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The major theme is appearance vs. reality. The title of the play, "The Glass Menagerie," refers to the fragile world of dreams and illusions. Laura has withdrawn from the harsh reality of her handicap and her mother's overbearing concern by spending her time playing with a collection of glass animals, a literal glass menagerie. During the course of the play, the glass unicorn gets broken, symbolizing the fragile nature of a dream world. In a like manner, Amanda has lived most of her life inside a glass menagerie, refusing to face reality, especially about her own miserable existence and the real situation with her daughter.
At the end of the play, she is a crushed woman when her plans for Laura do not materialize, and she is forced to deal with reality. Finally, Tom has spent his life dreaming of adventures. In the end he deserts his mother and sister and becomes a sailor, hoping to fulfill his dreams for excitement; instead, he faces the harsh reality of guilt over acting so selfishly.
The minor Themes in the play revolve around the breakdown of social values, including marriage, family, religion, and responsibility. Amanda's husband has deserted her, leaving her to raise two small children on her own. During the play, she expresses some religious thoughts, but she fails to live by Christian principles; as a result, neither of her children is religious. In addition, Amanda, Laura, and Tom do not accept responsibility. Amanda does not have a regular job and even fails at being a competent mother. Laura quits business school, having no idea how she will support herself in life. Tom, like his father before him, flees familial responsibility by deserting Amanda and Laura and becoming a sailor.
Despite some bright and happy moments when Amanda is at her 'Southern belle' best and when Jim displays his Irishman's vivacity, the play is somber and tragic. Tom's lack of familial responsibilities, his struggle to find job satisfaction, Laura's failure to make contact with the real world, and Amanda's constant nagging, all strike a depressing note during the course of the play. The tension increases until it is clear that Laura's situation is not going to change and Amanda is forced to face reality.