Fire Escape in The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is replete with symbolism, and the fire escape is an important symbol in the play.
Leading out of the protagonists’ – the Wingfield’s – apartment, is the fire escape that has a landing. This physical structure represents an escape from the dysfunction and the fires of frustration in the Wingfield household. Tom makes his opening address to the audience from the fire escape.
Different characters see the fire escape in different ways. For Tom, the fire escape is a golden chance to get away from his nagging mother. For Amanda it is a door through which gentleman callers for Laura can come. For it is a pathway towards the unknown and the dangerous.
The fire escape in The Glass Menagerie serves two functions. One is as a tool for characterization, and the other is as a symbol for a central theme of the play, which is “escape.”
Characterization in the play is brilliantly done by means of the contrast between the two central characters: Laura and Tom. Laura, who is symbolized as the fragile glass menagerie, stumbles on the fire escape, signaling her inability to escape her life circumstances. She is helpless and fragile to the point of being unable to use an escape route. Herman (2008) suggests that Laura has a disability, which makes her socially unsuccessful and shy. This is compounded by the fact that her mother Amanda is overprotective and smothering.
Tom, on the other hand, has the will and the ability to escape from the dysfunctional family, and he often steps out on to the fire escape landing to light a smoke. His independent streak is very well demonstrated by his frequent trips to the fire escape landing. As a natural culmination of his yearning to be independent, he stands on the fire escape landing at the end of the play, ready to go out into the world and escape from the world of the glass menagerie.
The fire escape is integral to the theme of escape too in the play. Escape or the inability to escape, is a theme of The Glass Menagerie. When there is a means of escape available, do people make use of it? Alternatively, do people get caught in their own life so much that they lose the will and the ability to escape? For Laura, escape is impossible, as the only time she tries the fire escape, she stumbles. Tom, however, wants to and is able to escape. He shows that many times by moving to the fire escape landing for a smoke, and finally at the end of the play by deciding to move away from the family.
The Glass Menagerie examines the universal conflict that arises when individuals must choose between self-fulfillment and family commitment (Janardanan, 2007). The fire escape in the play is the symbol of a path to self-fulfillment, which in the end, Tom takes, though he can never really forget his mother and sister.
Herman, Terah, (2008). The Disabled Family Dynamic In Drama: The Glass Menagerie, A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg And Time For Ben. University of Kentucky Master’s Theses. Paper 528. http://uknowledge.uky.edu/gradschool_theses/528
Janardanan, D. (2007). Images of Loss in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Marsha Norman’s night, Mother, and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Dissertation, Georgia State University, 2007. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/english_diss/23
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Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams that can be used as essay starters and paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “Glass Menagerie” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “Glass Menagerie” offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics for “The Glass Menagerie” below in conjunction with the list of important quotes at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.* For background, here is an analysis and plot summary of “The Glass Menagerie” *
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Symbolism of the Glass Menagerie
Evidence of the importance of the glass menagerie is found in the fact that Tennessee Williams names the play after it. Glass, of course, represents fragility and as a medium for decorative items, it is considered beautiful. The menagerie is a collection, representing variety. The glass menagerie serves as a means of fantasy and escape for Laura, and an object of eventual scorn for her brother, Tom. Consider these observations and write an essay in which you develop your own position about the significance of the glass menagerie. Be sure to remark upon what it symbolizes, generally, and what it represents for the characters of the play. Note whether the symbolism and meaning changes over the course of the play. (hint: check out this article on Laura as a tragic figure in “The Glass Menagerie”)
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Narrative Voice of The Glass Menagerie
The narrator of The Glass Menagerie is Tom, who undergoes a series of personality changes and personal setbacks over the course of the play. The reader may feel his or her sympathies for Tom shifting back and forth, and the conclusion of the play may not resolve the ambivalence that the reader feels for this important character. Write an essay in which you articulate your feelings towards Tom, both as a character and as the narrator. Consider how your feelings about him—namely, whether he is a sympathetic character—influence your reading of the play and, possibly, influence your feelings about other characters. Conclude with an observation about the significance of Williams’ choosing Tom as the narrator, as opposed to another character or an omniscient narrator.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Helpless Women in The Glass Menagerie?
