The Glass Menagerie: Symbols and Characterization of Laura and Jim
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Tennessee Williams' play, The Glass Menagerie illustrates the dysfunction found in the broken American middle class family. While there are many opportunities to discuss how Williams uses symbolism of loss and broken dreams, the core essence of the play is simply drawn from the character of Laura and her interaction with Jim as a possible suitor. Kusovac and Pralas explain how Williams utilizes the specific device of repetition to convey the broken nature of this family but specifically the character of Laura as represented in the glass unicorn. It is in the intent of the word structure device where illusion points specifically to symbolism to carry deeper mean to the situation. The character of Jim represents 'what could have been' if Laura and her family were whole. The paragraphs below explore how the interaction between Laura, Jim, and their dance represents symbolically a turning point of change, even in her broken state.
One can argue Laura's physical ailments only mask what is truly wrong with the young woman in terms of psychological issues, inferiority, and fear of the outside world. One can see why she would want to stay hidden in shadow and play like a child within her figurines in order to maintain a grasp on reality. There is safety in isolation and possibly even darkness where she can hide her true feelings, the mystery of why she is damaged and remains untouched by her family. They cannot help her because she is much like the unicorn, on a pedestal, and unable to be reached. The darkness serves as her fortress and further protection from the truth. However, the instance, the unicorn's horn is shattered, her world falls apart.
Part of what remains curious about examining her as a central character finds even in her lack of interaction with the outside world, she seems the center of the family's concerns. Jim becomes a savior of sorts in Amanda's eyes where Tom has given up entirely. While in the shadow Laura finds comfort; Tom actually finds closure on his broken past as the lack of light literally closes a door for him. While the interaction between Laura and Jim is meant to be poignant and even pivotal in understanding how Laura is reaching for her dream of love and a family of her own, this scene only highlights the devastating impact of her ailment and further neuroses. It is in the action of dancing, Jim reveals he is engaged to another and she offers the unicorn even in its broken condition to him as a gift. This exchange clearly symbolizes Laura's giving of herself to Jim as the man she would want to marry. The unicorn is her broken purity, which if one were to argument may represent her broken dream of attaining love and family. The broken horn may represent her virginity and the absence of the father figure or Mr. Wingfield leads one to believe possibly her altered state is a result of childhood abuse. Her inability to communicate fully unless she is close to her collection of animal figurines reflects many of the coping mechanisms childlike personalities attach to as a result of losing trust in vocalizing their victimization. Guan, Jia, and Gao comment Williams's intent is purposeful with the language he chooses throughout the play to convey her delicate state and compare it to glass. Guan, Jia, and Gao surmise, "The Glass Menagerie, it's not only the glass ornaments that need good care, but the relationship between the animals wants careful maintenance, otherwise it won't be a menagerie any more" (71). Continued taking care of the menagerie takes all her energy so she does not break.
The character of Jim resonates with the reader or audience the image of 'what could have been' if Tom's family were normal and unbroken. Jim shows the potential of the dream, which remains evident in his desire to better himself. Possibly by dancing with Laura, on some level, her hopes to transform her. He hopes to transfer some of his positive energy over to her during the exchange. However, the unicorn's horn breaking signifies the threat of the outside (him) moving to closely to what is innocent as seen in her collection. In order to maintain her innocence and thus, broken body and mind, she must not get too close to a man. Yet Jim's contact remains effective because the dance breaks down the barrier and allows the dream to exist if only for a few minutes. Still there is conflicting symbols taking place here as Jim refers to Laura as "made out of glass." Williams and Kushner edition write:
Jim: Little-Little girl! Made out of glass! When its-sunny-living in a- [Takes her hands and draws her towards him.] -Rainbow. [He kisses her full and hungrily on the lips.]
What seems interesting here is how he finds color in her dark world, as if his presence is meant to shine light upon the situation while he also seems to use Laura as a sexual object. She is fragile yet beautiful even as her mother interrupts and shuts the curtain again, bringing them back to darkness.
The dance represents a true symbol of love but also how it can be fleeting. Love, while in its purest form can be broken and Jim gives her a gift of making her whole again. The wholeness does not last but in the transfer of emotion also represents his cleaning of Laura. If the unicorn's horn is not her gift to him, then its symbol with the shattering glass reflects how fragile Laura's condition remains, and there is not a chance of fixing her. Jim symbolizes the desire to fix something that cannot be fixed.
The instant the unicorn breaks, Laura's family breaks. There is the undertone of Tom's motivation to leave but in the dance and Jim getting physically closer to her, also shows a shift in dynamics many families do not survive. The unicorn is broken; Laura may still be breathing but she is dead inside. The continued focus upon absence of men also reflects the dying of the family unit and possibly Williams's own guilt over leaving his family behind. Kusovac and Pralas write, "The depth of his psychological conflicts and emotional turmoil, Silvio accentuates Williams's inability to leave behind family problems....showing how they 'pursued' him, driving him" (30). What also resonates here is in darkness of the apartment, isolation of Laura's world, also seems to judge that while far from perfect, Williams left something innocent behind. Once all the men are absent, also reflects the shift in accepting women could stand on their own even while also being broken by inhumanity.
Guan, Yanbo, Lixia Jia, and Yanyu Gao. "Fragile as Escaping into the Glass World-Analysis of The Glass Menagerie from the Perspective of Cognitive Domains." Advances in Literary Study 4.04: 67.
Kusovac, Olivera, and Jelena Pralas. "Repetition as Trapped Emotion in Tennessee Williams's the Glass Menagerie." Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 51.4: 29-51.
Williams, Tennessee, and Tony Kushner. The glass menagerie. New Directions Publishing.