“Illusion” is the most important word in the thematic and symbolic organisation of the play, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.
Williams wastes no time in pointing out the illusions that are important in the play. The stage directions tell us that transparent walls create the illusion of an apartment building, while music and coloured lights suggest a dance hall across the alley. The fire escape that leads into and out of the Wingfields’ apartment only seems to provide an escape from what Williams calls the “slow and implacable fires of human desperation.” Several times Tom comments directly to us that America in the 1930’s believed that the world’s trouble were not important enough to worry about. The young people though that change and adventure were possible in their lives only through “hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex.” But, in truth, the world in the 1930’s was not “waiting for the sunrise”, according to the popular song; it was waiting for the “bombardments” of the Second World War.
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As Williams takes us inside the Wingfields’ apartment and the lives to his characters, he reveals more illusions and he shows how his characters use them and respond to them. To avoid the unpleasant truth of her family’s present and probable future condition, Tom’s mother, Amanda, cherishes several illusions. She believes that she still has the charm she once had as a young girl in Blue Mountain, and she treasures the memory of having “received seventeen gentlemen callers” one Sunday afternoon, any one of whom she could have married. She believes that her children are “bound to succeed” since they are “just full of natural endowments”. The fact is that Tom is close t losing his job at the warehouse, has decided to become a merchant seaman, yet really wants to be a writer. Tom’s sitter, Laura, suffers from acute shyness, is lame, and seems interested only in caring for her collection of glass animals and listening to old phonograph records. It is typical of Amanda’s desperate clinging to illusion that she believes Laura can be happy and successful is she goes to business college and learns to type. It is almost painful for us to watch Amanda convince herself that the gentleman caller Tom has invited for supper is a remarkable young man who will be a fine suitor for Laura. She believes that if she makes Laura look pretty and attractive, if she alters one of her old dresses to wear herself, shines up the three remaining pieces of wedding silver, recovers the furniture, gets a new lamp, and if she herself plays the role of a charming, youthful Southern matron, Laura’s gentleman caller will be so captivated that he will become a frequent caller and will eventually marry Laura. The fact is that Him O’Connor is only an average fellow, whose moments of popularity and success are fading memories of high school days. He seems to feel sorry for Laura as a brother might rather than enamoured of her as a suitor. What is more, Jim is engaged and when he makes his announcement, Amanda’s illusion is smashed.
While Him O’Connor temporarily becomes an illusion of Laura’s salvation in Amanda’s mind, Jim also has illusions. He has created them in order to believe in a happy and successful future. Jim has faced the fact that he has not achieved the success everyone in high school expected of him, but he believes that he can still capture it. By taking a course in public speaking and thereby gaining “social poise”, he is certain that with his brains and ability he will be fitted for an executive position. He also believes that by taking a course in radio engineering he will be able to “get in on the ground floor” of the television industry and go right to the top of the ladder of success. Jim’s buoyant self-confidence, native sincerity, and boyish insensitivity to many of the things going on around him help him to create his illusions. The various generalizations that he proclaims about life, himself, and other people provide him with a protective cloak but the cloak may well turn out to be threadbare as time passes.
Laura, shy and withdrawn as she is, also has illusions. She believes that, when she was in high school and wore a brace on her leg, everyone used to watch her when she was late for chorus practice and had to go “clumping” to her seat in the back row of the auditorium. In explaining her agonized self consciousness, she tells Jim that, to her, the clumping sounded like thunder. Of course, Jim “never even noticed”. When Laura talks to Jim about her favouite glass animal, a unicorn, she is really talking about herself. She develops her illusion by saying that the unicorn loves the light, may feel lonesome being different from the other animals, but does not complain about it and get along nicely with the horses that do not have horns. She also says that all of her glass animals like a change of scenery to the movies or to the Jewel-box, “where they raise the tropical flowers”, instead of going to her classes at business college. When the unicorn falls from the table and loses his horn, Laura says that she will imagine that the unicorn had an “operation”, that the horn was removed to make the unicorn feel less freakish. Similarly, in her brief time with Jim, during which they talk, dance, and kiss, Laura apparently feels less “freakish”. To explain why Jim has been beyond her reach, Laura has imagined that Jim married Emily Meisenbach. When she learns that he did not, Laura hopes that Jim will call on her again or ask her for a date. Her momentary hope is destroyed, however, when Jim announces that he is going steady with a girl named Betty and that they are in love.
