Tennessee Williams's World of Southern Descendants. On the Depiction of Women in his Plays

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2018

45 Pages, Grade: 5.0




Chapter One: The Descendant of the Southern Genteel

Chapter Two: The Dreams of the Unicorn
2.1 The World Around the Women of The Glass Menagerie
2.2 The Women in the World of “The Glass Menagerie
2.3 The Men around the Women of “The Glass Menagerie”
2.4 Symbolism in The Glass Menagerie

Chapter Three: Kitty in the Bottle – Maggie’s Battle with Brick
3.1 “Maggie the cat is alive. I'm alive.”
3.2 “Have you ever heard the word ‘mendacity’?”
3.3 Fairies on Plantation or the Themes in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
3.4 Cat, Bed and Fatherly Love – the Symbolism of Language




Tennessee Williams was one of America′s greatest playwrights whose talents of creating tension and atmosphere went far beyond the typical stage of theatre and were even more convincing and overwhelming in the field of motion pictures, too. Elia Kazan, the successful theatre and film director, particularly admired Williams’ gift of evoking emotions:

[Williams] has a positive genius for dealing with subject matter that is on everyone′s mind and part of everyone′s experience, but which has not been dealt with by other writers.1

The subject of my paper: The Women in Tennessee Williams’ Plays is an analysis of both the characters of the plays I have chosen as well as the world surrounding and influencing them. My idea of the female characters that I shall analyze is that they can be viewed from two particular angles:

1. The first is that they are simple innocent victims of the society and their families which caused them to fail in their own lives.
2. The second point of view will try to deal with the idea that my chosen two women Maggie and Laura are fully aware of the world around them and – intentionally or subconsciously manipulate the others in order to gain what they want.

The first chapter is a brief presentation of the author – Tennessee Williams and his life. I wanted to focus a reader’s attention on a milestones in his life – the situations which might have shaped him, make him as he was; influence his writing.

Chapter two touches two aspects: the innocent girl who had dreams and longings and how they were shattered by her old school love - also innocent as it seems. Did Jim really want to lie and cheat her? Was Laura a real victim of her mother and bad father and the society around her? How much of Williams’ autobiographical elements can we find in this picture? The second aspect to be discussed is that of abandonment which we can find in both their Father’s and Tom’s escapist behaviour. How much can this fact influence the self-confidence of Laura?

The consequent chapter deals with the question of how much was Maggie guilty for Brink’s coldness and perhaps impotency. There is a discussion on whether it was Maggie’s fault that their marriage was ruined or can we lay all blame on her husband? How much can a woman do to get her love back and where is the line of humiliation?

The last chapter is supposed to answer the following questions: How women can change? Are they victims of society and times? How can we grade their coldness and determination? The final chapter talks about all those women and how Williams’ idea of innocent Laura transforms into determined Maggie – despised by her own husband. Whose fault is it that their love life died? This chapter should try to find an answer to the question of fault. In further course, it should also return to the aspect of times and society. How do William’s women reflect their times and to what extent do they embody the modern idea of a self-made woman.

Chapter One:The Descendant of the Southern Genteel

We should begin with the statement that Tennessee Williams does not exist. It is just a pseudonym, created for the young colleague of a fellow students at the University of Missouri, gathered inthe Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. Thomas Lanier Williams III was a member of this fraternity. Williams is said to be one of the most controversial writers of his times. He obviously was a very colourful and amazingly prolific author – he has written thirty eight plays, several non-fictions books, also some poetry and script for movies as well as not very well known ballads.2

Williams was born in a small town Columbus on 26th March 1911 as the second of the three children of shoemaker Cornelius Williams and Edwina – a descendant of the Genteel South. Gentlemen, ladies, the theme of love and beautiful romances, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind - it was all in his birthplace – the Mississippi region. But the reality of Thomas’ home was not that pretty at all. As his father was working all around the country, he was very often absent at home and did not have a good contact with his first son. Moreover, he was drinking heavily and there were continuous quarrels at home. Cornelius had a favourite at home and it was his youngest son – Dakin. The other two children were not able to win the father’s love and attention. The real father figure for young Williams was his grandfather from his mother’s side: this man had both time and patience for a boy so desperately seeking somebody’s attention. During his father’s continuous travels Williams spent most of his time with three women – his mother, definitely over sensitive; his sister Rose, who influenced his future writings very much, and his grandmother. Three women and a growing boy. At the age of seven Tennessee was diagnosed with Diphtheria, which in those times was extremely dangerous. For the time of more than two years, the boy was forbidden to do nearly everything. Edwina, his mother, observing her child slipping into malady, encouraged him to write whatever his greatest imaginations and dreams were. This is how probably Tennessee discovered the ability of creating a miraculous world on sheets of paper. It is also mentioned in Tennessee’s biographies that when he was thirteen his mother bought him a typewriter.3

His family story changed as in a kaleidoscope when in 1918 his father was hired as a shoe salesman in St Louis. That year they had to move from Tennessee where they had spent almost all their life.

