A Nail Stuck, An Analysis of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”

By Trudy A. Martinez

When reading The Glass Menagerie, one feels pity for Tom because his mother mistreat him; this is such a tragedy. She places the entire responsibility of the family upon his shoulders, as if to fulfill a fallacy: There has to be a man in the house if woman is to survive. Time changes with the World War, allowing women to enter the work force. However, Tom’s mother does not work, nor does she seek finding suitable work herself as a means of remedying their situation. Instead, she lives in an imaginary world, wanting her children to remedy the situation for her; she wants only to continue living her fantasy. The picture of the father symbolizes this obsession; it hangs in a most advantageous place: above them all–forever smiling.

The smiling father serves to remind Amanda of a tragic mistake. Yet, it is her “hawk like attention” at the dinner table, driving her son, which mostly catches a reader’s attention. How can anyone eat in peace with someone telling him or her how? “. . . Don’t push with your fingers . . . And chew—chew . . . Eat food leisurely, son” is Amanda’s dinner conversation (Williams 1464). It is surprising; Tom does not get indigestion. One might say, it is the mother’s place to correct her children; but Tom is not a child. Amanda obviously marries beneath her class structure as not many lower class bother to stress “[Eating] food leisurely” (Williams 1464). The lower classes are like slaves to the bourgeois; they are fortunate to have time to eat at all, much less leisurely. Tom refers to being a slave to his mother’s legacy during an argument with her. However, the children’s actions are a constant disappointment and never satisfying to the mother; she pre-judges them as failures. Even so, she is never discourages them from fulfilling goals for her through them.

On the other hand, the opposite is true of her offspring; both Tom and Laura are discouraged. They reject the goals their mother sets. What a tragedy Amanda cultivates through her constant search for perfection from her children. Her aggressive behavior to the fulfilling of her own goals (remaining in the past–her imaginary world– and regaining a higher status) has a reverse effect upon her children. This reflects her constant referral to “gentlemen callers” and through her fear of Tom not attaining higher money earning status and Laura not attaining a money earning status at all. She reminds Laura to “. . . study your typewriter chart . . . [and] . . . practice your shorthand . . .” While at the same time stating”, Stay fresh and pretty” [for men callers]! (Williams 1466). Knowledge is that “. . . aggression given full rein and allowed to run its course in a constant war of all against all, [jeopardizes] . . . survival. . . Clashing interests and social values underlie . . . human conflict” (Vander Zanden 370). Amanda’s clashing interest and aggression is not an exception. Her interest clearly clashes with the interests of her children. She lives only in the memory of her “social roots” where “charm” and an aggressive nature rein in the bourgeois class, a hierarchical structure she secretly wants to re-gain. Nonetheless, by seeking to regain her privilege status through her children, she becomes her own gatekeeper.

When Amanda makes herself the gatekeeper, she becomes susceptible to fate. The theme of The Glass Menagerie is one of vulnerability. What constitutes this concept? When one is vulnerable, are they not both trusting and unsuspecting? This is not the case with Amanda; she is suspicious and non-trusting. She flaunts her suspicious and non-trusting nature in the direction of her son by way of her continual interrogations, assumptions, and comparisons: “I think you’ve been doing things that your ashamed of . . . Nobody in their right minds goes to the movies as often as you pretend to . . . You remind me of your father [gone]” (Williams 1478-1492). Therefore, considering her vulnerable cannot be because of any action of Tom’s. His action only brings about the inevitable.

The inevitable came only after imagination came into conflict with reality. The breaking of the glass unicorn symbolizes the shattering of imagination by reality. Jim, the only realistic character in the play, is the one who bears a message of truth. He says, “Being disappointed is one thing and being discouraged is something else” (Williams 1498). However, it is not until the unicorn loses its horn that Laura is able to accept the Glass Menagerie for what it is: a collection of ornaments. The glass pieces represent an imaginary world where she is willfully imprisoned. At this point, her disappointment no longer discourages her. She is accepting of the realization that not only is the unicorn now like all the other glass ornaments but she is like everyone else. She is no longer a failure as her mother describes; she does not need to rely on imagination or deception to feel she is special. Her mother implies, “All pretty girls are a trap, a pretty trap, and men expect them to be” (Williams 1486). Laura’s perception of the situation differs. She acknowledges the difference when she says, “Maybe [breaking the unicorn’s horn off] is a blessing in disguise” (Williams 1502). Then later, she gives the unicorn that has lost its uniqueness to Jim as a souvenir.
Not long before, her brother gives Laura a souvenir, “. . . a shimmering, rainbow-colored scarf . . . Tom had told her that it was a ‘magic scarf’.” All “You [have to do is] wave it over a gold-fish bowl and they [will] fly away canaries…” (Williams 1474).

