Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie Symbolism plays a fundamental part in Tennessee Williams’s play, “The Glass Menagerie”. Examples of the use of symbolism include the fire escape, as an escape from the family, the phonograph, as an escape from reality, the unicorn, as a symbol for Laura’s uniqueness and the father’s photograph, representing something different to each character. Through recognition of these symbols, a greater understanding of the play’s theme is achieved. Throughout the play, Tom Wingfield was torn by the responsibility to provide for his mother and sister and the need to be his own man.
He used the fire escape frequently in the play. He went outside to stand on it when he smoked, to escape the nagging from his mother, and to make his final independence from his family. Tom didn’t like being responsible for his mother and sister, working day-in and day-out at a job he hated. He wanted to escape down those stairs and never come back. In scene V, Tom speaks to the audience about what he observes from the fire escape, Paradise Dance Hall. “Couples would come outside, to the relative privacy of the alley. You could see them kissing behind ash-pits and telephone poles.
This was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure. Adventure and change were imminent this year” (Williams 1197). The dance hall to him was what he wanted. Its name, Paradise Dance Hall, is a contrast to the lives of the characters, and to the current situation in the world as seen in the play. Another symbol in the play that remains constant is the record player and collection of records. These belonged to her father who has deserted the family. At times of great stress or frightfulness, Laura runs to the record player to play the dated records.
She listens to the record player and enjoys the peacefulness that contrasts the argumentative members of her household. It is an escape for her, as is her glass collection, but it takes on a special significance. Perhaps Laura is trying to regress into a time of greater safety and comfort, before her father went away. One of the most significant symbols is Laura’s glass unicorn, which has an obvious and direct relation to Laura. Being her favorite animal in her menagerie, they share many similar characteristics. The glass unicorn is most obviously a symbol of Laura; delicate, different, and an abnormality to the modern world.
During Laura and Jim’s brief romantic encounter, Laura is gaining more confidence about herself. When they started dancing together, Jim accidently knocked the glass unicorn over. This begins to indicate the way that Laura was being drawn into the world. At this stage, it looks as if Jim is interested in Laura, and we know that of all of her menagerie, it is the unicorn that Laura most identifies with. When the horn breaks and it is, in Laura’s words, “just like all the other horses” (Williams 1221), it symbolizes the potential of Jim to lead Laura into the world where she can be just like everyone else.
However, when it is clear that Jim is engaged and will not marry Laura, the gift of the unicorn as a “souvenir” to Jim symbolizes Laura’s final retreat from the world without hope of return. Finally, the portrait of Tom’s father serves as a symbol that Tom identifies with. Whenever Tom shows signs of being on the verge of leaving, his mother is quick to point out that their father left them and that it was such a terrible thing for him to have done. The large, grinning picture that Tom describes as almost being a fifth character, stands as a reminder to Tom of how, if he leaves his family, he will be following in his father’s footsteps.
He wants the same independence that his father gained by leaving the family, and to also get away from his mother. This is, of course, something that he is comfortable doing as Tom himself says, “I’m like my father. The bastard son of a bastard! See how he grins? And he’s been absent going on sixteen years! ” (Williams 1209). In conclusion, “The Glass Menagerie” contains an abundant amount of symbols throughout the play. However, the fire escape, phonograph, unicorn, and the portrait of the grinning father are the symbols that had stood out the most.
Tom’s decision to leave his family is a sign that he is just like his father. He is a weak man who cannot cope with responsibility and finds relief by turning his back on his family and running away. After the phony romance encounter with Jim, Laura goes back to her old ways, before the shattering of the unicorn menagerie, of being that fragile and shy girl that played old records on the phonograph repeatedly. Tennessee Williams gives off the impression that, as a society, we run from our problems, instead of resolving them the best way possible.