Tennessee Williams uses symbolism throughout his classic play The Glass Menagerie. Through the eyes of Tom Wingfield, a character in the play, the reader gets a glance into the life of his family. Tom's mother, Amanda, is a southern belle desperately clinging to her past. Tom has a sister named Laura and she is a twenty-something woman that is too fragile to function in society. Tom is a struggling young poet working at a shoe warehouse to pay the family's bills. Williams uses symbols to effectively express the theme of The Glass Menagerie. The theme seems to be that of hopeful aspirations followed by inevitable disappointment and having dreams, which are destroyed by harsh realities of the world. Symbols are a major part of this play. Symbols used in this classic play are the fire escape, Laura's "glass menagerie," and rainbows.
One major symbol presented in the story is that of the fire escape, which has a different meaning and function for each of the Wingfield characters. For Tom, the fire escape is a means of escape from fire, not the type of fire that burns structures down but "the slow and implacable fires of human desperation" (I, p. 1780). Tom's mother is devastated after her daughter's failure to cope in business college and the mother becomes obsessed with finding her daughter a gentleman caller so that she can marry and be well supported. When Tom brings home a gentleman caller from work, Amanda seems to think it is meant to be since there was dancing and a kiss. After the gentleman caller announces that he is engaged, the news dashes Laura and Amanda's hopes. The ever-fragile Laura is drawn out of her dream-world shell of her glass collection and Victrola record player when Jim, the gentleman caller, dances and kisses her. After Jim's announcement of his engagement, Laura draws further back into herself. Now a terrible desperation fills the apartment and Tom decides he must escape the suffocating environment to follow his own calling.