The Glass Menagerie is a play written by Tennessee Williams. The symbolism in The Glass Menagerie has many different meanings, most of them related to the human psyche, but some are just there to give us more insight into the characters and their feelings. The major symbols in The Glass Menagerie are the glass menagerie itself (the title), Laura Wingfield (Laura’s character traits), Amontillado (Tom’s thwarted hopes) and the gentleman caller (a chance for happiness). Only one symbol is actually fully explained in The Glass Menagerie: The foyer setting.
The setting takes place on Wazee Street where Tom lives with his sister, Laura, who is crippled and has not left her room for years. The audience is introduced to the characters through Tom seated at a pot-belly stove in an awkward position, “his neck craned to its limit”. The first thing we see of Laura is her shadow on the wall, and she remains behind the door the whole time. The first line spoken by Tom describes his family as “the four of us living here quietly ever since Father died” (Williams 3).
The question arises: if Tom says that their father just died, why are there still three people? The answer lies in what our society associates with death. The person who dies goes away from this world, but death can be seen as another stage or plane of life where one becomes something else than human. The father that has passed away is still present in the play, but he is not present in the traditional sense of the word. The foyer symbolizes our transition from one life stage to another.
The child has left his childhood behind him, and the parents are no more there in their previous form. The “four” that live with each other are gathered around life’s central theme: death. The father died, Laura is slowly dying too, Tom will soon leave childhood behind him and Amanda fears her own mortality every day. The four characters are linked together by what they fear most: death. The glass menagerie , which is also the title of the play, is defined by Tom as follows: “It was a collection of beautiful glass animals so thin that they were almost transparent.
The delicate blown-glass creatures were fastened to the ends of leaden wires which floated magically in a large bowl of water, pure and simple” (Williams 6). The most important aspect is that they are “almost transparent”. The glass menagerie symbolizes imagination because it makes something visible that is not there for everyone else. The characters have invented their own world where they feel more comfortable than in reality. The glass menagerie gives them shelter, safety and warmth when they are surrounded by cold reality.
The glass animals are fragile and breakable just like their owners’ hearts. If you have an invisible friend as little child, this was simply your way of escaping from the real world; our inner child seeks comfort away from reality in order to feel safe. The glass animals are a symbol for creative imagination, the “almost transparent” creative aspect of our mind that is visible through art and writing. The characters can flee into their inner world which is probably why Williams decided to set The Glass Menagerie in a foyer; it represents something that lies between life stages or planes of existence.
The glass menagerie is not only the title of the play but also an important symbol inside the play because it shows how fragile Laura’s psyche is. The character traits attributed to Laura (Rebecca Brown) are mostly connected with her physical condition; she has never left her room after all. All she does is read books and listen to the radio, which leads us to another important symbol: The radio. The radio allows Laura to escape, just like the glass menagerie does. The radio brings her daily news, an echo of real life that she can listen to but cannot take part in.
The “reality” that is coming through the radio makes her feel even more lonely and isolated from humankind. The radio symbolizes how our society is constructed nowadays; we are glued to our radios every day without truly interacting with other people because otherwise, one runs the risk of exposing themselves emotionally (in case you hadn’t noticed by now, I relate everything to my own experiences). The presence of other listeners on the other side make it easier for us to talk about ourselves; we know someone out there will hear us.
The radio is also a symbol for memories; it brings Laura back to her childhood when things were easier and more innocent. The radio is like an invisible friend that will always be there for you whenever you need comfort, even if other people are not around; the radio reminds us of the support we can get from our own subconsciousness. The radio creates a sort of safe zone in The Glass Menagerie where the characters feel secure enough to talk about themselves without fear of being judged (which is quite ironic considering their dysfunctional family).
The four members of The Glass Menagerie live together but they are all trapped inside their own glass menageries, unable to find their way out into reality. The Glass Menagerie provides security just like The Lion’s Head (Rebecca Brown) does. The Lion’s Head is another important symbol; it represents the last place where Tom spent time with his father before he passed away. The Lion’s Head is like an old friend that you can rely on forever, just like The Glass Menagerie and The Radio.
The characters keep returning to The Lion’s Head every night because it provides them with comfort just like The Glass Menagerie, though in a different way. The fact that they sit there every day drinking their coffee and smoking cigarettes makes me think of addiction; they leave behind everything else to go back there for the “fix”. The Lion’s Head both comforts them and hurts them simultaneously by bringing to mind memories of their father which are both happy and sad.
The Lion’s Head is a symbol for the fact that we cannot run away from our memories; The Glass Menagerie makes it clear that you can never put any real distance between yourself and your past. The place where The Lion’s Head used to be is still there, but it’s empty because Tom went off to war and never came back again. The Lion’s Head is not only a representation of memories but also of absence or emptiness; it reminds us about what we have lost along the way.