Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is a haunting American play that makes a compelling choice for the AP English Literature Free Response Question. This play was first performed in Chicago in 1944 and was heavily influenced by William’s life and the Great Depression. To put this play into context, the action takes place in the 1930’s and the Wingfield family is very much a product of the Great Depression. We see the repercussion of the depression on the household financially and in their surroundings.
Tennessee Williams was born in Mississippi in 1919, and his birth name was the same as the narrator of our story, Thomas. Williams is also the author of other well-known dramas like A Streetcar Named Desire and A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He had a troubled family life, and The Glass Menagerie is based on his experiences. Williams’ father was a loud drunk who was often absent. His mother was a Southern belle and prone to hysterics. He was very close to his older sister, Rose, who was allegedly mentally ill. Each member of Williams’ family serves as a direct inspiration for the characters in the play. The Glass Menagerie is a memory play not just for the narrator Tom, but for its author.
The Glass Menagerie attempts to capture a catharsis on stage. Tom shares his life with the audience, truth told in a sensational and dramatic manner, to release himself from the memories’ hold on him. In doing so, the audience is left unsure if sharing a memory that’s had such a profound hold on an individual can indeed release you from it. After all, this play is autobiographical, and Williams should be freed of his memories through writing this play, but was he? Williams’ raw emotion and honesty along with his ability to capture the effects of the Great Depression on Americans make The Glass Menagerie a unique choice for your AP English Literature Free Response Question.
The Glass Menagerie AP English Lit Essay Themes
Memory is not only a theme in The Glass Menagerie, it is the means by which the play is told. Tom serves not only as a character in the play but as narrator. He tells the audience: “The Play is memory.” Tom clearly tells us that the play’s high drama, perfect use of symbolism, and lack of realism are all because it’s based on memory. Most fiction comes from the imagination and tries to convince the audience that it is real, but this play builds on a memory and reality; therefore, it does not have to use conventional stage trappings to convince the audience of its truth. Tom feels trapped by his memories; they prevent him from leaving his family and living his life. Even after leaving, Tom feels the need to write this play, which indicates that physical distance still did not allow him to escape from these memories. The characters in the play are trapped by memory, too. Amanda lives in constant pursuit of long-forgotten youth. When a male caller comes for Laura, her mother dresses up in a girlish gown and flirts with him in an attempt to recapture the memory of her youth. Laura removes herself into the past as a haven. Her memory of being called “Blue Roses” is almost as fragile and precious as her glass menagerie.
An ambiguous theme throughout The Glass Menagerie. Tom recalls Laura with the story of a magician escaping from a coffin without disturbing a single nail. This story illustrates Tom’s desire to escape the confines of his family, which he wishes to do without disturbing their lives. Williams leaves the audience unsure this can be accomplished. At the end of the play Tom leaves the illusions of his family and enters the real world, but it is unclear if only telling this story will allow him to escape from his family fully or if their memories will always haunt him. Laura is also trying to escape, but from the outer world. She wishes to retreat to the safety of a world that she can keep perfect and controlled. Laura can see the reality around her; she serves as a peacemaker between her brother and mother. The fire escape is the ultimate representation of escape in this play. It helps to keep the outer world away for Laura, and it serves as a link to that world for Tom.
Illusion versus Reality
A theme that affects each member of the Wingfield family in The Glass Menagerie. Each character has found some aspect of reality too difficult to cope with and recedes into a world of illusion. Tom is the most functional of the family and holds down a job; yet, every night he recedes into a world of fantasy either through literature, film or drink. Tom has little motivation to succeed professionally, and instead of dealing with this reality head on, he retreats. Laura spends the least amount of time in the real world, preferring to retreat to the safety of the fragile world of her glass menagerie. The objects in Laura’s menagerie reflect her inner life, delicate and whimsical. Amanda has the most complicated relationship with reality. She places great stock in real-world values like financial and romantic success, unlike Tom and Laura. At the same time, Amanda believes she should be the spoiled belle of her youth and cannot accept her current state or her responsibility for her children’s positions in life. However, Williams is not saying that only the Wingfields live in a world of illusion. Jim is planning his career in TV and radio, which is based on making people believe an illusion as reality.
