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The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, is a play that tells the story of a mother, Amanda, and her two children, Laura and Tom. Laura is a young woman who suffered from a disease that left her crippled, mentally and physically. Tom brings home a gentleman caller for Laura at the request of his mother. The Glass Menagerie not only reflects on the playwright’s sister Rose’s diagnosis of schizophrenia and her lobotomy, but also Williams’ feelings about the procedure. Williams’ had a close relationship with his sister and doted on her. He grew up experiencing Rose’s episodes of insanity and blamed himself for her lobotomy procedure (Morton). Therefore, Tennessee Williams was affected by his sister’s schizophrenia and lobotomy, resulting in his memory play, The Glass Menagerie, and the development of Laura’s character.
A lobotomy is a form of psychosurgery that requires the drilling of holes into a patient’s head to treat chronic mental disorders and behaviors. One of the first psychosurgeries was performed by Gottlieb Burckhardt in 1890 and Ludvig Puusepp in 1910, however, both surgeons decided that the procedure was far too dangerous to be conducted on patients. In 1935, Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz and surgeon Pedro Almeida Lima brought back psychosurgery and modified the treatment. “Holes were drilled into the patient’s head and then injected with ethyl alcohol”, in which the alcohol was used to “disrupt the neuronal tracts” that they believed caused the recurring symptoms of a patient’s mental illness (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). Created by Moniz, the leukotome was used to be inserted into the drilled holes in a patient’s head, “designed specifically to disrupt the tracts of neuronal fibres connecting the prefrontal cortex and thalamus of the brain” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). In 1936, physician Walter J. Freeman II and surgeon James Watts introduced the procedure to America. The two men modified the procedure and called it the Freeman-Watts standard lobotomy, in which it was modified again into the transorbital lobotomy ten years later. The transorbital lobotomy required a sharp instrument to be pushed into the eye socket to break the bone behind the sockets, and then “inserted into the frontal lobe and used to sever connections in the brain” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). The current form of lobotomy today has been modified throughout the years and a few operations were reported to be effective for several patients. When other forms of therapy and treatment were developed in the mid-1900, the lobotomy became less popular, but, it is still rarely used to treat some mental illnesses today.
Schizophrenia was one of the disorders that were treated by a lobotomy. This common psychotic disorder alters the way one thinks, feels, and behaves. The term “schizophrenia” was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler (Piotrowski). Symptoms usually begin to develop in the twenties for males and females, and then progresses as a person gets older (Piotrowski). Symptoms of schizophrenia are separated into three categories: positive, negative, and cognitive (National Institute of Mental Health). Positive symptoms are thoughts and behaviors that are present in people with the illness. Symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, and withdrawal from reality. People often confuse hallucinations and delusions, thinking that they are the same thing. Hallucinations involve seeing or hearing things that others do not, while delusions are misconceptions about the actual truth and reality. Negative symptoms are thoughts and behaviors that are “taken away” from someone with schizophrenia. Negative symptoms of this disorder may include “disconnected speech patterns, broken sentences, excessive body movement, and purposeless activity” as well as “extreme anger and hostility”. Cognitive symptoms deal with one’s thinking, with cognition meaning reasoning or understanding. Symptoms can include “poor ability to understand and make decisions, trouble focusing, problems with “working memory”. There is not one exact cause for schizophrenia, just like how there is not just one reason as to why someone has depression or any other mental illnesses. But the psychotic disorder can be caused by “genetics, the environment (viruses or malnutrition), and/or brain chemistry” (National Institute of Mental Health). Schizophrenia cannot be cured, but there are ways to treat this mental illness such as medication and therapy. While schizophrenia affects about “one percent of the general population”, it is still a serious disorder, with Rose William’s falling victim to the illness, and Tennessee Williams as the witness.
Tennessee Williams puts a character in his own shoes because of Rose’s schizophrenia and lobotomy. With background knowledge of the playwright’s life, readers can conclude that Tom Wingfield is a literary representation of Tennessee Williams. Williams’ real name is Thomas Lanier Williams, and Tom Wingfield is the younger brother of Laura Wingfield. Not only are the two men’s names similar, they are also both younger brothers of their fragile sisters. Another factor is that Tom is a poet who works in a warehouse, specifically a shoe warehouse. Williams also worked in a shoe company, but then became a playwright instead of a poet. Additionally, Tom cares deeply for his older sister, Laura, in the same brotherly way Williams did for his older sister, Rose. In Scene IV, it is morning and Laura is to get butter for her mother. But when she rushes out the door, she stumbles over her legs and falls: “A second later she cries out. Tom springs up and crosses to the door. Tom opens the door” (Williams 689). In this situation, Tom’s first instinct is to quickly go to the fallen Laura, knowing that she is crippled and that any assistance would be useful for her. As simple as this act of kindness may be, it clearly portrays Tom’s brotherly love for Laura, the way Williams’ fondness did for Rose while growing up.