The goldfish bowl is symbolic of the life Tom and Laura live in “human desperation” (Williams 1463) under the unchallenged hierarchy of their mother. Whereas, the “fly away canaries” suggest both Tom and Laura can turn into songbirds and fly away to escape from their mother’s tyranny. All it will take to make it happen is for Laura to wave the “magic scarf”. However, had Laura waved the scarp when she emerged from her imaginary world or Had Tom flew away too soon?

Tom shares with Laura his desire to leave so she is aware of his intent; she does not become vulnerable because he leaves. Instead, Tom is the vulnerable one because he flies away like a songbird without facing reality. He does not learn that “So long as boundaries and hierarchies go unchallenged, aggression is inhibited” (Vander Zanden 371). Tom is too trusting and unsuspecting of his own purpose. Therefore, he is unable to take an aggressive stand in his own freedom. Consequently, he becomes “. . . lost in space–” (Williams 1507).

In Tom’s time space, his memories pursue him and his imagination takes control. The most amazing thing he sees is when a magician “. . . got [himself] out of the coffin without removing one nail”. Tom wants to do the same. He tells Laura, “. . . it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin . . . But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?” (Williams 1474).

There is the constant reminder of his father’s smiling face that serves as a reminder: “If there is a will, there is a way”. Even so, did Tom find the way by leaving when he did? Alternatively, does he carry on the family legacy? He appears to have a nail stuck in his heart, which keeps him imprison in a coffin (a trap) of his own making, an imaginary world where he envisions the “tiny transparent . . . ‘colored glass’ . . . bottles . . . [as] . . . bits of [his] shattered rainbow”(Williams 1507). The shattered rainbow is symbolic of the “magic scarf” he gives Laura. His mother tells him he manufactures illusions! (Williams 1507). Yet, he does not challenge her position.

Consequently, he follows in her footsteps manufacturing illusions just as she did. As a result, he makes his own tragic mistake. If this is not the case, why does he continue to search for escapes or “–anything that [can] blow . . . out [the memories of Laura] “? (Williams 1507). The memories of Laura remind Tom of his tragedy just as the picture of his father’s smiling face serves to remind his mother of her own.

Work Cited

Williams, Tennessee. “The Glass Menagerie”. The Bedford Introduction to Literature.Michael Meyer, ed. Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press: Boston. 1990. 1462-1507.
Vander Zanden, James W. Social Psychology. Fourth Edition. Ohio State University. Random House: New York. 1987.

An Outcast of Progress: An Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s “The Outpost of Progress”

By Trudy A. Martinez

A civilized society’s failure can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s short story, “An Outpost to Progress”. The story serves as a window to gaze out upon the progressive deterioration of two men; while at the same time glaring back as a reflection upon the society that produces them. The two white men, Kayerts and Carlier, had not been prepared with an assortment of faculties required to achieve the goals of their employer and society. Nor did the “…men realize [as Conrad said] that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, [were] only the expression of their belief . . . in the safety of their surroundings [their society]. The courage, the composure, the confidence, the emotions, and principles every insignificant thought [belongs] not to [them as] individual[s] but to the crowd [their society] “. (210)

In other words, Kayerts and Carlier’s faculties are fixed and deficient because their society places limitations upon them. Under these circumstances, the men are unable to cope with the diversities of the wilderness; hence, they become the outcasts of progress, destined for failure; and accordingly, the society that produces them unknowingly issues their death sentence. Thereby, it may be said, they are left to the mercy of their new surroundings, unprepared for the new freedoms suddenly placed upon them.

What is convincingly striking about the new freedoms that are suddenly placed upon Kayerts and Carlier is the freedoms give them both an immense amount of leisure time, time they spend in an imaginary world discussing the “plots and parsonages” of some “wrecks of novels” their predecessor left. The characters in these novels became their friends; and thereby, the topic of their conversations (as scandalmonger’s) and their vacuous judgments and suspicions. In the story, Conrad conveys all these things about the two men, and he adds that the men are “filled with indignation” from the “[discounting of] virtues, [suspecting of] motives, [descrying of] successes…or the [doubting of] courage (212-213). Carlier considers the virtues of the people in the books they read as utter “nonsense”; whereas, Kayerts said, “…I had no idea there were such clever fellows in the world”(Conrad 213) They also discover an old “home paper [that] spoke of. . . the rights and duties of civilization, of the sacredness of the civilizing work,…the merits of those who went about bringing light, and faith, and commerce to the dark places of the earth” (Conrad 213). The paper speaks of well-educated, independent men of status who seek gain through “Colonial Expansion”, imperialism. In contrast, Kayerts and Carlier are not of this caliber; they are not imperialistic nor are they working towards increasing colonial expansion. Their director even considers them “useless men”, left in the wilderness to care for a “useless station” (Conrad 210).

