Study Guide

The Glass Menagerie Themes

  • Freedom and Confinement

    In The Glass Menagerie, Tom feels confinement from being stuck in an uninspiring job, cramped into a small apartment with his family, and unable to see the world or have adventures. Amanda is similarly confined to her thoughts of the past, and Laura traps herself in a world of glass animals. Escape can mean two things here: escape from reality into an alternate world, or escape from a trap or confinement. This play hints at the moral ramifications of some kinds of escape, asking the question of who is left behind and what happens to them when you leave.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Tom talks about getting out of a coffin without removing a nail, which we're pretty sure says something about disrupting his environment by leaving. What is the effect of his leaving, exactly? Did good ol' Tennessee totally rip us off by not letting us see what happened?
    2. What is Tom trying to escape from? What exactly is it about his life that bothers him so much?
    3. Does Tom really escape at the end?
    4. Do you totally love the fire escape thing? Because we do. What does it do for the play? We get the escape part - but where's the fire?

    Chew on This

    Tom is a selfish character because of his desire to escape his responsibilities to his family.

    Although Tom seeks to escape his life and job at the warehouse, he neither desires nor is able to escape his family.

  • Duty

    In The Glass Menagerie, duty and responsibility largely arise from family. The play examines the conflict between one’s obligations and one’s real desires, suggesting that being true to one may necessitate abandonment of the other. We also see that duties are gender specific, and arise largely from the expectations of societal norms.

    Questions About Duty

    1. Amanda says Tom's being selfish. Tom says he's a slave for his family. Chances are, one of them is wrong. But which one? Or are we the ones who are wrong, because somehow both are true?
    2. Amanda keeps insisting that a lot of different people have to do a lot of different things. She's taskmaster extraordinaire. So, what exactly does she expect of Tom, of herself, of Laura, of her husband? And where did she get these expectations from?
    3. If Tom can't get over leaving Laura, even after many years, is he still in a way responsible to his family, still bound by duties in his mind? How so?

    Chew on This

    Amanda's expectations of Tom are unfair, because she puts all the familial responsibility on his shoulders.

    Although Amanda demands a lot of Tom; her expectations of Laura are more unreasonable.

  • Family

    In The Glass Menagerie, family means obligations. This play raises questions of duty and responsibility to your other family members, and for the most part in gender specific roles. We see that it is the job of the male to bring home money, and the daughter to look pretty and get married. This also features the notion of abandonment, as a father leaves the family behind. There is also the notion of children taking after their parents; Tom leaves the family just as his father did, and Amanda wishes her daughter were as popular as she used to be. We see fighting between mother and son over both trivial matters, such as dinner etiquette, and larger issues, such as work and life goals. Lastly, this play examines the relationship between sister and brother, as Tom feels both protective and later guilty with regards to his sister Laura.

    Questions About Family

    1. This play seems to be saying that you can’t choose your family. No kidding. Tom and Amanda are stuck with each other. Do they hate each other? Aren’t they supposed to love each other if they’re family? Isn’t Amanda really just looking out for Tom, in that nagging mother sort of way? Or not?
    2. Tom and his father both peace out from the Wingfield family. But in what ways are these situations different? Is Tom really just like his father?
    3. What exactly is Tom and Laura’s relationship? Because we keep noticing this pattern where Tom breaks her stuff and then stands around and looks at her awkwardly without really saying anything. And what’s up with the ending, when he says he was more "faithful" than he intended to be.
    4. You might have noticed that Amanda keeps treating her children like they’re five-year-olds. Why is that?

    Chew on This

    Despite the exaggerated nature of their situation and the hyperbole of their dialogue, actions, and interactions, the Wingfield family in many ways represents the stereotypical American family.

    Although Amanda projects her own dreams onto her daughter and son, she is overall a positive force in the lives of her children.

    Although Amanda has good intentions, she ends up being a destructive force in the lives of her children.

