The Glass Menagerie

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Themes and Colors
Memory Theme Icon
Abandonment Theme Icon
Illusions and Dreams Theme Icon
Escape Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Glass Menagerie, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Memory Theme Icon

In his monologue that opens the play, Tom announces, “The play is memory.” The play is Tom's memory of the past, and all of the action takes place in his head. That action is therefore dramatic, sentimental, and emotional, not realistic. As is fitting in a play that is itself a memory of the past, in The Glass Menagerie the past haunts all the characters.

Tom the character (the Tom who Tom is remembering as he "creates" the play) feels trapped by memory. He sees the past as a physical and emotional restraint that prevents him from living his life. And yet there is something in it that holds him, too—he is compelled to return to memory over and over again. His repetitive actions, such as smoking and going to the movies, demonstrate both his desire to escape and the relentless cycle of the past. And the fact that the play itself is a memory he feels the need to transform into a play suggests that Tom has still not escaped that past. Amanda uses her memories like a veil to shield her from reality. She clings to the Southern belle version of herself who received seventeen gentleman callers in a weekend.

As the play progresses, and things do not work out as Amanda hopes they will, she clutches the past more desperately. When the gentleman caller arrives, she wears a ridiculously frilled dress and slips into a Southern accent, becoming her former self rather than accepting the reality of her present situation. Laura retreats to the past as a safe haven, a perfect world removed from time. Her delicate memories, such as being called “Blue Roses,” are much like her fragile glass menagerie in their perfection and fragility. Unlike the other characters, Jim is not haunted by his past: he remembers his youth but does not feel the need to re-live it. Nonetheless, when the Wingfield's treat him as the high-school hero he used to be, and with the help of the candlelight and the music, he seems to slip into this memory. But when the glass unicorn breaks and the spell is broken, he returns to his own life, outside the Wingfields’ memories.

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Memory ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Memory appears in each scene of The Glass Menagerie. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Memory Quotes in The Glass Menagerie

Below you will find the important quotes in The Glass Menagerie related to the theme of Memory.
Scene 1 Quotes

The scene is memory and therefore nonrealistic.

Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Tennessee Williams presents this vision of the play as a stage direction, not as a voiced statement in the play itself. Williams is not trying to create the illusion of reality, that is, that the audience is watching something happening in real-time and in real life. Rather, Tennessee Williams wants the audience members to be fully aware that they are watching an artistic, subjective representation of certain events. Tom is both a character in the play’s action and the "author" of the play--and the person in whose memory all the action takes place. This stage direction suggests that the set be symbolic and suggestive (perhaps of a kind of nostalgia or blurred memory), since the audience is meant to be fully aware of the interaction between art and life. Indeed, much of the tension in the play comes through the friction between idealized conceptions of the past and the truths of the present day. Since the play is filtered through Tom’s perspective and memory, the audience does not get to see an unfiltered version of the action, but rather the perception of past events as Tom himself saw them both at the time and how he recalls them now.


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There is a fifth character in the play who doesn’t appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel. This is our father who left us a long time ago. He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances...The last we heard of him was a picture postcard...containing a message of two words: “Hello—Goodbye!”

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Mr. Wingfield
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom, in the role of the play’s narrator, introduces his father as yet another stage prop, not as a real human being. The father only enters the play as a figure in each of the characters’ memories. Although he no longer has any active interaction with any of the characters, the father looms large psychologically over the Wingfield household--and this is represented symbolically as he looms physically over the play’s deliberately unrealistic set. The father’s absence makes Amanda, the mother, even more domineering and insecure, both because she is the only voice of authority and because she is still in pain over her husband’s disappearance. The father’s absence also makes Amanda even more hectically eager to see Laura married, since she wants to redeem the failure of her own marriage by seeing her daughter happily married.

For Tom, his father’s absence is a huge symbolic burden because of Tom’s conflicting guilt over whether or not he should stay or leave his family. Tom feels trapped in the apartment. He wants to leave and pursue his own life, but he also does not want to be yet another male figure who betrays his mother and sister.

Scene 2 Quotes

What are we going to do, what is going to become of us, what is the future?

