The theme of loss permeates Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Indeed, the fact that it is a “memory” play based on Tom Wingfield’s recollection of a part of his life that he has never been able to reconcile or escape sets the stage for the “loss” that will serve as the driving force of the play. As Bigsby observes, It is true the apartment is both literally and metaphorically a trap which Tom and his mother, at least, wish to escape . . . His [Williams’s] characters are . . . the victims of fate (Laura), of time (Amanda), and of a prosaic and destructive reality. (“Entering The Glass Menagerie.” 34) The more Tom tries to free himself from the ties that bind him to his mother Amanda and sister Laura he realizes that the freedom he craves is never going to be what he had imagined. As Tom gains a better understanding of self he realizes that he can never escape his real dilemma – loss of psychological space.
No matter where Tom travels in his attempt to escape his predicament, he cannot free himself from the guilt he feels for abandoning his family. The Glass Menagerie is not merely a story of a tragic series of abandonments that leaves a family emotionally bankrupt; nor is it only a story of a family destroyed by its inability to accept reality. It is a story in which the image of loss is a device by which Williams is able to get to the “marrow”2 of a universal truth–the human condition of an individual’s inability to escape a psychological loss of space no matter how much physical distance is attained. Thus, as Bigsby explains, “[H]e [Tom] comes to realize that all his retreat from human relationships has won him is ‘solitary free passage.’” (“Celebration of a Certain Courage,” 93-94). Tom’s love for his mother and sister is the root cause of his guilt. Thus, memory becomes his eternal prison as he struggles to reconcile his past and present.
The theme of loss permeates the play from the opening lines of dialogue in which Tom Wingfield mentions, “that the time period of the play was the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind”. Thus, the social significance of the play contributes to the theme of loss. The fact that America was on the brink of war and going through the Depression conveys poignantly how past events can affect the present. By the same token, social forces greatly impact the lives of the Wingfields and others as the youth of America depart on ships to join the war effort. Just as Tom struggles to exorcise the demons of his guilt of abandoning his mother and sister by going back in time to the painful memory, America poises itself to do battle with formidable enemies as well. To further heighten the atmosphere of loss, Tom refers to his long absent father as “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances” (Williams). Another visual feature that enhances the impact of loss on this family takes place when Tom first appears on stage and is dressed in a merchant sailor’s uniform as he faces the audience while making his commentary and then “strolls across to the fire escape,” foreshadowing his departure at the end of the play (Menagerie 22). Consequently, within the first few lines of the play, Williams, by employing innovative dramatic techniques and poetic language, conveys the social, personal, and dramatic significance of past events to the present situation.
Tom, as narrator, gives us “truth in the guise of illusion” (Menagerie 22). He does this by giving us his recollection of a certain time period in his life. Through the use of poetic license to present truth, Williams is able to seamlessly alternate between illusion and reality. By the same token, Williams uses the image of loss to play within the dynamics of illusion versus reality to allow each character to create his own individual reality. In effect, truth is made more bearable by the use of illusion and the theme of loss becomes a universal truth. For example, Tom’s perceived dilemma of loss of physical space results in his retreat from the relationship that he most treasured and, as a result, is not the freedom that he imagined. Tom’s escape from his physical environment results in a psychological loss of space, and, as he states in one of the most poignant scenes in the play,
I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further–for time is the longest distance between two places . . . I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space . . . I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something . . . Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! (Menagerie 114-115)
Although Tom physically abandons his mother and sister, he is unable to escape his psychological burden. Tom, Amanda, and Laura are inextricably linked to the past, and are unable to escape the psychological losses each has suffered. Consequently, they are powerless to deal with the harsh realities of a contingent and bewildering present.
