SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS FOR THE GLASS MENAGERIE
Go to the Learning Guide for this film.
The Glass Menagerie is an excellent example of the artistry of Tennessee Williams and the genre of the "memory play". The play/film provides good examples of several literary devices. Properly presented, it will help adolescents understand the issues faced by many children when they make a decision about whether to leave home.
Contemporary drama written before the 1940s was characterized by realism, an effort to make the characters and plots as true to life as possible. Realism itself was a revolt against melodrama, a style that dominated theater during most of the 19th century.
A "memory play" is a synthesis of realism and melodrama. The writing style is naturalistic (i.e. not overly heightened, expressionistic, or avant garde). We can relate to the characters, their situations and their emotions because they are all real. However, the playwright can also color the characters and events based on the filter of the narrator's memory. This adds to the tools at the playwright's command. It introduces another layer of complexity and ambiguity that is missing from a realistic presentation.
Tennessee Williams suggested that during stage productions of "The Glass Menagerie" a film with relevant images and symbols be projected onto a screen behind the actors. This mixture of media reminds us that the events on stage are a recollection of past occurences.
The contrast between the unbearably shy sister and her relatively normal and well adjusted brother is clear. She is doomed to stay at home. He must move away to avoid being smothered by the situation. Some children remain in the same neighborhood as their parents and are even employed in the family business. But this arrangement works only if it provides an opportunity for the child to grow and develop a life of his or her own. That was not possible in this family because Tom needed to get away in order to live what to him was a fulfilled life.
Growing Up and Leaving Home: This play describes the experience of a child who matures and strikes out on his own, leaving behind unfinished business within his family. It has been said with great wisdom that a person's primary responsibility is to live a fulfilled life. Young people are needed at home for all sorts of reasons: helping to pay the bills, assisting the parents in raising a difficult or disabled sibling, emotional support for the parents, protecting siblings from an abusive parent, etc. When a child's need to live a fulfilled life takes him or her away from home, the child cannot fulfill home-based responsibilities. This was Tom's situation. Many of us, to one degree or another, will feel or have felt some of the emotions described in this play.
On another level, and adding great poignancy to the play, are its autobiographical elements. The author left a situation in which his father was not at home, his mother was said to be controlling, and his sister was schizophrenic. The genius of "The Glass Menagerie" lies in the fact that Tennessee Williams took these personal elements and made them into several universal statements.
Contrary to appearances, Tom is not fleeing from Amanda's controlling personality. Amanda's strong personality is a dramatic device to show how most young adults who leave home feel about their parents. Had Amanda been the sweetest person in the world Tom would still have felt as if he were shut up in a coffin. Many young adults who are not in touch with their own emotions use feelings of resentment for real or imagined slights to break the strong bonds of affection that they feel for their parents. They must somehow free themselves of the love for their parents to make the break and move away. (Many teenagers realize later in life that the things about their parents that seemed intolerable to them when they were young are actually not so bad.)
Abandonment or, in other words, Living a Fulfilled Life vs. Responsibility to Family and Siblings: This theme is a counterpart of the first. Many children, when they mature and move away, leave behind siblings who must struggle with their own lives. Perhaps the parents are poor care givers or the family is very poor or the sibling suffers from a disability. The children that have moved away feel some guilt that they did not stay and help their sibling. Guilt can also come from leaving a parent in a bad situation, as Amanda will be left by the end of the play. But many children must move out and away because their conception of a fully realized life requires it. Tom knows that leaving means abandoning his mother and sister. He asks, "Who gets out of a coffin without removing one nail?" The answer, of course, is that only a magician can do this.
