Use of Symbols, Tensions, and Irony in The Glass Menagerie
The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, is a perfect example of how Williams incorporates symbols, tensions, and irony to help express the central theme of the play.
One of the most dominant symbols in the play is the fire escape. It represents something different for each of the characters. Tom uses the fire escape to escape from his cramped apartment and nagging mother. Therefore, the fire escape symbolizes a path to the outside world. For Jim, the gentleman caller, the fire escape represents a means of entering the Wingfield apartment and by doing so, entering the Wingfields' lives. The mother, Amanda, sees the fire escape as a possible entrance for Jim into the apartment and as an answer to the fear she has of her daughter becoming a spinster. Lastly, for Laura, the fire escape represents a place she can go to hide from the real world.
The glass menagerie itself is another symbol. It represents how fragile, sensitive, and unique Laura is. Laura's prize piece is the unicorn, which Jim bumps into and brakes. After the unicorn is broken, it is no longer unique. Just as after Jim kisses Laura and tells her of his engagement to be married, she becomes both heart-broken and a little less unique. In this area, Jim represents the outside world. When the unicorn and Laura are exposed to Jim (or the outside world) they break. By Laura giving Jim the broken unicorn, she is also giving him her broken heart to take with him. She gives him the broken unicorn because it is no longer unique, and to her neither is Jim. Likewise, when Jim leaves, he will also leave behind a little of himself in Laura's broken heart.
Another symbol used by Tennessee is rainbows. Rainbows represent hope throughout the play; ironically though, the situations with rainbows all end in disappointment. Tom talks of his rainbow-colored scarf that was used at a magic show to change a bowl of goldfish into flying canaries. Like the canaries, Tom hopes to escape from his prison and fly away. The rainbow reflections at the Dance Hall, created by the chandeliers, foreshadow the dance between Jim and Laura. This dance gave Laura a sense of hope for herself. Later though, Tom looks at the "pieces of colored glass, like bits of a shattered rainbow", which represents Laura's broken hopes and dreams.
Tom uses irony as a means of keeping pain and himself apart. Amanda accuses Tom of going out drinking every night, and to this Tom makes up a humorous story about how "killer, killer, Wingfield" spends his nights in "opium dens, dens of vice and criminals'...