Between Grief and High Delight: The Glass Menageries of J.D. Salinger & Tennessee Williams

Creative Commons License Written by Angelica Bega Hart. December 2009. The author wishes to note that this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

"The Glass Menagerie" cover
The Glass Menagerie (user uploaded image from Good Reads)

Critics have often examined the underlying significance of religion in J.D. Salinger’s short fiction. This is entirely appropriate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because what little we know about Salinger’s biography suggests that he avidly followed a number of religious traditions. As a young man growing up in a mixed religious household, as a Jewish soldier in World War II, and as more than a dilettante in the area of alternative spiritualities including Vedanta Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and even at one point, Dianetics, Salinger’s attention to religion seems tantamount to understanding his work.  Moreover, there are both overt and covert references to Eastern and Western spiritualities in his fiction.  The relevance of religious criticism has often predominated critical attention to Salinger’s 1957 novella Zooey.

Critical attention which has not centered on religion has often focused instead on elements of character or on the ephiphanic moment during the narrative’s climax. Seymour’s “Fat Lady” is one such primary target for debate. Furthermore, many psychoanalytic critics have investigated the relationship between Zooey and his mother Bessie. However, all of these critics may have missed an important corollary to Zooey, in Tennessee Williams’ popular 1944 drama, The Glass Menagerie. Apart from a mention in Gwynn and Blotner, [1] contending that Salinger fills a void left by post-war writers including Williams, and a brief, punning nudge to the play in Charles Poore’s New York Times Review of Franny and Zooey, [2] there is little mention of any connection between these two works of post WWII American fiction. While there are important differences as well, these works share more than a passing resemblance to one another.  These similarities are most evident in the three main characters of each narrative. Other details of the stories mimic one another as well, as both employ elements of Romanticism and struggle with the idea of virtue. Both also deal with time and performativity in interesting ways in order to connect those elements thematically to the narratives. And ironically, both create some of the same mythic and symbolic connections.

Perhaps the most obvious correlations are between Franny and Laura, who serve in many ways as the focal character of each work. In a collection of essays on Tennessee Williams, critic Judith Thompson describes Laura as being associated with images “connoting the innocent other-worldliness of the saint, the cloistered nun, and the chaste virgin.” (Tharpe, 149)  One such image occurs at the end of Scene Three after Tom breaks one of Laura’s figurines and she turns away from him, as she does so he gets down on his knees to collect the broken glass. The image simultaneously recalls two images. In one, Tom is repentant for his actions and seeks her forgiveness on his knees as one might kneel before clergy. Viewed alternatively, it recalls the customary stance of the marriage proposal and Laura’s refusal to look at Tom is evocative of the chaste virgin who refuses to marry. Conversely, Franny is self-described in the story that bears her name as feeling a “trickle of disloyalty and guilt.” (Franny, 16) This admission of  guilt, when coupled with the suggestion that she and Lane may have been intimate during a previous encounter, removes the virginal quality and places Franny in opposition to the chaste Laura.

However, by the time she gets back to her parents’ home in Zooey, Franny’s description becomes more associated with childhood and her fragile state; the effect places her into virtually the same state as Laura–in the tenuous position of an innocent. Both are young and arguably fragile. Both are linked with images of children and child-like innocence. Franny is described recuperating on the couch of her parents Manhattan apartment, both with references to a child–like state (“the mute, fisty defenses of the nursery”) and to being bathed in light:

Mrs. Glass, who did some of her most inspired, most perpendicular thinking on the threshold of linen closets, had bedded down her youngest child on the couch between pink percale sheets, and covered her with a pale-blue cashmere afghan. Franny now lay sleeping on her left side, facing into the back of the couch and the wall, her chin just grazing one of the several toss pillows all around her. Her mouth was closed, but only just. Her right hand, however, on the coverlet, was not merely closed but shut tight; the fingers were clenched, the thumb tucked in–it was as though, at twenty, she had checked back into the mute, fisty defenses of the nursery. (Zooey, 122-123)

Salinger’s attention to the linens Bessie selects evokes traditional associations with infancy. Combined with the notion of Mrs. Glass having “bedded Franny down” and surrounding her with toss pillows the way one might an infant who could too easily fall and be injured, the nursery motif is complete. All that remains is to paint the picture of Franny as angelic, or at least worthy of grace. Salinger conveys this through the use of light.

