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The Glass Menagerie | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Tennessee Williams's play The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie | Symbols


Glass Animals

The glass animals reveal Laura's multifaceted personality and her fragility. Not only is her leg frail, but so is her self-esteem. Very little is required to break her; a timed typing test, for example, panics her and causes her to leave school. Her mother and brother see her preoccupation with cleaning and polishing the figurines as a preference for her illusionary world and a way to avoid the real one. She feels safe with her glass animals as they refract light and illuminate Laura's fragile and beautiful world. When she says to Jim after the unicorn's horn breaks, "I'll just imagine he had an operation," they both laugh. Her words show she can distinguish between her anthropomorphizing them—she knows they do not actually think, speak, and feel—and reality. She is astute, even wise, enough to recognize Jim will accept her comment as a joke, while Amanda and Tom never will.

The menagerie also represents the fragile nature of the Wingfield family. Mr. Wingfield provided the first, and major, rift when he abandoned them. Amanda, Tom, and Laura, as three adults sharing the same home but with different ambitions, tiptoe around the truth with each other instead of strengthening their relationships with honesty. Amanda continues her Southern charm, which Laura tolerates but Tom cannot. Amanda also understands that Tom wants to leave, but she picks at his every action instead of helping him find his future as part of a normal family rhythm. Nor does Tom try to understand his mother or show tolerance for her demanding nature. For her part Laura prefers her illusionary world, choosing to tend to her glass animals instead, hiding from the reality of the world they share.


On one level the unicorn stands for Laura's leg malformation, but on a broader level it stands for her uniqueness. She loves that the unicorn is different as she acknowledges herself to be and she feels less alone. Laura uses him as a receptacle for her sadness by transferring to the unicorn her feelings of inadequacy. Moreover, the unicorn, unlike the other animals in her collection, is imaginary; unicorns do not live in this world. Nor does Laura, as she too inhabits an unreal, fragile world of illusion. When the horn breaks, it seems that Laura, like the unicorn, might leave the rarefied existence and enter a more realistic world. However, disillusion brings her back to her world of illusion, where she will remain, broken but not completely destroyed, like the unicorn that lives on in myth and story.

Blue Roses

Blue roses represent Laura's high school crush, Jim O'Connor, who nicknamed Laura Blue Roses when he misheard the cause of her absence from school—pleurosis. The name Blue Roses reflects Laura's unusual and otherworldly beauty, and she feels pretty and worthy when Jim calls her that. He tells her the color makes her beauty unique. Tennessee Williams based the character of Laura on his sister Rose, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent much of her adult life institutionalized. The name Blue Roses may recall Rose Williams as well, and her uniqueness.

Fire Escape

The fire escape is the portal of the Wingfields' apartment. As a symbol, it signifies the entrance to and exit from the Wingfields' illusionary world to the real one that starts at the bottom of the fire escape stairway. Tom, as narrator, speaks reflectively from it, while still keeping his connection to his home. For Laura it represents a path to the safety of her illusionary world when she turns her back on the stresses and expectations of the real world. After Tom and Amanda's fight in Scene 3, Laura slips when she tries to walk down the stairs, showing her inability to enter the real world. When she stands up and says, "I'm all right," she is still on the steps and cannot go farther.

Tom sees the fire escape as a way out of the destructive home life, his coffin home. Before he leaves for good, he uses it to escape from Amanda's nagging. Amanda pays it little heed except to comment that it is a poor excuse for a porch, yet sits down on it demurely as if she were settling into a swing on a Mississippi veranda. The comment and action show her in both worlds, aware of and displeased with the present, but behaving instinctively as she did in the past.

Gentleman Caller

Jim O'Connor is the character who lives completely in the real world; he embodies the promise of the future. He welcomes the possibilities of achieving his dreams because he knows or thinks he knows that they will come true if he believes in himself and strives to make them a reality. During his conversation with Laura he shares these beliefs about himself and tries to make her believe the same about herself. Of course, Laura is not to be influenced by a lesson in self-help, and her vision is limited.

To Amanda this gentleman caller represents the path to a secure financial future as Laura's husband. Their marriage would allow her, the mother-in-law, a place to live. Jim, as a husband for Laura, is Tom's ticket to a future of freedom he creates for himself instead of one that fulfills his mother's and sister's needs.

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