Table of Contents
2 Reflections of Tennessee Williams Life within The Glass Menagerie
3 The “Soft People” Laura Wingfield and Blanch DuBois
3.1 Laura´s Struggle with Identity
3.2 Blanche – the Moth and the Butterfly
3.3 Similarities and Differences between Laura and Blanche
4 Tom´s Singularity among Williams` “Soft People”
4.2 Sedation of Society
4.3 Self-fulfilment vs. Deindividualization
4.4 Tom as Misfit of Society
4.5 Tom´s Family Situation and the Limits of the Critical Theory
“I´ve run for protection …. And so the soft people have got to – shimmer and glow – put a – paper lantern over the light. … But I´m scared now – awf`ly [sic] scared.” These lines of self-revelation by Blanche DuBois, the protagonist of A Streetcar Named Desire, go hand in hand with Maggie´s words of consolation at the end of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of ….“ Both describe one of the mostcrucial, if not the most central, elements of Tennessee Williams literary work: the concept of fragility and need for protection within a universe of hostility – the notion of “soft people.”
This term paper is intended to elucidate on the topic of “soft people” within Tennessee Williams most important plays, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. It will try to investigate the following questions: Why did the theme “soft people” gain such prominence within Williams`work? What parallels can be detected between the author´s life and aspects of his characters? What makes Laura and Tom Wingfield, on the one hand, and Blanche DuBois, on the other hand, belong to this category? What misery do these characters share? What signifies their softness in any individual case, and what determines their fate at the end of the plays?
In order to answer these questions, a thorough look into the characters and metaphors of the plays – with help of the plays – will be provided, as well as secondary literature of a wide range of literary scholars consulted. To achieve a high and detailed level of understanding of Tennessee Williams` allusions, tropes and allegories, an examination of the playwright’s personal life will precede the analysis of his “soft people.” Moreover, to attain a profound exploration of the singularity of Tom´s situation – with respect to him being trapped within a society of mediocrity and sedation – the ideas and postulations of the Frankfurt School, the so called critical theory of industrial society, will be discussed.
2. Reflections of Tennessee Williams` Life within The Glass Menagerie
One major key to understand Williams` work in a proper and thorough way is to investigate his personal life. It is important to explore what incidents and circumstances shaped his character and made him the poetic writer he became. What themes and motifs can thus be related to his biography and to what extent did Williams intend to represent them within his plays. Additionally, and maybe even more intriguing, what parallels can be found which were not intentionally placed as allegories to his existence,but ratherbecame analogies later on, as his life proceeded.
To resume this last idea, it may be helpful not to start with his birth, but by giving thought to his passing. Tennessee Williams` dead body was found in a room in Elysee-Hotel in New York in 1983. He died of choking on a plastic cap of one of his pill boxes. The great playwright passed away not far from Broadway, the place of his biggest triumphs, in a way thatcould have also worked as a possible ending for one of his bleak tragedies. Being a drug and alcohol addict, he was eventually, mediately, killed by these substances in a way which cannot be perceived without a certain tang of irony. Exit, “he goes out,” might have been a good title for one of the next day`s following newspaper headlines.
“Memory … is seated predominantly in the heart,” Williams once said. That line also reflects his unique style of writing dramas, which always displays a tendency to poetry and lyricism. His plays, almost without exception, always exhibit protagonists, pariahs, who are characterized by a sensitivity which implies vulnerability and defenselessness against the unrelenting powers of this world. This condition was very familiar to the playwright, who remembered that he “always had the same problems as the people in my plays: no connection to the outside world, I was trapped within myself.” Keeping these aspects in mind, it is comprehensible that also The Glass Menagerie“provides a window into Williams´ own memories.”
First of all, it is important to realize that Williams, in many ways, apparently does not make the attempt to hide parallels between his characters and his personal life. He discloses a certain resemblance between him and the protagonist Tom by the mere choice of his name, which is the abbreviation of his birth name Thomas. Moreover, the setting of the play, the industrial city St. Louise, is the place to which the dramatist had to move when he was seven years old, and which he, just like his protagonist, very soon learned to detest. Another overt analogy is given in Tom´s propensity to escape his bleak existence by expressing his thoughts via poetry, which can be clearly related to the function writing had for Williams: “At the age of fourteen, I discovered writing as an escape from a world of reality in which I felt acutely uncomfortable. It immediately became my place of retreat, my cage, my refuge.”