How to use The Glass Menagerie for the 2010 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In this Free Response Question, you are asked to explore the theme of home and its influence on a character. The prompt is as follows.
“You can leave home all you want, but home will never leave you.”
Sonsyrea Tate’s statement suggests that “home” may be conceived of as a dwelling, a place, or a state of mind. It may have positive or negative associations, but in either case, it may have a considerable influence on an individual. Choose a novel or play in which a central character leaves home yet finds that home remains significant. Write a well-developed essay in which you analyze the importance of “home” to this character and the reasons for its continuing influence. Explain how the character’s idea of home illuminates the larger meaning of the work.
Home plays a pivotal role in The Glass Menagerie for the narrator and character Tom Wingfield. The audience is told this is a memory play and Tom hopes that in telling it he can be free of the memories that bind him to his home and family. Tennessee Williams leaves the audience unclear if this action of using play to purge an individual of the memories that haunt them is successful. Williams’ autobiographical play was adapted from a short story he had already written. The fact that he’d already spent time putting this into short story form but was still compelled to turn it into play may say more about the influence of home and its memories upon the individual than anything in the play itself.
Tom struggles with the desire to leave home the entire play. Though he feels his family is preventing him from living a full life in the real world, he is constantly drawn back into their world. Tom’s attachment to his sister and his inability to face the realities of the world are both stifling and safe. Though Tom ultimately leaves home, the memories never leave him. The Glass Menagerie ends with Tom delivering a monologue explaining that he left the family, traveled the world, but was never truly able to abandon the memory of his sister. The last thing the audience sees is Laura blowing out a candle, perhaps signifying Tom’s release from her hold.
How to use The Glass Menagerie for the 2009 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In this Free Response Question, you are asked to explore a symbol. The prompt is as follows.
A symbol is an object, action, or event that represents something or that creates a range of associations beyond itself. In literary works a symbol can express an idea, clarify meaning, or enlarge literal meaning. Select a novel or play and, focusing on one symbol, write an essay analyzing how that symbol functions in the work and what it reveals about the characters or themes of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.
Many symbols play a significant role within this play: the glass menagerie, the unicorn figurine, and Laura’s high school nickname Blue Roses. Another symbol that goes to the heart of Tom’s struggle in this drama is the fire escape. The escape has different meaning for different characters. Tom sees the fire escape as just that, a means of an escape to the outside world. He frequently sits there to smoke, foreshadowing his eventual flight. Laura, on the other hand, sees the escape as a means of protection from the outside world. This is illustrated in Scene Four when she slips on the fire escape. Laura is unable to break free from her situation and needs the protection the fire escape represents from the outside world.
Both of these characters have a strong desire to escape from or to the outside world and the fire escape represents this struggle. Tom’s eventual departure shows that physical escape from his home is possible, even if mental escape may or may not be. The fire escape symbolizes both his success and this ambiguity.
How to use The Glass Menagerie for the 2002 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In this Free Response Question, you are asked to discuss a morally ambiguous character. The prompt is as follows.
Morally ambiguous characters characters whose behavior discourages readers from identifying them as purely evil or purely good are at the heart of many works of literature. Choose a novel or play in which a morally ambiguous character plays a pivotal role. Then write an essay in which you explain how the character can be viewed as morally ambiguous and why his or her moral ambiguity is significant to the work as a whole. Avoid mere plot summary.
The character of Tom Wingfield is contradictory and morally ambiguous throughout The Glass Menagerie. As a narrator, Tom appears aloof and detached from the events of the play. So the audience initially trusts his recounting. Once he’s a character in the narrative, Tom is petty and cruel toward his sister and appears emotionally volatile. This quick shift leaves the audience unclear of who the real Tom is and how much of the story one can believe. Tom never shows any kindness toward his sister or mother, and his final abandonment of them at the end of the play reinforce this cruelty; yet, Tom’s inability to let go of his family shows affection for them that he was not able to express in their presence.
