The Glass Menagerie | Critical Essay by Eric P. Levy

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of The Glass Menagerie.
This section contains 3,218 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Eric P. Levy

SOURCE: "'Through Soundproof Glass': The Prison of Self-Consciousness in The Glass Menagerie, in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, No. 4, December, 1993, pp. 529-37.

In the following essay, Levy explores the significance of mirrors as a symbol for superficial appearances and fragile self-image in The Glass Menagerie.

In his production notes introducing The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams refers to nostalgia as "the first condition of the play." This appraisal at first seems accurate, for the drama disposes the past in a series of receding planes by which the very notion of nostalgia is progressively deepened. From the perspective of Tom, the narrator and a chief character, the past when he started "to boil inside" with the urge to leave home becomes a haunting memory from which his present struggles vainly to flee. But the confining power of that past derives from his mother's nostalgic attachment to her own more distant past and the desperate need to exploit motherhood as a means of reviving "the legend of her youth."

Yet once we analyse how Amanda manipulates maternity, a factor in the play more fundamental than nostalgia will begin to emerge. This principle is self-consciousness—a term which, as we shall see, the text supplies and in its own way defines. Each character is hampéred in relating to others by the need to inhabit a private world where the fundamental concern is with self-image. Some characters (Amanda and Jim) use others as mirrors to reflect the self-image with which they themselves wish to identify. Other characters (Laura and Tom) fear that through relation to others they will be reduced to mere reflections, trapped in the mirror of the other's judgment. In virtue of this preoccupation with self-image and the psychological mirrors sustaining it, the world of the play is aptly named after glass. Indeed, Laura's remark ironically becomes the motto of the play: "My glass collection takes up a good deal of time. Glass is something you have to take good care of."

Let us begin by examining Amanda's influence on Laura. Unwittingly, Amanda exploits her maternal concern about Laura's lack of marital prospects as a means of identifying with her own past when she herself was visited one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain by "seventeen!—gentlemencallers." In effect, she turns her daughter into a mirror in which her own flattering self-image is reflected, but to do so she must first turn herself or, more precisely, her parental judgment, into a mirror reflecting Laura's limitations. The play itself suggests this seminal image. After helping Laura dress and groom herself, Amanda instructs her to stand in front of a real mirror: "Now look at yourself, young lady. This is the prettiest you will ever be!… I've got to fix myself now! You're going to be surprised by your mother's appearance!" Then "Laura moves slowly to the long mirror and stares solemnly at herself."

Look closely at what is happening here. Amanda slights Laura's appearance even as she praises it. Laura is told that she has reached her peak at this moment: she will never again be as attractive. But Laura's limitation only enhances Amanda's excitement about her own "spectacular appearance!" The literal mirror in which Laura beholds her own image ultimately symbolizes her mother's judgment of her. Yet the fundamental purpose of that judgment is to provide, by contrast, a flattering self-image for Amanda. Though on this occasion Amanda's judgment seems benign, it participates in a subtle pattern of comparison by which Laura is made to identify with the sense of her own "Inferiority" to her mother. Indeed, at one point she alludes explicitly to this fact: "I'm just not popular like you were in Blue Mountain." Laura is, in her own words, "crippled." But her primary handicap concerns, not the limp caused by a slight inequality in the length of her legs, but the negative self-consciousness instilled by her mother. In fact Jim, the gentleman caller, approaches this very diagnosis. When Laura recalls how in high school she "had to go clumping all the way up the aisle with everyone watching," Jim advises: "You shouldn't have been self-conscious."

The effect of Laura's self-consciousness is to make her intensely protective of her self-image, and to shield it from exposure to anyone outside the home. Whenever she is forced to interact or perform in public, she becomes suddenly ill with nausea and must withdraw. The most extreme example of this syndrome is her brief attendance at Rubicam's Business College where, according to the typing instructor, Laura "broke down completely—was sick at the stomach and almost had to be carried into the wash room." She has a similar reaction after the arrival of Jim at the Wingfield home, and reclines alone on her couch while the others dine in another room. As a result of this withdrawal reflex, Laura has no life outside preoccupation with her own vulnerability.

But paradoxically, the very intensity of this preoccupation changes the meaning of the vulnerability it concerns. By focusing on the fear of humiliating exposure, Laura eventually identifies, not with the shame evoked by her self-image, but with the desperate need to avoid suffering it. In this context, the playwright's commentary on Laura gains greater profundity: "Laura's separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf." At bottom, the purpose of Laura's withdrawal is to heighten her "fragility"; for, through belief in the damaging effect of exposure, she exchanges a negative self-image for one more flattering. Sensitivity to shame allows Laura to identify with her worthiness, not of ridicule, but of delicate care and compassion. Yet instead of leading to "confidence," this escape from shame depends on increasing her insecurity. She is safe from exposure to shame only if she identifies with her inability to endure it. But lack of confidence is Laura's secret wish, for it protects from confronting anything more threatening in life than her own familiar anxiety. Indeed, whenever she is encouraged to go beyond this anxiety, her reflex is to pick up one of her "little glass ornaments." She does this when Amanda reminds her of the need for eventual marriage and during the conversation with Jim.