Related Characters: Amanda Wingfield (speaker)
Related Symbols: Typewriter
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

When Amanda learns that Laura is no longer in secretarial school, the “us” in Amanda’s exclamation to Laura is extremely revealing. Amanda projects herself and her life onto Laura’s decisions. The “us” in Amanda’s sentence represents the way that Amanda often addresses Laura. Instead of saying “you,” which would separate herself and her daughter, she implies through her syntax that Laura does not have any opinions or thoughts of her own that are not somehow mediated through Amanda. Amanda is speaking to Laura about Laura’s revelation that she has quit her typewriting school, and as she interrogates Laura about this choice, the audience learns that she is much more concerned over the impact on herself, not whether or not the decision benefits or hurts Laura.

The “us” is also, therefore, a kind of royal “we.” Amanda turns Laura’s decision into a behavior that has been designed to impact her own life, rather than a choice that Laura made for Laura’s sake. Amanda is very much the center of her universe, and she sees everyone else’s lives as revolving around her own. In Amanda’s point of view, people’s choices are judged on a scale of how much and in what way they impact Amanda’s life. Thus Laura leaving the secretarial school becomes, in Amanda’s perception and Amanda’s narrative, a decision that has the most consequences for Amanda.

What is there left but dependency all our lives? I know so well what becomes of unmarried women who aren’t prepared to occupy a position. I’ve seen such pitiful cases in the South—barely tolerated spinsters living upon the grudging patronage of sister’s husband or brother’s wife!—stuck away in some little mousetrap of a room—encouraged by one in-law to visit another—little birdlike women without any nest—eating the crust of humility all their life!

Related Characters: Amanda Wingfield (speaker), Laura Wingfield
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

When Laura drops out of secretarial school, Amanda paints a gruesomely exaggerated picture of the sorry fate that an unwed, unemployed single woman must face. Since Laura has failed to secure a career, Amanda suggests that the only thing she can do is marry, even though Laura is extremely shy and does not seem very eager to pursue romance. Amanda wants to make the best of what she perceives to be a dire situation, and she latches onto her idea of what might be a sliver of hope.

Amanda is fearful about her own future. Her husband has left her, she is not trained in a career, and she is no longer an attractive young woman, which, in her own calculus, means that she may have to live off the charity of others. But instead of admitting her worries about herself, Amanda projects her fears onto Laura. Amanda still pretends that she lives as a golden past version of herself, and to admit a lack of self-confidence in her own capabilities would be to face the real world and her own flaws in a way that she’s not capable of doing yet.

Scene 6 Quotes

[Jim] seemed to move in a continual spotlight. ... He was shooting with such velocity through his adolescence that you would logically expect him to arrive at nothing short of the White House by the time he was thirty.

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Jim O’Connor
Related Symbols: Fire Escape
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

When Tom begins to describe Jim, the other man seems like Tom’s opposite in many ways. In high school, Jim had been a star. Tom describes young Jim in a way that makes him sound like a hero in one of the adventure movies Tom now watches night after night. Tom’s memory of Jim was of a perfect "golden boy" with an extremely bright future.

At present, however, the paths of the two men have converged. Despite seeming to be on such different paths at the end of high school, Jim and Tom are now both in the same position at the warehouse. Tom’s description of Jim is just as influenced by memory as his description of the rest of the characters, and Jim also relies on memory and the glory of the past to help soothe the harsh realities of the present. Since Tom knew Jim in Jim’s glory days, he can see him in this more flattering light, which allows Jim to see himself as the shining star he was, rather than the stalled worker he is now.

Scene 7 Quotes

I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two places.

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom ends the play with a long monologue that describes his escape from the Wingfield apartment. When Tom leaves his family, he leaves behind not only their reality but also their fantasy lives. The moon symbolizes hope and dreams throughout the play, as the family wishes on the moon to make their lives better. However, Tom realizes that wishing on the moon and dreaming is keeping himself tied to illusions and the past, rather than allowing him to move forward in his life. Tom abandons the promise of the moon and the dreams of his youth to try and pursue a new kind of life for himself (but also by following Amanda's angry command to "go to the moon").

