Tom shows us the photograph, saying,
This is our father who left us a long time ago. He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town…. The last we heard from him was a picture post-card from Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, containing a message of two words—“Hello—Goodbye!” and no address. I think the rest of the play will explain itself (“The Glass Menagerie,” 401).
Its characters are few in number. There’s Amanda, the genteel daughter of the South. She never imagined that she would live out her life in poverty, with two abandoned children. Of course there’s Tom, the adult son who supports the family—and who resents it—with his job in the warehouse of the Continental Shoe Factory. Tom spends his free time at the movies, like his father, dreaming to be set free from his mother and his dependent sister, Laura.
Laura has a small limp. It’s made her a recluse. The possibility of her marrying her way out of poverty seems slight. And so Laura tends her collection of little glass sculptures, dreaming her way out of the apartment. The play’s only other character is a Gentleman Caller. Tom explains,
The idea of getting a gentleman caller for Laura began to play a more and more important part in Mother’s calculations.It became an obsession. Like some archetype of the universal unconscious, the image of the gentleman caller haunted our small apartment…. An evening at home rarely passed without some allusion to this image, this spectre, this hope…Even when he wasn’t mentioned, his presence hung in Mother’s preoccupied look and in my sister’s frightened, apologetic manner—hung like a sentence passed upon the Wingfields (411).
The Absent Father and the Gentleman Caller are archetypal images. We call the Absent Father the God of Israel, the one who led them, by the arm of Moses, out of the slavery of Egypt. Where is he tonight, when the remnant of Israel lies crushed under a Roman boot?
The Gentleman Caller, the great hope of love and redemption, refers to himself as the Bridegroom. On this night, he gathers his chosen company in an upper room. There is a heaviness in the chamber. His disciples fear that he might soon be arrested, perhaps be tried as an enemy of Rome. The Bridegroom has no doubt that death is nigh.
In the play, Tom’s motives are unclear. We don’t know if he knew that Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller whom he has brought home from work, was the secret crush of his sister Laura in high school. She can scarcely speak to her Adonis, now incarnate in the apartment. When Jim finally asks about her life, she can only point to her glass collection. She says:
They’re ornaments mostly! Most of them are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest little animals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie! Here’s an example of one, if you’d like to see it! This is one of the oldest. It’s nearly thirteen. Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks! (455)
Tom demurs, but Laura insists “Go on, I trust you with him! There now—you’re holding him gently! Hold him over the light, he loves the light! You see how the light shines through him.”
It’s a unicorn. As Jim notes, “something extinct in the modern world.” “He must feel sort of lonesome.”
How solitary the Bridegroom feels this night, in the upper room. He is not something extinct, but the likes of him have never been seen in Israel, never been witnessed on earth. He is the Only Begotten, the Beloved Son of Israel’s Absent Father. And though he is gathered with his apostolic band, he faces death, as must we all, alone.
How can he talk to them of his dreams, now drained of hope by his looming death? How can he explain that this night, and the dawn that follows, are the reason he has come into the world? Love has brought the Bridegroom, and now love demands his departure. How, in dread of death, does he give himself to them? Promise them that he will always be with them?
As Laura dances with the love of her life, they graze against her glass collection. The unicorn falls to the floor. “Is it broken?” Jim asks. He sees that the horn is lost.
Laura tells him, “It doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise…. Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns…”
When Laura learns that Jim is engaged to be married, she puts her broken heart into the hands of the insensitive Gentleman Caller.
She bites her lip which was trembling and then bravely smiles. She opens her hand again on the broken glass ornament. Then she gently takes his hand and raises it level with her own. She carefully places the unicorn in the palm of his hand, then pushes his fingers close upon it (460).
Bewildered, Jim asks, “What are you—doing that for? You want me to have him?—Laura? What for?”
She only says, “A—souvenir…”
As the Bridegroom celebrated his last Passover with us, the great promises, once made to Israel, again would have been sung, when
the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over,took bread, and, after he had given thanks,broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.Do this in remembrance of me.”In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11: 23-25).
Laura gives her love, who will never be, a shattered ornament. The Bridegroom, having taken his life into his hands, breaks bread into small pieces. Then he shares a cup, which he calls a “new covenant in my blood.”
This world wasn’t made for love. At least not the world in which you and I live. Even the strongest of loves goes down into the shades of death. But we believe, as the Bridegroom believed, that this world will made for love, that love will conquer death itself. The next day, love would be shattered on a cross, but it was death that would die.
Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26 John 13: 1-15