American Dream and Its Fallibility in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie".
American Dream and Its Fallibility in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie". America is the land of opportunities and American Dream is an idea permeating the entire American consciousness. As a result, a large body of American Literature has been produced under the influence of the American Dream.
In this paper, I have exposed the American Dream to be an important concern of the playwright, Tennessee Williams, in his play, "The Glass Menagerie." In the past much critical work has been done on this famous play of Williams, yet no one has exposed this angle of the play. I have shown how the hollowness and the fallibility of the dream is exposed through this play. Set in the 1930s, the play enacts the impact of the Great Depression on a typical Southern American family. The Great Depression brought with it the shattering of the American Dream and the dissolution of image of America as a land of opportunities. Through discussing each character of the play separately, I have shown the importance of American Dream in their lives. The hopes and aspirations of different characters attached to the dream and the consequent shattering of those dreams makes up an integral part of the play and the main subject of my paper.
It is written in the preamble to the American Constitution, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." (Encarta Encyclopedia)
The American Dream is the desire and hope of achievement of all that the constitution puts forward in the above given lines. Driving its essence from the constitution, the American Dream stands for freedom, success, opportunities, justice, and safety with equality for all American citizens. It is a dream that is at the back of every American's mind. It is a part of their psychological make up and their actions and decisions are influenced by this dream. Similar is the case in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie." There is no direct reference to the dream in the play, yet the dream hovers invisibly in the play, influencing the actions and course of events. The influence that the dream exercises on the play makes it one of the important themes of the play.
The background of the play is very important in understanding it. The play is set in the 30s when America was facing the Great Depression. Tom refers to the time as, "quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in the school for the blind...they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy." (2) Great depression started after the "Roaring Twenties" which can be taken as the culminating point of the American Dream or American Success Myth. It was in the Roaring Twenties that America saw its economic boom. F. Scott Fitzgerald has explored the American Dream in twenties in his novel "The Great Gatsby." He writes about the age, "America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history...The whole golden boom was in the air." (Fitzgerald ix) It was called the "Jazz Age" with fast music and immense financial prospects bringing with it the realization of the American Dream for many.
The twenties were followed by the depression and a crashing of the stock market. Investors went bankrupt, businesses lost capital, and banks failed. Unlike in previous years when the stock market fell but quickly recovered, the early 1930s became increasingly worse for Americans, with millions of men and women out of work and struggling to survive. This was the time of disillusionment and desperation for Americans. The dreams of success and prosperity ingrained in the American Dream, were shattered. American Dream turned out to be a mere illusion for millions "The Glass Menagerie" relates the story of a family striving to make their future better against odds in the Depression. In Scene V of the play, the narrator speaks of the gloomy atmosphere of the thirties, "But here there was only hot music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows." (31)
The play captures the hollowness of the American Dream in the thirties. With artistic subtlety the play exposes the fallibility of the dream. Tennessee Williams having seen the thirties, was critical of the American Dream. He gives views on the Dream in his essay, "The Catastrophe of Success." Bigsby traces Williams' attitude towards the Dream given in his essay (in comparison to the Cinderella fairy tale) in these words, "Williams speaks disparagingly of the Cinderella story with its account of moving from rags to riches, as a primary destructive American myth, for it is the fate of his characters...to miss life's party , to be left with no more than the ashes of a once-burning fire...his characters transform their lives with nothing more than a fantasy born out of need" (Bigsby 32). The play "The Glass Menagerie" is autobiographical in many ways consequently Williams' bitterness towards the Dream is prominent through the play.
Tennessee Williams said about his plays, "My plays have been an effort to explore the beauty and meaning in the confusion of living." (Lewis) The attitude of different characters of the play, is different towards the Dream. This adds to the beauty of the play as each character has been realistically created retaining a unique individuality.
Amanda Wingfield, the mother of Tom and Laura appears as an energetic mother wishing the best for her children. She is a believer in the promises of the American Dream. In the playwright's description, Amanda is, "A little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place." (1) It is her belief in the American Dream that gives her the vitality but this vitality is confused, as even though Amanda tries very hard but the Dream does not become a reality for her. This causes confusion in her. Her desire for her children to be happy and prosperous is in keeping with her belief in the American Dream. When she sees a moon, in the play, she makes a wish and tells Tom about it, "Success and happiness for my precious children! I wish for that whenever there's a moon, and when there isn't a moon, I wish for it too." (24) She thinks that with hard work, "plans and provisions" she'll be able to make the American Dream a reality.
For this she sells magazine subscriptions to get money to decorate the house for Laura's gentleman caller. Her belief in the dream and the promise of a better future is also evident from the fact that she is a member of D.A.R (Daughters of American Revolution). This suggests that she is hopeful for a revolution for American welfare.
