Wednesday, April 20th, 2011: I’m exhausted!

The Glass Menagerie: Identifying and Discussing the elements of Naturalism

By: Kimberly Hall

Table of Contents

1.      Introduction. 3

2.      Background & Environment. 3

3.      The Glass Menagerie & Its Characters Circumstance. 3

Tom Wingfield. 4

Amanda Wingfield. 4

Laura Wingfield. 4

4.      Characters Motivation & Escape. 5

Tom Wingfield. 5

Amanda Wingfield. 5

Laura Wingfield. 6

5.      Conclusion. 6

Reference List. 7


1.     Introduction

With The Glass Menagerie, there are traces of Neo-Romanticism, shown by use of placing a romantic veil on realism by issuing a scrim over the scene, or use of music, memory storytelling, and implementing the use of “the south” as a way to idolize something that no longer is (Heim, 2011). This play also shows elements of broad Realism, with the faithful and objective representation of social and historical reality through the social and domestic experience of people at that time; through Williams’ own personal and direct observation of contemporary life and manners in his own life, where the subject matter is stemmed from. But in my opinion, the strongest element within this play is that of a Naturalistic point of view. Therefore, this essay will argue that The Glass Menagerie explores the Naturalism element of “environmental conditions” through Tennessee’s use of environmental circumstance and his characters motivation and techniques used to escape it.

2.     Background & Environment

The Glass Menagerie is the story of a fatherless family during the Depression. It takes place during the 1930’s, and is told through the recollections of its narrator, Tom Wingfield (Krasner, 2006). The play focuses on one character’s restless longing for freedom and his guilty conscience for having attained it at the expense of his family. It also depicts the adversity associated with physical handicap and age, as well as an acute feeling for the hardship of its era (Krasner, 2006). Tennessee Williams portrays characters experiencing financial, and therefore emotional, crisis, examining characters trying to overcome obstacles to prosperity and happiness. It also takes up related family issues and social injustice with a candor hardly imaginable before on an American stage (Krasner, 2006).

As the United States grew rapidly after the Civil War, in a time where welfare support had yet to be legislated, an age of unbridled capitalism and expanding population base due to immigration (Campbell, 2010), Williams describes the play’s setting as “one of those vast hive-like conglomerates of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class” (Krasner, 2006). Set against the economic frustration of the Wingfield family, which leads to a closed circle of experience, is the ideal of the American Dream, which points ever upward (, 2011a). This world had little use for shy and disabled people who collect glass figurines.  But the portrayal of Laura’s disability almost certainly resonated with Americans who had recently lost their President Roosevelt who had an ongoing battle with polio (Krasner, 2006). And by using “well-known symbols” of individual actions, audiences recognizing those expressions, are thrown into a state of sympathy (Demastes, 1988, pg.24).

3.     The Glass Menagerie & Its Characters Circumstance

Many critics have suggested that there is no clear distinction between realism and naturalism. One rough distinction made by critics is that realism, supporting a deterministic philosophy and focusing on the lower classes, is considered naturalism (Campbell, 2010). Naturalism is a theory in literature which emphasizes the role of environment upon human characters. It is an extreme form of realism which arose in the early 20th century (Heim, 2011). Rather than focusing on the internal qualities of their characters, authors called out the effects of heredity and environment, outside forces, on their characters (Flanagan, 2011).

Characters complexity of temperament and motive, their relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, and to their own past is well evident within (Campbell, 2010). Naturalism has traditionally served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent middle class (Campbell, 2010). Tennessee depicts this by using the height of the Depression and the after effects as his backdrop to create an ugly life for the Winfields. This is evident within the play by his use of hard workers trying to make ends meet, living in tenement housing, while sacrificing luxuries for utility bills and vice versa. By the end of the play, the characters are even more deeply enmeshed in their claustrophobic, ugly, and lonely, closed world than they were at the beginning (, 2011a).