The Glass Menagerie was written by Tennessee Williams in 1944 and given this fact, it reflects some of the social norms, roles, and values of its time. One of the issues the reader of the play must consider is the way in which gender influences the personalities and behaviors of the characters. Many of the women in “The Glass Menagerie”, for example, seem to be helpless. One is physically disabled, shy, and retiring; the other is psychologically handicapped by her refusal to deal with her circumstances. Tom, on the other hand, is presented to the reader as the person who is expected to provide for the family, though his ability to do so is limited. Jim is presented as a gentleman who could potentially care for Laura as a good husband. Write an essay in which you argue whether the gender roles that each of the characters fulfill is conventional or whether there might be some subversive element that is hidden beneath the surface of the play. Consider, especially, the ending of the play, in which Tom leaves Laura and Amanda to fend for themselves.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Reality vs. Fantasy in “The Glass Menagerie”
Each of the characters in The Glass Menagerie lives in a fantasy world in which he or she fails to either see or accept reality. While each of the characters employs a different means of escapism, the effect is the same: disconnection from the outside world and an inability to live life on its own terms, causing constant frustration and disappointment. Write a comparative essay in which you study the similarities and the contrasts of the characters and their means of fantasy and escape. Develop an argument in which you identify whether one of the characters copes better than the others, and explain why.
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: Deconstructing the Conclusion of “The Glass Menagerie”
The ending of The Glass Menagerieis somewhat unsatisfying in that it does not resolve the characters’ situations or psychological limitations. It appears that there has been little or no emotional or intellectual growth for any of the characters, and their life circumstances have not improved at all. Write an essay in which you study the conclusion of the play and remark upon the significance of this seeming lack of a resolution. Indicate what lesson you think the reader is to take away from a play that lacks a satisfying conclusion.
* For background, here is an analysis and plot summary of “The Glass Menagerie” *
* For the PaperStarter entry on another play by Tennessee Williams, “A Streetcar Named Desire” click here *
This list of important quotations from “The Glass Menagerie” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Glass Menagerie” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for “Glass Menagerie” above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text by Tennessee Williams they are referring to.
“LAURA: Most of them are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest little animals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie! Here’s an example of one, if you’d like to see it! ….
JIM: It sure does shine!
LAURA: I shouldn’t be partial, but he is my favorite one.
JIM: What kind of a thing is this one supposed to be?
LAURA: Haven’t you noticed the single horn on his forehead?
JIM: A unicorn, huh? —aren’t they extinct in the modern world?
LAURA: I know!
JIM: Poor little fellow, he must feel sort of lonesome."
“Every time you come in yelling that Goddamn ‘Rise and Shine! Rise and Shine!’ I say to myself, ‘How lucky dead people are!’ But I get up. I go! 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 though of, Mother, I’d be where he is — GONE!” (23)
“I know your ambitions do not lie in the warehouse, that like everybody in the whole wide world — you’ve had to — make sacrifices, but — Tom — Tom — life’s not easy, it calls for — Spartan endurance!” (32)
“This was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure. Adventure and change were imminent in this year. They were waiting around the corner for all these kids." (39)
“You are the only young man that I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present becomes the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” (45)
“I know I seem dreamy, but inside — well, I’m boiling! Whenever I pick up a shoe, I shudder a little thinking how short life is and what I am doing! Whatever that means, I know it doesn’t mean shoes– except as something to wear on a traveler’s feet!” (62)
“You think of yourself as having the only problems, as being the only one who is disappointed. But just look around you and you will see lots of people as disappointed as you are.” (76)
“Glass breaks so easily. No matter how careful you are.” (86)
“You don’t know things anywhere! You live in a dream: you manufacture illusions.” (95)
“I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further — for time is the longest distance between two places.” (96)
Reference: Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: New Directions, 1999.