Also in Scene IV, Tom shows more of his brotherly fondness for Laura. After Tom and Amanda’s argument, Laura pleads with Tom to apologize to their mother: “Don’t make Mother nervous… Tom, speak to Mother this morning. Make up with her, apologize, speak to her!”. Tom argues with Laura that his mother decided to not talk to him first. But after a few exchanges with Laura after she leaves, he sucks up his pride and apologizes to his mother. With knowledge about Williams’ resentment towards his mother for allowing Rose’s lobotomy, readers can speculate that Tom apologized to Amanda to satisfy Laura’s request, not to truly make up with Amanda. Tom knows that Laura is mentally “crippled” and tends to “brood” about the things she notices, so staying on bad terms with Amanda could possibly make Laura worried and unhappy. In Scene III, prior to Tom’s apology to Amanda, the mother and son argues about little things and he ends up calling her an “ugly—babbling old—witch” before taking off for the night (Williams 687). It has been reported that Williams had a “bitter resentment of his mother for allowing Rose to be so callously mistreated” (Morton). Therefore, Tom’s quarrel with Amanda symbolizes Williams’ grudge and dislike for his mother, Edwina Williams, for allowing Rose’s lobotomy. But, not only did Tennessee Williams create a character to represent himself, he developed a character to represent his sister as well.
To further express his rancor about his sister’s condition and operation, Tennessee Williams turned Rose Williams into Laura Wingfield. Rose Williams is the older sister of Tennessee Williams, and Laura Wingfield is the older sister of Tom Wingfield. The first distinct similarity of the two females is their perception of reality. Rose Williams was diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent a lobotomy for this. One symptom of schizophrenia is withdrawal from reality, and it is unknown whether Laura is schizophrenic or not. However, in the introduction of the play, it is noted that Laura’s case of reality is much worse than Amanda’s failure “to establish contact with reality” and that she is “crippled”. Readers can theorize that Laura’s perception of reality is also skewed in the way schizophrenics are. Also, Laura being crippled may not apply to her physically, in which “one of her leg is slightly shorter than the other”, but she is also mentally crippled. Even her brother, Tom, acknowledges her behavior and disability, just like Tennessee Williams with his sister.
In Scene V, when Tom talks to Amanda about bringing Jim O’Connor home for dinner, Tom points out that Laura is “terribly shy and lives in a world of her own” (Williams 697). He further explains to Amanda that Laura is “peculiar” because “she lives in a world of her own—a world of little glass ornaments”. Schizophrenics not only withdraws from reality, but they can experience hallucinations as well. It is a possibility that Laura hallucinates in a world of her glass collection, because she, as a 23-year-old woman, personified her glass unicorn to Jim O’Connor in Scene VII: “He doesn’t complain about it… all of them seem to get along nicely together… I haven’t heard any argument among them!” (Williams 712). With knowledge of Rose Williams and analysis of Laura’s character, readers can conclude why Laura’s glass unicorn is one of her favorites out of her collection. A unicorn is a horse with a horn on its head, making it quite unique. This uniqueness in the play parallels with Laura and her fragile, yet schizophrenic behavior and her “clumping” leg brace (Williams 708). However, this uniqueness in the real world connects to Rose and her schizophrenia. When the horn breaks from the unicorn after falling off a table, this symbolizes Rose Williams’ lobotomy. Laura consoles Jim that she will “just imagine he had an operation… to make him feel less—freakish”. The “operation” parallels with Rose’s lobotomy procedure, to make her “just like all the other horses”. But, as evident as the similarities may be, critics may disagree that Rose Williams’ condition and operation had any effect on the playwright.
Critics may argue that The Glass Menagerie had nothing to do with Tennessee Williams’ personal life and feelings. The first argument would just be a speculation that Rose’s condition and lobotomy did not affect the playwright on a personal level. But, this speculation is absurd as Williams’ had a fondness for his sister and was close to her. Other plays by Tennessee Williams were also written to reflect his life, such as Suddenly Last Summer and The Night of the Iguana, in which the “heroine” was “inspired by Rose”. However, the characters of The Glass Menagerie are the closest representation of the people in Williams’ life, himself included. The similarities between Tom Wingfield and Tennessee Williams are just too coincidental. Another argument would be that Rose Williams had no effect on the playwright’s development of Laura’s character. If this is the case, then the similarities between Laura and Rose are also much too coincidental. Why would Laura also be the older sister of “Tom” who also exhibits schizophrenic behaviors of a distorted reality? If Tennessee Williams was never affected by Rose’s schizophrenia and her lobotomy, he would not have expressed his remorse and bitterness in his plays, specifically The Glass Menagerie. Williams felt guilty for not “being able to prevent the procedure” of Rose and was “haunted” by it. Therefore, with coincidental similarities between characters, especially Laura, and their counterparts, it is evident that Rose became the muse behind Williams’ plays.
Sharing a close relationship with his older sister Rose Williams, playwright Tennessee Williams watched his sister fall into a world of madness and eventually received treatment that never truly treated her. Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a serious and chronic mental illness that can be treated with a lobotomy. Lobotomies, however, can be dangerous, as the procedure involves puncturing the skull and prodding the brain to disrupt nerves. Eventually, at the request of her mother Edwina Williams, Rose underwent a lobotomy. To express his guilt for not “being able to prevent the procedure”, Williams illustrated certain elements of his life and his sister’s life into one of his most famous plays, The Glass Menagerie. The first clear element is the narrator of the play, Tom Wingfield and his counterpart, Tennessee Williams, himself. Not only are their names and occupations similar, their brotherly love for their older sisters and ill feelings for their mothers are indistinguishable. Rose, the muse of many of Williams’ plays, was developed into Laura Wingfield. Rose and Laura are the older sisters of the two Toms and both have a distorted sense of reality. After witnessing Rose’s madness and hearing of her operation, it is evident that the occurrence greatly impacted Tennessee Williams, resulting in The Glass Menagerie (along with many of his other famous works) and the development of Laura’s character. The Glass Menagerie may seem like a play that revolves around an ordinary family, but it appears that the play has a much deeper significance, especially to the playwright, Tennessee Williams.
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