Tom Wingfield

Tom was unhappy and frustrated. Being hounded everyday by his mother, working long hours in a shoe factory warehouse and wanting something better for himself; wishing he didn’t have to support his mother and sister. Amanda tells Tom that he simply has to work hard, and he will succeed. But the poetic, imaginative Tom is not the sort of man to cultivate a normal career leading to success and wealth. Those are not his goals (, 2011a).

Amanda Wingfield

The world depicted in this play is one in which men can shape their lives as they choose, even if it means behaving irresponsibly, while women must accept a circumscribed and dependent position. For a woman such as Amanda, deserted by her husband sixteen years ago, the economic situation is precarious (, 2011b). Amanda’s home and life are a failure: a runaway husband, resistant son, dependent daughter, and economic deprivation. Amanda is unhappy, with two children that don’t live up to her expectations, but tries to maintain a lost gentility in the midst of overwhelming poverty and cajoling her children into her idea of happiness (University, 2011). Amanda lives in another time and place, the genteel, idealized world of the south during her youth. But St. Louis during the 1930s is a different proposition altogether, and Amanda fails to make the adjustment (, 2011a).

Amanda depends on her son to pay the rent and utility bills for their apartment. When she wants to bring in some income (, 2011b), she is reduced to take jobs beneath her, but approaches them with positive vigor. But Amanda’s anxieties are in large part economic and there is money behind many of her illusions (Barranger, 2003). Amanda sells what she fails to do in life, but in spite of her impoverished life in the St. Louis of the 1930s, Amanda is a believer in the “Dream”; as salesmanship, to her, symbolizes glamour, an item that belongs to the vision of the American Dream (Krasner, 2006). When she sympathizes with the women she talks to about her subscription drive, she calls them “Christian martyrs,” which gives a glimpse as to how Amanda sees herself. This is noted by how Laura tells her that when she is disappointed she gets that “awful suffering look on [her] face, like the picture of Jesus’ mother in the museum” (, 2011b).

Laura Wingfield

Laura Wingfield stands as a paradigm of the culture of which she is a part. Laura’s position shows clearly the limited opportunities open to women during this time period. When she drops out of college, her prospects are even worse. All she can hope for is to nab a man who will support her (, 2011b). Vulnerable, she chooses instead a world of myth, symbolized by the glass unicorn (Bigsby, 1992, pg.33).  Her collection of glass animals represents different parts of her personality.  Laura, like the glass unicorn in her collection, is delicate, unusual, with an inner beauty and fragility (University, 2011) that leaves her lonely, and ill-adapted to the world in which she lives (Highschool, 2011). She, like her beloved animals, lives in a cage from which she cannot escape (Highschool, 2011).

4.     Characters Motivation & Escape

Among the most prominent themes of The Glass Menagerie is the difficulty the characters have in accepting and relating to reality. Each member of the Wingfield family withdraws into a private world of illusion (Waterloo, 2005). So in the end there is no escape from the family prison for any of the three characters (, 2011a).

Tom Wingfield

Tom is poor, works very hard, and argues with his mother a lot due to frustration and unhappiness. He escapes his reality through books, going to the movies, and drinking (Highschool, 2011). The fire escape that leads out of the Winfield’s is most closely linked to Tom’s character and to the theme of escape.  Tom uses it to escape to the movies. At the end of the play, Tom will literally use the fire escape to leave forever (Highschool, 2011). Another image of escape is presented throughout the play, in the form of the photograph of the father that hangs on the wall. Tom follows in his father’s footsteps. He is prepared to be ruthless in planning his escape, paying his union dues with the money that should have paid the electricity bill. He has a freedom that Amanda and Laura can never have, simply because he is a man (, 2011b). But later after he runs off to join the merchant marines shortly after that disastrous night (University, 2011), he finds that however far he travels, he remains trapped by the reach of memory. The older Tom, who narrates the play, cannot forget his sister and her plight (, 2011a); he is still haunted by memories of her, whom he abandoned many years ago (Highschool, 2011).

