“ The Glass Menagerie” is fundamentally a memory play, in that both it’s style and content are shaped and inspired by memory. The lighting effects emphasise these incessant reminiscences, as do the unique stage directions and screens, which appear regularly, accentuating key themes and motifs that recur throughout the play. As Tom himself states clearly, the play’s lack of realism, its high drama, its exaggerated symbolism, and even its frequent use of music are all due to its origins in remembrance, yet underlying this theme of the inexorable power of memory is the idea of entrapment, and the impossibility of true escape.
At the beginning of Scene Four, Tom regales Laura with an account of a magic show in which the magician managed to escape from a nailed-up coffin:
“ We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. There is a trick that would come in handy for me – get me out of this 2 by 4 situation”.
Evidently, Tom views his life with his family and at the warehouse as a type of coffin, cramped, suffocating, and morbid, in which he is unfairly confined. “ The Glass Menagerie” takes an ambiguous attitude toward the moral implications and even the effectiveness of Tom’s entrapment and escape. As an able-bodied young man, he is locked into his life not by exterior factors but by emotional ones, primarily his loyalty to and possibly even love for Laura and Amanda. Escape for Tom means the suppression and denial of these emotions in himself, and it denotes doing great harm to his mother and sister. The magician is able to emerge from his coffin without upsetting a single nail, but the human nails that bind Tom to his home will certainly be distressed by his departure. One cannot say for certain that leaving home even means true escape for Tom, because as far as he might wander from home, something still “ pursues” him. Like a jailbreak, Tom’s escape leads him not to freedom but to the life of a fugitive. Tom’s statement, however, that “ I am more faithful than I intended to be” indicates that he is fully aware that deserting his family was a faithless and morally reprehensible act, and the guilt associated with it may have something to do with his inability to leave Laura fully behind. Also, Tom’s highly poetic language when he functions as narrator contrasts with his very plain language as a character, pointing up the split between the imaginative world of the mind and the everyday world of the body that the characters live in but are unable to reconcile.
Another form of escape in “ The Glass Menagerie” is the fire escape leading out of the Wingfields’ apartment. On the most concrete level, the fire escape is an emblem of the Wingfields’ poverty, yet it represents exactly what its name implies: an escape from the “ implacable fires” of frustration and dysfunction that rage in the Wingfield household. Laura slips on the fire escape in Scene Four, highlighting her inability to escape from her situation. For her, escape is impossible, and the fire escape, which takes the people she loves away from her, represents only the possibility of injury and destruction. Tom, on the other hand, frequently steps out onto the landing to smoke, anticipating his eventual getaway.
The family also seems to have a sense of isolation. Tom seeks solitude on the fire escape because of the absence of a patriarchal figure, in “ a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from”. The Wingfields live in the patriarchal society of 1930’s America, where the majority of jobs were given to men. Without a male provider the women would feel trapped and so the role of patriarch falls to Tom. Tom does not welcome the responsibility of being the authoritative figure even though he appears to have been given the financial responsibility of being one. It is a coerced role, which has been imposed upon him, and he refuses to accept it thoroughly, consequently trying to avoid it by abandoning his commitments.
The plot of The Glass Menagerie is structured around a series of abandonments. Mr. Wingfield’s desertion of his family determines their life situation; Jim’s desertion of Laura is the centre of the play’s dramatic action; Tom’s abandonment of his family gives him the distance that allows him to shape their story into a narrative. Each of these acts of desertion proves devastating for those left behind. At the same time, each of them is portrayed as the necessary condition for, and a natural result of, inevitable progress. In particular, each is strongly associated with the march of technological progress and the achievements of the modern world. Mr. Wingfield, who works for the telephone company, leaves his family because he “ fell in love with long distances” that the telephone brings into people’s consciousness. It is impossible to imagine that Jim, who puts his faith in the future of radio and television, would tie himself to the sealed, static world of Laura. Tom sees his departure as essential to the pursuit of “ adventure,” his taste for which is whetted by the movies he attends nightly. Only Amanda and Laura, who are devoted to archaic values and old memories, will presumably never assume the role of abandoner and are doomed to be repeatedly discarded themselves.
Moreover, the characters in “ The Glass Menagerie” experience difficulty in accepting reality, and each consequently withdraws and escapes into a private world of illusion where he or she finds the comfort and meaning that the real world does not seem to offer. Reality has the weakest grasp on Laura, as glass animals, objects that, like Laura’s inner life, are incredibly fanciful and dangerously delicate, populate the private world in which she lives. Unlike his sister, Tom is capable of functioning in the real world, as we see in his holding down a job and talking to strangers. Ultimately, however, he has no more motivation than Laura does to pursue professional success, romantic relationships, or even ordinary friendships, and he prefers to retreat into the fantasies provided by literature and movies and the stupor provided by drunkenness. Amanda’s relationship to reality is the most complicated in the play, as unlike her children, she is partial to real-world values and longs for social and financial success. Yet her attachment to these values is exactly what prevents her from perceiving a number of truths about her life. She cannot accept that she is or should be anything other than the pampered belle she was brought up to be, that Laura is peculiar, that Tom is not a budding businessman, and that she herself might be in some ways responsible for the sorrows and flaws of her children. Amanda’s retreat into illusion is in many ways more pathetic than her children’s, because it is not a willful imaginative construction but a wistful distortion of reality.
To summarise, although the Wingfields are distinguished and bound together by the weak relationships they maintain with reality, the illusions to which they succumb are not merely familial quirks. The outside world is just as susceptible to illusion and escape as the Wingfields. The young people at the Paradise Dance Hall waltz under the short-lived illusion created by a glass ball – another version of Laura’s glass animals. Tom opines to Jim that the other viewers at the movies he attends are substituting on-screen adventure for real-life adventure, finding fulfilment in the illusion of escape rather than real life. Even Jim, who represents the “ world of reality,” is banking his future on public speaking and the television and radio industries, all of which are means for the creation of illusions and the persuasion of others that these illusions are true. Escape to the characters in “ The Glass Menagerie” is an illusion, and the statement Tom makes in scene 4 is equally relevant to every character in the play. “ The Glass Menagerie” therefore identifies the conquest of reality and confrontation by illusion and escape, as a huge and growing aspect of the human condition in its time.