And here at the couch, it should be mentioned, the sun, for all its ungraciousness to the rest of the room, was behaving beautifully. It shone full on Franny’s hair, which was jet-black and very prettily cut, and had been washed three times in as many days. Sunshine, in fact, bathed the entire afghan, and the play of warm, brilliant light in the pale-blue wool was in itself well worth beholding. (Zooey, 123)

Laura is similarly (and literally) bathed in light according to Williams’ stage directions, and her childishness is reinforced during the second scene when her mother asks how old she is. (Menagerie, 26)

Both Laura and Franny are in some way “broken” at the outset of their respective stories. Laura is so painfully shy that upon being given a speed typing test at the business school she is attending, she gets physically ill and, like Franny during her conversation with Lane, she is forced to visit the washroom. Most noticeably, Laura’s childhood illness has caused her to have one leg that is slightly shorter than the other, an affliction that causes Laura to fixate and withdraw even more. Laura’s disfigurement as a result of a childhood bout with pleurosis, seems to be not much more than a physical manifestation of Franny’s spiritual crisis. The crisis of faith also causes Franny to withdraw; yet, Franny’s withdrawal is different in that it is more from the outer world and the “section-men” types, than from her family, in whose home she seeks solace. Franny’s spiritual crisis renders her mute to those around her just as Laura’s physical affliction causes her to retreat into an inner world of glass ornaments and make-believe.

Laura, like Franny, recognizes and decries phoniness and insincerity. She demonstrates this when she talks to her mother about a high school crush named Jim, who was dating the “best-dressed girl at Soldan,” a girl Laura claims never seemed “sincere.” (Menagerie, 29) Laura’s objection conveys a sincere rejection of inauthenticity and not simply the defense mechanism of a rejected admirer. Franny, of course, like most of Salinger’s characters, is hyper-aware of phoniness and hypocrisy. Franny’s objection to the section men of the world, her frustration with Lane and with her own inability to remove herself from the phony world all contribute to her breakdown. During a particularly telling moment in Franny, the youngest Glass explains her frustration with the phony world and her attempts to get outside of it:

Everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and—sad making. And the worst part is if you go Bohemian or something crazy like that, you’re conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way. (Franny, 26)

If Franny is Salinger’s Laura, then Tom is Williams’ own Zooey. Both young men serve as brothers and mediators to female protagonists in crisis, and are, in their own ways, in crisis themselves. Both attempt to escape the realities of their existence through performance. Tom often escapes the realities of home and family and work as a participant, a moviegoer who lives vicariously through images on the screen. Lost among the darkness of a theatre crowd, Tom is inaccessible to the outside world, which due to his father’s departure is now dependent on him. Zooey’s escapism is less negative since it is an active escape. Salinger informs us that:

By profession, Zooey was an actor, a leading man, in television, and had been for a little more than three years. He was, in fact, as “sought after” (and, according to vague second-hand reports that reached his family, as highly paid) as a young leading man in television perhaps can be who isn’t at the same time a Hollywood or Broadway star with a ready-made national reputation. (Zooey, 52)

Williams meanwhile, describes Tom as a “poet with a job in a warehouse. His nature is not remorseless, but to escape from a trap he has to act without pity” (Menagerie, 7) The characterization of both men, linked by arts but separated by the banal reality of income reminds the reader that not only is Zooey’s position better because he is making a living as an artist, but that he is being paid handsomely to do so while Tom has to eke out a meager living while placing his art secondary (Tom might be more reminiscent of the artist figure in “The Varioni Borthers”). Therefore, Zooey is not as bound by external realities, except in one respect, as he is forced to grapple with the reality of Seymour’s influence and death for the first time. Other small realities intrude on Zooey’s world, but serve as no more than a general annoyance. For example, when Bessie enters the bathroom where Zooey sits soaking in the tub, they engage in a frustrated dialogue:

“Do you know how long you’ve been in that tub? Exactly forty-five–”

“Don’t tell me! Just don’t tell me, Bessie.”

“What do you mean, don’t tell you?”

“Just what I said. Leave me the goddam illusion you haven’t been out there counting the minutes I’ve–” (Zooey, 72)

The world of illusion is one Zooey is unwilling to shatter completely, and part of his own realization in the novella is that he too prefers a world of illusion to reality.