Although she has illusions, Laura, nevertheless, seems to have accepted what she is and what life has offered to her. She does not try to gloss over or deny the ways things are as Amanda does. She does not project a happy and successful future for herself, as Jim does for himself. Nor does she quarrel with the way things are, as Tom does. Like the animals in her glass menagerie, Laura remains delicate and vulnerable. In her own way she is hard, as glass is hard, and just as easily damaged if not protected, but she also possesses beauty as fine glass does and an inner light of varying shades of colour.
With his apparently clear view of the facts around him. Tom seems, at first, to have not illusions. He believes that by joining the Union of Mrechant Seamen he will even escape the fanciful views and pretensions that others have. As a traveler, he will experience change and adventure first-hand and so dispel what he regards as the harmful illusions about life and the world that surround him in his family and in society. At the end of the play, however, Tom admits that he has been pursued by the memory of his sister’s fragile existence. His escape itself was an illusion, and he discovers that he has been more “faithful” to Laura than he intended to be by continuing to remember and appreciate the fragile, the delicate, the beautiful things that Laura appreciates and comes to represent.
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Since the play itself and the characters are so obviously immersed in illusions, what is the “truth” that Tim Wingfield in his opening speech promises to reveal? What is Tennessee William’s theme in The Glass Menagerie? Illusions are deceptions, misinterpretations of the facts, and so would appear to be things to avoid, to be rid of; yet at the same time it is impossible for human beings to escape them. Williams shows us clearly that the various illusions the characters have are their means of coping with the facts of their lives. However foolish and silly their illusions may seem, all of the characters would suffer, perhaps even be broken, if they did not have them. Without pretense and self-deception, Amanda would have no self-confidence or hope for the future remaining after his failure to approach the success people had believed he would have. Laura would wither and die because she could not identify with anything, nor see beauty, delicacy, and truth in small, fragile, even commonplace things. Tom would nor escape because he could not hope to experience change and adventure. Unquestionably, illusions are potent things!
But Williams does not say that illusions are necessarily better or more pleasant than facts. Just as facts can produce heartache and anguish – knowing the clear truth about someone or something can sometimes be unbearable – illusions, too, can bring sorrow and pain. Amanda’s are painful to Tom. Laura’s and Tom’s are painful to Amanda, but perhaps the saddest illusion of all in the play is the one that prompts Tom to say “good-bye” to Laura. She is a reminder to Tom of an illusion-filled past that impeded his growth by obscuring his view of the way things truly are. To grow and to see things clearly, he had to leave. Moreover, when he says “Nowadays the world is lit by lightning”, Tim means that the world must be seen not in the soft, delicately flickering candle flame that is Laura but in the electric, dynamic illumination of a force beyond human influence. The force, manifest in lightning, is inexorable, and it blots out any candle flame. A glowing light, soft colour, or nostalgic sound – or a shy, lame sister who appreciates such things – has no place in the busy and insensitive world Tom sees around him. This belief, which is both Tom’s and the world’s, is, however, an illusion. That it is an illusion is shown by the very existence of the play.
Tennessee Williams shows us that illusions, though hazardous, provide shelter from the hard facts of life. If we, like Tom, earnestly desire to escape the shelter and know these facts truly, we may have to give up out willingness to recognize and preserve the delicacy and beauty in life. This sacrifice may haunt us as it does Tom, but, according to Williams, the belief that we and the world must and will permanently say “good-bye” to all that Laura is and represents is itself an illusion-a sad deception.
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