notes on symbols - ISM-ONLINE_

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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or

Writer’s use two types of symbols—conventional, and personal or idiosyncratic.

"I have a poet's weakness for symbols." – Tom Wingfield, narrator
and major character in "The Glass Menagerie".

Laura’s Glass Menagerie

As the title of the play informs us, the glass menagerie, or collection of animals, is the
play’s central symbol. Laura’s collection of glass animal figurines represents a number of
facets of her personality. Like the figurines, Laura is delicate, fanciful, and somehow old-
fashioned. Glass is transparent, but, when light is shined upon it correctly, it refracts an
entire rainbow of colors. Similarly, Laura, though quiet and bland around strangers, is a
source of strange, multifaceted delight to those who choose to look at her in the right
light. The menagerie also represents the imaginative world to which Laura devotes
herself—a world that is colorful and enticing but based on fragile illusions.

The Glass Unicorn

The glass unicorn in Laura’s collection—significantly, her favorite figure—represents her
peculiarity. As Jim points out, unicorns are “extinct” in modern times and are lonesome
as a result of being different from other horses. Laura too is unusual, lonely, and ill-
adapted to existence in the world in which she lives. The fate of the unicorn is also a
smaller-scale version of Laura’s fate in Scene Seven. When Jim dances with and then
kisses Laura, the unicorn’s horn breaks off, and it becomes just another horse. Jim’s
advances endow Laura with a new normalcy, making her seem more like just another
girl, but the violence with which this normalcy is thrust upon her means that Laura cannot
become normal without somehow -shattering. Eventually, Laura gives Jim the unicorn as
a “souvenir.” Without its horn, the unicorn is more appropriate for him than for her, and
the broken figurine represents all that he has taken from her and destroyed in her.

“Blue Roses”

Like the glass unicorn, “Blue Roses,” Jim’s high school nickname for Laura, symbolizes
Laura’s unusualness yet allure. The name is also associated with Laura’s attraction to Jim
and the joy that his kind treatment brings her. Furthermore, it recalls Tennessee -
Williams’s sister, Rose, on whom the character of Laura is based.

The Fire Escape

Leading out of the Wingfields’ apartment is a fire escape with a landing. The fire escape
represents exactly what its name implies: an escape from the fires of frustration and
dysfunction that rage in the Wingfield household. Laura slips on the fire escape in Scene
Four, highlighting her inability to escape from her situation. Tom, on the other hand,
frequently steps out onto the landing to smoke, anticipating his eventual getaway.

         Writer’s use two types of symbols—conventional, and personal or idiosyncratic.

            a.   What does the coffin of which Tom speaks symbolize for him?

            b.   What "trick" does Tom want to be able to perform?

            c.   What "nails" would he have to remove in order to perform this trick?

            d.   Why does Tom think that it would take magic for him to be able to do that?

Laura's two identifying symbols are the Victrola and the menagerie of glass animals for which
the play is named (Joven 53). The Victrola is quite a simple symbol, playing a part of her escape
from reality. When Laura plays a record on it, she does not do so merely for enjoyment or to add
a mode to the room but often does so at times deemed inappropriate by her mother (Williams
660). This is because Laura listens to her music for comfort and release from the pressures she is
under in her life. The glass menagerie is a bit more complicated. It too represents her freedom
from reality, but in a much more clearly unusual, perhaps even pathological, way. The glass
menagerie is her; both are delicate and will break if ever removed from their place and put
under any degree of stress (Stein 110). Specifically representing Laura among the crystalline
ornaments is a unicorn, the only one of its kind, standing out among the regular horses
(Williams 689-690). Laura feels isolated from the regular people because of her disability, but
unlike the unicorn, she has not learned to embrace and be happy in her uniqueness.

Tom, I find, has three symbols associated with him. The first is the movies, which he goes to on a
nightly basis. It is quite clear that Tom does not only go to the movies but also to bars and may
not actually go to the movies at all, but the movies are a perfect symbol for places people go
when they want to get out of the house. Tom not only wants to get out of the house, but he
wants to get away from his burdens, and so he goes to the movies alone. As he describes it, the
movies give him a sense of adventure and release from his unpleasant reality (Williams 680).
Like Laura with her Victrola, Tom goes to the movies far more often than normal because he is
in greater need for suspension of reality than most people. The second of Tom's symbol's is the
fire escape. This is merely a place that he goes to smoke, which seems plausible enough, but the
fact that it is an escape is where the symbolism arises. It is a stairway that is meant to be used to
flee a crisis, and Tom finds it to be one of his favorite places to be in the apartment. Not only
that, but he routinely used it as an exit rather than the front door. This shows his desire to
escape the apartment, and it foreshadows his ultimate decision to do so. The foreshadowing is
especially prevalent when he accidentally breaks some of the glass menagerie (Laura's symbol)
while trying to exit, thus showing that he will leave and shatter his families illusions (Joven 55).
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 giant, grinning picture
that Tom describes as almost being a fifth character, during his part as narrator (Williams 656),
stands as a reminder to Tom of how, if he leaves his family, he will be following in his father's
footsteps. 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! Did you notice that he's grinning in his picture in

The gentleman caller

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