The theme of abandonment runs throughout the play. Mr. Wingfield abandoned his family and "fell in love with long distance". Amanda needs to keep Tom in the family earning money at least until she can find someone to take care of Laura. However, Tom can't wait. Part of him knows that there is nothing that he can do for Laura and that trying to help her would ruin him. Jim does not marry Laura because he is engaged to another girl. Each of these men went off to live their own lives and their "abandonment" is depicted as something that is inevitable, ultimately good for them, and painful to the Wingfield women. The play tells us that sometimes there is no way to live the life you need to live and avoid causing pain to those you love. The entire play can be seen as Tom's (i.e., Tennessee Williams') apology and justification for the abandonment of his family.
It should be noted that abandoning family members who need you and leaving some problems at home unresolved are not the only alternatives open to young people who want to live a fulfilling life. Staying, taking care of a parent or sibling, and giving up a dream you have had all your life can work for some. Look at the character of George Bailey in the classic movie It's A Wonderful Life. The situations of Tom Wingfield and George Bailey are different in many respects but they have a basic similarity. Both men are faced with the question of whether to stay or leave. The solutions adopted by these two characters are fundamentally different. Tom leaves his family to fend for itself. George stays and takes care of his family and his community. Tom tries to find his dream while George gives his up. We don't know if Tom was happy with his choice, but we do know that thoughts of his mother and sister haunted him. George Bailey, after some tough times, reconciled himself to his decision and found happiness.
The Uses and Limits of Fantasy: Each member of the Wingfield family uses fantasy to help them cope with a harsh reality. Amanda has trouble accepting the reality of Laura's condition and escapes to memory in which she undoubtedly overstates her own popularity as a girl. (Or, perhaps, this is Tom's memory overstating how obnoxious his mother could be in order to justify his decision to leave the home.) Amanda is also enraptured by the fantasy of a "Gentlemen Caller" for Laura. While these ideas are divorced from reality, they allow Amanda to continue living and trying in a desperate situation. Laura uses the fantasy world of the glass menagerie and her music to substitute for interactions with people. This is harmful to the extent that it allows Laura to avoid confronting her very serious problems. Tom hates his life and escapes to the unreal world of the movies, attending magic shows, and overindulging in alcohol. These allow him to cope as he helps his mother and sister. Eventually it is not enough and he decides that he must leave.
Memory: Amanda's obsession with memory brings us to the next important theme. Looking back at events gone by is the point of departure for this "memory play". The theme of memory ties in with the fantasy theme. Memory is not reality, but an interpretation of the past. An exaggerated memory of the past tortures Amanda in its contrast to her current situation and Laura's isolation. Laura, too, has memories. The important memories described in the play are about Jim, the only boy she liked, and of her embarrassment at having to drag her brace in front of the entire chorus. Finally, memory is what haunts Tom and leads him to tell us his story. His final plea to Laura is to put out the light, to erase the images in his brain, so that he doesn't have to remember any more.
Relations Between People can be Problematic: Laura loves Jim and he is certainly attracted to her. But Jim has "strings attached", i.e., he loves Betty and they are engaged. Tom loves his mother and his sister but his need to live his a fulfilled life takes him away from his family. Amanda loves her children but she cannot help her daughter and she cannot stop trying to interfere with Tom's need to live his own life.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS ON THE CHARACTERS
There is no hero in this play. Everyone is flawed. Tom's resolution of his situation, to escape the coffin of his family, is unsatisfactory because he cannot get free without hurting his mother and his sister (disturbing the nails). The entire play is his confession and attempt to understand what he did. The part of Tom that feels he should have done more to help Laura is expressed through the character of Jim: "I wish you were my sister. I'd teach you to have confidence in yourself." The only thing that Tom is able to do for Laura is to bring Jim home and he does that only because his mother requests it. The effort to bring a "Gentleman Caller" home for Laura is a failure. But then there was nothing Tom could really do for Laura. Her shyness bordered on mental illness and, in fact, the playwright's sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia, an incurable mental illness.
