Term Paper: Glass Menagerie the 1940s

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¶ … Glass Menagerie

The 1940s was a period that presented substantial challenges for American women. Indeed, the decade of the Forties proved extremely difficult for women who were pursuing fairness in the workplace, in education and in career opportunities. Also, women pushing for social justice, competent healthcare, and political opportunities in the Forties found themselves up against old biases and recalcitrant male-dominated institutions. Albeit women had been enfranchised as voters for over twenty years, they were often left out in the cold and seen as weak, even helpless. And even when the U.S. became involved in WWII, and millions of men - boyfriends, brothers, husbands, relatives - went off to fight, women in the workplace were viewed as inadequate replacements. In Tennessee Williams' the Glass Menagerie, the Nobel-Prize-winning author depicts women much like he saw them within the social and family milieu of the times - the Forties.

BODY of the PAPER: Tennessee Williams' the Glass Menagerie - and many of his other plays - fit nicely into the genre critics call "Southern Gothic." According to East Tennessee State University professor of English, Darryl E. Haley, this genre placed emphasis on "...the irrational, the desperation of humanity in a universe where cosmic laws do not work." Haley goes on to claim that the Glass Menagerie exposed the "tragic-comic...conflicts between the old Southern values and the brute force of the new, Northern values" (Haley 2005).

Some of those conflicts in society - with reference to women's place in America in the 1940s - are reviewed in this paper, in order to present a psychosocial background into the characters Amanda Wingfield and her troubled daughter, Laura Wingfield. Williams painted literary portraits of his female characters with the brushstrokes from his own family experiences (his sister was schizophrenic) and from the society that he observed all around him and that had strong opinions about.

What was life like for women in the South - and elsewhere in America - during the time in Williams' life that the Glass Menagerie was written (the early-to-mid 1940s)? It is clear women did not command the respect in the workplace that they do today. In fact, at the urging of the U.S. government, more than 19 million women joined the labor force in the early 1940s, although it is clear "...they were not necessarily treated the same as their male counterparts," according to the history department at the University of San Diego (http://history.sandiego.edu)(USD). Even though the National War Labor Board (NWLB) set forth "equal pay" guidelines for women - same pay as men received before they went off to war - these standards "were [seldom] enforced."

Some employers "out rightly refused to hire women, while others set ridiculously low hiring quotas for women... [and] these practices left women feeling very confused about how America wanted its women to behave" (USD). A recent interview with Barbara Kling, noted public relations professional in New York City, examined her struggles to be respected in the American workplace in the 1940s. After graduating from Smith College, she wanted to be a "political journalist" (Shaw, 2008), so she accepted a job with United Press International as a "copy girl." But she soon found out that "Women could advance [at UPI] only if they worked in what was then known as women's news, covering food, family, and fashion," which she said did not interest her.

Women's health was given short shrift to men's health issues during the 1940s as well, according to two articles in the New York Times. In the book a Darker Ribbon: Breast Cancer, Women, and Their Doctors in the Twentieth Century author Ellen Leopold explains that in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, women's stories of their own bouts with Breast Cancer were "often told by male doctors." Males had authority and control over "the representation of the disease," Leopold points out in a summary of her book published in the New York Times. "When women finally begin to tell their own stories, they are still heavily chaperoned by medically credentialed men," Leopold asserts. This history gives a strong clue to the way society reflected and reacted to women's health issues at the time the Glass Menagerie was written.

Another example of the questionable way in which women's healthcare issues were handled in the 1940s is offered by Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein in her New York Times' interview with Dr. Sarah L. Berga, an infertility specialist. Epstein notes "In the 1940s, Freudian analysts told infertile women that lurking antimaternal thoughts made them sterile...do you think of yourself as a continuum of this practice?" Berga replied that "they were not all wrong" back then but the Freudian assertions went too far.