However, maybe the most striking allusion to Williams´ life that one can find in The Glass Menagerie does not relate to the playwright himself but to his sister Rose. Just like Laura – called “Blue Roses” by her secret high school love Jim – Rose can be described as a very fragile, self-conscious person who suffered under her pathological timidity. In her twenties she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, which even more contributed to her mental downfall and isolation. When Williams was away, his parents decided to have her lobotomized which made matters even worse – leaving her in a lifelong state of stupor. The importance of this incident for Williams` view of the world is also evinced by the bleak ending of A Streetcar named Desire, which at least suggests that the tragic, delusional protagonist of the play, Blanch DuBois, will also receive this inhuman operation. Tennessee Williams never got over this loss. Throughout his life he would never stop blaming himself for being absent, thus not being able to prevent the surgery, and also for not having treated Rose, who he undeniably loved, any better. “I hate the sight of your ugly face!”,he once told her at a party. “This is the cruelest thing I have done in my life, I suspect … and one for which I can never properly atone.” At least in the last point he should be proved right. The ending of The Glass Menagerie – Tom leaving his sister and being haunted by his memories – must therefore be understood against the backdrop of an author who desperately endeavored to translate his self-incriminations into his writings and hence tried to find a way to cope with the guilt he felt, which he never managed to get rid of.
However, the play is not only full with allusions to Williams´ biography which were implemented intentionally by the author, it also displays aspects which became parallels to the playwright´s life – so to speak a posteriori. Peter Conn points out to Tennessee Williams´ fascination with Shakespeare`s Titus Andronicus and believes to see the violence and darkness of this play as an integral part of the writers understanding of life. This idea might be reflected by Tom, who is also trapped in an existence of desolation, being called “Shakespeare” by Jim. “There is horror in things …,” a line expressed by Williams one year after the death of his long-time love Frank Merlo, must therefore be read as a judgment of a world which he found hostile to the individuals living in it. Tom´s escape into bars, alcohol and the illusionary world of movie theaters adopts an even deeper meaning when it is compared to Williams later years. Those years were characterized by alcoholism fuelled by loneliness and despair. Moreover, also the decline and demise of the Southern Belles Amanda Wingfield and Blanch DuBois appallingly seem to foreshadow the trajectory of the playwright`s life.
Tennessee Williams is not only author of his plays; his plays are an entrance into his feelings, his affections, sorrows and horrors which determined his life. His writing can thus not be fully understood without a thorough reflection of the playwright’s life. As this normally holds true for any writer, it must be kept in mind what Robert Bay once said: “Eugene O´Neill is remembered as the dramatist of the soul, Arthur Miller of the head – and Williams of the heart.” Bay underlines the significance to consider Tennessee Williams as being maybe the most emotional and poetic dramaturge of American letters. “Purity of heart is the one success worth having,” he once wrote in his powerful essay The Catastrophy of Success. That purity he seems to have looked for his entire life; an infinite quest which is rendered into his plays and expressed by the failure of his protagonists.
3. The “Soft People” Laura Wingfield and Blanch DuBois
“When people are soft – soft people have got to court the favour of hard ones, Stella.” When Blanche DuBois pours out her heart in front of her sister, this line expresses the epitome of maybe the most crucial theme Tennessee Williams applies throughout most of his plays: “The individual soul in torment and isolation” which represents the vulnerable “world of spiritual sensitivity, physical pleasure, and human tenderness”facing a “material, mechanistic, and sterile world,” which is characterized by relent- and mercilessness. The fragile sphere of these antipodes is most of the times expressedby female characters. Bigsby believes that Williams deliberately chose women to be his protagonists, since they are more susceptible to time – another prominent theme in most of his plays. It is the dimension of past of which many of his characters cannot let go. By fiercely trying to restore the days of their youth, they do damage to their present and therefore forfeit any future existence.
Hedwig Bock describes another tragic phenomenon in this constellation: It is not only the constant contemplation about the past which impedes people; it is the creation of an illusionary world which renders any potential realization impossible that the past might not be worth retrieving after all. The blurring of memory and deception, the glorification of a past which “perhaps never existed” would be the real demon which haunts Williams` protagonists. Both Laura and Blanch represent characters who must be called “soft” and who are both afflicted by time, and yet, their personalities and predicaments could not be more different.
