Because most modern plays do not have narrators, when the character Tom Wingfield is speaking as the narrator of The Glass Menagerie, the audience will pay more attention to his words. In part this is because he directly addresses the audience, and in part because of his comments about the other characters and himself. In some ways, the occasional use of a narrator makes the play seem slightly more modern in style, at least to audiences familiar with the television narrative device of “breaking the fourth wall,” in which a character on a television show speaks directly to the television audience instead of to other characters in the show. Throughout the play, the narrator provides background information that makes the actions of the characters easier to understand. He also provides some reflection on these events, because he remarks on these events as something that occurred in the past, while as narrator he is now looking back and remembering those events. The words and actions that the characters perform take on additional significance because of the commentary that the narrator provides.
At the beginning of the first scene, the narrator makes opening remarks. He establishes the time period in which the play takes place, when he says, “I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy” (Scene 1). This speech lets the audience know that the play is set during the Great Depression. This information makes it easier for the audience to understand why money issues are critical in the play. He also mentions the civil war that was happening in Spain, drawing a slight comparison between the warring factions there and the class struggles in the United States. This mention of strife foreshadows the arguments and tension that will take place in the Winfield family. The narrator also explains that he is a character in the play, and describes two other characters, the gentleman caller and his father. He explains of his father, “This is our father who left us a long time ago. He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town” (Scene 1). By commenting on his father’s abandonment before the action of the play begins, the narrator emphasizes to the audience how important this abandonment is. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that the father’s abandonment of his family has shaped their destiny since then. Mrs. Wingfield obsesses over what will happen to her children, especially Laura, because she has had to support herself and two children in the middle of an economic depression. Even though Tom now contributes to the household, the family’s economic plight seems dire.
Tom does not speak again as narrator until the beginning of Scene 3. His speech at this time summarizes what has happened after Mrs. Wingfield discovered that Laura was not in fact attending the business school. Although the characters themselves could have spoken additional lines of dialogue, the narrator’s summary gets this bit of exposition out of the way more quickly. Although the narrator’s words do not make clear exactly how much time has passed, he makes reference to the end of one season and the beginning of another. He explains that his mother decided that they need to acquire a gentleman caller for Laura, and says of her plan:
She began to take logical steps in the planned direction. Late that winter and in the early spring - realizing that extra money would be needed to properly feather the nest and plume the bird - she conducted a vigorous campaign on the- telephone, roping in subscribers to one of those magazines for matrons called The Home-maker's Companion, the type of journal that features the serialized , sublimations of ladies of letters who think in terms of delicate cup-like breasts, slim, tapering waists, rich, creamy thighs, eyes like wood-smoke in autumn, fingers that soothe and caress like strains of music, bodies as powerful as Etruscan sculpture. (Scene 3)
His description of the readers of the magazine reflects his mother to some extent, or at least what her sensibilities would have been before she had to face the reality of living with a husband who drank excessively and then deserted her and their children. The readers seem to have overly romanticized views of love and people, without much connection to real life. It makes the audience wonder if perhaps Mrs. Wingfield would prefer to live in a fantasy world. The description also invites comparison between the fantasies that the readers have of romantic love compared to the fantasy world that Laura Wingfield seems to inhabit.
When Tom speaks again as narrator in Scene 5, he describes the young people dancing in clubs, seeking relief from the boredom of their lives. He contrasts that boredom with the growing unrest in Europe, including Spain. He says, “Adventure and change were imminent in this year. They were waiting around the corner for all these kids. Suspended in the mist over Berchtesgaden, caught in the folds of Chamberlain's umbrella. In Spain there was Guernica!” (Scene 5). He is able to make these comments because he has the benefit of hindsight. If there were no narrator, and the characters were simply acting out what happened in the 1930s in the United States, the audience would likely know that these same young people who are dancing will eventually get caught up in World War II. However, the narrator can explicitly point out the contrast between their current boredom, in which dancing is exciting, and what is on the horizon. He describes what the future holds, when he says, “All the world was waiting for bombardments!” (Scene 5) Acting as the narrator allows him to make comments about the larger world and its events than he could as a character, unless the characters were to engage in some clunky dialogue in which they discuss news of the world. Given how focused the characters seem on their own lives, such a conversation would feel out of place in the play, and so having the narrator express these ideas seems more natural and effective.
At the beginning of Scene 6, Tom uses his role as narrator to explain how he knew Jim, the gentleman caller, and his slight awareness that Jim and Laura had been in high school at the same time. He describes Jim in detail, providing background information that would be difficult to introduce in normal dialogue between characters. He notes that Jim was considered a hero in high school, but then remarks, “But Jim apparently ran into more interference after his graduation from Soldan. His speed had definitely slowed. Six years after he left high school he was holding a job that wasn't much better than mine” (Scene 6). This information creates the impression that Jim is probably not satisfied with how his life has turned out so far, and gives some insight into his character. The narrator goes on to explain how little of an impression Laura had made on Jim in high school, when he says, “If he did remember Laura, it was not as my sister, for when I asked him to dinner, he grinned and said, 'You know, Shakespeare, I never thought of you as having folks!'” (Scene 6). In some ways, the narrator’s comments seem as if they are an apology of sorts for the coming fiasco of a dinner. He didn’t realize that Laura had ever been infatuated with Jim, and he didn’t seem to know a lot about Jim’s personal life, only his work activities.
Tom does not speak as narrator until the end of the play, after the discovery that Jim is engaged to marry another woman and thus is not a suitable gentleman caller. After the bitter quarrel between Jim and Mrs. Wingfield, Jim leaves once again. But this time, the narrator explains, “I didn't go to the moon, I went much further - for time is the longest distance between places. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox” (Scene 7). In his comments, he makes it clear he followed his father’s example and left his family behind to fend for themselves. While his leaving is understandable, the audience at this point would wonder what became of Laura, and could easily feel that Tom behaved selfishly and in a cold-hearted way by leaving her to rely only on their mother for support, knowing that Laura would be unable to support herself once the mother died. Perhaps Tennessee Williams anticipated that the audience might feel that way, because he provides Tom the chance as narrator to express his regret in the most poignant words of the play. Tom says, “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger -anything that can blow your candles out!” (Scene 7). With those words, Tom affirms that he has never been able to forget Laura. Although he does not say he regrets leaving, he clearly feels guilty about abandoning her. At the same time, he wishes he could forget her at least temporarily.
If there had been no narrator in the play, it would be easier to dislike the characters of both Tom and Mrs. Wingfield more. Tom would seem more selfish for deserting his family when his sister obviously needed both emotional and financial support. Mrs. Wingfield would seem more bitter and cynical, if the audience didn’t know about her having been deserted by her husband. Because the narrator explained the background and gave more insight about the situation, the audience can empathize more with all the characters.
Williams, Tennessee. “The Glass Menagerie.” The American Tradition in Literature. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.