Many of the outside realities in both Zooey and The Glass Menagerie come through the mouthpiece of the mother figure. Bessie certainly demonstrates this in passages like the one above. Amanda, despite the fact that she is unable to live in the real world without the comfort of nostalgic visions of her youth, tells Laura that she is “bewildered—by life,” and laments the “fifty dollars’ tuition,” and all her plans, “just gone up the spout,” demonstrating her ability to focus on the everyday realities of the world, perhaps better than either of her children. (Menagerie, 26-27)  Amanda’s vision is distorted though, and not only by her youthful visions, but also by her bitterness at being a single-mother working as a magazine saleswoman to help provide for her family.

Despite the fact that her “devotion has made [her] a witch,” Williams instructs readers and would-be stagers of his play against viewing Amanda too harshly. (Menagerie, 9) Bessie is similarly sympathetic as evidenced by her vulnerability, which is demonstrated by passages such as the one below:

Zooey pulled open the medicine-cabinet door and put the orange stick back in its niche. “Just don’t, that’s all. Don’t admire my goddam back,” he said, and closed the cabinet. He picked off a pair of black silk socks that were hanging on the towel bar and carried them over to the radiator. He sat down on the radiator, despite the heat– or because of it–and began to put on his socks.

Mrs. Glass gave a rather delayed snort. “Don’t admire your back–I love that!” she said. But she was insulted, and a trifle hurt. She watched him put on his socks, with a mixed expression of injury and the ungovernable interest of someone who has been examining laundered socks for holes for a great many years. Then, suddenly, with one of her most audible sighs, she stood up and, grim and duty-bound, moved into the washstand area Zooey had vacated. Her first, blatantly martyred chore was to turn on the cold-water tap. “I wish you’d learn to put the caps back on things properly when you’re finished using them,” she said in a tone she fully meant to sound captious. (Zooey, 116)

Amanda and Bessie may be from starkly different backgrounds, but their concerns in these works are the same. Both are in the position of reeling in rebellious sons and comforting their ailing daughters.

Both authors also employ an absent father-figure. While Tom explains that his father in The Glass Menagerie is,

…a fifth character in the play who doesn’t appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel. 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…” (Menagerie, 21)

Though the character is not present on stage, his photograph serves as a reminder of his continued impact on the family. Therefore, while Mr. Wingfield is physically absent, Mr. Glass’ absence is more subtle. Bessie complains to Zooey:

“You’re none of you any help whatsoever. But none! Your father doesn’t even like to talk about anything like this. You know that! He’s worried, too, naturally–I know that look on his face–but he simply will not face anything.” Mrs. Glass’s mouth tightened. “He’s never faced anything as long as I’ve known him. He thinks anything peculiar or unpleasant will just go away if he turns on the radio and some little schnook starts singing.” (Zooey, 82)

This description, coupled with the realization that the only information we have about Les comes from Bessie, demonstrates the absence of a character who is physically present. The absent father figures help to create a sense of urgency in these situations that elevate them to crisis status. They also open narrative space that is then able to be filled by the brother, who becomes the male protagonist for both works.

Seymour’s function in the narrative is less clear, though he is in some ways a corollary to the glass menagerie itself.  When Franny, in the midst of her spiritual crisis is asked who she wants to talk to, it is Seymour she asks for. Like Laura, Franny is dependent on something external, something associated with memory and perhaps most importantly on someone on whom she can impose her own impressions, in lieu of real dialogue. What one finally gets in Zooey is a sense that of all that we know about Seymour is filtered through the family, especially Buddy, virtually nothing known about Seymour is of Seymour’s creation. Laura is similarly able to impose her own wishes on the menagerie, not only because the collection is made up of inanimate objects, but also because it is a safe outlet for her creativity. During her conversation with Jim the audience begins to realize that she has been creating a world for these animals of glass. Jim asks if the unicorns ever get lonely because of their uniqueness and Laura responds that “if he does, he doesn’t complain about it. He stays on a shelf with some horses that don’t have horns and all of them seem to get along nicely together.” (Menagerie, 79)

Both works also employ Romantic elements though neither can be described as strictly Romantic. Especially with respect to Menagerie, the concentration on the natural and the beautiful (even among the squalid is a primary focus). This focus recalls a trait often employed by Salinger, most notably in “For Esme…”, but also used in a number of his other works. Though this idea is only briefly alluded to in Zooey, it is present in the aesthetic epiphany described by Martin Bidney, wherein Zooey watches a little girl and her dog circle a tree on the street below from his window. Both stories concern themselves, as do most of the works by their respective authors, with what is virtuous. At their core, both Salinger and Williams place high value on authenticity and on love, though Williams view of love is a more sentimental Romantic view than the one expressed in Salinger’s stories.

