The plot of “The Glass Menagerie” as well as the detailed stage directions in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams contributes to the reader’s perceptions of Laura as a tragic figure. While the reader of “The Glass Menagerie” knows explicitly that she suffers a number of handicaps, both socially and physically, these details are not completely tragic until they are coupled with the more minor details related to her description. Laura has very little dialogue in “The Glass Menagerie”, even though she is the center of many scenes and therefore the power of her presentation as a tragic figure lies in metaphor, stage directions, and the perceptions or dialogue of other characters.
The basics of the plot of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams constructs Laura as a tragic figure. This is not just because she is unmarried and painfully shy, but also because she is actually physically crippled and must wear a brace on her leg—a physical outward sign to all that she is different. Still, even a physical handicap and social awkwardness are not enough to qualify her as tragic—her situation itself contains tragedy. In “The Glass Menagerie” she is left with a mother who lives in the past and is constantly aware of what is called in one of the important quotes from “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, a “fantastic whims and behavior” of her two children. Her father is not present since he “fell in love with long distances” even though his portrait overlooks the goings-on of the house. Laura is never an antagonistic character in “The Glass Menagerie”, yet dramatic confrontations between her brother and mother have a great effect on her. In many ways, she is tragic because she seems to feel so much. Furthermore, the boy she was in love with throughout high school kisses her and then tells her that he is engaged to be married, thus by the end we are convinced that she is doomed to live out her life as the “old maid” or “spinster” her mother always feared she would become. For Laura in “The Glass Menagerie”, escape is impossible and it is tragic that in the end she is not even a beautiful rare glass figurine, but a unicorn with a broken horn, a “normal horse” or the mythic “Blue Rose” that is pretty, but unreal.
Aside from these more visceral details regarding the tragic circumstances of her life, the stage directions offered in “The Glass Menagerie” make the reader even more aware of her fragility. For instance, when her mother and brother are arguing, the lighting does not pass over her. The stage directions in “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams indicate that there should be “A clear pool of light on her figure throughout the scene.” This is important not only because it draws attention to her almost angelic glass-like nature, but also because it makes the reader (or viewer) painfully aware of the possible impact the bickering is having on her. In his description of how he wanted the audience to view her, Tennessee Williams states, “Laura; she is like a piece of translucent glass touched by a light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting.” By telling the reader this and by having the director convey this sense to an actual audience, Williams is not just relying on the plot to drive our sympathies or understanding of Laura as a tragic figure. It is difficult to see Laura as fully developed, especially since she has relatively few lines (even though her presence drives the plot of “The Glass Menagerie”) and it seems, because of these stage directions that we are to see her as a glass figurine in human shape—mostly mute, unique, and extremely fragile.
By the end of “The Glass Menagerie”, Laura is most tragic because she has almost become a glass figurine. She is enclosed in a miniature, cramped apartment with her “keeper” and is rarely, if ever handled. Aside from the scene in “The Glass Menagerie” during which the reader pictures Laura wandering the streets alone with a bad leg in the cold, just to get out of her class, one of the most tragic scenes is when she is alone with Jim. It is at this point that we see the full tragic scope of her situation, especially since Jim seems to present a picture of the “real world” thus making Laura contrast with it. Just as her brother says, Laura lives in “a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments” and when Jim asks her, in one of theimportant quotes from “Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, “Unicorns—aren’t they extinct in the modern world” it is clear that Laura has no place in the “modern world” and that she is like the unicorn, both before and after the horn is broken off. The horn, however, symbolizes her heart while the unicorn itself is her detachment from the real world. She should not be touched, since she breaks so easily. Even she seems to realize this when she tells Jim, “if you breathe…it breaks.” It is tragic that her once chance at being handled (emotionally, that is) is shattered and impossible.
Even without some of the details from “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams discussed above, it would still be easy to view Laura as a tragic figure, simply because of her isolation from the “modern” world of Jim or even her brother. Still, the full effect of her tragic state would not be realized without including the metaphor of her being a glass figure, forever encased in the “coffin” of her mother’s house without her brother—the only other person who could understand her. While it is tragic enough to think of a shy person with a bad leg, this is not the real tragedy—the true tragic scenario is that she is the broken unicorn who is fated to become a regular horse.
• Need more background info? Check out the full summary and analysis of “The Glass Menagerie” here •
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Analysis and Plot Summary of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams • Short Biography of Tennessee Williams