Nor is there a villain in this play. The two possibilities are Tom and Amanda. Tom leaves the family but in truth, there is no life for him in that house. Despite the fact that his earnings pay the rent, his mother controls the home. He says that, "There is no single thing I can call my own". She even censors his books. Nor is Amanda a villain. She is trying desperately to provide for her daughter, asking Tom to stay only until Laura is settled. She wonders out loud: "What is to become of us? What is the future?" In fact, her controlling nature is probably exaggerated by Tom's recollection. The mind reaches for a scapegoat, a reason to leave, even when mature reflection tells us that living your own life and fulfilling your own potential is reason enough.
There is no protagonist and no antagonist as such. There is a force in Tom that is driving him away from the family toward his own life and independence. This is the force of Tom's desire to live a fulfilled life, and it is not evil. Tom's sense of responsibility to his family resists this force (or is the counter force). It is personified in Amanda, who resists Tom's leaving but knows that, ultimately, resistance will be futile. For Tom's sake she doesn't mind him leaving. But she needs him to stay until she can find some way to take care of Laura. (Tom recognizes a sense of responsibility to do this.) Unfortunately, Laura is already beyond help, Amanda just doesn't know it yet. Whether Tom knows it or not, he can't wait.
Tom loves his mother and his sister. He gets up every morning and goes to work doing something that he hates out of love for them.
Jim is certainly a breath of fresh air, but he can't help anyone. He goes "way off the beam" when he kisses Laura and leads her on. Jim is America as portrayed in this play: high spirited, optimistic, giving, loving, and in this playwright's formulation, fundamentally shallow. Jim is very different than the menagerie to which Laura usually relates. As he tells her, "I'm not made of glass".
The Glass Menagerie: Laura surrounds herself with glass figures that, like her, are fragile and delicate. Laura tells Jim, "Glass breaks so easily no matter how careful you are". They are beautiful in the light as Laura is beautiful in the light. (Light is another important symbol, see below). The glass figurines are direct symbols of Laura and her fragile emotional self. When she shows her figurines to Jim, Laura is sharing the most important and vulnerable part of herself. (Note that both men in this play, Tom and Jim, break an animal in the glass menagerie. This foreshadows the injury that they will cause Laura.)
Light and Dark: During the narration, Tom is shown in the dark. The animals of the glass menagerie sparkle in the light and Laura tells us that they love the light. Laura herself is caught in the light at various times in the play. Light comes into the house from "Paradise", the dance hall. Tom fails to pay the light bill so that he can buy his membership in the Union of Merchant Seamen. Tom's escape extinguishes the light. After dinner, Jim takes the lit candelabra to Laura, restoring her to the light for the short period of his visit. At the end of the play, Tom is haunted by the memory of his family. He pleads with Laura to put out the lights so that he can forget. So, what does light mean in this play? There are probably several ways to say it. The light is Laura's innocence and goodness. The light is her life. The light is hope for Tom and Laura.
The Unicorn: The unicorn a fantastical animal, is a symbol of Laura's love - special and different. She is the virgin who tames it. She allows Jim to hold the glass figure of the unicorn, telling him that she trusts him with it. When Jim breaks the unicorn's horn, it becomes just any other animal, no longer out of the ordinary. Breaking the unicorn symbolizes the destruction of Laura's dream that she could find love. By giving the unicorn to Jim, Laura is giving him her broken love, acknowledging that she will never have it.
Jim: This character symbolizes the "common man": dynamic; emotionally healthy; and able to deal with his environment unencumbered by the problems that complicate the lives of the Wingfields (Laura's handicap and feelings of shyness; Amanda's poor choice of a husband, her memories of a better life in the past, and her overbearing personality; Tom's responsibility for his mother and his sister). Jim is not a particularly remarkable man. He has no gift, except the gift of optimism and being a go-getter -- typically American traits for that time. It is this strength and optimism that attracts Laura. But love between the two is not to be.
The Fire Escape: Another symbol that is used in different ways by different people is the fire escape. It is a way out, a retreat to safety.