Meanwhile there were state laws that were blatantly discriminatory against women in the 1940s. By law in Oklahoma, for example, a woman could not be elected governor, secretary of state, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, or state auditor (Furman, 1941). In a dozen states at that time, the New York Times' reporter Bess Furman writes, "The father has prior rights to his child's earnings." In Arizona, Furman continues, a wife living with her husband was required to put her earnings into their "community property, which he only can control and dispose of." In Colorado a woman was "required to perform the usual and ordinary household duties," Furman explains, as compensation for "the husband's liability for her maintenance." And in Connecticut, a husband was entitled to "the services of his wife by right of marriage."

In the interest of offering further perspective on why Williams portrayed female characters in the Glass Menagerie the way he did, it is worth noting that when Williams was just five years of age, he suffered from a paralytic disease, causing him to be paralyzed. At seven, he was diagnosed with diphtheria. His mother, Edwina Dakin Williams, approached his difficulties during this period in his life by encouraging him to dream up stories and read. But Edwina is also reported to have been a pushy, sometimes smothering woman by a biographer writing for ThinkQuest (http://library.thinkquest.org).Indeed, his mother did not approve of him "...playing with other boys" and his father made him quit the University of Missouri to work in the shoe business.

The Cyclopedia of Literary Characters asserts that Amanda Wingfield was a "middle-aged woman and an incurable romantic" who was "forced to live in dreary lower-middle-class surroundings" (Salem Press). And as a result of her less-than-ideal living conditions, Amanda "retreats from reality into the illusory world of her youth" These biographical excerpts are public knowledge; but noting them leads the alert reader to the assumption that Amanda Wingfield in the Glass Menagerie was a reflection of Williams' mother.

In Scene One, Amanda is ceaselessly reminding Tom how to eat his meal and it bothers him, as her nagging does throughout the play.

AMANDA: "Honey, don't push with your fingers. If you have to push with something, the thing to push with is a crust of bread. And chew! Chew! Animals have sections in their stomachs which enable them to digest food without mastication, but human beings are supposed to chew their food before they swallow it..."

TOM: "I haven't enjoyed one bite of this dinner because of your constant directions on how to eat it. it's you that makes me rush through meals with your hawk-like attention to every bite I take. Sickening - spoils my appetite - all this discussion of - animals' secretion - salivary glands - mastication!"

AMANDA: "Temperament like a Metropolitan star...You're not excused from the table."

TOM: "I'm getting a cigarette."

AMANDA: "You smoke too much."

Certainly each member of the Wingfield clan resembles members of Williams' own family..." writes Lenora Inez Brown in Court Theatre's Web site (www.courttheatre.org).But Williams becomes more than a mere biographer, Brown goes on, "...because he moves well beyond the limits of his family's flaws." Preston Fambrough writes in the Explicator that Amanda "...labors grotesquely to mold the lives of her adult children into American success stories through nagging and moralizing."

Amanda's pesky "Rise and shine!" each morning drives Tom Wingfield crazy. And Amanda, Fambrough writes, is "no less overbearing and ill-advised in her attempts to manage her daughter's life."

In Scene Six Amanda is trying to make Laura look as attractive as possible for her meeting with a gentleman caller. Amanda "...produces two power puffs which she wraps in handkerchiefs and stuffs in Laura's bosom," the stage notes explain.

LAURA: "Mother, what are you doing?"

AMANDA: "They call them 'Gay Deceivers'!"

LAURA: "I won't wear them!"

AMANDA: "YOU WILL!"

LAURA: "Why should I?"

AMANDA: "Because, to be painfully honest, your chest is flat."

LAURA: "You make it seem like we were setting a trap."

AMANDA: "All pretty girls are a trap, a pretty trap, and men expect them to be!"

In Williams' real world, his parents certainly tried to manage his sister Rose's life to an extreme degree - even taking the drastic step of authorizing a lobotomy, which absolutely, totally put… [END OF PREVIEW]

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