3. 1 Laura`s Struggle with Identity
In many respects, Laura portrays a unique character within the wide range of Williams´ “soft people.” The starkest contrast between her and examples like Blanche DuBois, Amanda or Tom Wingfield is her indifference to her existence. Tom is disgusted by his environment, and even the daydreaming Amanda and Blanch somehow know that they are situated within a conflict between themselves and reality. Laura, on the other hand, does not escape into any artificially ameliorated past, but has submitted herself to a present which renders her paralyzed and thus impotent to determine her future life.
“I´m crippled” is her justification for her passivity. Having a minor defect in one of her legs, she utilizes this condition to explain her marginalization by society (which actually is a self-caused isolation). By using this pretext, she eclipses the real incapacity, which is not to be found in any physical condition, but in a pathological shyness and self-degradation. Her state of mind is so evident, that even Jim – who does not have Tom´s sensitive insight into reality and rather resembles Amanda and Blanch in his temporary basking in his past sport achievements – realizes her predicament right away: “You know what I judge to be the trouble with you? Inferiority complex!”
This complex restricts her world to what seems to be her only function in life: the tendering of her glass menagerie, which can be described as one of the most powerful allegories of Williams´ dramas. “She lives in a world of her own – a world of little glass ornaments.” These glass ornaments share with Laura one predominant property – fragility. Laura is not only represented by her collection, there appears to be a direct physical link between both of them: When Tom dashes out after another argument with his mother and strikes against Laura´s glass figures she “cries out as if wounded.” However, it is of significance that her reaction at the end is a total different one. After Jim breaks one of her favorites, she responds with a smile on her face: “The horn was removed to make him feel less – freakish.”
Her relation to her glass menagerie has obviously undergone an important change which must have occurred during the conversation with Jim. This turn of The Glass Menagerie seems to be overlooked by many scholars who conclude that Laura´s fate at the end of the play is determined by a future of even deeper self-destruction. Brian Parker draws a parallel between Laura who blows out the candle and Othello´s famous lines before he murdersDesdemona: “Put out the light, then put out the light!”, suggesting that Tom functions as Laura´s murderer. Franz H. Link accords with Parker by professing: “When she blows out the candle at the end, in a sense Laura only douses the subdued light of her own dreamlike life; the possibility of any fulfillment of the dream is taken away forever.“ Parker and Link disregard the possibility of the candle to be a metaphor for something else. Laura´s changing attitude to her collection might by an indicator for an even more profound alteration of her personality; and the light she blows out might not signify the destruction of her existence, but merely the ending of an illusionary life after which – after a cleansing and soothing night – begins a new dawn of self-determination and – fulfillment.
Jim´s role would take on a whole different relevance: Instead of not being able to help Laura, who after their meeting “retreats even further into herself,” he unwittingly turns Laura into a living being by turning the fantastic, non-existing unicorn into a grace- and powerful creature. Laura as being “like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf,” was moved by Jim anyway – and maybe not with the result of her fragmentation but rather of the destruction of the glassy shell which closed her off reality. His lines “has anyone ever told you that you were pretty?” and “they´re common as – weeds, but – you – well, you´re – Blue Roses!” would then have to be considered as more affective to Laura´s life than thought by many.By leaving the slight possibility that Laura might face a brighter future at the end of The Glass Menagerie – which, admittedly, remains a matter of interpretation, Williams sets Laura apart from maybe his most famous example of “soft people” – Blanche DuBois.
3. 2 Blanche – the Moth and the Butterfly
Right from the beginning of A Streetcar named Desire, Tennessee Williams makes sure that Blanche’s ambivalence is conveyed to the audience, which is thus prevented to sympathize with her too easily. She rebuffs the helpful Eunice and lies to her sister in order to serve her alcoholism. Her illusionary world, which goes hand in hand with mendacity, is also introduced early in the play by her home place “Belle Reve” which is a misspelling of “Beau Reve” – “the beautiful dream.” The misused grammar stands for the corruption of this beautiful dream – a corruption materialized within Blanche.
Blanche DuBois intrudes into a world detested by her. The old aristocratic South – associated with family values, sophistication and decency – which she, only on the veneer, represents clashes with a world of materialism and ruthless brutality. The latter is personified through Blanche`s antagonist Stanley Kowalsky. Alone the rough sound of Jim´s family name seems to depict an opposition to the suave tone of DuBois. His raw, predatory nature is symbolized by the bloody piece of meat which he throws toward his wife at his first appearance in the play. The image of him being a hunter is constantly conveyed throughout the play by subtle lines like: “Not in my territory.”