The Coffin: Tom's story about the magician and the coffin is an obvious description of the confines of his situation and his wish to escape. He admires the magician, and wants to escape from his own coffin without breaking the nails. The coffin symbolizes his situation and also the constraints that his family puts on him. Removing the nails symbolizes the injury that he will do to those he loves when he leaves. Tom does not want to hurt anyone by leaving, but he feels he must leave or be trapped for the rest of his life.
Dance and the Paradise Dance Hall: Dance is a symbol of the healthy activities and interaction of young people. No one in the Wingfield family dances, except for Mrs. Wingfield who danced when she was a girl. The "Paradise Dance Hall" next door is aptly named. You can hear the music and see the lights. However, no one from the Wingfield household goes there. When Jim tries to get Laura to dance he breaks the unicorn, the symbol of Laura's love.
Additional Discussion Questions:
Continued from the Learning Guide...
1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
2. Did Tom love his mother? What does the fact that this is a "memory play" have to do with how Amanda Wingfield is presented? Suggested Response: Tom would have us believe that his mother drove him away from the family, but he obviously loved her. There are several scenes which show their affection for each other. Moreover, Tom supported the family for a long time working at a job he hated and postponing what he really wanted to do. He also risked his best friendship at the warehouse to bring Jim, the "Gentleman Caller", to dinner. This is a memory play and it is through Tom's memory that we see everything. The Amanda Wingfield that we see is the mother that Tom wants to see. His memory exaggerates her controlling nature and the difficulty of living with her to justify his actions in leaving. Most sons in Tom's position would have felt their mother to be controlling and difficult to live with whether she was or not.
3. Which character made you feel the most uncomfortable? Why did you feel uncomfortable and why did the playwright make the character like that? Suggested Response: The most likely suspects are Amanda and Laura. Amanda wouldn't stop talking and was interfering and controlling. These qualities dramatize the fact that living in the household was intolerable for Tom. Even if the mother had been very reasonable and as nice as a person could be, Tom would have felt that she was unreasonably difficult to live with because he needed to get away and live out his own life. To make us see the figure of the mother in the way that she made Tom feel, the playwright would necessarily exaggerate her controlling, clingy, interfering qualities. (Some teenagers find that their parents make their lives intolerable. Later in life they realize that it was the situation of dependence and not being able to control their own lives that made their parents only appear to be unreasonable.) Tom would have felt smothered and unhappy at home no matter what his mother was like. For Laura: If Tom could have helped Laura, there would have been a reason for him to stay home but there was nothing he could do. Tennessee Williams' real life sister had schizophrenia and, at the time, there was little that could be done to help people afflicted by that disease.
4. Assume that Tom's mother wasn't controlling but was the nicest person you could imagine. Would Tom have eventually left home and joined the Merchant Marine? What effect would it have had on Tom if his mother had not been made to appear to be controlling? Suggested Response: Tom left home to live a fulfilled life of adventure in the Merchant Marine. Amanda had very little to do with it, except to delay it. Her allegedly controlling nature is used as a dramatic device to show us how she made Tom feel. The closer the bonds between parent and child, the more difficult it is for the child to leave. Young adults who have to leave home to fulfill their own destiny will often exaggerate the difficulties caused by their parents to justify the break they are going to make. If his mother was the nicest person in the world, it would have made it more difficult for Tom to justify leaving.
5. Who is the strongest character in the play? Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer but our vote goes to Amanda, the mother. She is always trying to help her daughter and we get the sense that she will help and support Laura until her dying day, hoping against hope, that one of her errant men will come back and save the family.
6. Many people see this play as the playwright justifying his own actions in leaving his family and at the same time apologizing for what he had done. Do you agree with this? Defend your position. Suggested Response: Like many difficult decisions in life, Tom's decision to leave home and join the Merchant Marine was not entirely satisfactory. He knows that he needed to do it. He also knows that he left his mother and sister to fend for themselves. He feels very guilty about it, especially about leaving his sister. This play explains why he had to leave but it acknowledges his regret and therefore it is also an apology.
