Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is a play that tells the tale of a splintered Southern family living a displaced existence in St. Louis during the 1930s. The patriarch having run out on the family sixteen years earlier, Amanda Wingfield, the mother, does her best to guide her adult children, Laura and Tom, into what she sees and worthwhile existences.
Throughout the daily trials and tribulations in their dysfunctional and confusing lives, each member of the Wingfield family turns to various forms of escapism to cope with unhappiness.
The character of Amanda
The aforementioned Amanda Wingfield is a spurned woman, one who, as a young woman, was highly sought after and courted by the most worthy of “gentleman callers;” she often bitterly recounts how many wonderful men came after her, following up with mention that she unfortunately married “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances”. This euphemistic manner of saying that he ran off is present in many of her rambles on her former happiness.
Amanda also seems to be incapable of letting go of the South and her past, as evidenced by her behavior in preparation for and during Jim O’Connor’s visit. As she talks with her daughter Laura, Amanda babbles on about the significance of her old dress that she wore at the cotillion. “Wore it one Spring to the Governor’s Ball in Jackson!
See how I sashayed around the ballroom?”. The evening dinner is supposed to be for a meeting between Laura and the gentleman caller, but Amanda’s focus is clearly on herself, as evidenced by her mental foray into the past through her memories of times long gone.
During the dinner, Amanda embraces her mental escapism fully by turning her fantasies of the past into reality, pretending that the dinner is occurring in the South, rather than in an apartment in St. Louis. Just as Tom and Jim arrive for the dinner, Amanda ironically scolds Laura and her son, Tom, for not being normal people and for having “fantastic whims and behavior”. Amanda also controls the dinner conversation, most likely in a vain, possibly inadvertent manner, as she attempts to relive the past through the dinner. It’s almost as if it is she being courted, not Laura.
The stage directions on page 81 note that Tom is embarrassed by his mother’s continual talking and conversation dominance. When Amanda finally does begin to praise Laura in front of Jim, it lasts only a moment.
It’s rare for a girl as sweet and pretty as Laura to be domestic. But Laura is thank heavens, not only pretty but also very domestic.
I’m not at all. I never was a bit. I never could make a thing but angel-food cake. Well, in the South we had so many servants.
Amanda continues to talk about herself instead of her daughter, showing that she is deeply entrenched in her escapist fantasy of still being the highly sought-after Southern Belle.
The world of Laura
Much like her mother, Laura also envelops herself in a world of fantasy, escaping the reality in which she is crippled and devastatingly shy. Her world is one of her father’s record albums, glass figurines and animals, and wearing her father’s old clothing. Her introversion leads her to live vicariously through the glass figurines, personifying them as having interpersonal relationships and personal preferences.
When referring to the symbolic unicorn amongst the horses, Laura notes that “He stays on a shelf with some horses that don’t have horns and all of them seem to get along nicely together”. Upon suggesting that the unicorn should be placed on the table, she says, “They all like a change of scenery once in a while”. While she is no doubt playfully jesting about the animals, the underlying message in her words is that she has immersed herself deep within the world of the animals before, for they offer her a false paradise.
Laura manages to escape her escapism in “letting go” with Jim, as he accidentally breaks the unicorn, leaving it a mere horse, just as Laura has gotten over her own “horn” (shyness) by talking, dancing, sharing, and kissing Jim.
Tom’s ways to escape
The most tragic case of escapism in the play is that of Tom, who prefers the adventurous world of movies to the humdrum life of working in a warehouse.
He tells his mother, “Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter, and none of those instincts are given much play at the warehouse” (52). He spends numerous nights away from the house, supposedly enjoying the movies, although it is hinted that he is engaging in some other sinful behavior, including drinking. He is jealous of his father, who Tom sees as having succeeded in truly escaping when he ran from the family. Tom’s final goal, which he accomplishes, is to escape from the family entirely, which he does.
As a whole, it would appear that the father’s abandonment of the family is at the root of the family’s suffering and longing for a better life. Tom notes that even though he leaves the family, he is unable to forget his sister. “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be” (115). Laura wears her father’s robe about the house. Amanda longs for the time when she first fell in love with her husband.
Their longing is based on love, a desire to love and be loved, which cannot be explored within the family, due to its dysfunctional nature. To fill the void in their saddened hearts, the Wingfields turn to fantasy worlds of glass, movies, and the past.