The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, and in recounting one’s memories, a character is forced to confront past versions of themselves that lacked growth they now show. Because of this, it’s unclear if Tom’s emotions are affecting his judgment. To complicate things, Williams uses Tom as a stand in for the moral ambiguity he himself feels towards his family. Tom’s dual role as a narrator and main character within the play highlights his ambiguity and underscores the struggle any memory play has: portraying the truth.
With this guide and an in-depth knowledge of The Glass Menagerie, you can have great success on the AP English Literature Exam. There are many resources out there to help you practice for the AP English Literature Exam, such as How to Study for the AP English Literature Exam. For an in-depth breakdown into Free Response questions, you should check out The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. You can take practice online exams at Albert’s AP English Literature Free Response Questions page.
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1. The Glass Menagerie "seems to derive its continued if wavering force from its partly repressed representation of the quasi-incestuous and doomed love" between Tom and Laura" (Harold Bloom). Discuss.
As far as the text of the play is concerned, the only time Tom really expresses his feelings about Laura is at the end, when he confesses that even though he has escaped from the stifling effect of the family home, he cannot forget Laura. So many things remind him of her, and he is tormented by the memory: "Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!" This suggests a strong emotional connection between brother and sister, and probably a feeling of guilt on the part of Tom for having deserted her. And the word he uses, "faithful," seems an unusual one for a brother to use about a sister. The idea of being faithful is more usually applied to relationships between lovers or spouses rather than siblings. However, this passage is not in itself an indicator of an incestuous or even "quasi-incestuous" love. During the play Tom does not, in the text, show any unusual attachment to his sister.
However, the script of a play is only the bare bones of what it becomes in performance. There may be opportunities for the actors playing Tom and Laura to suggest a relationship between the two that might come close to the "partly repressed" incestuous love that Bloom writes about. This opportunity was indeed taken in the celebrated 1973 television production, starring Katharine Hepburn as Amanda. At the beginning of scene 4, when Tom returned at five in the morning and entertained Laura with tales of what had happened at the theater, there was a flirtatious manner between them that suggested something more than conventional love between siblings.
In short, the playwright does not seem to have presented the relationship between Tom and Laura as "quasi-incestuous" in any consistent, obvious manner. However, it is possible to suggest such a relationship in performance.
2. Discuss Williams's use during the play of a screen bearing images or titles.
Williams wanted productions of the play to use at certain moments a screen on which were projected slides bearing images or titles. The purpose, according to Williams's production notes, was to stress the most important points in each scene. He realized that his play was rather episodic and he was concerned that the audience might lose track of the structure of the play, making it seem fragmentary. Williams wrote: "The legend or image upon the screen will strengthen the effect of what is merely allusion in the writing and allow the primary point to be made more simply and lightly than if the entire responsibility were on the spoken word."
Directors and scholars have generally been unenthusiastic about this innovation of Williams. The screens (also described as legends) were omitted from the Broadway production of 1945, which Williams did not regret since Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda was so powerful that he felt the production could be simplified.
Directors since have usually followed this lead, although Williams retained the use of the legends in the Reading Edition of the play.
Many of the legends seem unnecessary. When Amanda reminisces about her youth, the image, "Amanda as a girl on a porch, greeting callers," does not add much to the audience's understanding. Similarly, "A swarm of typewriters," the legend that is to appear as Amanda begins her story of her visit to Rubicam's business college, adds little to the story, since Amanda immediately goes on to explain that she went to see the typing instructor.
More use can be seen for an image stating (or illustrating) "Crippled", when Laura utters the word, since Williams wrote that Laura's lameness can be merely suggested on the stage. And when Tom says he likes a lot of adventure, the image that appears, "Sailing vessel with Jolly Roger," suggests Tom's later departure for the sea.
In general, however, the verdict of time has been that the legends are not necessary and add little if anything to the effect of the play.
3. Discuss Williams's use of non-realist techniques in The Glass Menagerie.
Williams repeatedly stressed that he was not writing realistic drama. In his production notes to The Glass Menagerie he disparaged realism in drama, comparing it to a mere photographic likeness, whereas "truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance."
