The Importance of Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie
Tom Wingfield is the narrator and a major character in Tennessee William’s timeless play, The Glass Menagerie. Through the eyes of Tom, the viewer gets a glance into the life of his family in the pre-war depression era; his mother, a Southern belle desperately clinging to the past; his sister, a woman too fragile to function in society; and himself, a struggling, young poet working at a warehouse to pay the bills. Williams has managed to create a momentous play using a combination of different elements, including symbolism. Three noteworthy examples of symbolism are the fire escape, a sense of hope and an escape both to the outside world and from it; the glass menagerie itself, a symbol for Laura’s fragility and uniqueness; and rainbows, symbols of unrealized hopes and aspirations. Through the use of these symbols, a greater understanding of the humanistic theme that unfulfilled hopes and desires are an unwanted, but important aspect of the real world is achieved, and The Glass Menagerie is crafted into a meaningful classic drama.
Symbols are a major part of this play that Tom, who is a poet, admits he has a weakness for. One of the first to be presented in the story is the fire escape that serves as the passageway to the apartment. The escape has a different meaning and function for each character and is also said to have an “accidental poetic truth” (21). For Tom, it is a means of escape from fire, “the slow and implacable fires of human desperation”(21). This is especially true of Tom’s apartment, which is “both literally and metaphorically a trap which Tom and his mother, at least, wish to escape” (Bigsby 34). His mother, Amanda, is devastated after her daughter Laura’s failure to cope in business college. This is a let down of Amanda’s hopes of escaping because she has “invested what little she had to free both herself and Laura” (Bigsby 34). Amanda then becomes obsessed with finding Laura a gentleman caller so that she can marry and be supported as another means of escape, at least for Laura. When this caller finally comes, and it seems like it was meant to be, as they dance and kiss, he announces he is engaged, and dashes their hopes. The ever-fragile Laura, temporarily drawn out of her dream-world shell of her glass collection and the victrola, draws further back into herself. Now a terrible desperation fills the apartment, and Tom decides he must escape the suffocating environment to follow his own calling. The fire escape to him represents a path to the outside world.
For Laura, the fire escape is exactly the opposite--a path to the safe world inside, a world in which she can hide. Especially symbolic is Laura’s fall when descending the steps to do a chore for her mother after leaving the security of the apartment. This fall suggests Laura’s inability to function in society and the outside world. It seems then, that her safety is found by staying indoors in...