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This essay has adapted from an older essay of mine, discussing the dramatic treatment of characters who "look back with longing to a time that has been sweetened in the remembering" in plays written by Tennessee Williams.
Tennessee Williams regarded The Glass Menagerie as the only tender play he'd written, and this is probably because it is semi-autobiographical; his real name is Tom (as in the play), Laura is based on his sister Rose, who was mentally crippled, and Amanda was based on his mother. Additionally Williams's father was seldom at home, like the absent father in the play. Indeed as Tom announces at the beginning, "the play is memory" which accounts for the lighting, mood and realism of the drama. The play itself is Tom looking back to another time.
But has the time been sweetened? I think it has, as Tom says the play is "sentimental' and that he is giving us "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion" with pleasant being the revealing word. Furthermore in the stage directions at the start of scene one we are told that "memory takes a lot of poetic license", and that "memory is seated predominately in the heart", which continues the idea that Tom/Tennessee's memories have ripened.
Amanda is a character whose memories far outweigh the person she has become. Her status in the world has dropped a long way since her childhood, when she entertained gentleman callers, and she is haunted by the spectre of them, and the knowledge that her daughter Laura seems halfway down the path to spinsterhood. At times Amanda appears to be unaware that she is in St. Louis with her dysfunctional daughter, as illustrated when after reminiscing about her happier times she announces, "It's almost time for our gentleman callers to start arriving. How many do you suppose we're going to entertain this afternoon?". The colourless existence she leads has resulted in her retreating into the memories of happier times. This aspect of her character is reflected elsewhere; her remembrance of the fervour that surrounded 'Gone With The Wind' and her comparing the apartment's fire escape to her veranda at her old home in the south.
It is also the memory of her youth that compels her to engineer an escape-route for Laura to prevent her becoming an old maid.
"I've seen such pitiful cases in the South - barely tolerated spinsters... eating the crust of humility all their life."
Such a scenario horrifies Amanda and it is her goal not to let her Laura end up in that situation. Clearly this fear has not "been sweetened in the remembering."
When Amanda is fretting about Tom's 'nights at the movies' it reminds her of her wayward husband, influencing her perceived shortcomings of Tom, concluding in her only favourable memory of her spouse, "He never allowed himself to look untidy". She rebukes Tom for neglecting his future and being seemingly unaware that "past turns into everlasting regret". This is what Amanda feels she has done and she is concerned Tom doesn't repeat this mistake but it is Laura's future that has been sketched by a cartographer.
After Amanda discovers that Jim, the gentleman caller, is coming to dinner, she grasps her chance to relive some of her former glories by dressing up in an old dress that resurrects her happy memories. However she now finds herself in the mothers role, and the absence of servants illustrates to her her present standing and she admits that "all vestige of gracious living" is "gone completely". Amanda does look back on her youth with longing, but her memories are bitter-sweet as she is also regretful over her choice of husband. Her memories are also the catalyst of the play since they lead to Laura and Jim's convergence and the climax of Laura's life.
Jim has, like Amanda, not fulfilled the promise of his youth. At high school he appeared to be destined for big things, as he was president of the senior class and excessively successful in the stage, basketball and debating. However he found things harder in the adult world and six years down the line his position is scarcely better than Tom's.
But unlike Amanda, Jim regards his present situation as a minor setback,
"I am disappointed but I am not discouraged."
He has conquered his inferiority complex that seemed to be brought about after his success wasn't as immediate as he hoped. He wasn't helped by his immense good fortune at high school, where Jim now realises he was spoiled and he has failed to live up to proclamations about his future.
Jim is still fortunate, as he can appreciate his memories of his time at high school, whilst still being self-aware and capable of dictating his own future. His memories have sweetened but Jim is looking to the future, not the past. Jim is also a symbol, as explained by Tom in his opening monologue:
"he is the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for",
and Laura's memory of him that slumbered and grew is reawakened. Jim tries to sweeten Laura's memories of her time at high school by persuading her that her brace wasn't noticeable, and that she isn't crippled. Hopefully this allow Laura's self-confidence to blossom and obtain Amanda's vision of charm and vivacity, but the breaking of the unicorn's horn symbolizes the destruction of the thing that sets her apart, and it looks more likely that Laura will wind up elderly and alone.
Now at least Laura will have the memory of her experience with Jim to accompany her for the rest of her life, while Tom has to cope with the guilt he has over the abandonment of his sister. In 'The Glass Menagerie' the characters draw upon the memory of their experiences to become 'better' people, and the tenderness of the play and sympathy you feel for the characters add to the impact of the theme.
In my view, the play succeeds, as the characters are trapped in situations in which they cannot escape from, unless they hurt people they care for, so remembering past events becomes more important to them while they live relatively empty and frugal lives.
Written in 1996 for CSYS English.