Tennessee Williams is one of the best-known playwrights from the mid-twentieth century, becoming famous for his work The Glass Menagerie in the year 1944. Although Williams would go on to create a variety of different pieces of literature and a number of stage classics, The Glass Menagerie remains one of his most well-known and well-loved pieces. Much of Williams’ work was later adapted for use in the cinema, and the movies made about his classic pieces became popular as well. Born to an overbearing father and a typical “southern belle” mother, Williams was a sickly child who tended towards books and studying rather than the physical work that his father would have preferred. There is no doubt that Williams’ early life played heavily into the creation of his characters and his perception of everyday life; this can easily be seen in a variety of the characters that Williams creates in his texts. The Glass Menagerie itself reflects Williams’ connection to his past, as he explores the themes of memory, reality, and the impossibility of escaping memory and reality.
Memory and Living in the Past
The Glass Menagerie is what is termed to be a “memory” play; that is to say, the play itself is driven by memory. This gives the play an idealized feel, as though the viewer is seeing the play through a lens that makes everything appear to be much more perfect than it ever could have been in reality. In The Glass Menagerie, Williams writes: “The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart” (Williams). Memory, to Williams’ characters, is not an act of recalling the events that happened in a factual manner; instead, memory is about revealing feelings long buried, and re-living the exaggerated version of those memories. Tom Wingfield goes so far as to tell the audience that there is a distinct feeling of the surreal in the play, along with drama and perfect symbolism; Tom indicates that this is because the play is set in memory, and all memory is set to music (Williams).
While Tom’s character is the narrator of sorts-- it is his memory that the viewers in the audience are observing-- he is also a character within the play. Because of this, the audience cannot truly trust Tom’s recollections of any event, because it is in the human nature to make oneself appear better or more noble in the individual’s recollections. However, this conflict is the fundamental basis upon which the play is built. Frequently, dramatic interpretations of events make an attempt of convincing the viewer that what he or she is seeing is realistic; however, Williams’ The Glass Menagerie does no such thing. From the very beginning of the play, the viewer is aware that the play is drawn entirely from memory; it is derived from real-life experience of the characters-- in this case, Tom’s character-- but it is also tainted by Tom’s memory and recollections. However, despite the distinctly surreal quality of the text, the viewer believes what Tom is saying, because Tom does have faith in the underlying fact of what happened in his memories.
Although the play is fundamentally characterized as a “memory play,” Tom is not the only character who is haunted by his memories and thoughts of what had happened in the past. Tom is linked closely to his memories, but they do not haunt him as deeply as they seem to haunt the women in the play. Perhaps this is because the character of Tom is probably a stand-in for Williams himself, whose given name was Tom and lived most of his life with a mentally-unstable mother and sister, and whose father was nearly always absent; in another layer of memory, Tom’s fictional memory is colored by Williams’ own memory of his childhood. The women of the play, however, are certainly haunted by memories.
Tom’s sister is somewhat of an enigmatic figure, as she has few lines in the play, but Tom’s mother Amanda plays the role of the fading southern belle in the text (Williams). Williams’ characterization of Amanda as a fading southern belle who holds tightly to memories of her glory days-- memories that poison her slowly-- is another way Williams examines memory in the text. For Amanda, memories of the past prevent her from searching out happiness in the present, and prohibit her from potentially finding any happiness in the future (Williams). In Scene Six, Amanda laments over her past to Jim:
Well, in the South we had so many servants. Gone, gone, gone. All vestige of gracious living! Gone completely! I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me. All of my gentlemen callers were sons of planters and so of course I assumed that I would be married to one and raise my family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants. But man proposes—and woman accepts the proposal! To vary that old, old saying a bit—I married no planter! I married a man who worked for the telephone company! . . . A telephone man who—fell in love with long-distance! (Williams)
Rather than living in the moment and appreciating her life for what it is, Amanda lives in the past, lamenting her lot in life over dinner with a near stranger. Amanda’s character is one that is so mired in the past that she cannot move on, although she has been married for many years and even has grown children at the time when Jim comes to dinner. Amanda thinks back fondly to her time in the South, and to a style of living that was all but gone in the 1930s in America; she is nostalgic to a fault, and is an example of what can happen when a character becomes too enmeshed in his or her past to live fully.
Indeed, Amanda becomes victim of her memories, unlike Tom; while Tom is happily reliving his memories, changing them to suit him and in such a way that pleases him, Amanda’s obsession with her fading youth and beauty make her the victim of her memories. Indeed, Amanda goes on to try to impart her memories of her idealized youth on her daughter, who can never live up to her mother’s expectations as a result of her disability. Amanda wants to impress Jim in the hopes of marrying off her daughter to him, but in reality she takes the spotlight from her good, kind daughter and forces Jim to delve into her memories with her, thus alienating him from Laura.
Laura’s character exists in direct defiance of everything her mother wishes her to be in some ways. Although Laura is sometimes characterized as fragile and glass-like in Tom’s memory, she is much stronger than he gives her credit for; Laura is able to build her own little life silently, without a thought for what her mother or brother will think, while still allowing them to believe her to be colorless and fragile, like glass (Williams). Laura is turned into a colorless, fragile being by Tom’s memory, but in spite of his perception of her, the viewer in the audience can see through this characterization to the strong young woman beneath.