  • Memory and the Past

    In The Glass Menagerie, memory plays an important part, both thematically and in terms of the play’s presentation. Thematically, we see the detrimental effects of memory in the form of Amanda’s living in the past. As far as the play’s presentation is concerned, the entire story is told from the memory of Tom, the narrator. He makes it clear that, because the play is memory, certain implications are raised as to the nature of each scene. He explains that memory is selective, that events are remembered with music, with peculiar lighting, that reality is altered and edited and made presentable in certain ways. This is how we see the play, directly as a memory.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What's the difference between remembering or reminiscing, and then totally living in the past? Where do you draw a line? Or rather, where does Williams choose to draw it?
    2. In his production notes, Williams keeps calling this "a memory play," and then talking about lighting and music and all this other funky stuff. Basically the audience never gets to forget they're watching a play, because all these artificial things happen. What do these artificial elements add to the play?

    Chew on This

    Because the audience is constantly reminded that the play is merely Tom's memory, scenes in The Glass Menagerie must necessarily be examined in the light of subjectivity, a lens that changes the way each scene is interpreted.

  • Weakness

    In The Glass Menagerie, weakness is linked to fragility, which comes to mean both beauty and breakability. While Laura’s shyness and fragility keep her in her own little world of equally fragile glass animals, they also infuse her with a mysterious individuality, something Jim picks up on with the nickname "Blue Roses" and finds incredibly attractive. Fragility also means dependence, as Laura needs Tom precisely because of her shy and delicate demeanor. We also see the relationship between physical and mental fragility, as it seems that Laura’s shyness arises from a physical defect: her crippled leg.

    Questions About Weakness

    1. How does Laura's fragility relate to her need to escape reality? Where did it come from? We get some hints of this when she talks about high school…
    2. Is Laura the only fragile character in the play? Granted, we pretty much only put quotes about her up there, but hey, what do we know?
    3. There's something going on with that unicorn business. Why would it be a blessing in disguise that its horn broke off? Does that mean that Laura secretly wants to be like everyone else?
    4. Chew on This

      Despite her attempts at helping, Amanda is the character primarily responsible for Laura's fragility and shyness.

      The Glass Menagerie makes it clear that there is no hope for Laura; while Tom escapes, Laura is left stuck in an inescapable rut, a prisoner in her own glass house.

  • Deception and Lies

    In The Glass Menagerie, Amanda retreats from reality by denial and deliberately deluding herself as to the true nature of things. She refuses to see that her daughter is crippled or her son a writer who likes to drink, raising the notion that parents often see only the good qualities in their children. She is also somewhat blind as to her own status; although she readily admits that she is old, Amanda still thinks of herself as the pretty Southern Belle, getting all dolled up and playing the charming hostess.

    Questions About Deception and Lies

    1. Denial, blindness, self-delusion… EVERYONE in the Wingfield family has jumped onto the escape from reality bandwagon, which is getting pretty crowded. So how does each of them deny the world around them? Which one is worst? Is there ever a good way or reason to enter the world of illusion?
    2. We're totally into the scene where Jim penetrates Laura's secret world. Jim is the only character to get through to Laura. What is it about him that lets him do so?

    Chew on This

    Although Tom, Laura, and Amanda all escape reality and delude themselves, [insert name here] suffers from denial in the most detrimental way.

    Although denial may seem detrimental, [insert name here] uses it in a positive and beneficial way.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    In The Glass Menagerie, dreams of the future are the source of conflict, primarily when one character’s dream doesn’t match up with another’s. While Amanda wants her children to fulfill the classic American Dream of hard work and success, Tom has dreams of being a writer, and Laura is too shy to even leave the house. This also raises the issue of parents imposing their dreams on their children, rather than allowing them to figure out themselves just what it is that they want.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. All these characters, all these dreams. What does each character want?
    2. Jim basically has the American Dream, and is doing something about it. How are his efforts presented, though? Does it look like Jim indeed will be successful? Or is there some fun being had at this chipper boy's expense?

    Chew on This

    Although their fights take many different forms, Amanda and Tom major conflict is their inability to reconcile their different dreams for the future.

    The Glass Menagerie serves as a direct attack on the American Dream, as Amanda's expectations for the marriage and success of her children are impossible.

  • Abandonment

    In The Glass Menagerie, abandonment refers to a member of the family abandoning the family unit, and leaving others behind to fend for themselves. The play deals a little with the moral implications of such an act, as well as the aftermath. It suggests that such an act may be learned from parents, as the son chooses to abandon the family the same way the father did.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. What's the difference, for Tom, between abandoning his family and abandoning his life situation (the crumby job, the small town)?
    2. Do you hate Tom for abandoning his family? No, really: is he a total jerk? Or is he validated because, honestly, it's his life.
    3. Why does Tom hold out for so long, and what is the straw that breaks the camels back, that makes him finally leave?

