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The Glass Menagerie | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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

The Glass Menagerie | Themes



None of the family has healed emotionally from Mr. Wingfield's desertion. Having to live in the present, Amanda clings to memories of the past as she yearns for safety and security, the beauty she possessed, and the bright future promised to her. Even though she admits her love for her husband to Tom in Scene 4, she also confesses her need for her son to be their economic strength. She understands his dreams about his future do not include his sister and mother, but she is afraid he will leave them before their future is protected by Laura's marriage—for which Amanda cannot abandon hope. In The Glass Menagerie abandonment is more than individuals leaving others; it is about abandoning reality—the ability to live in the real world and hope for the future.

Tom desperately wants to be on his own and admits to being like his father, who abandoned the family when Tom and Laura were only five and seven. Because his frustration with his mother's overbearing attempts to control, her constant demands, and his sense of confinement overshadow his protective feelings for his sister, he knows he cannot wait much longer, even though he knows the family's income is his responsibility.

Laura lives in her illusionary world with her glass animals. They do not abandon, criticize, or undermine her worth with words meant to protect her; they accept her for who she is. To protect her own fragility and fears of more hurt, she abandons the outside world and keeps her distant father close by, listening to the music he left behind.


Amanda, Laura, and Tom are disillusioned with themselves, each other, and their present lives as they are with their expectations and dreams. The themes of abandonment and disillusionment are closely intertwined, as disillusionment is the abandonment of hope.

Amanda blames her husband for not shouldering his responsibilities and for destroying the future she had expected when they married. She would rather blame him and his charm than accept that she chose him for her husband and not one of her other gentlemen callers who, she never stops reminding her family, were financially secure and socially prominent, unlike their father. Much of her emotional reserve seems to come from living in the past, and she cannot abandon the times during which she was admired and courted; however, she is living enough in the present to know that the past will not repeat itself for her, and she is disillusioned by the end of an old world and the reality that surrounds her: squalor, Laura's incapacities, Tom's discontent and rebelliousness, financial ruin, loneliness. None of these will bring back the glory of her youth, nor will she see any of it reflected in her children, despite brave efforts to deny the reality of it all.

Laura suffers after she learns of Jim O'Connor's engagement. If Laura was content enough having retreated from reality to her illusionary world of glass animals, not having to face the world and be judged, then she was not disillusioned; she simply lived—and lived simply—in a protected illusionary environment. She knows herself well enough so that panic over a timed typing test was not unexpected; if Amanda is disillusioned about Laura's failings, Laura is not. Her crash comes after a brief high point of hope in opening up to Jim. On learning of the impossibility of continuing, she loses hope and thus becomes disillusioned and will remain in her world of illusions.

Tom may seem less disillusioned than his mother and sister—he is unhappy in his job and in his family responsibility, but he never had illusions about them. His world of illusion comes from movies, art, and dreams of escape. He keeps his dreams alive and has the strength to leave home. If he is disillusioned about his life as a seaman, it is because he cannot ever leave his sister behind.

Living in the Past

Living in the past can ruin opportunities for happiness in the present. Amanda straddles a line between past and present, and despite her forced cheerfulness, her life in the present is a disaster because she is so rooted in the past. In a way her past glories serve her in a similar way as Laura's glass menagerie, leading her into a world of illusions, removed from the reality of the world outside. Although Amanda knows she must navigate her way in the present, she clings to the past as her support, as the reality of life, not the depressed circumstances of the present. But since this reality no longer exists, it serves no purpose other than mental escape and makes her appear disturbingly ridiculous.

She is not a modern woman who sees strength in herself. Rather she measures her worth in relation to a man; that is how women of her background then were raised and that is what informs her present—making a financially advantageous and socially acceptable marriage was a goal. She still believes in the customs and traditions of the past she so wistfully remembers. Her debutante perspective refuses to comprehend that Laura does not have gentlemen callers, that Laura lacks the popularity and social skills to entice them to climb the fire escape. Amanda is so rooted in the past she has little sense of the present in areas that once would have been her forte, such as fashion. With finances as they are, Amanda can spend money on a new dress for Laura, not herself. Instead, putting on a brave front for the gentleman caller, she wraps herself in the girlish, outdated dress she wore 25 years ago. The choice indicates she has little or no sense of perspective; she is not the Southern debutante she once was. The dress may still "fit," but she does not. She relies on the past to confront the present, and such behavior will not bring about what she would like. Nor can she live vicariously through her daughter.

Laura, too, hovers between past and present, but her past has no glorious moments, and it is not so different from her present. She clings to her father's music, a significant part of her past. And she clings to a few souvenirs from high school, including the program from The Pirates of Penzance, which represents the memory of her crush on Jim. Her present seems more a continuation of the past.

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