7. Amanda Wingfield says that she is bewildered by life. What does she mean by this? Suggested Response: She's not quite sure how a person who has such great prospects as a young girl ended up in this situation. To hear her tell it, she was a popular belle in Jackson and had every prospect for a good marriage. But she made a bad choice and her husband left her. She now lives in a small rented house in St. Louis and it is up to her young son to support the family.
8. Why does Tom go to the movies every night? Suggested Response: He goes to the movies to escape reality. In other words, he goes to the movies to get away from a situation which he knows is not good for him and in which he is unhappy.
9. Define a "memory play" and describe the advantages it provides to a playwright. Suggested Response: In a "memory play", the story is told from the memory of a narrator or one of the characters. The advantage for a playwright is that the story does not have to be told in a linear fashion and the narrator's perceptions and misperceptions -- his coloring of events -- can be used by the playwright to convey the message of the play. (An example of the narrator's memory coloring events is the exaggeration of the controlling nature of the mother to explain why Tom had to leave.) Using memory as an organizing factor in the play gives the playwright leeway to explore his story. In memory, events are often mixed up, exaggerated, symbolic, or melodramatic. The audience must sort out whether the presentation is true or whether it is only the memory of the narrator who, after all, was an actor in what transpired and may have his own axe to grind.
10. Describe three themes in the film. Suggested Response: See Themes in the Helpful Background Section.
11. Describe three symbols in the film and what they stand for. Suggested Response: See Symbols in the Helpful Background Section.
12. The unicorn is broken when Jim gets Laura to dance with him. What is the significance of this event? Suggested Response: There are two good answers. One is that it foreshadows the fact that Jim is going to leave her. Another is that it means that the reality and hopefulness that Jim brings into Laura's life will collide with her fantasy world and destroy her.
13. Who is the hero and who is the villain in this story? Suggested Response: There are no heroes or villains.
14. Is there an antagonist and a protagonist? What are the contending forces in this play? Suggested Response: There is no protagonist and no antagonist as such. There is a force in Tom that is driving him away from the family toward his own life and independence. This is the force of Tom's desire to live a fulfilled life, and it is not evil. Tom's sense of responsibility to his family resists this force (or is the counter force). It is personified in Amanda who resists Tom's leaving but knows that ultimately resistance will be futile. For Tom's sake she doesn't mind him leaving. But she needs him to stay until she can find some way to take care of Laura. (Tom recognizes a sense of responsibility to do this.) Unfortunately, Laura is already beyond help, Amanda just doesn't know it yet. Whether Tom knows it or not, he can't wait.
15. There are two events which foreshadow other events in the play. What are they? Suggested Response: The two occurrences of foreshadowing are when Tom breaks one of Laura's glass figures as he rushes out the door and when Jim breaks the unicorn as he dances with Laura.
16. Does the fact that this play has autobiographical elements detract from it or make it stronger? Suggested Response: This is a matter of taste but we think the autobiographical nature of the play makes it more immediate and more poignant.
17. Memory plays are said to be non-linear. What is non-linear about the presentation of this play? Suggested Response: The entire play is a series of flashbacks. When the play opens, Tom has already left home and is in some port city where his travels as a member of the Merchant Marine have taken him. Then the play shifts to a scene at home before he left. Later, the scene shifts back to Tom in the port city and then back to his memories of St. Louis. This happens several times throughout the play.
18. At the end of the play Tom says, " I didn't go to the moon. I went much further for time is the longest distance between two places." What type of literary device is this statement? What does Tom mean? Suggested Response: This statement is a metaphor. (The comparison of two seemingly unrelated subjects.) While distance and time are both dimensions, one is not usually equated with the other. But, as this statement points out, there is an important relationship because if you distance yourself in terms of location, you distance yourself in terms of time as well. While you can go back to the location, you cannot return to the time, you cannot undo what you have done. In this way, time is the longest distance.