Ironically, in The Glass Menagerie the fire escape provides no escape at all. In scene one we find that the apartment “is entered by a fire escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth . . . the fire escape is what we see – that is the landing of it and steps descending from it” (Menagerie 21). The structure cannot provide escape from the fire of guilt that burns in Tom’s heart. In another scene, Laura trips on the fire escape on her way to the grocery store, dramatizing her ineffectual attempts to escape her illusory world (Menagerie 47). In addition to the visual quality of the fire escape looming in front of the audience, a “blown-up photograph” of the absent father hangs in the living room of the lower middle-class tenement of the Wingfields and represents the embodiment of loss, the collapse of moral nerve and responsibility, and serves as a constant reminder of the crippling past they cannot ever escape. Ironically, the fate of the characters is established in the first scene of the play. The harder the Wingfields try to overcome their unfortunate circumstances and take a stand in reality, the further they are pushed into the world of illusion
Since the abandonment of his father, Tom has been the primary caretaker and breadwinner for his family. Although his job at the shoe warehouse stifles his creative aspirations as it deadens his will to live, and his mother’s constant complaints, accusations and “Rise and Shine” (Menagerie 41) wake-up calls make him wish he really were dead, Tom valiantly tries to forget his miserable circumstances and attempts to forestall his inevitable departure by inoculating himself with his narcotics – going to the movies, drinking alcohol, and smoking cigarettes. Certainly, Tom understands his mother’s anxiety to keep the family intact and improve their economic situation; however, her desperation causes her to chatter incessantly, resulting in constant arguments with her son while fragile Laura watches helplessly. Amanda fears that Tom will leave his job at the shoe warehouse to pursue his dreams and abandon her and Laura just as her husband had done. Consequently, Tom’s desperation surfaces as his dreams of being a writer are squashed by the realities of being forced to work to support his mother and sister. By the same token, the helplessness Amanda feels at her inability to prevent Tom’s inevitable departure causes her to berate him about most aspects of his life. Amanda’s love and concern for her son are superseded by her fear of losing him. Similarly, Tom’s anger at having to give up his dreams in order to care for his mother and helpless sister surfaces, but it is temporarily restrained by the guilt he feels at the thought of abandoning them and following in his father’s footsteps. In one of the most powerful scenes of the play, Tom’s growing frustration at his mother’s lack of concern for his hopeless predicament causes him to strongly rebuke his mother:
Listen! You think I’m crazy about the warehouse? You think I’m in love with the Continental Shoemakers? You think I want to spend fifty-five years down there in that – celotex interior! With fluorescent–tubes! Look! I’d rather somebody picked up a crowbar and battered out my brains–than go back mornings! I go! Every time you come in yelling that Goddamn “Rise and Shine!” “Rise and Shine!” I say to myself, “How lucky dead people are!” “But I get up. I go! For fifty-six dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever! And you say self–self’s all I ever think of. Why, listen, if self is what I thought of, mother, I’d be where he is – GONE! [He points to his father’s picture.] As far as the system of transportation reaches! (Menagerie 41)
Unfortunately, no amount of alcohol, cigarettes, or escapism in the form of movies can prevent Tom from his fate. Ironically, Tennessee Williams’s explanation for his career as a dramatist that “he was creating imaginary worlds into which I [Williams] can retreat from the real world because . . . I’ve never made any kind of adjustment to the real world” (Boxill, 106) can be observed in Tom Wingfield’s inability to cope with reality and his ultimate abandonment of his mother and sister.
