English FLaura: Well, I do-as I said-have my-glass collection-Jim: I’m not right sure I know what you’re talking about. Whatkind of glass is it?Laura: Little articles of it, they’re ornaments mostly! Most ofthem are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest littleanimals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie! (82)Arguably the most poignant scene in Tennessee Williams’s play beginswith Laura Wingfield showing Jim-the gentleman caller-her glass menagerie.
Up until this point, the audience has watched Laura, shy and awkward, drawdeeper and deeper into herself as she suffers in a troubled home. Herfather has deserted the family years before; her mother Amanda is caught inthe memory of better times. By day, her brother Tom works listlessly in afactory; by night he disappears in dark movie houses and other moremysterious places, harsh reality trapping him and hampering his dreams.
Tom and Amanda clash constantly, disagreeing over the future. Able to relyon neither Tom nor her husband, Amanda has come to see a gentleman caller,someone to whisk Laura away, as the only salvation that remains. UntilJim, none has come. We learn that Laura and Jim attended the same highschool, and that Laura had been in love with him. Jim does not rememberher when he visits. Although nervous at first, Laura lets down her guardwith Jim, and brings him into the world of her glass menagerie.
Symbolically, the first person we see represented in the menagerie isLaura, but Tom and Amanda belong there as well: the glass menagerie is ametaphor for the frailty of the human condition; we all, like glass, canbreak if pushed in the wrong direction.
Of all the animals in the menagerie, the unicorn is the only one ofits kind. He is Laura’s favorite figurine, who, she tells Jim, sitsquietly with the other “normal” horses, not complaining. This delicateanimal, which Laura trustingly hands over to Jim for examination,represents Laura herself. She lets her gentleman caller hold the unicornto the light so he can see its beauty; she also lets him shine lightthrough her. Despite the walls that she has so carefully built aroundherself, Laura lets down her guard with Jim, allowing herself to beanalyzed by someone she barely knows. As she goes to give Jim the unicorn,Laura warns: “Oh be careful-if you breathe, it breaks! (83),” reminding theaudience of her own delicacy and past experiences. She then goes on tosay, however: “Go on, I trust you with him! She places the piece in hispalm (83).” Laura places not one, but two, frail unicorns into Jim’shands, with the faith that neither will be shattered.
Unicorns traditionally symbolize chastity, and we see Laura as notonly literally “pure,” but also untouched by the world. As Jim observes,there’s no place for someone like Laura anymore: “Jim: Unicorns-aren’t theyextinct in the modern world? (83).” Throughout the entire play, theaudience has the sense that Laura doesn’t belong. With the exception ofJim who, as Tom tells us in the beginning of the first act, representshope, there is no one like Laura or able to understand her. Laura isdifferent from the horses of the world, but she is even more beautifulbecause of it:Jim: You’re one times one! They walk all over theearth. You just stay here. They’re common as-weeds, but-you-well, you’re-Blue Roses! (87)Laura is made of glass; Jim finds both beauty and frailty in her.
When he takes her in his arms and begins to waltz, the unicorn is knockedoff the shelf by their dancing. Its horn is broken:Jim: Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken?Laura: Now it is just like all the other horsesJim: It’s lost its-Laura: Horn! It doesn’t matter. Maybeit’s a blessing in disguise…Now he willfeel more at home with the other horses,the ones that don’t have horns (86).
Jim’s kindness and warmth have initially brought Laura some discomfort, butnow they have helped her shed her own psychological “horn.” Jim breaks thebarrier that existed between Laura and the rest of the world; in the sameway, he breaks the unicorn’s horn, the very thing that made it feel, inLaura’s words “freakish.” Laura is finally more comfortable with herselfand with others. She has opened up to Jim and us in the audience, and wecan feel that all is right with her now.
On the surface, it may seem as if Laura is the only character made ofglass; she is the only one who recognizes that she has weaknesses. Lauraaware of her own frailty, but she can also see that it exists in others:Jim: How about cutting the rug a little,Miss Wingfield?…
Laura:Oh, but I’d step on you!Jim: I’m not made out of glass (84)In this exchange, one has the sense that under Jim’s joking tone there is adeeper message: Don’t be ridiculous; people aren’t that fragile. The bolddeclaration is ironic, for though it may not appear to be so, all the othercharacters belong beside Laura’s unicorn in the menagerie. The audiencewatches as Amanda’s relationship with her son rapidly deteriorates, and itkills her. We are almost nervous as she retreats further and further backin time, from her days of marriage to her days of girlhood. Her husband’sdesertion, her son’s unhappiness, her daughter’s awkwardness, and her ownsense of failure shatter Amanda. On the other hand, Tom is suffocated byhis mother and his own feelings of obligation. He is disenchanted with theworld, and knows that at home, he can never pursue his dreams or be trulyhappy. His disillusionment manifests itself in nightly habits of drinkingand movies. Tom, like Amanda, is slowly breaking. They may not recognizehow frail they are, but if pushed in the slightest wrong way, both willshatter. We see Tom and Amanda’s frailties played out in their arguments,and in the last dispute, the audience watches as Amanda pushes her son toofar off the shelf:Amanda: …Just go, go, go-to the movies!Tom: All right, I will! The more you shout aboutmy selfishness to me the quicker I’ll go, and Iwon’t go to the movies!Amanda: Go, then! Go to the moon-you selfish dreamer!Tom: I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further…(96)What neither Tom nor Amanda realized was that one day, one of them had tocrack. Like broken glass, Tom is gone for good. In stores, parents oftentell their children, “Stop playing with that; it’s glass. You’ll breakit.” If only someone had been there to warn Amanda all the times sheprovoked her son.
Part of what makes us identify with the characters in the GlassMenagerie is their fragility. They are not up on a pedestal; they areordinary people whose problems are just as painful and tragic as Oedipus’s.
We can see parts of ourselves in Laura, Amanda and Tom; we are just asfragile as they are. As Laura tells Jim:”Glass breaks so easily. No matter how careful you are. (86)” Her wordsput the characters of the Glass Menagerie, Macbeth, Hedda Gabbler, andDeath of a Salesman on the same level as the audience: we’re all human, andthere is only so much we can handle before we break.