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The Glass Menagerie | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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The Glass Menagerie | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie what should readers expect from the stage direction reference to memory and poetic license?

Tennessee Williams is candidly telling the play's audience to expect as much of the truth as the narrator's point of view allows. The only facts are that the characters did exist and the situations did occur. Beyond these, the narrator, Tom, will present the play's characters and events on the basis of his emotional interpretation of his recollections, or as memory sees them. The narrator is telling his story from some point in the future, and in the years that have passed, his memory has been free to arrange the actualities according to his perspective. The narrator has had years to select and omit details that suit his purposes—to employ poetic license. Williams is clarifying the points that the readers will see only what the narrator wants them to and that these details will be elaborated or condensed according to his remembrances.

In Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie what qualities must Tom, the narrator, reveal to demonstrate his reliability?

As the narrator, Tom is expected to be as reliable and as objective as his memory permits. The audience—whether readers or spectators—accepts that characters and situations will be shown from his viewpoint based on his memories, but they may also presume his memories will remain consistent as he chronicles the events during the winter and spring of 1937. If he depicts a character as tyrannical for most of the play and then suddenly switches gears in the final scene and presents this person as broadminded, the audience may reject him because of his inconsistency. Even though he is showing actions through hindsight, he must stay true to his original perspectives if he expects to be believed as an artist.

How does Mr. Wingfield's postcard message contrast with the picture of him hanging in a place of honor in the living room in Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie?

The father's picture shows an attractive young man with a magnetically charming grin in a World War I uniform. As it has likely hung in this prominent place in the apartment for some time, he is probably still held affectionately in the hearts of his wife and children. However, his cheerful demeanor contrasts with his coldly terse message, "Hello—Goodbye!" on a simple postcard. His message shows no lingering affection for his wife and children, certainly none of the charm in the photograph or that attracted Amanda to him. According to Tom's narration, his father never sent a letter explaining the reasons for his desertion, nor an apology. Neither did he show responsibility by promising financial support, leaving Amanda, Tom, and Laura with nothing. Yet his picture hangs there, displaying his charm as opposed to his callousness, serving as a reflection of Amanda's glorification of the past and her difficulty in accepting reality.

In Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie what do Amanda's demands on Tom foreshadow about their relationship?

Amanda adopts the role of the consummate nag with both of her children, but especially with Tom. Although he is younger than his sister Laura, his role is that of "man of the family" in his mother's eyes as well as in 1930s society. Despite his being the family's means of support, Amanda badgers him constantly about being prompt for dinner, his table manners, and his smoking, among other choices. The easy flow of her sermon about chewing and Tom's frustrated response suggest that this has been an ongoing conflict during their meals. Since playwrights have only a few words to introduce characters' primary personalities, that Tennessee Williams chose to reveal this conflict from the outset foreshadows the escalation of conflict between Amanda and Tom. His frustration is evident throughout, and the audience senses such emotion cannot be contained indefinitely.

In Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie should the audience accept Amanda's stories about her life as a Southern debutante as fact, fiction, or a fusion of both?

The sentence structure Amanda uses, her vocabulary choices—some of them ethnic slurs endemic of her childhood—her inflections, and demeanor all reveal her Southern heritage. Words like masticate and accommodate in casual conversation and references to her ability to discuss "things of importance going on in the world" suggest she was educated. Audiences should accept these factors as factual. Her often-repeated story about entertaining gentlemen callers, with her comments about their present and future financial status implies a girlhood as a member of the Southern gentry. Although her descriptions about this genteel society suggest that she, too, was a debutante, they might be exaggerations; 17 gentlemen callers in one evening also may or may not be an exaggeration or a version of Amanda's distorted sense of reality. The reality of where and how the Wingfields live and the facts of their present financial status raise questions about the truth of her background compared to her stories. Although it is possible her husband did come from money, since the men calling on young ladies from monied families were expected to be from the same class, his having to work for the telephone company suggests otherwise, or perhaps a sharp downward turn for his family during the Great Depression. Since he left her nearly destitute when he abandoned her and the children, it seems logical her family would have taken her in so she and the children could enjoy the same privileged life she had and still desires. On the other hand, maybe her husband did not come from money and her family disowned her when she married him because he was not of their class. The reader does not know. Possibly the only embellishments in Amanda's life are those she uses to decorate her stories. Whatever the case, her actions, words, and affectations prove she will always act like a Southern lady.

What do Laura's few short lines in Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie reveal about her personality and principles?