The Glass Menagerie, which Williams labels a memory play, is fervently interested in the concept of time.  Memory, and by extension, time also feature predominantly in Zooey. Time in Menagerie is fluid, and often flows backward as Amanda reminisces about her seventeen gentleman callers and Laura and Jim recall their high school days together.  Time, one critic argues, functions so radically different in Williams’ plays since actions alluded to in early scenes in the past are often reenacted in the present later in the play.  Such is the case with Laura’s receipt of a “gentleman caller,” which is described earlier in the play through Amanda’s recollections of Blue Mountain. Time, is also emphasized as fluid through the use of images on screen that appear ahead of their actual appearance on stage, thus calling attention to the aspect of memory. There are also a number of anachronisms throughout the play that call attention to time, including the unicorn, which is a mythic beast out of place among the more contemporary and mundane animals which occupy the menagerie.  Time in Zooey is viewed in a more realistic stop-start fashion as Zooey reads Buddy’s letter in the tub, when his mother calls his attention to the fact that he has been in the tub forty-five minutes, she emphasizes that time is essentially meaningless to Zooey, whose cavalier attitude, as Buddy points out, derives from the luxury of youth. As he gets out of the tub and begins to groom himself, Zooey reacquaints himself with reality and begins to be concerned with time. Time does sustain a back and forth motion in Zooey as well however, since visions of and conversations with the absent Seymour predominate both thought and action.

In addition to their focus on time and remembrance, both narratives also contend with the idea of performance. The notion that a drama would deal with issues of performance is hardly a surprising one. As noted above, Tom’s role as moviegoer is one device used by Williams to establish his character and his escapist impulses; more importantly, it also calls attention to the performative aspect of the play. It is as if Williams did not have to go to the lengths of artists like Pirandello in trying to destroy the proscenium, since every action feels like a performance. When Amanda accuses Tom of not going to the movies, an enraged Tom creates an exaggerated vision of himself and acts it out before her, saying,

I’m going to opium dens! Yes, opium dens, dens of vice and criminals’ hangouts, Mother. I’ve joined the Hogan gang, I’m a hired assassin, I carry a tommy gun in a violin case! I run a string of cat houses in the Valley! They call me Killer, Killer Wingfield, I’m leading a double-life, a simple honest warehouse worker by day, by night a dynamic czar of the underworld, Mother. I go to gambling casinos, I spin away fortunes on the roulette tables! I wear a patch over one eye, and a false moustache, sometimes I put on green whiskers. On those occasions, they call me-El Diablo! Oh I could tell you many things to make you sleepless! (Menagerie, 34)

Both female characters engage in this as well. For example, while Laura has been spending her days at the park and the zoo, she continues the charade of attending business school, staging herself among shorthand diagrams and keyboard charts. Similarly, Amanda’s preparations for Jim’s arrival feel orchestrated as if she is trying to reproduce the elaborate scenery of her own encounters with young men.

In Zooey, we also see characters in a performative mode. Zooey is an actor. As noted above, his acting links him with Tom’s escapist moviegoing. Salinger’s language suggests that performance is something not limited to actors. In his description of  Zooey, Salinger writes, “[h]e wore a frown behind his cigar, as though the stunning lighting effects had been “created” by a stage director whose taste he considered more or less suspect.” (Zooey, 123) Bessie is also set up as a performer, as evidenced in Hapworth and Raise High, Bessie is not often one to play the role of mother with great bravado, but in Zooey, Bessie takes on the expected role of mother in ways that she has not previously, fussing over her children to the point of nagging.

