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The Glass Menagerie | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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The Glass Menagerie | Context


Hitler and Nazi Germany

During the play, Tom the narrator refers to people and events making headlines in the news. These events that represent action and excitement taking place in the outside world contrast with Tom's ordinary life:

  • Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and the bombing of Guernica (1937): The Spanish Civil War, supported by conservatives or nationalists known as rebels, was a military revolt against the Spanish Republican government. The rebels received support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, while the Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States. The Basque town of Guernica was bombed by the Germans, in support of the rebels, and is remembered as a military attack against civilians.
  • Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940): Chamberlain was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and served from 1937 until 1940 as World War II began. He advocated a policy of appeasement toward Hitler and the Nazis, signing the Munich Agreement, which ceded Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. He resigned when Germany declared war on Britain.
  • Adolf Hitler (1889–1945): Elected Germany's chancellor in 1933, Hitler ruled Germany as chancellor and then dictator from 1933 to 1945. As leader of the Nazi Party, he advocated nationalist policies that led to World War II, and he engaged in systematic genocide against European Jews.

U.S. Economy in 1937

The Glass Menagerie is set in 1937 during the extremely bleak economic period known as the Great Depression. Tom Wingfield was far from the only working-age American caught in the boredom and rut of a job he hated during the hard times of the play. However, considering it was the Depression, he was fortunate to have a job at all. The Depression had begun in 1929 and lasted throughout the 1930s. The 13 months between May 1937 and June 1938 were particularly depressed economically and became known as "the recession within [the] depression."

High unemployment and poor working conditions and wages during the era of the Great Depression spurred labor unions toward militancy. Employed workers utilized strikes or work stoppages as bargaining tools. In 1933 there were nearly 2,000 such disruptions to labor, and many of these instances were characterized by violence. Auto parts workers in Toledo, Ohio, truck drivers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, dock workers in San Francisco, California, and textile workers in New England and the South benefited from these actions. The results included collective bargaining and strong unionization.

The Federal Reserve's reduction of the money supply and the withholding of more reserves by banks contributed to this downward spiral. The introduction of the Social Security payroll tax in 1936 exacerbated an already weak situation. Many workers like Tom who wanted to "move instead of watching movies" (Scene 6 of The Glass Menagerie) started to look into other areas of economic opportunity that would enable them to escape from their economic trap. Like Tom Wingfield, some men were attracted to the newly organized Merchant Marines as one option. Members of the Merchant Marines were charged with delivering troops and military supplies to the Navy ships during wartime.

Merchant Marines

The groundwork for the United States Maritime Service (USMS) began in 1936 as a result of that year's Merchant Marine Act, a service initiated to deliver military supplies. It was at first a voluntary unit with uniform and ranking ties to the Coast Guard, and did not become its own entity until 1938. Understanding that war was on the horizon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned factories to retool so they could mass-produce Liberty Ships to transport supplies to the Navy fleet during war.

In 1937 Roosevelt appointed Joseph P. Kennedy as chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, which renamed this branch of the service the United States Merchant Marines. It was supervised by officers of the United States Navy. These servicemen strived to meet Navy and Army personnel demands including bombs, medicine, food, weapons, vehicles—anything sailors and soldiers needed to be prepared for and successful during battle. Merchant Marines also were trained to handle weapons and artillery that allowed them to reach the troops, as their ships were in the enemies' sights as soon as they left harbor. Often known as the Forgotten Service, the Merchant Marines was the only integrated subdivision of the military during World War II. More than 250,000 recruits provided invaluable services to the other branches of the military.

Debutante Balls and Gentlemen Callers

In The Glass Menagerie Amanda Wingfield's reality is a dingy apartment facing an alley and a continual struggle to pay the bills with her son Tom's paycheck. Her heart resides in the days of debutante balls—cotillions—and the eligible men who courted her as a young Southern woman from the upper echelon of society. The word debutante is rooted in French and is used for young women making their "debut," who have "come of age" and are ready to be introduced to society and married within it soon after. From what Amanda suggests in her remembrances, when she was between 18 and 20 years old she was presented to society at a Debutante Ball—a formal dance to which young women wore elegant gowns and elbow-length gloves and men wore tuxedoes. In Scene 6, when Amanda poses in the dress she is wearing for dinner with Laura's gentleman caller, she announces that she wore it to various cotillions and in fact had it on the day she met her husband.

The 8 to 12 months that followed the ball were known as The Season. During The Season, young women attended other balls and social events as they became familiar with the customs and traditions expected of them. This was a time for the girls to socialize and meet eligible men who would visit them at their homes—Amanda refers to them as her gentlemen callers—and for the young women's parents to showcase their economic status.

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