Tennessee Williams relies heavily on symbolism to emphasize the themes in his plays. The following are some of the major symbols found in The Glass Menagerie. Gain deeper insight into the dramatic action of the play, as well as the motivation of the characters.
Symbols in The Glass Menagerie
Glass menagerie: Laura Wingfield’s collection of glass animals gives the play its name and is its most important symbol. The fragile menagerie symbolizes Laura herself, especially in the figure of the unicorn. Because she is crippled and immensely self conscious, Laura hides herself away from reality, taking care of her glass figures and listening to old records. Her mother Amanda’s attempts to get Laura out into the world have proved disastrous.
Laura was unable to attend business school because of her crippling shyness, and she was equally unable to tell Amanda about her breakdown in front of the class. Instead, she wanders the city rather than face her mother and admit her failure to cope. Just as the glass animals would not survive if they were handled roughly, so too is Laura unable to live in the harsh, outside world that terrifies her.
Unicorn: The glass unicorn is Laura’s favorite among her glass collection. Because of its horn, it is different from the other horses in Laura’s menagerie, just as Laura is different from other girls. In scene 7, as she and Jim, the “gentleman caller," dance, he accidentally knocks over the unicorn, causing its horn to break. Laura comments that now the unicorn will be just like the other horses and will not feel so “freakish." For a moment in this scene, it looks like Laura too has a chance to be like other girls. When Jim impulsively kisses her, she looks dazzled by what has happened.
However, her small spark of hope is quickly shattered as Jim explains that he has a fiancée. Just as the unicorn has been broken literally, Laura has been broken symbolically as her small prospect for love and connection disappears. She gives Jim the broken unicorn as a souvenir of the evening. After he leaves, Laura seems to withdraw even more from the real world and into her imaginary one. She utters only one more word in the play after giving Jim the broken piece of glass.
Blue Roses: During high school, Laura became ill with pleurosis, an inflammation of the membrane around the lung. When Jim asks her why she has been absent, he mishears her and thinks she says “blue roses." Afterwards, he always calls her by that nickname. The phrase is symbolic of Laura’s character. As Laura herself states, “blue is wrong for – roses." The nickname emphasizes her delicate beauty and her difference from other girls. However, she only “blooms" for a short time after Jim kisses her.
The term may also be a veiled reference to Williams’ sister Rose on whom the character of Laura is based. Rose, who was mentally ill, was given a lobotomy, a practice at the time believed to work as a treatment for such illnesses. Williams felt guilty that he had not been able to stop the procedure and help his sister. Rose was institutionalized for the rest of her life. Williams remained close to her until his death in 1983. Rose died in 1996.
Several Other Symbols
One of the big themes in the play is the yearning for/impossibility of escape. Several things in the play act as symbols for this idea.
Laura finds a way to escape reality through her glass menagerie and the phonograph records she plays that once belonged to their father.
The father has escaped by deserting his family, but his presence is visible throughout the play due to his photograph that watches the action.
Amanda tries to escape her current life as a deserted wife who must constantly scramble for money by recounting stories of when she was young. In her memory, Amanda's life as a Southern belle had limitless possibilities. Her favorite story to retell regards one afternoon when she received the attentions of seventeen gentleman callers. For her, those gentleman callers represent what her life was and what it could have been if she had not married her husband, the "telephone man who fell in love with long distances."
For Tom, the idea of escape is most important. He constantly escapes to the unreality of the movies. Tom also admires a magician he sees who is able to escape from a coffin without removing a nail. Tom sees his current situation and his family life as a coffin. When he tries to escape from it by joining the Merchant Marines, he discovers how trapped he truly is. He is haunted constantly by images of home, especially of Laura.
Notice that Tom begins and ends the play at the fire escape. This is literally a way to escape the Wingfield apartment and enter the outside world. It allows him to leave physically, but he can never escape mentally.