Laura: Well, I do-as I said-have my-glass collection-
Jim: I’m not right sure I know what you’re talking about. What
kind of glass is it?
Laura: Little articles of it, 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! (82)
Arguably the most poignant scene in Tennessee Williams’s play begins
with Laura Wingfield showing Jim-the gentleman caller-her glass menagerie.
Up until this point, the audience has watched Laura, shy and awkward, draw
deeper and deeper into herself as she suffers in a troubled home. Her
father has deserted the family years before; her mother Amanda is caught in
the memory of better times. By day, her brother Tom works listlessly in a
factory; by night he disappears in dark movie houses and other more
mysterious places, harsh reality trapping him and hampering his dreams.
Tom and Amanda clash constantly, disagreeing over the future. Able to rely
on neither Tom nor her husband, Amanda has come to see a gentleman caller,
someone to whisk Laura away, as the only salvation that remains. Until
Jim, none has come. We learn that Laura and Jim attended the same high
school, and that Laura had been in love with him. Jim does not remember
her when he visits. Although nervous at first, Laura lets down her guard
with Jim, and brings him into the world of her glass menagerie.
Symbolically, the first person we see represented in the menagerie is
Laura, but Tom and Amanda belong there as well: the glass menagerie is a
metaphor for the frailty of the human condition; we all, like glass, can
break if pushed in the wrong direction.
Of all the animals in the menagerie, the unicorn is the only one of
its kind. He is Laura’s favorite figurine, who, she tells Jim, sits
quietly with the other “normal” horses, not complaining. This delicate
animal, which Laura trustingly hands over to Jim for examination,
represents Laura herself. She lets her gentleman caller hold the unicorn
to the light so he can see its beauty; she also lets him shine light
through her. Despite the walls that she has so carefully built around
herself, Laura lets down her guard with Jim, allowing herself to be
analyzed by someone she barely knows. As she goes to give Jim the unicorn,
Laura warns: “Oh be careful-if you breathe, it breaks! (83),” reminding the
audience of her own delicacy and past experiences. She then goes on to
say, however: “Go on, I trust you with him! She places the piece in his
palm (83).” Laura places not one, but two, frail unicorns into Jim’s
hands, with the faith that neither will be shattered.
Unicorns traditionally symbolize chastity, and we see Laura as not
only literally “pure,” but also untouched by the world. As Jim observes,
there’s no place for someone like Laura anymore: “Jim: Unicorns-aren’t they
extinct in the modern world? (83).” Throughout the entire play, the
audience has the sense that Laura doesn’t belong. With the exception of
Jim who, as Tom tells us in the beginning of the first act, represents
hope, there is no one like Laura or able to understand her. Laura is
different from the horses of the world, but she is even more beautiful
because of it:
Jim: You’re one times one! They walk all over the
earth. You just stay here. They’re common as-
weeds, but-you-well, you’re-Blue Roses! (87)
Laura is made of glass; Jim finds both beauty and frailty in her.
When he takes her in his arms and begins to waltz, the unicorn is knocked
off the shelf by their dancing. Its horn is broken:
Jim: Aw, aw, aw. Is it broken?
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…Now he will
feel more at home with the other horses,
the ones that don’t have horns (86).
Jim’s kindness and warmth have initially brought Laura some discomfort, but
now they have helped her shed her own psychological “horn.” Jim breaks the
barrier that existed between Laura and the rest of the world; in the same
way, he breaks the unicorn’s horn, the very thing that made it feel, in
Laura’s words “freakish.” Laura is finally more comfortable with herself
and with others. She has opened up to Jim and us in the audience, and we
can feel that all is right with her now.
On the surface, it may seem as if Laura is the only character made of
glass; she is the only one who recognizes that she has weaknesses. Laura
aware of her own frailty, but she can also see that it exists in others:
Jim: How about cutting the rug a little,
Laura:Oh, but I’d step on you!
Jim: I’m not made out of glass (84)
In this exchange, one has the sense that under Jim’s joking tone there is a
deeper message: Don’t be ridiculous; people aren’t that fragile. The bold
declaration is ironic, for though it may not appear to be so, all the other
characters belong beside Laura’s unicorn in the menagerie. The audience
watches as Amanda’s relationship with her son rapidly deteriorates, and it
kills her. We are almost nervous as she retreats further and further back
in time, from her days of marriage to her days of girlhood. Her husband’s
desertion, her son’s unhappiness, her daughter’s awkwardness, and her own
sense of failure shatter Amanda. On the other hand, Tom is suffocated by
his mother and his own feelings of obligation. He is disenchanted with the
world, and knows that at home, he can never pursue his dreams or be truly
happy. His disillusionment manifests itself in nightly habits of drinking
and movies. Tom, like Amanda, is slowly breaking. They may not recognize
how frail they are, but if pushed in the slightest wrong way, both will
shatter. We see Tom and Amanda’s frailties played out in their arguments,
and in the last dispute, the audience watches as Amanda pushes her son too
far off the shelf:
Amanda: …Just go, go, go-to the movies!
Tom: All right, I will! The more you shout about
my selfishness to me the quicker I’ll go, and I
won’t go to the movies!
Amanda: Go, then! Go to the moon-you selfish dreamer!
Tom: I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further…(96)
What neither Tom nor Amanda realized was that one day, one of them had to
crack. Like broken glass, Tom is gone for good. In stores, parents often
tell their children, “Stop playing with that; it’s glass. You’ll break
it.” If only someone had been there to warn Amanda all the times she
provoked her son.
Part of what makes us identify with the characters in the Glass
Menagerie is their fragility. They are not up on a pedestal; they are
ordinary people whose problems are just as painful and tragic as Oedipus’s.
We can see parts of ourselves in Laura, Amanda and Tom; we are just as
fragile as they are. As Laura tells Jim:
“Glass breaks so easily. No matter how careful you are. (86)” Her words
put the characters of the Glass Menagerie, Macbeth, Hedda Gabbler, and
Death of a Salesman on the same level as the audience: we’re all human, and
there is only so much we can handle before we break.