Like most of Williams’ plays, The Glass Menagerie relies strongly on mythic elements in providing context for its characters. Specifically, like A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer, two of Williams’ best known plays, he presents  an Edenic vision of the world which is then broken by the fall. Both Tom’s exit from the play and the broken glass ornament can be seen as symbols of this Edenic paradise in peril. Additionally, when Tom goes to the paradise nightclub he notices a light hanging above with a large glass shade. Paradise, both in reality and in fiction, is always in delicate balance and therefore in danger of being spoiled. And while Salinger’s work is often associated with religious motifs, it is harder to find the Edenic motif in Zooey, however, a clever reader might view Les’s offer of a tangerine as somewhat analogous, though it is important to note that Franny is not tempted by it and her fall from innocence into experience is a foregone conclusion.

Interestingly, both works focus on a number of the same symbols, often using them in complimentary, if not identical, ways. One of the primary symbols in both works is the presence of glass. Glass in The Glass Menagerie is of course represented in Laura’s titular collection of delicate animal figurines. These figures have been noted by many critics as being identified with Laura’s fragile self-image, and also the frailty and transience of the world itself.

Laura: Little articles of it, 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 one is one of the oldest. It’s nearly thirteen. …
[He stretches out his hand.]

Laura: Oh, be careful – if you breathe, it breaks! (Menagerie, 79)

Having examined the many similarities, one can now see the differences. Humor is easy enough to find in Salinger, though at times a reader can get lost in the profound sadness of the characters’ disillusionments and forget that the overall tone of Salinger’s work is positive. Such a mistake can never be made when looking at these two works side by side. The Glass Menagerie is without a doubt not just concerned with phoniness, but with genuine loss and crises not just of faith or emotion, but that ultimately effect a characters’ emotional and financial stability and in turn, of her ability to survive. Setting plays a large role in this. Setting in Zooey is evocative of a museum and the Glass apartment has the feel of a museum setting where everything is incased in glass separate from the current time, though to readers at the time the Manhattan apartment would have evoked images of glamour, Salinger’s descriptions refrain from the glamorous and focus instead on the mundane and unchanging element, such as stained carpeting and worn furniture. The Wingfield’s tenement apartment is described more desperately, It is not surprising to find that the apartment’s window faces a fire escape, again evoking an image of the desire to flee. The apartment is described as more drab than the Glasses residence and of course smaller and grittier. When Tom announces that he has invited Jim to dinner, this leads Amanda to immediately recognize a thousand preparations which must be made.

Still, these differences are not such that they prevent the reader from establishing important parallels that impact the way that both stories are read. It seems surprising that fewer critical responses have focused on authors contemporary to Salinger, which might have focused reader’s attentions on prevailing morés of Salinger’s time. Tennessee Williams at first seems an unlikely choice, but read in the context of Zooey, one cannot help but see strong parallels in The Glass Menagerie, which more fully illuminate the fragile worlds of the characters, of Salinger and Williams, and of a generation returning from one of the most horrific periods of history.

Works Consulted

Bloom, Harold. ed. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: J.D. Salinger. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008. Print.

—. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Tennessee Williams. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007. Print.

French, Warren G. J.D. Salinger (Revised Edition). Twayne’s United States authors series, TUSAS 40. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976. Print.

—. J.D. Salinger, Revisited. Twayne’s United States authors series, TUSAS 542. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988. Print.

Gross, Robert F. ed. Tennessee Williams: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Gwynn, Frederick L. and Joseph L. Blotner. The Fiction of J.D. Salinger. Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958. Print.

Homberger, Eric. The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City’s History (Revised and Expanded Edition). New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005. Print.

Poore, Charles. Books of the Times (Review of Franny and Zooey). The New York Times Books Section. The New York Times. September 14, 1961.Web.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961. Print.

—. Nine Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. Print.

Tharpe, Jac. Tennessee Williams: 13 Essays. Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press. 1980. Print.

Willliams, Tennessee. Eight Plays. Garden City, New York: Nelson Doubleday Inc. 1979. Print.

[1] Gwynn and Blotner list Williams among a smattering of other writers, namely Ralph Ellison, Kingsley Amis, Truman Capote, Wright Morris and Samuel Beckett. (Gwynn and Blotner, 3)

[2] In a review dated September 14, 1961, Charles Poore writes, “Mrs. Glass, their mother, hovers around the battle of words that follows. Indeed, she contributes a few thousand herself. Her husband, with whom she once formed a gaudy vaudeville team, isn’t visible. But his influence, together with that of other ghostly or still living members of the family, is strongly felt in what I imagine everyone will soon be calling Mr. Salinger’s Glass menagerie.” (Poore, emphasis mine)

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