Nevertheless, the men take pride in the writing they find in the “home paper” and begin to gain a sense of self-worth. The extension of the awareness of a self-worth benefit can be seen in Carlier’s resulting action. “[He] went out and replanted [a] cross” that stands above the grave of their predecessor (Conrad 213). But this endeavor is the only positive action taken. Conrad makes it obvious from the first day of their arrival that the men have no immediate objective thought in the simple apprehension of their own reality.

Evidence to the fact there is an absence of a sense of reality presents itself through the importance the men place upon beautifying of their new home with pretty window dressings, an attempt they make to make themselves comfortable in their new surroundings. Conrad says, this is an “impossible task” because “they could only live on the condition of machines, incapable of independent thought” (211). In other words, they require repetitious work under supervision with conditions that leave them unable to choose alternatives.

As a subsequent result of their inability to choose alternatives, the men lack initiative. Confirmation of their lack of initiative is made by their statement that they came to the Outpost only because of others in their life, not entirely of their own free will. Carlier gives credit to his brother-in-law for his presence. Whereas, Kayerts said, “If it weren’t for my [daughter], you wouldn’t catch me here” (Conrad 211).

Perhaps then, the men make no progress because they are prisoners with no conception or knowledge of alternative options; and as a result, they are forced to remain within the confines and rules of the society. These facts are the major contributor to the reason why Kayerts and Carlier are unable to adapt or cope with their new environment, and the resulting reason why they lack initiative.

Consequently, the two men find it necessary to rely heavily upon another man, Makola, “a Sierra Leone nigger”. This man “worshiped evil spirits” and “despised the two white men” who are “left unassisted to face the wilderness”(Conrad 209-210) Because of the heavy reliance the two men place on the “Sierra Leone nigger”, an illumination of a conflicting perspective is cast on the story through Makola’s minor role. He does not share the White man’s contemplation that the world will improve merely by the white man’s presence.

Instead, Makola works hard proving the white men unworthy and ridding the wilderness of them. Indirectly through a trading maneuver, Makola works toward doing away with their presence. The trading plan, the slave trading of ten men (men that Makola also considers worthless because they are lazy like the white men and do nothing to improve the station) is his method of accomplishing his goal. When a few natives of a neighboring village get caught up in the slave trade, the neighboring village chief bans trade with the trading post. The two white men are “… [to be] left alone with their weakness” so they can “…disappear into the earth” like their predecessor (Conrad 219-220).

To be sure of their demise, Makola has only to gain the white man’s acceptance of the evil deceitful trade he makes. So, he places his dependence on vice and greed in his efforts to sway the white man’s deteriorating values away from the virtues of civilization. Once the two men accept vice as a method of gain over virtue, they get an “inarticulate feeling something within them is gone, something that worked for their safety” (Conrad 219). Then, they become fearful and distraught, totally dependent upon their own deficient faculties in a struggle for survival (The men effectively strip themselves of the values they previously clung to). Finally, Kayerts and Carlier come to be distrusting of each other, quarreling over any minuet trivial. In essence, they turn into savages. Failure after failure besets them.

All in all, because “society…had forbidden the two white men]…all independent thought, all initiative, all departure from routine; and [had forbade these virtues]…under pain of death” (Conrad 211), society did an injustice to the men. Since the same virtues, the same freedoms forbidden within society are necessary for survival in the wilderness; society does not fulfill an ultimate duty bestowed upon it. Freedom is the necessary ingredient closely entwine with the individual faculty of the men that enables them to grow, to change, to adapt, and to blend in the wild. To put it differently, the necessary faculties, had they been present, may have provided the confidence and courage the men needed to succeed and to survive. But because the two white men are lacking these elements, in addition to the capability of independent thought, they come to be the outcasts of progress and a reflection that glares back upon the society that produces them.

Thus when the meaningless death of Carlier emphasizes the extent of the deterioration of the two men’s values Conrad says, “…life had no more secrets. . . So justice [has to] be done” (222-223); and Kayerts, in his last act, takes an initiative to see justice reign supreme. He straps himself to the cross, the same cross Carlier replants in his brief display of self-worth. And then, Kayerts crucified himself in defiance of his employer and of his society. The director, who thought of both men as useless, is now facing his own indignation through the display of a method of justice. Kayerts is “standing rigidly at attention…with… [his]…tongue” stuck out seemingly addressing “his Managing Director” (Conrad 224). “Progress [was] calling to [him] from the river. Progress and civilization and all the virtues. Society [was] calling to its accomplished child…to be judged…it [was] calling [Kayerts] to return [but he was not willing to return] to the “rubbish heap” of the society that inadvertently brought him to his ruin. (Conrad 223).

Bibliography:

Conrad, Joseph. “An Outpost of Progress”. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Second Edition. New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1990. 208-224