Amanda, in her concern for her children, is like Willy Loman from "Death of a Salesman". "Death of a Salesman" by Miller addresses American Dream as its major theme. Amanda has the same dreams and aspirations for Tom and Laura as Willy has for his sons. Ironically, she has the same flaw as that of Willy. Willy strongly believes in the American Dream. Herold Bloom treats Willy as, "Essentially a dreamer." (Bloom 3) Willy calls America, "the greatest country of the world" (134) yet he is unable to comprehend the limitations of his children and the demands of the dream. Biff says about him after his death, "He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong." (221) Commenting on Willy's obsession with the American Dream Ruby Cohn writes, "Willy is a prey to the American dream of success, and to the tribal dream of success through heirs" (Cohn 52). The same can be said about Amanda. The Dream that she envisages for her children is not possible for them.
Even though she strives for the Dream, specially in Laura's case, yet she doesn't address the real problem. She refuses to come to terms with it and cannot bring herself to accept the word "Crippled" for her daughter. At the end of the play, nothing is resolved. Tom goes away and Laura is still unmarried. The American Dream turns out to be as hollow for Amanda as it did for Willy as they both are unable to realize it.
Amanda gets Laura admitted in "Rubican's Business College" because she wishes to see Laura prosper in the society. She thinks that a successful girl needs, "a nimble wit and a tongue to meet all occasions."(6) Her ambitions are badly thwarted when she learns that Laura has dropped out of college. It is shocking for Amanda who says to her daughter, "So what are we going to do the rest of our lives?" (12) but Amanda recovers quickly and gets ready to make the dream a reality in another way i.e. by getting Laura married to a gentleman. She exclaims, "Of course-some girls do marry." (13) The gentleman caller signifies tranquility, security and success for Amanda. Repeatedly she speaks of her past in Blue Mountain when she used to receive as much as "seventeen" gentlemen callers for her in one day. The important thing about those callers was as she tells Tom and Laura, "My callers were gentlemen -all.
Among my callers were some of the most prominent young planters of Mississippi Delta - planters and sons of planters!" (6) With her gentlemen callers, Amanda used to talk of, "Things of importance going on in the world." (6) This shows her progressive nature. Then she goes on to relate how wealthy and successful all these men were. They were the embodiment of the American Dream for her. For example she says about one of them, "And there was that boy that every girl in the delta had set her cap for!...that Fitzhugh boy went North and made a fortune - came to be known as the Wolf of Wall Street! He had the Midas touch, whatever he touched turned to gold!" (7) Her obsession to find a suitable gentleman caller for her daughter is actually her obsession with the American Dream.
Amanda has similar desires for Tom as she has for Laura. She desperately wishes for him to be happy and successful. Every morning she wakes him with energy and optimism saying, "Rise and Shine! Rise and shine!" She tells Tom to take his job seriously and says to him, "Try and you will succeed. Why, you - you're just full of natural endowments! Both of my children -they're unusual children! " (24) But in her optimism, springing from the American Dream, she fails to understand what her son actually wants. She wants him to aim for "Superior things! Things of the mind and the spirit!" (27) Amanda's dreams for Tom are again similar to those of Willy Loman for Biff. Both Willy and Amanda in connection with their belief in the American Dream aspire for the happiness and success of their children.
In Jim lies the hope for Amanda. Tom introduces Jim as, "he is the long delayed but always expected something that we live for." (2) He is the closest to the American Dream that the Wingfields get in the play. Like Amanda, Jim also believes in the American Dream. To make his prospects better, he goes to night school and studies "radio engineering and public speaking" which is as Amanda exclaims, "A thing for the future!" (37). This desire for betterment and planning for the future in Jim is also analogous to Amanda and it has its roots in the American Dream. He tells Tom the benefits of the course in Public Speaking, "It fits you for - executive positions...Primarily it amounts to -- social poise! Being able to square up to people and hold your own on any social level" (49)
Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" also gives a lot of importance to social standing and poise. Being "Well liked" is the most important thing for Willy. Like Jim he thinks that the key to attainment of the American Dream lies in social standing and connections.
Tom's description of Jim is very telling in understanding his character and the influence the American Dream exercises over him. Tom says about him, "In high school Jim was a hero...he seemed to move in continual spotlight...He seemed always at the point of defeating law of gravity. He was shooting with such velocity through his adolescence that you would logically expect him to arrive at nothing short of the White House by the time he was thirty." (40) It was the glory attached to Jim in high school that made him an ideal for Laura. In high school he was all, what Laura wasn't. He was the American Dream that Laura could never even touch except in her dream-world of glass animals. Tom continues with Jim's description and speaks of Jim's present, "his speed had definitely slowed. Six years after he left high school he was holding a job that wasn't much better than mine."
This description of Jim reveals his similarity with the character of Biff Loman in "Death of a Salesman." Biff is also a star in his student life. He is the captain of the football team and many girls fall for him but when the play opens Biff's glory days are over just as is with Jim in "The Glass Menagerie." It seems that both these boys who were shinning under the American Dream in their adolescence have come to face the fallibility to the dream in their youths. The reactions of both characters are however different. Where Biff has become skeptical and disillusioned towards the dream, Jim still holds it intact in his heart. He still sees hope and aspires for executive positions in the world. The American Dream is still alive for him even in the face of the obstacles that he has faced in the six years after school. He believes in the future and relates his plans to Laura, "I believe in the future of television! I wish to be ready to go up right along with it.