It is a “streetcar named Desire” which brought her into his territory. A desire for an asylum, a refuge, which she does not believe to find in love any more but in voluptuous encounters with random men. However, these temporary indulgences and “admittances” of “existence” render a true deliverance, which could be found in love, impossible. Mitch, one of Stanley´s friends, becomes her last chance to break through this circle. Instead of embracing him, she seemingly uses him for just another attempt to find temporary consolation. While clinging to her illusions, she discloses to him that she “does not want realism” but “magic.” Her decision to remain in the past and ignore the circumstances of her present also sets her apart from her sister who gave up all attachments to the upper-class life or her youth. What Blanche regards as abandonment and betrayal makes Stella fit to survive in a crude reality, which Blanche can only fend off for a short time.
Yet, Blanche is not judged easily. Philip Parry´s verdict of her being a “sexual predator,” equal to Stanley, is not in accordance to her fragile character. It is rather that her promiscuity is a panic try to bring back the past in which she was given the affection and protection her present is void of. Another element added to her ambiguity can be found in the following lines: “Physical beauty is passing. A transitory possession. But beauty of the mind and richness of the spirit and tenderness of the heart – and I have all of those things – aren´t taken away, but grow!” This outburst of confidence – which is not based upon evanescent beauty but on inner values and is therefore not subject to time – surprisesas it stands rather detached from her constant eagerness to appeal to other people by outward appearance. It raises the question why she does not make use of these insights, but rather – in fact at the next moment – resorts again to lies and pretense?
Her susceptibility to appearance is brilliantly displayed by the motif of light which reoccurs throughout the play. From her first encounter with Stella at which she demands her to “turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won´t be looked at in this merciless glare!”, to the moment where she, absentmindedly, mumbles: “electric light bulbs go on and you see to plainly,” until when Mitch tears the paper lantern off the light bulb, which makes Blanche “cry out and cover her face,” light is depicted as an enemy to Blanche, “die Weiße,” who fears its unveiling power and thus the destruction of her illusionary world.
Whether Blanche should be considered a “moth” or a “butterfly in a jungle,” whether the audience regards her as predator or victim, her ending is a final one. Her move into a mental asylum does not mean “her victory over … reality,” nor does it go along with peace and safety she will find there, as Herbert Geisen interprets it. Her removal from Stanley´s world stands for Blanche’s inability to, like her sister, adjust herself to this world and therefore means her total destruction by it. Her illusions could not protect her fragility but eventually precipitated her downfall. Ironically, this world of pretense does not leave Stanley´s world with her but is passed on like a curse to Stella, who is everything but a “Hoffnungsstern” – rather another “soft person.” Her conclusion: “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley.” reveals that from this very moment on, she will have to keep up a state of self-denial in order to be able to survive. Stella seems to be bound to repeat Blanche’s mistakes and thus tends to end up likewise.
 Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie (1945; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984) 83.
 Tennessee Williams,Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1957) 157-58.
 Cf. Bernhard Reitz, “Nachwort,” The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams (1945; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984) 135.
 Tennessee Williams quoted in: Melissa Knox, “Tennessee Williams´ The Glass Menagerie,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, Vol. IV, 2004 ed. 240.
 Cf. Robert Bay, “Tennessee Williams,“The Companion to Southern Literature. Themes, Genres, Places, Movements, and Motifs, eds. Joseph M. Flora, Lucinda H. Mackethan and Todd Taylor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002) 964.
 Tennessee Williams quoted in: Christopher Bigsby, “Tennessee Williams,” The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. VII, 1999 ed. 16.
 Melissa Knox, “Tennessee Williams´ The Glass Menagerie,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, Vol. IV, 2004 ed. 240.
 Cf. Bernhard Reitz, “Nachwort,” The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams (1945; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984) 138 et seq.
 Tennessee Williams quoted in: John von Szeliski, “Tennessee Williams and the Tragedy of Sensitivity,” Western Humanities Review 20 (1966). 205.
 Cf. Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie, (1945; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984) 100.
 Cf. John A. Bertolini, “Tennessee Williams,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, Vol. IV, 2004 ed. 411.
 Cf. Philip Parry, “Tennessee Williams´ A Streetcar named Desire,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, Vol. IV, 2004 ed. 424.
 Tennessee Williams quoted in: Brian Parker, “The Composition of the Glass Menagerie: An Argument for Complexity,” Essays on Modern American Drama, ed. Dorothy Parker (Toronto i.a.: University of Toronto Press, 1987) 12.