Laura's lines uncover deep emotions she carefully controls. In fewer than 70 words, she makes an impact with her tolerant, compassionate, and honest remarks. When Amanda and Tom are about to poison the dinner with their typically toxic words, Laura breaks the tension by offering to bring in the dessert. When their mother begins her often-repeated nostalgic story about her gentleman callers, Laura gently dispels her brother's disdain with her tolerant comment "Yes, but let her tell it." She could have ignored her mother's false surprise after she admitted no young men will visit that evening with a flippant remark about her inability to find one worthy man, because this is obviously not a new topic of conversation. Instead, she honestly says, "Mother, I'm just not popular like you were" before turning to Tom and bluntly saying, "Mother's afraid I'm going to be an old maid." Although she is introverted and passive, Laura has the fortitude to counter her mother's veiled nagging when she chooses to. This is one of those times.

In Scene 1 of The Glass Menagerie why does Amanda place such high value on gentlemen callers?

Amanda has always needed a man to provide her with the life she desires. As a product of the time period and its expectations, she sees women as subservient to men. Similarly, she sees that a woman's achievement of success in life equals her marrying a financially secure, acceptable, and respectable man who treats her well. Gentlemen callers were Amanda's symbols of her "glory days." She insists Laura stay "fresh and pretty" instead of going to the kitchen for the dessert. Amanda cannot imagine a future without a husband for Laura in the person of a man who would provide both with financial security. Being charming and sought after in her past life, Amanda finds it difficult, indeed impossible, to understand that life is no longer the same as it was then and that Laura is different from her

In Scene 2 of The Glass Menagerie how do the stage direction descriptions of Amanda's facial expressions and her subsequent monologues present her as a performer in her own home?

Amanda is a consummate actress. Before she even enters the house, she adopts the wide-eyed, anguished expression of a woman used to a life of martyrdom. After she opens the door, she quickly closes it behind her so she can lean on it for support. Continuing her performance, she slowly removes her hat and takes off her gloves—one finger at a time—as if every move causes her much pain. Williams even indicates her gestures are "a bit of acting." In response to her daughter's pleas to explain what is wrong, Amanda mentions her lack of strength and courage to attend the D.A.R. meeting, shuffles over to the desk and rips the paper typewriter keyboard in two, her pose suggesting the action is like tearing a hole in her heart. Exuding as much despair as she can summon, she says, "What are we going to do, what is going to come of us, what is the future?" As she quizzes Laura on her reasons for dropping out of business college and accuses her of lying about how she spent her days, Amanda continues to pretend to believe fully she was still in school—a showing of having been wounded at Laura's purposeful deception. By showing her displeasure that Laura's only romantic interest was a boy from high school, she continues playing the role of a martyred mother condemned to a life of disappointment.

How does Laura justify dropping out of business college classes in Scene 2 of The Glass Menagerie?

By declaring she "couldn't face it," Laura is validating her emotions and putting her needs first. She justifies not informing her mother because she cannot stand up to Amanda's expressions of martyrdom. Laura knows, however, she was mortified by getting sick in front of the class on the day of a timed typing test, and she lacks the confidence to return to the scene of her humiliation. She is fully aware of the family's need for more income, but she also understands the depth of her anxiety. Although she has the strength to explain and stand firm on her choices, she does not have the courage to battle her mother's disappointment. Nor has she the courage to battle anything having to do with Amanda. Instead, she chooses to visit places that keep her away from the reality of the world and her mother and that give her pleasure: museums, zoos, and the movies.

What is absurd about Amanda's use of the collective we in her "So what are we going to do" speech regarding their finances in Scene 2 of The Glass Menagerie?

As the only person earning a salary, Tom is the family's source of income. Amanda mentions a job demonstrating lingerie at the Famous and Barr department store, but this is obviously a stint as brief as her comment. Amanda knows that Laura's business courses would have qualified her for an office job. With Laura actually working, the family's financial strain would have been eased. By using we, Amanda may mean two things: Amanda may consider such a job a result of her control and efforts; therefore, her involvement justifies her use of we, as she includes herself in Laura's future. We also may show that she places her future with her children's, unable to envision financial independence for herself, and Laura has just crushed Amanda's illusions about obtaining an office job. Since she realizes Tom will chase his own ambitions, she sees only two options for the future: one of dependency in which Laura and she live with a relative or another in which she shares a home with Laura and an as-yet-to-be-named husband.

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