At the age of sixteen Williams saw his name for the first time in print. He published and won the third prize in the literary contest and received $5 for an essay, “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?”, in Smart Set. A year later, he published “The Vengeance of Nitocris” in Weird Tales. All this happened when he was still in grammar school. Such a difficult times for him: he was constantly controlled by his mother, who did not want him to associate himself with common boys and by his father who did not approve of his writing and did not want his son to follow such a path of career. After completing grammar school he chose the University of Missouri. This is where he was nicknamed Tennessee because of his strong Southern accent as well as the region that was his homeland. Some say that his poor achievements in studying were the reason why Tennessee left University. Others4 mention that the modus operandi was his father who would not let his son make a living as a writer. After leaving college, Tennessee was in constant search for a “decent” work – namely that of a shoe salesman in a St. Louis International Shoe Company where his father worked. Other jobs which he was forced to take up included being a waiter, an elevator operator, and a theatre usher. At the same time, he was constantly writing; writing was his only love and he was spending enormously long hours after work sitting late night and writing. The lack of proper sleep and rest caused exhaustion of organism and led to a nervous breakdown. Eventually, Tennessee experienced serious heart problems, connected with hypoxia and found himself in a hospital. Only at that time would his father change his mind and let his son do whatever he wanted.

Williams went to the University of Washington, where some of his papers were published. In 1935 he began his literary and stage career because of staging of his first play, Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay! in Memphis.5 There was so-called Writers’ Project of Chicago which Tennessee wished to join. Failing it, he abandoned the University of Washington and moved to the University of Iowa. In the years 1937 – 1938 Williams had two of his plays, Candles to the Sun and The Fugitive Kind, produced by Mummers of St. Louis. In 1938 he also graduated from the University of Iowa, obtaining his Bachelors Degree. He also moved to New Orleans, which for the rest of his life he was leaving and to which he was always returning.

The same year influenced him for the rest of his life – his older sister Rose had an unsuccessful Frontal Lobotomy, which caused her incapacitation for the rest of her life. All critics agree that Williams was amazingly strongly bound with his sister. While being children they spent a lot of time together. Rose was said to be very beautiful, but to parents’ distress she was diagnosed with very strong schizophrenia. There were various attempts at treating her, but all of them failed and eventually Rose became paranoid. The last chance for parents was the operation of the Frontal Lobotomy. After Rose’s slipping into constant madness, Tennessee began drinking heavily, blaming himself for not being able either to help his sister or to prevent their parents from letting her have the operation.

By the end of the Second World War his greatest success occurred. It was so-called overnight success. The play The Glass Menagerie, very strongly autobiographical, not only changed Tennessee Williams' life, but also revolutionized the American theatre. His Southern idioms, compelling dialogue, and themes, which, for their time, often seemed strange or shocking, accompanied the story about Tom struggling in his support to his mother and sister, left alone by the father who disappeared many years ago. The play won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award as the best play of the season, had a very successful run in Chicago and a year later burst its way onto Broadway. At the age of 34 Williams became a famous playwright. Soon after came even more – the Pulitzer Prize for his story or play “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Over the following eight years Tennessee Williams was writing more and more, most of those achievements are broadly known as they were turned into motion pictures. The Night of the Iguana and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are among his masterpieces.

Over the next thirty years, dividing his time between homes in Key West, New Orleans, and New York, he saw many of his works produced on Broadway or made into movies, including such works as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof -for which he earned a second Pulitzer Prize in 1955, Orpheus Descending, and Night of the Iguana.

