“He is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from. . . . he is the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for.” (Williams 5) – Jim’s first introduction by Tom as a narrator is a crucial one, as it points to the ambiguity of Jim’s character. For the Wingfield family the young gentleman caller seems to be the symbolization of the American Dream and a way to overcome their own incapacities.
But considering the external circumstances during the early decades of the 20th century and the further course of the gentleman caller’s visit, his success is questionable. Nevertheless, while the play continues, Jim manages to influence each member of the Wingfield family – varying in degree and duration though.
This essay will cover a short summary of the history of the American Dream, along with its basic features. Additionally, it will give a overview of the historical background in which the play is set.
Jim’s belief in progress and optimism will be analyzed as well as its different effects on Amanda, Laura and Tom by contemplating their individual interpretations of the American Dream and their attitudes towards progress and technology.
Finally, the failure of each character – including Jim’s – becomes inevitable and demonstrates that the gentleman caller’s incidence was only the souvenir of a vanished myth: a tiny spark, unable to light their faces again.
When being asked about the typical and most-influencing American ideology, many people will as likely as not name the American Dream, the idea of being able to rise “from rags to riches”. This myth reaches far back in American history, beginning with the first colonialists and the Puritans’ beliefs in competition and materialistic success. Later, the time of the Westward Expansion and the massive waves of immigration coined the optimistic image of the “land of opportunity”. The American Constitution already states the Pursuit of Happiness and grants the right for everyone to excel in sports, arts and – especially – in business. A strong belief in technology goes along with that ideology and inventors like Thomas Edison or Henry Ford are still today seen as prime examples for individual success stories. In terms of sex, unspoken rules were early set: The man was the one who earned money and fulfilled America’s Manifest Destiny while the woman, in her subordinate role, adored her hero’s success.
Focusing on the social background of the play, it becomes obvious that the myth had come to a halt. During the 30s of the 20th century the effects of the Great Depression caused for many people the destruction of their Dreams. The huge unemployment rates and extremely low wages that followed the Black Tuesday in October, 1929, together with a missing social network converted the American “Traum” into an American “Trauma” (Baier 29). Williams, setting his Wingfield family into the lower middle-class, the “fundamentally enslaved section of American society” (3) that was hardest hit, conspicuously displays their forlornness. More globally seen, times were not much better: By letting Tom mention Guernica in the introduction, Williams points towards the then future; he shows that dreams and hopes soon had to give way to a second, terrible world war that was just around the corner.
A final, important aspect of that American Ideology is that even though it seems quite universal one must keep in mind that it was highly individual, depending on single expectations and innermost hopes. Pertaining to the play, these individual discrepancies allow to analyze each Dream of the main characters separately.
At first glance, Jim is the personification of the American Dream. When introducing him, Tom admits that Jim always “seemed to move in a continual spotlight” (Williams 50). During high school he was a star in all respects, especially regarding sports. But shortly after the positive initiation Tom gives hints that Jim’s success story is stagnating. O’Connor attends a course in radio engineering and public speaking and it seems that his interests have concentrated more on intellectual affairs, but then again, he still chooses the sports pages when he is given the daily newspaper. His own success in sports is only remembered in old high school magazines and finally, the gentleman caller’s job is pretty much the same as Tom’s.
Jim has apparently lost his previous shine and he even admits to Laura that his current live is not the one he was dreaming of: “. . . I hoped . . . that I would be further . . . than I am now” (Williams 76). But nevertheless he is quite optimistic and the fire of the American Dream is still flaming in his heart. Jim adores the aspect of progress and technology: He rhapsodizes about the future of television, his visit to the Chicago World’s Fair and is amazed by the Wrigley Building, which symbolizes success and commerce. The gentleman caller’s understanding of the world is simple and he straightforwardly advertises it during the conversation with Laura: “Knowledge – Zzzzzp! Money – Zzzzzzp! – Power! That’s the cycle democracy is built on!” (Williams 82).
For Jim, studying at night school is an appropriate way to prepare himself for his upcoming success which he is still convinced of – although the world of the 1930s is just about to lose all evidence of it. Roger B. Stein outlines Jim’s never-ending hope: “The trek upward through the depression years is disappointing, but the indomitable optimist is not discouraged” (38). And Gerald Weales’ comment on Jim being “dead wrong” (103) is legitimate as well, because it hints to Jim’s naïvety that is demonstrated when he euphemistically claims that America’s future will be “. . . even more wonderful than the present time is!” (Williams 72). As mentioned, the 1930s were far from “wonderful” and some people even tended to create their own illusionary universe, safely set in the past – like Amanda Wingfield.
While Jim’s eyes are directed towards the future, Amanda is stuck in her obsolete past. Her American Dream is the traditional one; she always wanted to embody the image of the Southern Belle. But in the attempt to fulfill her Dream, which for a woman meant to live in a happy marriage with a wealthy husband, she has failed – Tom’s and Laura’s father has left the family long time ago. What is left for Amanda is the memory of her youth in Blue Mountain where she had not only received seventeen gentlemen callers on a
single day but also missed the opportunity to marry the later vice president or a very rich stockbroker – her opportunity of success.
Concentrating on the bygone times Amanda has also missed the general change of values, as Williams already hints in the first descriptions about the characters of his play: “A little woman . . . clinging frantically to another time and place” (Williams xviii). Only slowly she realizes that the world outside forces her to care for her children, so she starts selling journals via telephone. As she sees her Dream dissolving, she desperately tries to impose her values upon Tom and Laura, noticeable by Amanda’s phrase of “Rise and shine!” (Williams 23) that steadily echoes through the Wingfield apartment.