Reality versus the Surreal
Most of what happens in the play is tinged with the surreal; this is the nature of a play that is guided almost entirely by an individual character’s memory. However, all of the characters have difficulty accepting reality in some way, and this difficulty leads them into conflict multiple times throughout the text. Because they are unable to overcome the burdens of reality, the characters tend to withdraw into the surreal world of their memories and illusions where they can build their own realities (Williams). It is common for people facing more stress than they can handle to retreat into their own space with their own sense of surrealism for comfort; however, the surrealism in the Wingfield family is a family affair, indicating that there is something in the family dynamic that encourages this retreat into surrealism.
Tom may seem to be the character within the family with the strongest grasp on reality, but this may be partially because the viewer is seeing the play from his perspective, and he is capable of twisting the action and memories that he is experiencing. This willingness to delve into a world of non-reality is partially a symptom of the growing ennui of the years following World War I and leading into World War II, but it is also reflective of the dysfunctional dynamic of the family. Tom is capable of functioning in the real world, but fails to do so because of his personal inability to sever himself from the dynamic of the Wingfield family. In the end, he turns to alcohol to lose himself in the surreal, which is similar to the fate of his sister, Laura.
Laura Wingfield seems to have very little grasp of reality, but it does not seem to do her harm the same way it affects her mother. Laura lives within her own separate, cloistered reality, a reality that is populated by little glass animals. When Laura takes Jim to see her glass menagerie, they have the following exchange:
LAURA: Little articles of it [glass], they're ornaments mostly. Most of them are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest little animals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie! Here's an example of one, if you'd like to see it. This one is one of the oldest. It's nearly thirteen.  Oh, be careful - if you breathe, it breaks!
JIM: I'd better not take it. I'm pretty clumsy with things.
LAURA: Go on, I trust you with him!  Hold him over the light, he loves the light. You see how the light shines through him? 
JIM: What kind of a thing is this one supposed to be?
LAURA: Haven't you noticed the single horn on his forehead?
JIM:  Unicorns, aren't they extinct in the modern world?  Poor little fellow, he must feel sort of lonesome.
LAURA [smiling]: Well, if he does he doesn't complain about it. He stays on a shelf with some horses that don't have horns and all of them seem to get along nicely together. (Williams)
Laura is exemplified by the unicorn-- the thing which does not exist in the modern world; the thing which perhaps never existed at all, but is now on a shelf with the other glass horses without horns. She is unique in that she is not meant to exist in the modern era, and Jim notices this and her loneliness; she soothes him with the comment that the unicorn does not seem to notice his loneliness, as he is still capable of interacting with the other horses without horns.
Jim himself is meant to represent the real world and all that comes with reality, but even his character is rife with complex interactions of the real and the surreal. Jim wants to work in show business, notably in radio and television; both of these require the individual to put on different shows, and to take on different personas. In short, even reality is tinged with the surreal in Williams’ play. The constant distortion of reality is an important theme for the work as a whole, as it reflects Williams’ feeling that the world at large is becoming more and more subject to reality distortion.
The Impossibility of Escaping Reality
Along with tinging all of the reality of the play with the surreal, there is also a very real-- and paradoxical-- theme that is expressed throughout: the theme of the impossibility of escaping reality in the long run. Although all of the characters retreat into their own realm of illusion for long periods of time, eventually, their inability to interact with society and reality as a whole overwhelms them and they become forced to face reality in some way.
When Jim handles the glass unicorn from the glass menagerie, he expresses his fear that he will break the unicorn, but Laura insists that he handle it anyway. Her insistence is part of the reflection of the surreal world she lives in where everything is good and right. However, Jim does break the unicorn later, when they return home and bump into the table. After the bump, they have the following exchange:
LAURA: Now it is just like all the other horses.
JIM: It's lost its -
LAURA: Horn! It doesn't matter. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise.
JIM: You'll never forgive me. I bet that that was your Favourite piece of glass. 
LAURA [smiling] I'll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less - freakish!  Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don't have horns. (Williams)
In this exchange, Laura is brushing reality, perhaps for the first time; she is experiencing what it is like to be like the horses without a horn. Symbolically, this is the point in time where Jim jars the table and breaks the unicorn. He does not shatter it; instead, he merely breaks the part that sets it apart from the other horses. This is symbolic of him breaking the grip that the surreal has on Laura.
At one point during the play, Tom visits a magician’s show. The magician does a trick with a wooden coffin, in which he escapes from the coffin without disturbing any of the nails in the wood. About the coffin trick, Tom says, “Goody, goody ! Pay 'er back for all those 'Rise an' Shines'You know it don't take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?” (Williams). The coffin could represent any number of things within the book, but it also represents the world of illusion that Tom has locked himself into, and Tom’s difficulties with alcohol and confronting the real world.
Tom is boxed into his somewhat-crazy family by his affection for his sister (and potentially even his affection for his mother), and this confinement makes it difficult for him to confront reality. However, it also makes it impossible for him to refuse to confront reality, as he is consistently unhappy about his living circumstances and the situations that he finds himself in.
The Glass Menagerie is a complex work that examines a number of issues, from the personal interactions that take place within a family to the broader implications of living in a fantasy world. The play is many-layered and full of symbolism, but also full of whimsy and hope. The characters are complex, and although they may fit archetypal roles that Williams reuses over and over again, they still manage to avoid being cookie-cutter in their conception and execution.
Williams, Tennessee. The glass menagerie. New York: New Directions, 1999. Online.