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2. Portrait of a Mother
2.1. Situation in the USA at the Time of the Play
2.2. Amanda’s Glorified Past
2.3. The Importance of Memory
2.4. Relationship to Her Children
2.4.1. Relationship to Her Daughter: Laura
2.4.2. Relationship to Her Son: Tom
As Tennessee Williams’ first big success, The Glass Menagerie and its characters have been discussed by many critics. The character of Amanda and her role in the drama have received much attention in particular. In an interview with Jean Evans, Williams said: “The mother’s valor is the core of The Glass Menagerie.” Just as important is Amanda’s role for Benjamin Nelson who believes that she is “the central protagonist of this drama.” For Judith J. Thompson, Amanda embodies the “’Archetypal Feminine’ in all its complex aspects: the Good Mother, the Terrible Mother, the seductive young witch, and the innocent virgin.” In Thomas P. Adler’s summary of major critical approaches it is stated that “commentary tends to center on Amanda and her role as mother and as perpetrator, and perpetuator, of myth.” Hence, Amanda appears to be an important character in the play that is worth a closer interpretation.
Of particular interest for this paper is the juxtaposition of conflicting traits in her character. On the one hand, she is characterized as the good mother and perpetuator. On the other hand, she is the terrible, cruel mother and perpetrator. These different characteristics seem to be directly connected to Amanda’s relationship to her children. For her daughter she is the good mother, trying everything to ensure her daughter’s security in the future. Her son experiences his mother’s treatment as suffocating and restricting for his dreams and ambitions. Yet, both of these different attitudes seem to be motivated by the same disposition in Amanda: the love and devotion of a mother for her children. Consequently, there must be other reasons that motivate Amanda’s behavior. This paper is going to consider the social and economical situation in the USA at the time of the play, Amanda’s glorification of her own past and the fact that the play is Tom’s memory for a combination of these three points seem to be the reason why Amanda is portrait as such an ambiguous character in the drama.
To begin with, the relevant social and economic circumstances in the USA during the time of the play are going to be analyzed. Amanda’s glorification of her past is then discussed followed by the analysis of the influence of Tom’s memory on the portrayal of Amanda in the play. Finally, the results of the analysis of the three factors are applied to the relationship of Amanda and her children.
The plot of the Glass Menagerie “is set against the larger social context of the country in the 1930s.” It was a time in the history of the USA when “[w]orry and fear became dominant.” The Great Depression forced many families to fight for their survival after losing their income, jobs and savings. The situation in the urban areas of the South and North began to worsen quickly after the stock market crash. Soon “unemployment reached alarming levels”. In other words, times were hard and trying for many American families. These social and economical woes of American society in the 1930s are also evident in the struggle the Wingfield family is going through in The Glass Menagerie, as exhibited by the living situation of the family, paying bills at the grocery store, and Amanda’s constant fear that Tom could lose his job.
The Wingfield apartment is located in a building that is described as:
[…] one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism. (143)
The building is depicted as a disease that infests urban centers. This becomes evident in words such as “warty growths” and “symptomatic”. An image of enclosed space, slavery and also of uniformity is created in this description of the apartment complex. It clearly is a dead end for an aspiring poet that is looking for adventure and a former southern belle that grew up in a grand house with a porch. Amanda clearly articulates her discontent with their current housing by expressing her longing for a better place to live: “A fire escape landing’s a poor excuse for a porch.”(180). Her mannerism also indicates this when she sits down “[…] as if she were settling into a swing on a Mississippi veranda.”(180). The only reason why the Wingfield family is living in an apartment, where the living room also “serves as a sleeping room for Laura” (143), has to be economical. Thus the apartment becomes a symbol for their poverty which Amanda tries to disguise with a “new floor lamp”, a “colored paper lantern” to conceal “the broken light fixture”, “new billowing white curtains”, “chintz covers”, and “a pair of new sofa pillows” for the appearance of the gentleman caller. This masquerade of the apartment unmistakably shows Amanda’s dissatisfaction with her family’s living situation.
Another indicator for the family’s poverty is their disability to pay at the grocery store for their food: “AMANDA […]: Just butter. Tell them to charge it. // LAURA: Mother, they make such face when I do that.” (169). Clearly, it is not the first time that Laura has to charge the food she buys. To charge your food at the grocer was a common practice in the time of the Great Depression as can be read in McElvaine. This also indicates how similar the Wingfield family’s struggle for its survival in the times of the Great Depression is to other families that lived in this time.
High unemployment rates and, therefore, the constant fear of loosing the family’s only income – Tom’s salary – exaggerate the threat of losing everything. Furthermore, “[d]iscrimination against women in employment became worse with the Depression. It was easy to assert that women were taking jobs that otherwise would go to male heads of households.” This fact provides additional difficulties for Amanda, the head of the Wingfield household. It is based on the traditional roles for males and females in a family. However, not only did the traditional provider of the family abandon his wife and children but in addition this discrimination makes it difficult for a female to fill his role. Therefore, it is not surprising that Amanda deliberately chose a typical female job for her daughter to ensure that Laura finds a place as a secretary. Apart from this, both of Amanda’s jobs belong into a female field of employment. It is hard to imagine that a man would sell subscriptions to “one of those magazines for matrons” (159) or brassieres. Since selling magazines and brassieres can help to but not provide for a family and Laura’s shyness prevented her from finishing her class at the business college and therefore destroyed all chances of an employment as a secretary, another provider for the family has to be found. For Amanda, this provider for is her son Tom. His job ensures the family’s living and is essential for their survival. This becomes apparent in Amanda’s constant fear that Tom could lose his job: “AMANDA: What right have you got to jeopardize your job? Jeopardize the security of us all? How do you think we’d manage if you were –” (163)
 Jean Evans, “The Life and Ideas of Tennessee Williams,” Conversations with Tennessee Williams, ed. Albert J. Devlin (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986) 14.
 Benjamin Nelson, “’The play is memory.’” The Glass Menagerie: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. R.B. Parker (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1983) 89.
 Judith J. Thompson, Tennessee Williams’ Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol (New York: Peter Lang, 2002) 17.
 Thomas P. Adler, “The Glass Menagerie,” Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance, ed. Philip C. Kolin (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998) 37.
 The time of the play is the time in which the events Tom remembers took place and not the time in which Tom retells this story.
 Alice Griffin, Understanding Tennessee Williams (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995) 35.
 Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 (New York: Times Books, 1993) 173.
 Cf. Roger Biles, The South and the New Deal (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994) 19.
 Tennessee Williams, The Theatre of Tennessee Williams: Battle of Angles, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Vol. 1 (ORT: New Direction books, 1971) 143. All further direct quotations from the play are indicated by page number and refer to this edition.
 Cf. C.E.W. Bigsby, “Entering the Glass Menagerie,” The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, ed. Matthew C. Roudané (Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1999) 34.
 Cf. Williams, 191.
 Another interesting aspect of the Wingfield’s apartment is the way of entering it by a fire escape. Called a “touch of poetic truth” (143), the fire escape could stand for an escape from the burning “fires of human desperation” (143) on the inside of the building. Furthermore this way of entrance could also be interpreted as an escape from the fires of the outside world.
 Cf. McElvaine, 176.
 McElvaine, 182.
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