Jim’s appearance re-inflames Amanda’s old Dream. Firstly introduced by Tom her hope is raised that the gentleman caller is “. . . the type that’s up and coming” (Williams 46). And during Jim’s visit, Laura has to serve as a substitution for her mother’s missed opportunities. It is the old Southern Belle who wants to control the fate of her children. Laura’s extremely passive manner is conspicuously depicted at the end of scene five where Amanda instructs her daughter what she should be wishing for: “Happiness! Good fortune!” (Williams 49). Thus the gentleman caller is supposed to enable Amanda gaining at least one part of her longed-for Dream – money – while her daughter is just in search of true love.
Similar to Amanda who has lost the connection to reality, Laura lives in her own illusionary world of the glass menagerie. The effect that Jim has on this world is a vast but only temporary one. His first comment on Tom’s sister is that it is “. . . unusual to meet a shy girl nowadays” (Williams 58). It is Laura’s obvious fragility and her inferiority complex that stir Jim’s interest. She is a challenge for the young man, giving him the possibility to prove and exercise his “social poise” (Williams 59) he is studying at night school. Like on a empty sheet of paper he projects all of his hopes and attitude towards the American Dream onto the girl – although in a rather thoughtless way. Without regarding Laura’s emotions he starts giving a lecture about her lack of self-confidence which almost resembles a
therapy session at the doctor. But Jim is definitely far from being a doctor. His confusing of “Pleurosis” with “Blue Roses” (Williams 17) is significant: By unconsciously transforming a disease into flowers he is not only showing a lack of knowledge but also his romanticizing view on the world. In his optimistic world the Dream can still become reality, while in Laura’s isolated world of glass – coined by her disability and sense of inferiority – any Dreams have been shattered a long time ago.
However, Jim manages to enter her world and to turn it upside down for a short moment. It might not be Jim’s long talking about self-esteem, their shared past at high school or his comments on success and money but rather the dance and – of course – the kiss that let her get a glimpse of a better world. The stage directions of the last scene depict the discrepancy between Jim’s carelessness and Laura’s just awakened hope: “While the incident is apparently unimportant, it is to Laura the climax of her secret life” (Williams 70). When Jim accidentally breaks the glass unicorn it first does not seem to matter to Laura. She is too elated to realize the effect that her illusionary world is being broken as well. But when she finds out that Jim is dating with another girl she immediately retreats into her old pattern: “. . . Laura’s look changes, her eyes returning slowly from his to the glass figure in her palm” (Williams 89). The gentleman caller’s attempt to lure the introvert girl into his optimistic Dream has ultimately collapsed and it reveals his incapability of being the real American hero.
Unfortunately, Tom is not an American hero either. What they both have in common is their discontent with their current lives; both try to accomplish the American Dream, albeit Tom’s Dream is completely different to Jim’s. Williams presents Tom not as the enthused advocate of progress and technology. On the contrary, his daydreams are built on a spiritual base: Amanda’s son wishes to become a poet. Jim has no understanding of Tom’s attitude, he jokingly names him “Shakespeare” (Williams 50), and all in all he is no great help for Tom. Jim’s progress- and money-oriented interpretation of the American Dream only increases the distance to Tom.
While Jim still tends to think positively, for Tom things have grown more
serious: As long as he carries out his duty to care for his mother and his sister, he is unable to complete his desire. “For sixty-five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being – ever!” (Williams 23). The fact that he wants to escape from the imaginary shackles of his family is obvious. He spends whole nights at the movies which Baier rightly describes as an “Ersatzbefriedigung” (54). And slowly but surely Tom recognizes that the films are no longer an alternative to him. The young man wants the movie characters’ countless adventures to be his own ones, yearns to start his own Pursuit of Happiness. His frustration climaxes in scene six when he states: “I’m tired of the movies and I am about to move!” (Williams 61). By abjuring the film projector Tom consciously disconnects from another aspect of technology in his life, as he does when he decides to ignore the light bill in order to pay his dues for the seamen union.
In the end, when Amanda tells her son to “Go to the moon . . .” (Williams 96) he does not obey. The moon, not only a symbol of dreams but in the 1930s also a yet unreached destination for mankind and thus a strong symbol for progress, is not Tom’s place. But maybe Jim would have gone there.
Recapitulating, I claim that Jim – firstly considered the savior – fails at rescuing the Wingfield family; he himself is too strongly embedded into that flawed world and he cannot permanently convey his positive attitude to Amanda, Laura or Tom. While Amanda has to learn that she is the Belle that has “faded”, her daughter remains the “one, never having bloomed” (Boxill 71). And finally, Tom has neither become a great poet nor has he managed to abolish his remorse about having deserted his sister Laura.
The bottom line is that the characters of The Glass Menagerie are exemplary for the inability of a whole society to complete their individual American Dream. From an objective point of view, during the times of the Great Depression and the imminent Second World War true Optimism was out of place. What remains is the – again, very individual – question if it is better to create a new fragile universe to keep up appearances or to face the bitter truth of a brutal reality.
Baier, Jochen. The Long-Delayed but Always Expected Something: Der American Dream in den Dramen von Tennessee Williams. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2001. Boxill, Roger. Tennessee Williams. London: Macmillan, 1987.
Stein, Roger B. “The Glass Menagerie Revisited: Catastrophe without Violence.” Tennessee Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Stephen S. Stanton. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1977. 36-44. Weales, Gerald. “The Outsider in The Glass Menagerie.” Readings on The Glass Menagerie. Ed. Thomas Siebold. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998. 101-07. Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. Introd. Robert Bray. New York: New Directions, 1999.
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