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Teaching Characterization in The Glass Menagerie

By Shelia Odak

Included are lesson ideas for teaching direct and indirect characterization in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. These activities can be used for one or all of the characters from the drama.

One of the ways of analyzing the characters is to think about how you would describe them. Have the students come up with at least five adjectives to describe each of the play’s characters. Make a list on the board of the adjectives they come up with. The next step is to have them figure out where and how they have formed their impressions of the characters.

Direct Characterization

This is the easiest type of characterization. It is what the author directly tells the reader about a character. This can include physical descriptions of the character, explicit revelations of character traits, etc.

Have the students look for and discuss lines that helped them create their mental pictures of William’s characters. For example, students usually have a very vivid picture of Amanda and can find many examples of where Williams has provided details of her mannerisms, such as in Scene 1 where, while describing receiving seventeen gentleman callers, her “voice becomes rich and elegiac” and she “flounces girlishly toward the kitchenette.”

Indirect Characterization

This is where the author wants the reader to “read between the lines” and pay attention to what is being shown about the character. Here, the reader learns about the character through the character’s thoughts and actions, what other characters say about him or her, or how characters respond to each other.

This exercise is especially useful with Tom and Amanda. For example, though Amanda’s actions can often seem either thoughtless, silly, or even cruel, her speeches reveal that much of what she does is motivated by fear: fear of Laura being unable to take care of herself, fear that Tom wants to live a life that seems alien to her, and fear of desertion, as has happened to her before.

Scene 4 provides many strong examples of indirect characterization. Have the students look at the dialogue between Tom and Amanda, after Laura has left, and discuss what the two say to each other. What do their words and how they deal with each other reveal about their characters?

Tom too is full of contradictions that are revealed through his speeches. He is often cruel to his mother, but he does seem to care for her. He obviously loves his sister, but he abandons her. Have students look for the ways that Williams lets readers see the conflict that is pulling Tom apart.

One especially revealing quote is in Scene 4 where Tom comes home drunk and talks to Laura about a magician’s trick: “But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. . . . There is a trick that would come in handy for me—get me out of this 2 by 4 situation!” Students can easily grasp the symbolism of the coffin and how it relates to Tom’s life, but it’s useful to have them discuss why it is important to escape the coffin without removing any nails. How does this relate to Tom’s life and what does this reveal about his character? Tom wants to escape without doing any harm to his environment. What does that sort of wishful thinking say about Tom?