    Chew on This

    Because of the nature of son to follow father, Tom cannot be held responsible for following in his father's footsteps and abandoning his family.

    The Glass Menagerie fails to provide adequate reasoning to explain Tom's sudden departure from the family.

  • Marriage

    In The Glass Menagerie, marriage is used as a tool rather than a celebration of love. Amanda believes that marriage is a necessary step for her daughter to live comfortably, to be supported by a man. This play also calls into question the lasting nature of marriage, as the marriage of the mother figure (Amanda) and her missing husband has been destroyed by his abandonment of her.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. What does marriage mean to Amanda? Why does she want Laura to get married?
    2. What exactly is going on with Amanda's husband? She only says nice things about him (except for the whole drinking part). So how does she feel about being abandoned by him? Is she hiding something?

    Chew on This

    Because Amanda is unable to necessarily tie love to the institution of marriage, she sees it as a tool of manipulation rather than a mutual decision.

  • Gender

    In The Glass Menagerie, gender roles play a large part in dictating the future plans of each character. Laura must get married because she is a girl; Tom should take business classes because he is a man. Gender roles seem to arise from tradition, as Amanda discusses what women should do and what men should do according to her Southern upbringing. Gender roles also dictate values, or how women and men are judged differently. Amanda places great importance on Laura’s staying ‘fresh and pretty,’ while she believes that ‘character’ is the most important thing for a man.

    Questions About Gender

    1. What’s Amanda's deal with gender roles? What with the husband having to support EVERYONE and the girl having to look pretty ALL THE TIME? Where is she getting this from, and what kind of effect does it have on her children?
    2. Do Tom and Laura reject or assimilate the gender roles projected on them?

    Chew on This

    Although they resist the roles prescribed to them, Laura and Tom both eventually assimilate to the gender stereotypes cast by their mother.

  • Love

    In The Glass Menagerie, love is tricky. We’re never really sure if love is genuine, or convenient, if it’s really love, or whether it’s just infatuation. The closest thing there is to genuine love occurs between Laura and Jim, and is based on a mutual understanding of each other’s individuality and uniqueness. Jim’s supposed love for Betty and their impending marriage is based on them ‘getting along fine,’ and while Amanda confesses that she loved her missing husband, he abandoned her, calling into question just how mutual that love was from the start. There is also the issue of familial love, and how to reconcile the anger and frustration we may feel with family members with our innate love for them. Particularly explored here is the nature of love between brother and sister, who support each other when on rocky ground with their mother.

    Questions About Love

    1. Amanda said she loved Tom's father, and she says it like it's a state secret, even though they were married. So…did she love him? How does that affect how she feels about his having abandoned her?
    2. You've got your romantic love on one hand and then you've got your family love on the other hand. How do these two different types of love manifest themselves in this play. Is one stronger? Are they ever in competition?

    Chew on This

    While Amanda discusses her marriage to her missing husband, Laura her infatuation for Jim, and Jim his feelings for his fiancée, none of these characters actually experiences genuine love.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    In The Glass Menagerie, alcoholism is not major or explicit, yet becomes a symbol for all undesirable activities. Amanda uses alcohol as an umbrella to cover any un-ambitious activities that her son takes part in, including writing, reading, and going to the movies. When she asks if Laura’s gentleman caller is a "boy who drinks," what she really wants to know is whether he is the kind of boy who drinks, is rowdy, goes out at night, and doesn’t care too much about his future. Because her husband drank, Amanda associates alcoholism with him, and therefore with irresponsibility and abandonment.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. So, we called it alcoholism, but is it really? Is Tom really an alcoholic? Was his father? And why is Amanda so obsessed with it?
    2. We do see some evidence that Tom drinks, namely the drunken stupor and the empty bottle. What does this have to do with his trying to escape?

    Chew on This

    Because it is the one fault she claims of her missing husband, Amanda sees alcoholism as the root of all evil, using it as an overarching umbrella to characterize everything that she believes is wrong about Tom's way of living.