The only attempt at achieving stabilization in his life was when he met and fell in love with his secretary, an Italian descendant, who had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II – Frank Merlo. It was the year 1947 and for the next fourteen years they build up a harmonious and peaceful couple. To his despair, in 1961 Frank died from lungs’ cancer and left the artist in deep depression.6

When your candle burns low, you've got to believe that the last light shows you something besides the progress of darkness7

The thought of the possible insanity haunted Tennessee, he kept the picture of Rose in his heart and was constantly afraid of a possible fatal sicknesses. He even nearly invented one, when in 1963 he thought he had breast cancer and had a surgery. The surgery proved that it was not breast cancer but a lump due to his heavy drinking. The end of Tennessee was slow and very sad. People mentioned his wandering down the streets, visiting each and every pub. Feeling on the verge of everything, Williams sought help of the psychiatrist. It helped for some time. At that time he decided to travel to Europe, Africa, Mexico, and finally settled in Key West. He was very famous and it was well seen that the psychiatric help in some way managed to put his life together. But his death was a real shock for his fans, especially as it was extremely tragic and could have been avoided. On February 23rd 1983, before going to sleep he took his usual Seconals pills, which he used for sleeping.8 There were many pills scattered on the bedside table along with a picture of the Virgin Mary and Child. The normal dose of the medicine did not probably cause him to fall asleep so he reached for another dose. We can only speculate at this point: he probably tried to open the plastic cap with his teeth because later he was found with it being stuck in is throat. If he even tried to cry for help, no one could hear him. He knocked something over, and it made a crashing noise, which was heard by his friend Jon in the other room but he ignored it. The next day February 24, 1983 at the Hotel Elysée in New York City, Tennessee Williams was found dead in his bed. The New York Times dated on 27th February 1983 has given the following information:

Tennessee Williams choked to death on a plastic cap of the type used on bottles of nasal spray or eye solution, New York City's Chief Medical Examiner said yesterday. The 71-year-old playwright, whose body was found Friday morning on the floor of his Manhattan hotel suite, was first thought to have died of natural causes. But an autopsy yesterday found the bottle cap blocking the larynx -''swallowed or inhaled or some combination,'' said the Medical Examiner, Dr. Elliot M. Gross.9

If we now move to his achievement, leaving the part of his private life alone, we will observe the man full of anger, frustration and longing for love which he was lacking at his home. Tennessee Williams once said:

You can't manufacture unreal people, you have to transmute their reality through your concept of them. They became sifted through myself so that something of my own life went into their creation.10

Williams’ characters are said to be based on members of his own family and most of his plays are assumed to be simply autobiographical reflections of his life. His mother was described as an aggressive woman, completely obsessed with the myth of genteel Southern living. The echoes can be so easily noticed in many of Williams’ works, for example one of the characters from The Glass Menagerie - Amanda – mother of living in her own imaginary world Laura.

Willaims’ father was said to be distant and abusive and favored his younger son, Dakin, over both of the older children. It’s traceable in the image of Big Daddy in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with this longing of the son to be loved as much as this beloved. His older sister, Rose, was emotionally disturbed and spend most of her life in mental asylums

To what extent did all those family facts influence him? How was the society of those times organized and how did it treat women? What was the social picture of the woman in 1930-40’s? I will try to answer these questions in my thesis. Most of his plays take the reader to the Southern states and present the society of contradictions – people try to keep up with their genteel norms. On the other hand, the brutality of the urban life stands in a stark contrast with the former. In his works Williams exposes the degeneration of human feelings and relationships and so his heroes suffers because of broken families and are not able to find their place in the society surrounding them and stiffing with the moral code and social boundaries. They tend to be lonely and afraid of that all. Among the major themes of his plays are racism, sexism, homophobia, loneliness and pain. Tennessee Williams’ characters show the extremes of human brutality and sexual behaviour.11 The most common idea was the one of a crazy, a bit mentally unstable female character, with the best example in the vibrant, colourful A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as in his first successful and Pulitzer awarded Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams stated once, referring to his creating the characters of the plays:

I have always been more interested in creating a character that contains something crippled, I think nearly all of us have some kind of defect, anyway, and I suppose I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person.12

The last chapter is supposed to answer the following questions: How the women can change? Are they victims of society and times? How can we grade their coldness and determination? I will try to present an icon of a modern woman and how it is reflected in those plays. The final chapter talks about all those women and how innocent Laura goes smoothly into Blanche’s mental disruptions who consequently turns out to be a seductive and determined Maggie – despised by her own husband. Whose is this fault that their love life died? This chapter should try to find an answer to the question of fault. In further course, it should also return to the aspect of times and society. How William’s women reflect their times and to what extent do they embody modern idea of self-made woman?

