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Contextualizing The Glass Menagerie

 

Roles of women

Perhaps the main reason why Amanda so vehemently encourages her daughter to go out and train in preparation for work is the fact that the 1930s have been called a "golden age for spinsters."

In the 1920s and the 1930s some women, especially those that were educated, chose to remain single. This decision was often part of a commitment to a career in social reform, academic life, or a profession. Even though they were often discriminated against, the Depression provided opportunities for these young women to become self-reliant.

Their experiences of economic independence inhibited their desires to hurry into the dependency of marriage. As one women from Providence, Rhode Island, explained, “It's not that I didn't want to get married, but when you are working and have your own money.…”

The Depression also created a shortage of men financially able to marry and led to many broken engagements. Whether committed to lives with other women, or inspired by their experience of economic independence, more than six million single women supported themselves or contributed to their parents' households in the 1930s.

It is interesting to note that Laura, as a young, single woman, gets sent to secretarial college where she can learn skills which will help her find employment in an office, whereas Amanda, who is a married woman with a husband who has a necessity to work and support her family, has to engage in a far more discreet form of employment.

Great Depression

Black Thursday (24 Oct 1929) marked the beginning of what is known as the ‘Great Depression’ in America. It was on this day that 16 million shares of stock were sold hurriedly by panicking stakeholders who had lost faith in the American economy. Businesses and factories shut down, banks failed and many people lost their jobs and savings. At the height of the Depression (which was in 1933), almost 25% of the nation’s total work force, almost 13 million people, were unemployed. Bread lines were a common sight in most cities. Hundreds of thousands roamed the country in search of food, work and shelter.

It is probably for this reason that Tom clings onto his job for so long, despite hating it, for fear of having no work, and essentially not being able to support his family.

Tenement Buildings

Tennessee Williams describes the home of the Wingfield’s as follows, and is clearly alluding to what would have been known as ‘tenement buildings’ by American people of the time: “The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres of lower-middleclass population. The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.”

A typical tenement building had five to seven stories and occupied nearly all of the lot upon which it was built (usually 25 feet wide and 100 feet long, according to existing city regulations).

Many tenements began as single-family dwellings, and many older structures were converted into tenements by adding floors on top or by building more space in rear yard areas.

With less than a foot of space between buildings, little air and light could get in. In many tenements, only the rooms on the street got any light, and the interior rooms had no ventilation (unless air shafts were built directly into the room).

Later, speculators began building new tenements, often using cheap materials and construction shortcuts. Even new, this kind of housing was at best uncomfortable and at worst highly unsafe.

Cinema

It is not a coincidence that the character Tom has a real interest in cinema, and despite having little money, is able to indulge in his interest on a regular basis.

One-third of Americans were below the poverty line, yet some industries actually managed to make a profit at the beginning of the 1930s as the public looked to-wards entertainment as a form of escapism. If Americans couldn’t find work, at least they could go for a drive, have a cigarette, listen to the radio or go to a movie. Correspondingly, sales of oil, gas, cigarettes, and movie tickets all went up.

The 1930s was “The Golden Age of Hollywood”, it was the era in which the silent period ended, and Hollywood turned out movie after movie to entertain an audience looking for an evening of escapism.

People of all classes now flocked to the grand movie palaces to see favourite celebrities such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Shirley Temple and Errol Flynn.