The significance of these ornaments can be clarified by closer consideration of the glass from which they are made. In the play, glass is associated not just with the "lovely fragility" already noted, but also with the mirror prominently visible in the Wingfield apartment. Earlier we encountered one example where Amanda instructs Laura to observe her reflection in the mirror, but we shall examine several other allusions to this literal mirror; it becomes a vital symbol of the act of self-consciousness by which a character apprehends his or her self-image. Yet, in Laura's case, this analogy between the literal mirror and the act of self-consciousness extends further. Just as with a real mirror the reflection perceived is an image in glass, so in the play, as we have seen, Laura's own self-image is represented by ornaments of glass. Hence, in virtue of the glass which is their substance, these ornaments suggest that the fragility with which she identifies is no more than a self-image, dependent on the mirror of self-consciousness reflecting it.

But whereas Laura's recourse is to emphasize the mirror of negative self-consciousness, Tom's impulse is to shatter it, in order thereby to achieve his freedom. Like Laura, he too is exposed to the mirror of parental judgment held up by his mother, Amanda. But, unlike his sister, Tom refuses to identify with the negative self-image it reflects. His consuming wish is to leave home and explore his manhood: "I'm tired of the movies and I am about to move!" But Amanda insists that his desire to leave home is simply a manifestation of selfishness, and further proof that he will end up as faithless and irresponsible as his father, an example of the kind of man he should never become. In fact, a photograph of that father, hanging "on the wall of the living room," functions as a kind of mirror displaying the very self-image with which Tom is identified: "More and more you remind me of your father! He was out all hours without explanation!—Then left! Goodbye! And me with the bag to hold." Yet, with increasing passion, Tom protests his right to be a person and not merely a reflection defined by his mother's way of seeing him. Ultimately, he refuses to let the image she holds up to him restrain him; for if he identifies with it, he will never be free.

The process of this repudiation is repeatedly linked with the breakage of glass, symbol of the reflected self-image with which a character is made to identify. In the first great confrontation with his mother, Tom disowns the self-image with which she tries to control him: "For sixty-five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever! And you say self—self's all I ever think of. Why, listen, if self is what I thought of, Mother, I'd be where he is—GONE!" Then, in an enraged effort to don his overcoat and leave the house, he becomes entangled in "the bulky garment" and heaves it "across the room." The result is devastating: "It strikes against the shelf of Laura's glass collection, and there is a tinkle of shattering glass. Laura cries out as if wounded." On the surface, Tom's fury here seems purely destructive, damaging the possession which his sister most prizes. But, more profoundly, Tom's action represents the only way of claiming his own identity. If he allows his mother to restrain him by guilt and convince him that to act on his own is to become like his father, he will be no more self-reliant than Laura, hampered in life by a negative self-image, symbolized in Laura's case by the glass menagerie. For Laura, that self-image concerns fragility; for Tom, guilt. But each image is equally restricting.

Tom's second confrontation with his mother is even more explosive. Once again, she imposes a negative image upon him: "Go to the movies, go! Don't think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who's crippled and has no job! Don't let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure!" In rage, "Tom smashes his glass on the floor" and then "plunges out on the fire escape, slamming the door." The act of breaking glass (in this instance, a drinking vessel) obviously recalls the earlier shattering of an item in Laura's glass menagerie. Again, in the struggle to affirm and fulfil his own identity, Tom is forced to repudiate the negative image reflected in the mirror of parental judgment. What he says in the first encounter also explains his reaction in the second: "It seems unimportant to you, what I'm doing—what I want to do."

But even after leaving the house to explore life on his own, Tom is still haunted by the mirror of parental judgment. His "closing speech," immediately after the second glass smashing episode, is extremely revealing in this regard. In describing his itinerant life after breaking away from home, Tom admits that, at bottom, his freedom is no more than a flight in which he feels "pursued by something" that turns out to be the image of his sister. He recounts an obsession that overwhelms him each time he arrives in a new town: "Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look in to her eyes."

This is one of the most poignant passages in the play, but understanding its full meaning requires some analysis. On the surface, Tom seems obsessed with guilt for having abandoned the sister who depended on him. But his preoccupation with Laura involves much more than the sense of duty denied. Or, more precisely, his remorse is motivated by a concern deeper than shirked obligation. The context confirms this. Her apparition usually appears after Tom sees some "tiny transparent bottles" through a shop window. The delicate ornaments, of course, remind him of Laura's glass menagerie. Ironically, however, in his futile flight from the memory of Laura, he is trying to escape an insecurity analogous to one symbolized by that glass menagerie. Whereas Laura reacts to insecurity by withdrawing into "a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments," Tom responds by plunging compulsively into a world of strangers: "I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out!" In fact, in his restless flight after leaving home, when cities whirl past him "like dead leaves," Tom travels perpetually through a world of strangers, never staying still long enough to find a new place he can call home.

