions).

Unlike Amanda, Tom recognizes much of Laura’s fragility, and additionally recognizes it reflected in the glass menagerie.

A second later she cries out. Tom springs up and crosses to the door. Tom opens the door.

"Laura?"

"I’m all right. I slipped, but I’m all right." (Scene Four stage directions, 4.29, 4.30, Tom and Laura).

Laura’s physical weaknesses and sickness highlight her shyness and mental fragility.

"Laura!"

[Legend on screen: "Laura." Music: "The Glass Menagerie."]

"—Oh.—Laura."

"You know how Laura is. So quiet but—still water runs deep! She notices things and I think she—broods about them…A few days ago I came in and she was crying." (4.53, Scene Four stage directions, 4.54, 4.55).

Although Laura has fragile and weak elements, she is a perceptive character, noticing things about her mother and brother that others miss.

"I mean that as soon as Laura has got somebody to take care of her, married, a home of her own, independent-why, then you'll be free to go wherever you please, on land, on sea, whichever way the wind blows you! But until that time you've got to look out for your sister. I don't say me because I'm old and don't matter! I say for your sister because she's young and dependent." (4.93, Amanda).

Amanda understands parts of Laura’s fragility – her dependence on someone to provide her a home – but misses others, such as her physical weakness and the truly debilitating effect of her shyness.

"I put her in business college—a dismal failure! Frightened so it made her sick at the stomach. I took her over to the Young People’s League at the church. Another fiasco. She spoke to nobody, nobody spoke to her. Now all she does is fool with those pieces of glass and play those worn-out records. What kind of life is that for a girl to lead?" (4.93, Amanda).

Amanda’s concern over Laura’s fragility is in part based on Laura’s failure to meet what Amanda considers social norms.

"Mother, you mustn’t expect too much of Laura."

"What do you mean?"

"Laura seems all those things to you and me because she’s ours and we love her. We don’t even notice she’s crippled anymore." (5.120-5.122, Tom and Amanda).

Tom is more aware of Laura’s nature than Amanda.

"Laura is very different from other girls."

[…]

"…in the eyes of others—strangers—she’s terribly shy and lives in a world of her own and those things make her seem a little peculiar to people outside the house."

[…]

"She lives in a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments, Mother…She plays old phonograph records and—that’s about all—" (5.126, 5.128, 5.132, Tom).

Tom understands that Laura uses the glass and the Victrola to escape from the world, but never is able to explicitly connect that he and his sister are doing the same thing.

"I knew that Jim and Laura had known each other at Soldan, and I had heard Laura speak admiringly of his voice. I didn’t know if Jim remembered her or not. In high school Laura had been as unobtrusive as Jim had been astonishing." (6.1, Tom).

Jim presents a character with the opposite of Laura’s fragility, which may be why she is so drawn to him.

A fragile, unearthly prettiness has come out in Laura: she is like a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting. (Stage directions, Scene Six).

Laura’s beauty is inherently tied to her fragility.

"Why are you trembling?"

"Mother, you’ve made me so nervous!"

"How have I made you nervous?"

"By all this fuss! You make it seem so important!" (6.2-6.5, Amanda and Laura.)

Laura’s shyness puts her constantly at odds with her mother.

"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).

Despite her shyness and weakness, Laura takes seemingly firm stands against her mother.

"Please, please, please, you go!"

"You’ll have to go the door because I can’t."

"I can’t go either!"

"Why?"

"I’m sick!" (6.51-6.57, Laura and Amanda).

Laura uses her physical weaknesses to explain her mental ones.

"Excuse me—I haven’t finished playing the Victrola…"[She turns awkwardly and hurries into the front room. She pauses a second by the Victrola. Then she catches her breath and darts through the portieres like a frightened deer.] (6.69, Scene Six stage directions).

Laura uses the Victrola as means to explain retreating, just as Tom uses the movies.

Laura suddenly stumbles; she catches at a chair with a faint moan. (Scene Six stage directions).

Laura’s fragility manifests itself physically.

Laura, stretched out on the sofa, clenches her hand to her lips, to hold back a shuddering sob. (Scene Six stage directions).

Laura is acutely aware of and bothered by her deficiencies.

Laura sits up nervously as Jim enters. She can hardly speak from the almost intolerable strain of being alone with a stranger. (Scene Seven, stage directions).

Although she has feelings for Jim, Laura is at first unable to enjoy his company because of her shyness.

"And everybody was seated before I came in. I had to walk in front of all those people. My seat was in the back row. I had to go clumping all the way up the aisle with everyone watching!" (7.103, Laura).

When Laura finally reveals some stories from high school, we, the audience, begin to understand where her shyness comes from.

She remains by the table, picks up a piece from the glass menagerie collection, and turns it in her hands to cover her tumult. (Scene Seven stage directions.)

Laura uses the glass menagerie to try to escape from the reality of her current situation with Jim.

"I don’t do anything—much. Oh, please don’t think I sit around doing nothing! My glass collection takes up a good deal of time. Glass is something you have to take good care of." (7.185, Laura).

Laura is similar to the glass not only in her fragility, but in her need to be looked after, paid attention to.

"You know what I judge to be the trouble with you? Inferiority complex! Know what that is? That’s what they call it when someone low-rates himself. I understand because I had it, too." (7.188, Jim).

Just like Tom, Jim recognizes Laura’s situation. However, unlike Tom, Jim tries to do something about it.

"Little articles of it, they’re ornaments, mostly! Most of them are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest little animals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie! Here’s an example of one, if you’d like to see it! This one is one of the oldest. It’s nearly thirteen…Oh be careful—if you breathe, it breaks!" (7.197, Laura).

Laura describes not only the fragility of the glass, but emphasizes its size, harking back to the epigraph of the text, "Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands."

"Oh, but I’d step on you!"

"I’m not made out of glass." (7.225,7.226, Laura and Jim).

Jim again appears the opposite of Laura; she is shy and fragile, he is most certainly not.

They suddenly bump into the table, and the glass piece on it falls to the floor. Jim stops the dance. (Scene Seven, stage directions).

Here we see the danger of bringing glass off the shelf, or Laura out of her secret world: something might break.

"Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken?"

"Now it is just like all the other horses."

"It’s lost it’s—"

"Horn! It doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise." (7.254-7.257, Jim and Laura).

When she calls the unicorn breaking a "blessing in disguise," Laura starts to think that being drawn out from her secret world isn’t so bad after all.

"I don’t have favorites much. It’s no tragedy, Freckles. Glass breaks so easily. No matter how careful you are. The traffic jars the shelves and things fall off them." (7.259, Laura).

Laura recognizes the inevitability of breaking when handling fragile objects – she also recognizes that this applies to her.

"The horn was removed to feel less—freakish! Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns…" (7.261, Laura).

Laura starts to feel a part of reality, like everyone else, after Jim dances with her.

Tom smashes his glass on the floor. He plunges out on the fire escape, slamming the door. Laura screams in fright. The dance-hall music becomes louder. To stands on the fire escape, gripping the rail. The moon breaks through the storm clouds, illuminating his face. (Scene Seven, stage directions.)

While Jim is careful and apologizes for the tiniest breaking of the unicorn’s horn, Tom smashes glass; Tom is unable to communicate with his sister the way Jim did.

"I would have stopped, but I was always pursued by something. It always came upon me, unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. 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 a shattered rainbow. Then all at one my sister touches my shoulder." (7.321, Tom).

Laura, despite her apparent weakness and fragility, has an incredibly strong hold on her brother, which lasts over both time and distance.