In wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin

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In
the play, “The Glass Menagerie” published in 1944 by Tennessee Williams, the
play portrays the life of the main character Tom, an aspiring poet who has become
a victim of his role as the sole male in a household of females inept of
catching up with the everchanging modern world. Due to the tragic events of Tom
Wingfield’s life, starting with his father’s abandonment and, ending with his
own abandonment of his mother and sister, Tom can be characterized according to
Arthur Miller’s new kind of hero – the modern tragic hero.  Through the author’s depiction of a regretful
Tom, Williams highlights that there is no true escape from the past when you
house the relentless power of memory. Consequently, Tom is considered a modern
tragic hero due to the conflict that arises between his self-concept and his
reality as a result of his dismal familial situation, his own ideal
self-concept and, his final decision to leave his family.  

Firstly,
Tom’s desire to escape his position of ‘man of the house’ contributes to his
demise as a modern day tragic hero. After being deserted by his father, Tom
being the only other male in the household was left indisputably burdened with
unforeseen responsibilities. This is the reality that Tom struggles with the
most -his role as the breadwinner and sole caretaker. This role prevents him
from leading a life of his own and so, he wishes to escape like his father who
vanished without a trace:

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 out of fantastic out of town …
The last we heard of him was a picture postcard from Mazatlán on the coast of
Mexico, containing two words: “Hello – Goodbye” and no address. (679)

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For
Tom, his father represents the promises of escape – happiness – and so, Tom
believes that he must escape the confines that has left him rooted to his
mundane reality. His burning desire to escape is temporarily appeased when he
engages in the adventures of movies, the fantasies of literature and the stupor
achieved by his drunkenness, however, his desire for a permanent fix is
highlight when Tom speaks with Laura about the magician who was nailed in a
coffin but eventually got out:

…But
the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him in a coffin
and he got out the coffin without removing one nail. There is a trick that
would come in handy for me – get me out of this two-by-four situation! (688)

This
statement by Tom highlights that the act was more than a magic trick to him. He
is impressed by the magician’s ability to emerge from the coffin without
upsetting a single nail and neither destroying the coffin. Like the magician,
Tom longs to free himself from the human coffin that is his overbearing mother
and ‘crippled’ sister. However, Tom knows that he will not be able to free himself
without removing a single nail, consequently upsetting his mother and sister if
he dares leave them in despair. As a result, despite Tom’s desire to escape, he
is forced to take care of his family due to his innate sense of responsibility
for them.

            Secondly, Tom’s withdrawal into his
own private world of illusion contributes to his classification as a modern
tragic hero. According to the playwright Arthur Miller, “the modern hero
emphasizes a clash between the character and the environment, especially the
social environment” (676). Miller says that “each person has a chosen image of
self and position and that tragedy results when the character’s environment
denies the fulfillment of this self-concept” (676). In the play, it is evident
that there is a clash between the main character’s own self-concept and his
environment, in this case being his reality. In his illusionary existence, Tom
finds comfort in the things that he deems to be of the utmost importance: his
poems, his dreams, his freedom and adventuring – all the things that are
unavailable to him. His chosen self-image is that of a poet but, in reality, Tom
works in a shoe warehouse and, to everyone around him, he is a shoe warehouse
worker. This contrast in Tom’s reality and Tom’s self-concept is the basis from
which almost all conflicts arise in the play. His dreams of being a poet and a
budding adventurer inspires him to live by feelings and instincts, but his
social environment shuns such attributes. In an argument with his mother
Amanda, Tom states that:

Man
is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter, and none of these instincts are
given much play at the warehouse (691)

Tom’s
mother, a fraction of his social environment that denies his true fulfillment
rebuts that man should find adventure in his work or just simply do without it,
refusing to hear about instinct, as instincts were what led her husband to
desert his family, leaving the all to grasp at scraps and fend for themselves.
The tragedy however, is highlighted when Amanda recognizes Tom’s desperate
desire to escape the heavy shackles that is his family, pleas with Tom to not
leave until they find a suitor for Laura:

…as
soon as Laura has gotten somebody to take care of her, married, a home of her
own, independent – why, the you’ll be free to go wherever you please, on land,
on sea, whichever way the wind blows you. But until that time, you’ve got to
look out for your sister.

Amanda’s
statement portrays that she expects Tom to give up all that he ever “dreamed of
doing and being ever” (687) to take care of her and his sister who most likely
would never find a suitor. As a result, Tom is a modern tragic hero because his
circumstances prevent him from being who he really wants to be.

            Lastly, Tom is a modern day tragic
hero because he ends up abandoning his family and repeating his father’s
mistakes. From the beginning of the play, the reader is made aware of Tom’s
desire to free himself from the confinements of his reality, and in the end, it
is evident that Tom finally achieves what he has longed for and chooses his
inherent personal desire over his family’s needs. He had been fired from the warehouse
for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox, and so, with his unintentional
escape from his mundane job, it is evident that Tom also decided to kill two
birds with one stone and also escape the morbid life which he would no longer
be able to sustain. Tom follows the path of his father, becoming the “bastard
son of a bastard” (703) that he once told Jim that he was, however, is he as
happy as he thought that he would be? Is he free? No, Tom is not free. He may
be free of the responsibilities that came with living with his mother and
sister but Tom is still imprisoned, only now it is by the memory of his
hopeless sister Laura. Tom is permanently shackled to his reality, and no matter
how much time as passed since he has left and no matter how far he travels from
Saint Louis, Tom is bounded to his reality by his memories:

Perhaps
it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass.
Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have
found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The
window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent colors in delicate
colors, like bits of shattered rainbow. Then all at once, my sister touches my shoulder,
I turn and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me,
but I am more faithful that I intended to be!… Blow out your candles, Laura –
and so goodbye…she blows the candles out.

Tom’s
final statement highlight that Tom escaped only to be plagued with constant reminders
of his selfish act. As a result, Tom is a tragic hero because he is tragically displaced
after abandoning his family only to soon realize that the future he hoped for
is just as mundane as his past.

Though
some critics might argue that Tom made the right decision by leaving his family
behind, it is evident that he did not as he is obviously guilt-stricken by the decision
he has made which cause him to be haunted by his memories of his sister. In
conclusion, the main character Tom is by Arthur Miller’s classification a
modern tragic hero because of the evident clash between who he is and who has
sought out to be. Tom’s chosen image of self had been denied by his reality and
so, even though he escaped his dismal role as the breadwinner in his family, he
now suffers feelings of displacement as he is haunted by the memory of his
sister that he has selfishly left behind.

 

 

 

 

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