At the very outset, Tom addresses the audience directly. This is a breach of realistic convention, in which the actors are obliged to pretend that the audience does not exist. Tom also hints at the nonrealistic nature of the play when he says that in contrast to a stage magician who provides illusion in the guise of truth, "I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." Tom also brings out the nonrealistic dimension when he makes it clear that although he is narrating from the present, the characters and situations he is re-creating are from the past.
There are other occasions when Williams deliberately disrupts any sense of realism in the play. In scene 1, for example, when Amanda and Laura are seated at the table, "eating is indicated by gestures without food or utensils."
Music plays a large part in the play, especially the "glass menagerie" music that is heard in connection with Laura. Tom deliberately brings attention to this breach of realism: "In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings."
Williams also uses lighting in non-realistic ways. The stage is dim, but shafts of light illuminate selected areas or characters. Lighting often serves to keep Laura as the center of attention even when this is not apparent from the action in the scene. For example, as Williams himself points out in the production notes, in the quarrel between Tom and Amanda (scene 3), a scene that does not directly involve Laura, the light shines on her nonetheless. So too in the supper scene, when Laura lies on the sofa, taking no part in the conversation, the light is still focused on her.
4. What does The Glass Menagerie reveal about the lives of women during this time period?
The world depicted in the 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. Amanda depends on her son to pay the rent and the other bills for their apartment. When she wants to bring in some income, she is reduced to selling magazine subscriptions from her own home.
Laura's position shows even more clearly the limited opportunities open to women during this time period. Although she does have the chance to attend a business college, what she learns there is shorthand and typing, which would be sufficient to get her a job as a secretary (to a male executive) but no more. When she drops out of college, her prospects are even worse. All she can hope for is to snare a man who will support her, and for that she must develop her feminine wiles. According to Amanda, all women should be a trap for men ("and men expect them to be," she says).
But the reality is that men are not trapped by women, since they are able to escape any situation that is not of their liking, with little consequence. The prime example of this is the father, Amanda's husband, who left his job with the telephone company and deserted his family. Interestingly, Amanda, far from despising him, seems to retain much affection for him, since she displays his over-sized portrait prominently on the mantel and points it out to Jim with some pride. If she feels any anger toward her husband, she does not show it. She lives in a world where it seems accepted that men will behave in this way, and there is little women can do about it.
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.
The world depicted in the play, of strictly segregated roles for men and women, typifies pre-World War II America. After the war, as more women remained in the workforce, roles and expectations based on gender gradually began to change. By the 1960s, the world depicted in The Glass Menagerie was rapidly becoming out of date.
5. What role does religious symbolism play in The Glass Menagerie?
Religious symbols and allusions hover in the background of the play and contribute to its meaning. Amanda regards herself as a Christian. When she sympathizes with the women she talks to about her subscription drive, she calls them "Christian martyrs," which may give a clue to how Amanda sees herself. 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."
All Christians, especially suffering ones, await the coming of the savior, and this is the role in which Amanda casts Jim O'Connor. Scene 5, in which Tom breaks the news that Jim is coming for dinner, begins with the legend "Annunciation," a term which refers to the message brought by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.
The person to be redeemed is of course Laura. She is also described in religious terms. According to Williams's production notes, the light that shines on her during the play should have "a peculiar pristine clarity, such as light used in the early religious portraits of female saints and madonnas."
But Jim O'Connor is unable to live up to the status that Amanda ascribes to him. When he and Laura are alone together he offers her not the wine and bread of the holy sacraments, but wine and chewing gum. And he preaches only a secular gospel of self-help rather than salvation through divine grace.
Whereas Christ the savior is presented in Christian scriptures as the light of the world, in The Glass Menagerie, the lights are always going out. When it transpires that Jim is unavailable for Laura, the "holy candles in the altar of Laura's face have been snuffed out." The lights go out at the dinner table too, a foreshadowing of how the world will soon be plunged into the darkness of World War II. Tom's final speech ends with candles being blown out. The only light now in the world is that of lightning, not the divine light.
The religious symbols and allusions therefore serve to give only false hope. They enhance the pessimism of the play.