The nature of this insecurity becomes clearer when we consider the scene with which its description is synchronized. As the author notes, "Tom's closing speech is timed with what is happening inside the house. We see, as though through soundproof glass, that Amanda appears to be making a comforting speech to Laura, who is huddled upon the sofa." The emphasis on "soundproof glass" is crucial here. To live in that home is to live behind a pane of imaginary glass: namely, the mirror of parental judgment created by Amanda in order to flatter her own self-image. To live inside that home is to be defined by the mirror it contains, as we have seen extensively with regard to Laura and Tom. Now that he is outside the home, Tom can see through that soundproof glass, as if it were a one-way mirror, transparent to the viewer or audience on one side, but a reflecting surface to those trapped on the other side of it.

The great pathos of the play is that Tom remains just as much a prisoner of the mirror as Laura. His attempt to flee merely confirms its influence. The ultimate cause of his restless movement is the fear of finding himself trapped on the wrong side of the mirror again—in other words, enclosed in an intimacy founded on love. For to love, as Tom has learned through the relation with his mother, is to be exposed to a mirror of negative judgment on which one becomes dependent for the sense of one's own worth. In that position. Tom is as vulnerable to insecurity as Laura. Hence, though his need for companionship is great, his need for loneliness is greater; for only loneliness can protect him from the vulnerability to love (or, more precisely, to the mirror of judgment which love creates) epitomized by his sister. But paradoxically, by shielding him from the same vulnerability to love suffered by Laura, loneliness increases his identification with her; for in that state he inhabits a world of his own, just as she does through preoccupation with the glass menagerie. The instability of this condition is vividly represented by Tom's obsession with Laura. Her image always appears in his moments of greatest loneliness—when he has just entered a new town at night but has not yet "found companions." He recoils from her and compulsively seeks strangers, but soon after meeting them he is once again on his lonely way. Thus the cycle of his life continues.

An even more profound pessimism about the influence of the mirror emerges when we examine Jim, the gentleman caller, who, according to Tom, "is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from." It soon becomes apparent, however, that Jim is as much defined by mirrors and the self-consciousness which they symbolize as anyone else in the drama. Jim does show a genuine interest in Laura and tries to help her: "You don't have the proper amount of faith in yourself." Nevertheless, his concern is tainted with self-interest. Ultimately, like Amanda, he exploits Laura as a mirror in which to reflect a flattering image of himself.

The play is explicit in this regard. Note how, when encouraging Laura to conquer her "Inferiority complex," Jim "unconsciously glances at himself in the mirror" as he tells her that "Everybody excels in some one thing. Some in many!" A moment later, he "adjusts his tie at the mirror." In effect, he uses her need for self-confidence as an opportunity to admire his own attributes: "I guess you think I think a lot of myself!" His parting gesture sums up the meaning of his interest in Laura: "He stops at the oval mirror to put on his hat. He carefully shapes the brim and the crown to give a discreetly dashing effect." While Jim's reunion with Laura has aroused sincere affection for her, his deepest love is reserved for his own self-image. Consistently, he uses her sense of inadequacy as a means of magnifying his own positive attributes: "Look how big my shadow is when I stretch!" At bottom, what appears to be compassion—and what to Jim feels like honest compassion—is nothing more than narcissism, where awareness of Laura's emotional need leaves Jim "enrapt in his own comfortable being." This selfishness is most apparent when he kisses her. Jim yields to his attraction to Laura, but in doing so reveals its deepest motive. As soon as he kisses her he must reject her, because he already has a girlfriend, Betty. His sudden reversal makes Laura suffer an "almost infinite desolation," but reinforces Jim's own complacent satisfaction with himself: "Being in love has made a new man of me!" Once again, he turns Laura's helplessness into a mirror in which his own self-assurance is reflected.

Laura's situation is made more devastating by the positive effect he initially has on her. When the unicorn's horn breaks during her brief dance with Jim, Laura is not upset: "It's no tragedy, Freckles. Glass breaks so easily." In fact, she seems on the brink of transcending the image of herself which the unicorn represents: "The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!" Before he leaves, Laura gives Jim the unicorn as a "souvenir," then "rises unsteadily and crouches beside the Victrola to wind it up." These gestures are supremely significant. Giving away the unicorn suggests that the release from negative self-consciousness with which she has just identified the ornament in its newly damaged state has already ended. This suggestion is corroborated by the movement which follows her surrender of the unicorn: winding up the gramophone. Earlier, in a passage we have already quoted, Tom connected Laura's preoccupation with the Victrola with her withdrawal from reality: "She lives in a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments, Mother. […] She plays old phonograph records and—that's about all."

Laura's offering of the unicorn has further implications. For, through preoccupation with his own self-image, Jim—like Laura—inhabits a world of his own which no true intimacy can violate. The only difference is that, while Laura identifies as the victim of self-consciousness, Jim identifies as its beneficiary. The fundamental function of his love for another is to enhance his love for himself.

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This section contains 3,218 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Eric P. Levy