The Wingfields, A Case of a Dysfunctional Family
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Authors of fiction works are known for their creative in taking the reader to a world of their own where reality does not abode. However, this phenomenon is not common to all literary works as some allude so much to reality that the reader is tempted to take the work as non-fictional were it not for the eminent features of fictitiousness. Take for instance when a playwright writes a play that is almost a replica of his or her autobiography. In this case, many are left wondering where to classify this work; is it fictional or a nonfictional. Such is the case with a play written by Tennessee Williams in 1937. This play, The Glass Menagerie is a representation of the type of life Williams led. This essay however is not interested with the auto fictiveness of the play but what it addresses. From a careful study of this play, one theme is very dominant; the state of a dysfunctional family. This paper is based on my thesis that; The Glass Menagerie is a critic of a dysfunctional family.
This is a memory play narrated by one of the characters, Tom who doubles as a narrator and an actor. Tom is an ambitious poet who works in a shoe warehouse. Other characters in the play include Amanda, Tom’s mother, Laura, sister to Tom, Mr. Winfield, husband to Amanda and father to Tom and Laura and finally Tim O’Connor, a friend to Tom. Such a simple family and one wonder what goes wrong in the play to warrant it a prototype of a dysfunctional family. The conflict in the story is set from the beginning by the description of the setting. I am alluding to the postcard portraying Mr. Wingfield’s picture on the wall of the living room, which also serves as the bedroom for Laura.
Mr. Wingfield as we learn from the play ran off years ago and his role in this play is made manifest by the postcard. This is the first evidence that the text provides for a dysfunctional family. Mrs. Wingfield and her children have grown knowing Mr. Wingfield as passive figure in the background of their every day endeavors. This is in contrast to what a typical family man should be regardless of whatever society one hails from. How can a father who is supposed to be the breadwinner of the family flee away leaving the family in desperation? Whatever reasons Mr. Wingfield may have had for his flight, they are altogether unjustified by whatever means. This single act of a man of a man apparently fleeing his duties has numerous repercussions to the characters left behind as the whole play revolves around all the anomalies a family without a father-figure to serve as a mentor possesses. This paper will single each of these repercussions. This will be achieved by examining the misery life led by each of the characters left behind.
If there is any one who was primarily affected by the fleeing of Mr., Winfield, then it must be her wife, Amanda. Amanda has been forced to double roles as a caring mother, disciplinarian and role model to her two children. This has led to a life of conflict in opinions between her and the children. This apparently has overburdened her and she sometimes goes overboard to overdo her roles. The results of this have been more damaging than constructive.
Take for instance Laura, her daughter who suffers from pleurosis and has a crippled leg. Amanda goes out of way her to enroll Laura in a college to expose her to social life and hence fight her shyness. Does this work? Unfortunately, no! Laura ends up dropping out of the college and goes for movies and adventure tours to avoid being discovered she is not in college. How is her father to blame for this? Laura testifies that her father was so caring to her and thus we can deduce on this ground that her self-esteem would have been boosted if her father being around. After all, girls are believed to be more close to their fathers than to their mothers. Maybe if Mr. Wingfield had devised this plan, it might have worked given the amount of confidence Laura had bestowed upon him.
When this plan of enrolling Laura to a college failed, Amanda came up with a lasting solution to the shyness of her daughter. She determined to get her married. To this, she enquired from Tom if Laura had any suitors. The answer was obvious given the nature of her daughter. Amanda once again was not short of options. She portrays a character of willingness to sacrifice for her daughter, a phenomenon unparalleled elsewhere in the play. She subjects herself to humiliation by engaging in subscription sales in a magazine to see through Laura’s marriage prospects. This she does with no word of complaint (Tennessee, p 1432). This may be regarded as an act of a caring mother concerned about the future of daughter. On the other hand, it is depiction of Amanda’s over-protective measures against her children. All this boils down to a missing link in the children’s upbringing especially given that Amanda is bringing them up single-handedly.
Another flaw that taints this family and makes it a dysfunctional is the frequent mother-son quarrels that are characteristic of Amanda and Tom. Though the blame may fall on Amanda for her nagging attitude, Tom has his part to play too. The play states categorically that Tom has an indifferent attitude towards his mother and sister. He does not, at any particular scene of the play, portray kindness to her sister or mother, not even when he has broken the former’s glass menagerie.
Like father like son, the old adage goes. Tom, just like his father is an alcoholic who apparently withdraws to alcoholism to escape his worries. His father, as evident from the fact that he escaped his family, is a perfect example of an escapist. Therefore, Tom’s plans of leaving his family may have stemmed from his father. This is because of the burden Tom has of parenting. His mother bestows the task of taking care of his sister with him after which Tom may go his ways. This is a phenomenon common with alcoholic families in which the older child is charged with the duty of parenting (Parker p.143). In this context, Tom, although not the older of the two had to take the place of his fled-father. This was attributed to the fact that Laura wads handicapped and thus could not take that role. This causes an outburst between Tom and his mother.
Another characteristic which was evident in this dysfunctional family and which has its root in the absentee father is the lack of emotion and love obviously evident here. Once again as with the case of child parenting, this is a phenomenon not peculiar in alcoholic families. This is caused primarily by the amount of pressure amounted to the parent who is non-alcoholic. The latter is so much stressed that he or she has no time for the children. This in return, results to feelings of anger, resentment, guilt and blame. There is no better example like the one depicted by Amanda in every conversation he had with her son Tom. The frequent outbursts can be attributed to this pressure. In an effort to cover this disposition, Amanda adopted an attitude of over-protecting her children, a strategy that worked against her.
In order to survive this entire trauma, children of dysfunctional homes use escapism strategies to cope with the chaos and pain ever-present in the family. This is evident in the play in the case of Tom’s alcoholism. Laura is also not left behind. She spends hours with her menagerie, identifying with the unicorn and listening to her old records. Such an environment provides refuge for her while alcoholism on the other hand soothes Tom. Just like their father, the two do not face the reality and find escape in different ways.
Williams succeeds in painting to us the true picture of a dysfunctional family. Traits common to this family and to extension all the other families of its kind are attitudes of rigidity, repressed, and twisted emotions. Another trait common with such families is reverence for past traditions that prove detrimental in the present contexts. For instance, the efforts of Amanda to raise money for the marriage arrangements of her daughter are futile. She thinks that just like her time, she should have attracted many suitors by now and therefore she goes out of her way to make efforts on her behalf to have some. All these coping attitudes are adopted with the sole aim of maintaining integrity, cohesion and a degree of sanity in the family. Nevertheless, this does not bind them. The thread of ‘it is well’; creating fantasies, making excuses and a general avoidance cement such families.
In conclusion, this play apart from painting the picture of a dysfunctional family also gives as an intrigue in the life of William. In fact, it is considered by critics as the most autobiographical of his work. Having grown in an alcoholic family, he had first hand experience with what it meant to hail from such backgrounds, a phenomenon he has successfully represented in The Glass Menagerie.
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