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.
Memory Quotes in The Glass Menagerie
The scene is memory and therefore nonrealistic.
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!”
One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain—your mother received—seventeen!—gentlemen callers!
What are we going to do, what is going to become of us, what is the future?
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!
Oh, I can see the handwriting on the wall as plain as I see the nose in front of my face! It’s terrifying! More and more you remind me of your father! He was out all hours without explanation—Then left! Goodbye! And me with the bag to hold.
In Spain there was Guernica! But here there was only hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows...All the world was waiting for bombardments!
[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.
Finally there were no more vases to hold them, every available space was filled with jonquils. No vases to hold them? All right, I’ll hold them myself!
Gone, gone, gone. All vestige of gracious living! Gone completely! I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me.
I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two places.
Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left St. Louis.
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.
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!