 Cf. Peter Conn, Literature in America. An Illustrated History (Cambridge i.a.: CUP, 1989) 474.
 Tennessee Williams quoted in: Ibid.
 Cf. Bernhard Reitz, “Nachwort,” The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams (1945; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984) 135 et seq.
 Robert Bay, “Tennessee Williams,“The Companion to Southern Literature. Themes, Genres, Places, Movements, and Motifs, eds. Joseph M. Flora, Lucinda H. Mackethan and Todd Taylor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002) 964.
 Tennessee Williams, ”The Catastrophy of Success,” 1947, The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams (1945; New York: New Direction Books, 1999) 17.
 Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire, (1947; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1988) 83.
 John A. Bertolini, “Tennessee Williams,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, Vol. IV, 2004 ed. 410.
 Christopher Bigsby, “Tennessee Williams.” The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. VII, 1999 ed. 14.
 Cf. Ibid. 11.
 Cf. Hedwig Bock,”Tennessee Williams. Southern Playwright,“Essays on Contemporary American Drama, eds. Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim (München: Max Hueber Verlag, 1981)5.
 Cf. Barbara Vahland, Der Held als Opfer. Aspekte des Melodramatischen bei Tennessee Williams (Frankfurt am Main und München: Europäische Hochschulschriften, 1976) 34.
 Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie (1945; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984) 35.
 Ibid. 107.
 Ibid. 71.
 Ibid. 44.
 Ibid. 113.
 Cf. Brian Parker, “The Composition of the Glass Menagerie: An Argument for Complexity,” Essays on Modern American Drama, ed. Dorothy Parker (Toronto i.a.: University of Toronto Press, 1987) 22.
 Franz H. Link, Tennessee Williams` Dramen. Einsamkeit und Liebe (Darmstadt: Thesen Verlag, 1974) 25.
 Cf. Bernhard Reitz, “Nachwort,” The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams (1945; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984) 142.
 James D. Hart, “Glass Menagerie,” The Oxford Companion to American Literature, 1995 ed. 248.
 Tennessee Williams,The Glass Menagerie(1945; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984) 6.
 Ibid. 114.
 Cf. Herbert Geisen, “Nachwort,“ A Streetcar named Desire, by Tennessee Williams (1947; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1988)190.
 Cf. Ibid. 185.
 Cf. Claus Schweer, “Streetcar Named Desire,“ Hauptwerke der amerikanischen Literatur. Einzeldarstellungen und Interpretationen, ed. Henning Thies (München: Kindler Verlag, 1995) 807.
 Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar named Desire (1947; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1988) 26.
 Ibid. 9.
 Ibid. 83.
 Cf. Franz H. Link,Tennessee Williams` Dramen. Einsamkeit und Liebe(Darmstadt: Thesen Verlag, 1974)29.
 Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar named Desire (1947; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1988) 130.
 Cf. Ibid. 22 et seq.
 Cf. Barbara Vahland,Der Held als Opfer. Aspekte des Melodramatischen bei Tennessee Williams(Frankfurt am Main und München: Europäische Hochschulschriften, 1976) 39.
 Cf. Philip Parry, “Tennessee Williams´ A Streetcar named Desire,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, Vol. IV, 2004 ed. 424.
 Cf. Barbara Vahland, Der Held als Opfer. Aspekte des Melodramatischen bei Tennessee Williams (Frankfurt am Main und München: Europäische Hochschulschriften, 1976) 44.
 Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar named Desire(1947; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1988) 141.
 Ibid. 13.
 Ibid. 120.
 Ibid. 130.
 Claus Schweer, “Streetcar Named Desire,“ Hauptwerke der amerikanischen Literatur. Einzeldarstellungen und Interpretationen, ed. Henning Thies (München: Kindler Verlag, 1995) 807.
 Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar named Desire (1947; Stuttgart: Reclam, 1988) 9.
 Elia Kazan quoted in: Peter Conn,Literature in America. An Illustrated History(Cambridge i.a.: CUP, 1989) 475.
 Herbert Geisen, “Nachwort,“ A Streetcar named Desire, by Tennessee Williams (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1947) 192.
 Ibid. 193.
 Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar named Desire (1947;Stuttgart: Reclam, 1988) 149.
- Quote paper
- Toni Friedrich (Author), 2010, The “Soft People” of Laura and Tom Wingfield in 'The Glass Menagerie' and Blanche DuBois in 'A Streetcar named Desire' , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/184582