Chapter Two:The Dreams of the Unicorn

She lives in a world of her own - a world of - little glass ornaments.13

The leading theme of this chapter will be the question whether the retraction to the dream world of “The Glass Menagerie’s” female characters was caused by their lack of vital strength and ability to face the life as it is or the problem stems deeper – in the men and society around them.

The leading novel of this chapter is The Glass Menagerie – William’s first official Broadway success.

It would be worth mentioning in this place what were the influences behind this novel, or in general those novels written up to 1948. it is often repeated that the most important influence and the greatest figure whom Williams did not copy but whom he admired and tried to achieve the standard of the writing was Anton Chekhov – the Russian playwright. His wit, humour and ability to present his characters so naturally and elegantly, made Chekhov’s characters emanate with their loneliness and deepness of feelings and emotions. People in the Russian playwright’s world are both humorous and tragic – the mixture of laugh through tears. It is curious that this admired Chekhov wrote once such note On women:

The woman, from the very beginning of the world, was regarded as the ugly and mean creature. She stands on such a low level of physical, moral and mental development, that to condemn her or laugh at is legal for anyone […]. All in all, a woman is sly, talkative, empty, deceptive, insincere, mercenary, dumb, lighthearted, bad […].14

Williams in his homosexuality was rather remote from the representation and praising of female’s beauty; however, whether he saw attractive creatures in women or not, he was able to portray them in a subtle and many dimensional way. Perhaps, the influence of his own family, the true love towards his sister made him able to stand in part opposition to the aphorism of his beloved Chekhov.

The other authors worth mentioning in this aspect are probably D.H. Lawrence and Hart Crane. Whereas the first is mentioned within the novel as one of Tom’s favourite writers, the latter was probably of great inspiration throughout at least his straightforward and unhidden homosexuality.

The picture of the sources would not be complete if we did not add the fact that the novel is very strongly autobiographic. There are no doubts regarding this subject, while Williams used to say that The Glass Menagerie is “based on the memory”15.The family presented in the play is almost the copy of his own family, which might be the reason why the characters were portrayed in such a subtle and delicate manner. The emotional tensions between the drama personae, their dreams, longings, fight with the difficult daily grinds as well as own weaknesses.

Two stories were the basis of The Glass Menagerie which was written in 1944; those were some parts of the reworked material from one of Williams' short stories, Portrait of a Girl in Glass and also one of his screenplays, The Gentleman Caller. In the weeks leading up to opening night, which eventually fell on 26th December 1944 in Chicago, Tennessee Williams had deep doubts about this production. The theatre did not expect the play to last more than a few nights, and the producers prepared a closing notice in response to the weak initial ticket sales. But it appeared that two critics found the show amazingly interesting, and returned almost nightly to monitor the production. Meanwhile, they gave the enthusiastic reviews on the play and throughout the continuous applaud in respective papers, they did so-called “audience” or a “good job” for the play. By mid-January, tickets to the show were some of the hottest items in Chicago, nearly impossible to obtain. Later in 1945, the play opened in New York with a similar success. On the opening night in New York, the cast received an unbelievable twenty-five curtain calls.16 That is all we can say about the making of the play, not to go into too much details which would make this work dull and never-ending.

The more important aspect is the content of the play itself.

2.1 The World Around the Women of “The Glass Menagerie”

At first I would like to draw the attention to the times it takes place in. Williams, through Tom Wingfield’s person – one of the main characters, moves the audience back to the thirties, a small apartment in an urban area ofSt. Louis. While Tom sketches the political situation in a country, there are mentioned war in Spain and a different kind of turmoil here in America. For the spectators of the first shows in 1944 or 1945 it was probably received as that the Americans of the thirties lived in relative peace but this peace was nothing more but the calm before the storm of the World War II.

The other truth about the times described within the play, is that of the women’s situation and their role in the society. The play depicts two female characters – the mother – Amanda and her daughter Laura. The world around them is full of men – absent husband, uneasy and confused son and brother, a gentleman caller. The contrast between the two sexes is extremely vivid and to some extent might be even shocking or unpleasant. The women of Williams’ plays were very often the clichés of his past memories – the so-called Southern belles, daughters of the prominent Southern families, who received a traditional upbringing and suffered a reversal of economic and social situation at some point in their lives.