The final monologue also re-introduces time into the play. This monologue pulls the audience out of the scenes in the apartment and presents a span of time over many years. Throughout the play, there is a continual tension between the characters’ recollections of the past and the present that they live in now. Amanda wants to cling to the past, and she fights against the realities of the present. Laura seems to exist in a bubble outside time. Tom, meanwhile, resents the past and the present and wants to fling himself into the future.

Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left St. Louis.

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom’s literary ambitions and his desire for adventure finally outgrow his life, and he breaks free of what he perceives to be his prison. Boxes are extremely symbolic for Tom. He sees the apartment that he lives in as a stifling box, and the fire escape is the only place that provides any kind of relief. Tom describes the magic trick with the man who escapes from the coffin as a metaphor for Tom’s own life, since he feels trapped and dead inside his physical and symbolic box. The warehouse is another box that imprisons Tom inside a dead-end job. Even the movies, Tom’s escape mechanism, are inside a screen and a theater that are both box-like. The shoe-box is symbolic of Tom’s feeling of being trapped. However, the shoe-box is also what sets Tom free. He takes the symbolic shoes out of the symbolic box and walks away from what he perceives to be his prison. Tennessee Williams’s description of Tom’s literary ambitions is also somewhat autobiographical. Williams himself had literary ambitions that extended beyond the scope of his own life in St. Louis, and he, too, left the city to pursue bigger dreams.

I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches.

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Mr. Wingfield
Related Symbols: Fire Escape
Page Number: 96-97
Explanation and Analysis:

The image of the city sweeping about Tom like dead leaves is perhaps a reference to a famous description in the Inferno, in which Dante describes souls as fluttering around the Underworld as lightly as dead leaves. Tom believed that when he left the apartment and sought his freedom, he would be able to escape (via the "fire escape," symbolically) the forlorn nature of the house. Tom felt like he was dead in that apartment, as he signified in his speech to Laura about the magician’s trick of getting out of the coffin. However, Tom learns, perhaps too late, that though he thinks he can find freedom by roaming far afield, he is still in the underworld, since he is still trapped within his own memories and his emotions. Physical freedom is not the same thing as psychological escape. Tom’s world becomes an inferno, the seasons and cities as empty and fruitless as dead leaves and dead souls. Just as the family is haunted by the specter of the father who left them, Tom is haunted by the specter of the family he himself left. Tom’s sudden break feels like a victory in the moment, but in reality, because he has had no closure, a huge part of Tom still remains in that apartment (as the very existence of the "memory play" itself makes clear).

The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Laura Wingfield
Related Symbols: Glass Menagerie
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

In Tom’s final monologue, memory, reality, symbols, time, and space all swirl together in Tom’s head. Although Tom thinks that he can escape the prison of his stifling home life when he leaves the Wingfield apartment and travels far afield, Tom cannot escape the memories of his past. Tom is heartbroken at the end of the play because he feels as though he has betrayed his sister. Even though Tom left the family to obtain his own freedom, which is what he thought he wanted, he hadn’t counted on the deep bond between himself and his sister, and his deep love and affection for her. He sees images of her everywhere, representing the guilt he feels. Tom shattered a bond between himself and Laura when he left, and every time he sees delicate glass objects, he is reminded of this symbolic shattering, because glass reminds him of Laura. Tom also sees himself in the glass, or, rather, the memory of his former self. 

For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura—and so goodbye...

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Laura Wingfield
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom’s final line of the play emphasizes the symbolic importance of the many different kinds of light and darkness that appear throughout the play. The lightning that strikes in this line is a very violent kind of light. Lightning is even more cruel and harsh than electric light or the light of the sun, since it is so highly concentrated and powerful. The lightning here also represents Tom’s feelings of guilt at leaving his family behind. Like the moon or the stars, lightning is a natural phenomenon, but it is quick, powerful, temporary, and all too real. The lightning also symbolically divides Tom’s present from his past. Tom knows that he can never return to the world of moonlight and candlelight that Laura and Amanda inhabit, because this world doesn’t even exist anymore. The memories of his family haunt Tom, but he must live in the present day. He thinks about Laura all the time, and his interior life has been lit by her memory since he left the family physically, but he also knows that he has to let her go in order to move forward with his own life.