The loss suffered by Amanda Wingfield is both physical and psychological. In the opening scene we are told that she has been abandoned by her husband who “gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town” (Menagerie 23). As a result of a series of abandonments, Amanda retreats into a distant past that is as much myth as it is reality. As Bigsby observes, “For his [Tom’s] Mother, Amanda, the past represents her youth, before time worked its dark alchemy. Memory has become myth, a story to be endlessly repeated as a protection against present decline. She wants nothing more than to freeze time; and in this she mirrors a region whose myths of past grace and romantic fiction mask a sense of present decay” (“Entering The Glass Menagerie” 38). Indeed, Amanda is a survivor; however, she is able to survive only by clinging to a mythical past–an illusion necessary to deal with the harshness of her present reality. Amanda’s forays into the past allow her to temporarily forget the misery of a life she had never envisioned for herself. The pain of being abandoned by a man that she loved and the burden of having to care for a daughter fragile in mind and body in a time period (1930’s) when single-motherhood was a much greater burden both socially and economically than in 2007. There were very few options open to her. Bigsby argues, “that it is Amanda who bears the greatest burden, twice abandoned and left to watch over her daughter. Though querulous and puritanical, she is allowed moments of touching vulnerability when she exposes the nature of her own pain” (“Entering” 42): “I’ve never told you [Tom] but I loved your father . . .” (Menagerie 50).
Although the loss that Amanda suffers is great, her strength to persevere and her optimism and even her attempt to face reality can be noted when she states “ in these trying times we live in, all we have to cling to is–each other” (Menagerie 49), and “Life’s not easy, it calls for – Spartan endurance!”. Ironically, even though Amanda bears the greatest burden as a result of her losses, she is the one who makes the greatest effort to deal with the harsh realities of the present. For example, although Amanda pushes Tom to continue working in the shoe warehouse, she also works hard at two menial and depressing jobs in an attempt to improve her family’s dire economic situation–one selling magazine subscriptions and the other demonstrating brassieres at Famous Barr. As Bigsby explains, “and though she [Amanda] sustains herself with memories and fantasies of a reassuring future, she is forced to an acknowledgement of her situation, as Tom is not” (“Entering” 42). We must also keep in mind that the time of the play is during the Great Depression and America is on the brink of World War II. As Roger B. Stein explains, “The note of social realism runs throughout the drama, fixing the lives of individuals against the larger canvas” (“Catastrophe without Violence” 14). The Wingfield’s dire economic situation mirrors that of many Americans at that time who were faced with the harsh realities of an uncertain future. Through losses Amanda has gained an understanding of her present predicament.
The universal truth that emerges as the image of loss permeates the life of Amanda Wingfield is her genuine concern for the well being of her children and hope for a better life for them. Tennessee Williams himself felt that Amanda was a central figure in the play, “the mother’s valor is at the core of The Glass Menagerie,” . . . he explains, “She’s confused, pathetic, even stupid, but everything has got to be all right. She fights to make it that way in the only way she knows how” (Jean Evans Interview 14). Certainly the temporary loss of hope Amanda suffers when she realizes that Laura will not be going back to business college is overshadowed by her genuine fear for her daughter’s future and can be noted in one of the most poignant scenes in the play:
So what are we going to do the rest of our lives? Stay home and watch the parades go by? Amuse ourselves with the glass menagerie, darling? (Menagerie 34).
The theme of loss infiltrates the world of the Wingfields in The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams uses this theme not only to come to terms with a painful part of his own life, but to distill a larger truth of the human condition that although life is fragile, as are the attempts that human beings make to establish a genuine connection, the real strength lies in the resiliency of the human spirit in its quest to survive. Thus, Williams states that, “[T]he monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition” (Menagerie 17); this takes place in the final silent scene and in Tom’s closing speech, reinforcing the idea that individual choice is still involved and can make a difference. Tom’s guilt makes him face his past actions; Amanda gains grace and dignity as she comforts her daughter, and fragile Laura is able to look up and smile at her mother. Loss can result in something more significant – in other words, although time can be the enemy, it can also allow a certain compassion to surface.
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Bigsby, C. W. E. “Celebration of a Certain Kind of Courage.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1949
Stein, Roger B. “The Glass Menagerie Revisited: Catastrophe Without Violence.” In The Glass Menagerie: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. R. B. Parker. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.
Boxill, Roger. Tennessee Williams. New York: St. Martin’s, 1987
Evans, Jean. “The Life and Ideas of Tennessee Williams.” Interview. Conversations with
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