...I've already made the right connections and all that remains is for the industry itself to get under way! Full Steam-- Knowledge - Zzzzzp! Money - Zzzzzp! Power!" Jim's entire plan for gaining success is in keeping with the American Dream. He dreams in the American Dream and is optimistic about it. Commenting on Jim's efforts John Gassner writes, "Williams achieved a remarkable synthesis of sympathy and objectivity by making three-dimensional characters out of Tom's family and the gangling beau, who is trying to pull himself out of the rut of a routine position and recover his self-esteem as a schoolboy success." (Gassner 6) Jim's plans are awe-inspiring and promising but the question arises that will Jim be able to achieve now what he has not been able to achieve in the six long years since he left high school? A doubt is created here affirming the fallibility of the American Dream.
This doubt is further strengthened by Pebworth's comment about Jim's optimism, "Although Jim gives the impression of great self- control, he is in fact rather deeply disturbed that he has not accomplished what he thinks he should have by this time." Pebworth 64)
Tom on the other hand is disillusioned by the Dream. He no longer believes in its promises. His frustration and bitterness is evident in the play from his frequent quarrels with his mother. He muses about the futility of his job at the shoe store and the aimlessness of his life. He longs for adventure and excitement to lift the disillusionment that the failure of his dreams has caused. He reveals his inner state to Jim and says, "I'm starting to boil inside...Whenever I pick up a shoe, I shudder a little thinking how short life is and what I am doing." (51) Tom is oblivious to Jim's plans of realizing the American Dream. He wants a clean break from his fruitless life. In this he takes after his father who is introduced in the play as, "a telephone man who - fell in love with long distance." (53) The gallantly smiling photograph of the father is a constant invitation to Tom to come share the carefree life that he has been enjoying for sixteen years.
After the Jim fiasco Tom quits and goes to pursue his dream for adventure. The American Dream is completely hollow for Tom as he has no tranquility, security, success or justice in his life. His meager salary of sixty five dollars a month is far from the ideals set by the American Dream. Thus in face of this dejection Tom escapes his family life in search of satisfaction.
Laura is the most dismal character in the play. She is a pretty but self conscious and under- confident girl. The American dream is merely a dream for her just as her entire existence is a dream. Discussing Laura's character Domina writes in her article, "Laura's fantasies are not simply a preference but a need; they incapacitate her. Laura's fantasies, that is, don't merely supplement reality but become reality. More specifically, her glass menagerie which gives the play its title resembles Laura in disturbingly accurate detail." (Domina). She lives in imaginary glass world and hence is completely unable to come up to the demands of the American Dream. The brace on her leg is a source of humiliation for her in her student life. Se feels it a cause of discrimination and inequality for her as against the promise of equality and justice in the American Dream. Jim appears as a ray of hope in her life but this hope is short lived.
As said earlier, Jim with his ambitious plans, is the closest that Laura gets to the American Dream and with his good bye the American Dream disappears for her.
The apartment in which the family lives is situated towards the rear of a building. The building is, "one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers." This description of the apartment and the "slow and implacable fires of human desperation" that burn in it not only comment on the Great Depression but also on the fallibility of the American Dream. In such living conditions as "one interfused mass of automatism" it is hard to dream of any thing. The dismal condition speaks of the hollowness of the promises put forward by the American Dream. It the "lower middle class population" which is the, "largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society." This statement brings into question the claims of equality and justice in such a segregated society where the lower middle class is found slaving away. Tranquility, security and prosperity all appear to be myths in such circumstances.
From the above discussion, it is clear that American Dream figures prominently in the play. The play, through various devices, explores the fallibility and hollowness of the dream. Each character's attitude towards the Dream is different but none of them seem to be successful in realizing it. The general reason for the failure of the dream is the Great Depression that took away all the spirit from the American Dream leaving the people with only a hollow shell. The importance of American Dream cannot be ignored in this play as it exercises an undeniable influence on it.
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2. Bloom, Herold. Ed. Major Literary Characters: Willy Loman. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.
3. Cohn, Ruby. "The Articulate Victims of Arthur Miller."Major Literary Characters: Willy Loman. Ed. Herold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.
4. Domina, L. M. "William's Use of Modern Theatrical Technology." Drama for Students. Gale: Gale Press, 1997.
5. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. London: David Campbell Purlishers Ltd., 1991.
6. Grassner, John. "Tennessee Williams: Dramatist of Frustration." College English, Vol. 10, No. 1, (Oct., 1948), pp. 1-7. JSTOR. 24 May. 2008 less than http://www.jstor.org/stable/372063 greater than
7. Lieberman, Jethro K. "Constitution of the United States." Microsoft(r) Student 2008 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2007.
8. Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: New York Premiere, 1949.
9. Pebworth, Ted Larry and Jay Claude Summers. A Critical Commentary on Williams' The Glass Menagerie." Bridgeport:Barrister Publishing Co., 1966.
10.Ted Larry, and Jay Claude Summers. A Critical Commentary On Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Bridgeport: Barrister Publishing Co., 1966.
11.Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New York: Avon, 1940.
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|Publication:||International Journal of Arts and Humanities|
|Date:||Dec 31, 2010|
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