Theme of the Past in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’: Critical Analysis

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Both Williams and Ishiguro use the theme of the past in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’ to show how individuals can retreat back into their memories, creating a nostalgic and reminiscent tone. For Ishiguro, he explores emotions in his 2005 novel focusing on the sadness of the human condition as well as developing characters that are obsessed with the idea of their memories and escapism, showing how it shapes them throughout. However, Williams portrays a family that goes through different hardships within the 1930s as the characters try to escape their reality through memories of their youth, adventure and more importantly a ‘glass menagerie’. Williams’ past is directly explored within the play as Rose, his sister and the model for Laura, suffered from a mental illness resulting in brain surgery. Perhaps the past is not dead, but it is an emotional burden just as it was for Williams.

Ishiguro and Williams use Kathy and Amanda to display how the past is very much alive in many aspects as it provides them with a sense of comfort. Kathy’s blunt, emotionless tone when discussing memories, stems from her complicity in the harvesting of her friends’ organs. When she says “I still see things that will remind me of Hailsham,” the verb “see” suggests that Kathy is very observational and the past is a filter through which she sees the present with. Perhaps Kathy, much like Amanda, is an individual who spends her days looking back at her life. The use of the adverb “still” emphasises the continuation of Kathy’s thoughts and feelings on the past which demonstrates the nostalgia and serenity it brings her. Within his interview, Ishiguro states that ‘Hailsham is like a physical manifestation of what we have to do to all children.’ He calls it a ‘ protected world’. This reflects his views on the concept of drip-feeding and shielding children from life’s harsh realities as it shows how children, much like the clones, must be deceived and protected in their youth to avoid trauma in the future. In contrast, Williams presents Amanda in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ showing how she fluctuates between illusion and reality, as the past acts as her ‘protected world,’ comforting her. The fact that it is a ‘memory play’ reveals to the audience, Amanda’s tendencies to immerse herself in her past life. Laura tells Tom “Yes. But let her tell it,” showing how Amanda openly reminisces about her past to her children. The imperative verb “let” shows how Laura wants to make her mother happy and so allows her to revisit her past repetitively through storytelling. The effect of the conjunction “but” reflects Laura’s ability to easily persuade Tom as she draws importance to acknowledging Amanda’s way of coping. Similar to Kathy, the past seems to be admirable to Amanda as she mentions her happier days. Much like the play, Williams’ other plays focuses on southern traditional broken families and depicts his own struggles and experiences as he was mainly raised by his mother and has a complicated relationship with his father.

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Some characters view the past as insignificant and instead choose to focus on the present. Ishiguro shows how dwelling on the past can affect the present, whereas Williams displays how it is better to focus on the future than to escape to the past. When the clones search for the possibles Tommy says “it’s not worth getting upset about.” The assertive tone used suggests that he doubts the value of their findings because he has lost hope. Despite his friends’ optimism and avoidance, Tommy doesn’t dwell on the past and accepts his fate. Tommy referring to the emotion of being “upset” reflects the negative connotations that come with dwelling on the past, he has no hope so decides to look to the future. Some critics have said ‘The students are under constant surveillance; they are, moreover, themselves maneuvered into complicity with surveillance.’ This reflects the idea of a dystopia as the clones live at Hailsham and are part of the donation process, as their organs are being used for the greater good. Ishiguro attended a boarding school which allowed him to portray his own life into the novel with much ease. Much like Tommy, Tom maintains a bleak tone and outlook as his memory distorts his past causing him to suppress it as a young man. He mentions there being a “blown up photograph of the father” that hangs on the wall, showing how patriarchal societal views were still displayed in households. The use of the adjective “blown up” emphasizes the large importance the father is given although he is not present. Throughout the play, Tom avoids discussions about the past as he views it as insignificant and he wants to look to the future. However, his mother Amanda keeps this photograph as memorabilia because she is unable to let go. The absence of a pronoun in “the father” suggests how eager Tom is to bury his past and move on as he tries to disregard him. Williams’ psychoanalytic narration shows how the family have been scarred by the father’s abandonment as they avoid dealing with it and Tom becomes the embodiment of him. He holds a great deal of responsibility, as the head of the family showing how the past is not the past but it is present as Amanda tries to bring it to light.