Amanda Wingfield

Amanda works very hard, depends on the financial support of her son Tom, and escapes reality through memory of her past (Highschool, 2011) and imagination that her daughter is well and will one day attract gentleman callers. Amanda lives inside her own illusions because the outside world is too painful for her to face. She endlessly repeats exaggerated tales of the south, and her numerous “gentlemen callers.” She assumes that what worked for her will work for Laura too, even though times have changed. The world that her memories have created in her mind is not the reality of the ghettos of St. Louis where they live (Highschool, 2011). Tom tries to force her to face the facts that Laura is different than other girls, but Amanda refuses to accept this. All she can do is wish on the moon that things will turn out the way she wants them to (, 2011a). Amanda’s great hope was that Laura would graduate from a business college and pursue a career as a secretary, but once she finds out that Laura was too shy even to attend classes, she pins all her hopes on finding Laura a husband. When that scheme fails too, all hope seems lost. A life of worry, economic insecurity and dependency seems inevitable (, 2011a).

Laura Wingfield

Laura is disabled, physically and psychologically, and extremely ashamed and shy about her condition. Having retreated from life, Laura has turned into a recluse and a sort of agoraphobic within the Wingfield apartment; a prison from which Laura is unable to escape (, 2011a). Laura is even more deeply enmeshed in an illusory world than her mother. Lost in her own thoughts, she retreats to her own inner world of memory and imagination, peopled with glass animals (Highschool, 2011), and her only other interest is in playing the old gramophone records that her father left behind (, 2011a).

5.     Conclusion

Naturalism led authors to emphasize man’s accidental, physiological nature rather than his moral or rational qualities. Individual characters were seen as helpless products of heredity and environment, motivated by strong internal instinctual drives and harassed by external social and economic pressures (Britannica, 2011); a faithful, unselective representation of reality, a “slice of life,” presented without moral judgment (Heim, 2011). As such, they had little in will or responsibility for their fates, and the prognosis for their “cases” was pessimistic at the outset (Britannica, 2011). Their views on the overpowering effects of environment led playwrights, like Williams, to select the most oppressive environments (Heim, 2011), and they documented them, often in dreary and sordid detail (Britannica, 2011). Williams’ protagonists are almost always out of tune with accepted norms and generally use something, like Laura and her figurines, to escape an unfriendly present or to recover a dead past, forced to face the truth-often after being subjected to physical or psychological degradation (University, 2011). In conclusion, through showcasing the physical and emotional environments in which the characters of The Glass Menagerie live in, and their motivation and techniques to escape it; I’ve proven that Tennessee Williams used Naturalism elements within his play.

Reference List

Barranger, M. S. 2003. Understanding Plays: Third Edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, Inc.

Bigsby, C. W. E. 1992. Modern American Drama, 1945-1990. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.

Britanica, E. 2011. Naturalism. (accessed April 18th).

Campbell, D. M. 2010. Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890.

Demastes, W. W. 1988. Beyond Naturalism: A New Realism in American Theatre. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Inc.

Flanagan, M. 2011. Guide to Contemporary Literature: Naturalism. (accessed April 19th).

Heim, C. 2011. KTB101 20th Century Performance: Week 4 Lecture Notes. (accessed April 16th, 2011).

Highschool, H. 2011. The Glass Menagerie Study Guide part 3: Themes, Symbols, and Theatrical Conventions. (accessed April 18th).

Krasner, D. 2006. American Drama 1945-2000. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 2011a. The Glass Menagerie Theme Analysis. (accessed April 18th). 2011b. The Glass Menagerie Essay Questions. (accessed April 18th).

University, S. L. 2011. The Glass Menagerie. (accessed April 18th).

Waterloo, U. o. 2005. Realism and Naturalism Powerpoint Presentation. (accessed April 18th, 2011).


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