19. Did Tom do the right thing in leaving home to join the Merchant Marine? Explain the reasons for your position. Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer. A good answer will evaluate Tom's need to strike out on his own to live a fulfilled life and his responsibilities to his mother and his sister. Here is an example: "Amanda's demands were stifling Tom. They prevented him from progressing with his own life. Loving other people means that you will sacrifice many things for them, but you cannot be expected to sacrifice your youth and hopes for happiness and self-fulfillment. For Tom there was nothing at home except a dead-end job, his difficult relationship with his mother, and watching his sister sink." However, for people who are different than Tom and who may find themselves in slightly different situations, staying and working through the difficulties at home is the better course of action. This alternative solution is exemplified by the character of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. For George Bailey, meeting his responsibilities to members of his family meant giving up his dreams of being an architect in the big city. However, while staying at home would have left Tom working in a dead-end job all of his life, George Bailey had a fulfilling life in his hometown. He married, had children, and had a responsible job at the Savings and Loan.
Continued from the Learning Guide...
1. Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction;
2. Write an essay comparing the situations and the reactions of Tom Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie" and George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. Is the difference in their responses to their situations due to different circumstances or differences in their personalities? Which solution ends up working out for the best?
3. Rewrite the ending of the film. Assume that there was some way for Tom to help Laura and he knows it. What does he do?
4. Rewrite the ending of the film. Assume that Jim goes to the station and finds that there was a train wreck and Betty was killed. A few months later, he starts visiting Laura regularly. What happens next?
5. Rewrite the ending of the film. One day Tom brings home a girl and confesses to Amanda that all the time he has said he was going to the movies, he's been dating this girl. They tell Amanda that they want to get married. How does the story end?
6. Compare this play to another "memory play" focusing on the use of the devices of a memory play.
See additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions
FAMILIES IN CRISIS - MOTHER/SON - MOTHER/DAUGHTER
See the Quick Discussion Question and Questions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10 & 14 above.
1. What advice did Jim give Laura about her disability? Do you think it was good advice? Who gave her similar advice? Suggested Response: He told her to ignore it and go on with her life and to give people the benefit of the doubt. It was good advice. Her mother gave her similar advice, telling her to find something to excel in and not to dwell on her disability.
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
See the Quick Discussion Question and Question #6 above.
1. What does this play show us about the limits of a child's responsibility to his or her family? Suggested Response: This is another way of asking the Quick Discussion Question. There is no one correct answer. There will be differing opinions on this issue. There are obligations that children have to their families but there are limits, as well. A good answer will acknowledge that the primary responsibility of any human being is to live a fulfilled life.
2. Would your answer to the Quick Discussion Question change if there was some way that Tom could have helped Laura had he stayed in St. Louis? Suggested Response: This is a much closer question. There is no one correct answer to it.
Bridges to Reading:
If children liked this play, they can read any of Tennessee Williams' other plays.
Links to the Internet:
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
The play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play of the season when it premiered on Broadway during the 1944/1945 season.
1973 Made for TV Version:
Selected Awards: 1973 Emmy Awards: Best Supporting Actor of the Year
(Michael Moriarty); Best Supporting Actress of the Year (Joanna Miles); 1974 Directors Guild of America Nominations: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Specials (Anthony Harvey); 1973 Emmy Awards Nominations: Best Lead Actress in a Drama
(Katharine Hepburn); Best Supporting Actor in Drama (Sam Waterston).
Featured Actors: Katharine Hepburn as Amanda Wingfield; Sam Waterston as Tom Wingfield;
Joanna Miles as Laura Wingfield; and Michael Moriarty as Jim O'Connor.
Director: Anthony Harvey.
1967 Movie Version:
Selected Awards: None.
Featured Actors: JoAnne Woodward, Karen Allen, John Malkovich, James Naughton.
Director: Paul Newman.
The websites referred to in this Learning Guide.
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