The past could be seen as optimistic through the lenses of some characters. Williams shows how the past is not dead as Amanda continues to live in the past. However, Ishiguro uses the outspoken character of Ruth as she develops a positive attitude about the past towards the end of the novel. Ruth’s viewpoint is expressed when Kathy refers to her “sheer effort”, “to move on” and “leave Hailsham behind.” This suggests Ruth is an individual who is hopeful and doesn’t reside in her thoughts of the past. The use of adjective “sheer” demonstrates Ruth’s strong desire to move on and forget about the past. Ruth is a character who changes her ways and aspires to be positive, she develops the capacity to love and be generous towards her friends. With the ability to “leave” Hailsham, the verb connotes strength and resilience as Ruth is able to discard her past memories, the past could be somewhat dead to her. In contrast, Amanda lives in a world that fluctuates between illusion and reality. When she converses with Tom she says “the past turns into everlasting regret,” which reflects her reviewed outlook on the past. The use of “everlasting” creates vivid imagery of something eternal and never ending. The adjective connotes permanence of memory or thoughts which demonstrates Amanda’s acceptance of the effects of the past. Evidently, Amanda constantly chooses to relive her past through her children as she continuously references her personal experiences with ‘the gentlemen callers’ she received. A critic states ‘she is completely ill-equipped,’ which could suggest Amanda is subconsciously rejecting her motherly instincts, by focusing on the past and this reflects the social order in the 1940s.

Ishiguro shows how Ruth wishes she could change the past as she shows a resentful attitude towards Kathy. However, Amanda’s regret is shown by her thoughts and feelings as she channels this through her children. The regret for her desire to forget her childhood results in Ruth telling Kathy “I kept you apart”. The use of the verb “kept” reveals Ruth’s previous strong intentions to ruin her friends’ futures and potential relationship, we can see that the root of Ruth’s regret was spite. Ishiguro expresses his ideas and thoughts on the human condition and the development of science. He uses Ruth to show how human nature guides us back to our past as life is presented as transient and the memories we create are intangible. On the other hand, the past can also shape one’s identity. Incessantly, Kathy’s experiences at Hailsham are mentioned as she says “She wouldn’t remember us individually.” The use of the adjective “individual” demonstrates how the guardians somewhat rejected the clones maternally as young children. Evidently, the guardians didn’t take the time to understand the clones, alternatively showing us how insignificant they thought they were. The clones are seen running away from morality much like humans. This demonstrates how the past shapes the characters, fundamentally affecting the decisions they make in the future, which shows how the past is still alive. However, Kathy and her friends do the exact opposite of escaping as this was Ishiguro’s intentions, to show how humans eventually accept their fates. Similarly, Laura is shaped by many factors around her much like Kathy. Laura is described as “a piece of translucent glass touched by light” and the use of this simile suggests just how fragile she is as a person emotionally and physically due to her disability. The adjective “translucent” reflects how Laura has developed over time as it shows how vulnerable she can be. A critic states that ‘Williams does not write plays isolated from the real world,’ which could demonstrate how he intended to create characters that would reflect his own life and tell his story as well as display how the past affects the present and future. The past is made up of things that are no longer existing and memories as well as decisions help in shaping individuals, as some characters learn how to cherish the good and dismiss the bad.

Ishiguro and Williams demonstrate how some characters are realistic and honest about the past, which shows how it is still alive. Jim is the epitome of this as he reflects how humans can undergo hardships but still be warm hearted towards the ones closest to them. He says “you think of yourself as having the only problems” and the use of the verb “think” suggests that he is a humble character as he doesn’t discuss his hardships and attempts to create a mutual bond with Laura. Moreover, the adverb “only” demonstrates how Jim attempts to help Laura acknowledge that hardships aren’t limited to just her. In contrast, Kathy is honest and realistic to a certain extent as she cannot be fully reliable through her narration. Kathy claims “maybe I’m remembering it wrong” which shows how our memory plays tricks on us, as the use of the verb “remember” links to Ishiguro’s interest in the human condition and on the mind. It exposes the faults and flaws of the human condition, although Kathy admits to forgetting. A critic says that ‘Dystopian futures and Never Let Me Go – Why Kathy H doesn’t rebel’ which explain the reasons why Ishiguro chooses to make the characters accept their fate and not escape or struggle. They do have hope but they never really act on it until towards the end of the novel.

In conclusion, Ishiguro and Williams show how the past is still alive in the novel and in the play through the characters and their experiences as well as the circumstances that they face. They both show how human nature can be detrimental as we can forget or let the past affect us in many ways. Williams’ own personal life is reflected within the play, similarly with Ishiguro as we are able to understand his interest in our reaction to human mortality. The past is influenced by many factors that cause the character to change as they get older. It is not past and lives on in all of them although filled with regret, optimism and insignificance.


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