Like all these women, Amanda had a very hard time coming to terms with the completely new status in society – with modern society to which the social distinctions are worth nothing. The relationships with men and their families are marked with sad path of continuous misunderstandings, however they fiercely defend those values of their past. Amanda and her maintenance of genteel manners in a surroundings of the very ungenteel seems more tragic than comic but leads to a sad conclusion – that there were no place for those Southern flowers in the world of dirty labour urban areas. The women of the times, on the other hand, would soon face the war and the situation in which the working woman will be the everyday picture. The women of the past-war times forgot their genteel traditions and took part in the lives of their families in this basic way – earning the living, having jobs and being aware of own value. But the distance between the “now” of the play and the moment the play is presented, might be quiet remote. The world depicted in the play, of strictly segregated roles for men and women, typifies pre -World War II America.

Amanda depends on her son to pay the rent and the other bills for their apartment. When she wants to bring in some income, she is reduced to selling magazine subscriptions from her own home.

Laura's position is even more drastically limited. Although she can attend a business college, giving her the chance to learn how to type or shorthand, she will be able to become nothing more but a secretary to a male executive. The moment she gives up her training, her chances of going out in the world equal zero. Jobless woman can only hope for a husband whom she would completely rely on and whom she would be completely dependant on. According to Amanda, all women should be a trap for men and she sees nothing wrong in it:

All pretty girls are a trap, a pretty trap, and men expect them to be.17

The other aspect which can be presented in here is the smallest world – the home of the Wingfield women. It is a small flat in a crowded urban area of St. Louis. Visible outside are a fire escape and narrow alleys flanking the building; The fourth wall is transparent to the audience and they can see the Wingfield living room and dining room. The wall centre occupies a large photograph of the family's absent father. Also visible is a large collection of transparent glass animals, Laura's “glass menagerie”, from which the play is named. There is a phonograph, along with some old records, and a keyboard chart with an upright typewriter.


1 Kazan, Elia. Elia Kazan: Interviews. Ed. William Baer. Conversations with Filmmaker Ser. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2000, p. 16

2 The chapter is based mostly on the book: Lyle Leverich, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition, 1997

3 Leverich, L., Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition, 1997p. 12

4 Gore Vidal Introduction to Tennessee Williams, Collected Stories (Mass Market Paperback), Ballantine Books; 1st Ballantine Books ed edition, 1986, p. 2

5 5 Leverich, L., Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition, 1997p. 17

6 Love & Death in Tennessee Williams by Jack Fritscher, Ph.D., http://www.jackfritscher.com/Non-Fiction/TennWilliams/LoveDeathFullTextN.html

7 The inscription on the photo of Frank

8 Love & Death in Tennessee Williams by Jack Fritscher, Ph.D., http://www.jackfritscher.com/Non-Fiction/TennWilliams/LoveDeathFullTextN.html

9 Williams Choked On A Bottle Cap, By Suzanne Daley, http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/31/specials/williams-choked.html [why footnotes and not references

10 The Legacy of Tennessee Williams, by Michiko Kakutani: http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/31/specials/williams-legacy.html?_r=2&oref=slogin

11 National Theater Education, The Life The Play, p. 3 on a basis of M C Roudane (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, 1997.

12 The Legacy of Tennessee Williams, by Michiko Kakutani: http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/31/specials/williams-legacy.html?_r=2&oref=slogin

13 Tom on his sister; scene5; quote found on: http://www.novelguide.com/TheGlassMenagerie/toptenquotes.html - Novel Guide on The Glass Menagerie: Top Ten Quotes

14 Quote taken from: http://www.sciaga.pl/tekst/13145-14-antoni_pawlowicz_czechow

15 http://www.novelguide.com/TheGlassMenagerie/toptenquotes.html - Novel Guide on The Glass Menagerie: Top Ten Quotes.

16 M C Roudane (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, 1997, p. 27

17 http://www.novelguide.com/TheGlassMenagerie/toptenquotes.html - Novel Guide on The Glass Menagerie: Top Ten Quotes; Amanda to Laura, scene 6.

Excerpt out of 45 pages


Tennessee Williams's World of Southern Descendants. On the Depiction of Women in his Plays
Jan Kochanowski University of Humanities and Sciences in Kielce
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Marta Zapała-Kraj - currently a PhD student at the Faculty of Literary Studies at the Jan Kochanowski University in Kielce. A master's degree in English philology and a translator. I am interested in implementing new technologies to help educate dysfunctional children and youth. For over 15 years I taught English in state and private schools. I also worked as an interpreter. I have been a freelance lecturer for several years. My interests include various areas - from philosophy, through English literature, to digital technologies.
Tennessee William, women, play, symbolism, The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
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Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2018, Tennessee Williams's World of Southern Descendants. On the Depiction of Women in his Plays, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/470987


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