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The Attitudes To The Past In The Texts The Glass Menagerie And Never Let Me Go

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An attitude can be defined as a feeling or opinion about something or someone. In Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, there are several attitudes to the past revealed in the texts. These include escapism, regret, comfort, the view that the past is difficult to leave behind and comes round full circle.

The past is something that has gone by in time or is no longer existing, a definition that Faulkner challenges by suggesting that “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” This demonstrates that in The Glass Menagerie, the past is a prominent theme used to explore the complexity of human nature, a technique that is also clear in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Different attitudes to the past are explored in depth through character while typifying the unreliability of memory in both texts. An attitude that is reiterated throughout is the conflict between the past and the future, highlighted by the context of The Great Depression in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and the advancement of science in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Both Ishiguro and Williams recognise that the past can be viewed as painful, giving an individual a reason to want to escape and focus on the future. In The Glass Menagerie, Tom (the narrator) speaks from the future to reflect Williams' desire to escape his home life as a young boy; Tom sees his life as a prison ‘sentence’, like a punishment resulting from actions that took place in the past. This reinforces the negative inferences to prison, from which he wants to escape. This suggests Tom’s desire to leave home, and his seemingly innocent journeys to the fire ‘escape’ were not coincidental, but a symbolic manifestation of his subconscious to get away. Charles Matthews believed that The Glass Menagerie was “the most nakedly autobiographical” of Williams’ texts, and this can be agreed as Williams relives his youth through his narrator - Tom. In real life, Williams used his writing to escape from his complicated relationship with his father, a life of drugs and abuse, and rejection from society because of his homosexuality; similar to Tom’s dependence on the accessibility of the ‘fire escape’ - albeit a temporary escape from reality. This idea of escapism is also conveyed through Laura who ‘lives in a world of her own’, finding comfort in separating herself from reality to indulge in ‘her own’ world of little glass ornaments, to escape real life. Michael Billington stated that Williams “acknowledges economic realities”, using the Wingfield family as the embodiment of the futility of the American dream. Each character in the play attempts to escape the reality of a broken America during The Great Depression. The Wingfield’s attitudes to the past reflect the feelings of Americans in real life and how their only way out of the melancholy in society was to find their method of escape. On the other hand, in Never Let Me Go, when a ball falls outside the grounds of Hailsham, the students are scared to leave. They do not attempt to escape their hated reality like the Wingfield family, which emphasises their lack of autonomy as clones.

Although Ishiguro and Williams’ characters make an effort to escape their pasts, both texts acknowledge that the past is difficult to leave behind because it helps shape the future. In the first scene of the play, Tom ‘Turn[s] back time,’ and automatically introduces the concept of the past that goes on to dominate the entire text. This tone is replicated in the first chapter of Never Let Me Go when Kathy H. informs the reader that she had made attempts ‘to leave the past behind’ and failed. It could be argued that both characters had already failed to leave the past behind this early on in the texts by re-telling their stories; Kathy admits that she failed when she ‘stopped resisting’ her thoughts about Hailsham and Tom when he turns back time. The verb ‘turn’ emphasises that Tom is in control, he is in control of his life and his future, unlike Kathy whose future is determined by her makers, reminding the reader of her lack of humanity. Ishiguro uses the gerund ‘resisting’ to suggest that bringing the past into the present is an element of innate behaviour that makes resisting difficult and almost unnatural. Louis Menand described Ishiguro as “an ironist.” There is irony in Kathy’s failure to resist as it portrays her as more human than Tom who does not mention any resistance to revisiting his past. Kathy’s ‘resistance’ humanises her, to appear less like a “freak of nature”, which is the attitude of contemporary readers who rejected the idea of cloning after the Dolly the sheep experiment in 1996. It could be argued that it was Ishiguro’s intention to mould Kathy in a light that is so human that she evokes thoughts that further development of scientific technology was a bad thing. Being a dystopian novel, this attitude to the past and how it informs future technology in Never Let Me Go suggests that the past is not dead, but it lives on naturally within man as a foundation to build on in the future and provide an opportunity to learn as imperfect beings.

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As imperfect beings, the past often leaves individuals with deep feelings of regret and the urge to go back and change what happened. In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro uses Ruth to emphasise the weight of the past and heaviness of regret. To ‘free’ herself from the burden of keeping Kathy and Tommy apart, which was ‘the worst thing’ she ever did, she attempted to change Kathy and Tommy’s future for the better, knowing she could not change the past, by getting them a ‘deferral.’ James Procter believes that “Ishiguro's novels are preoccupied with memories, their potential to digress and distort, to forget and to silence, and, above all, to haunt.” Arguably, Ruth felt ultimately haunted by what she did in the past. It could be argued that Ishiguro uses Ruth to parallel the ‘haunting’ that he felt from his past. Born nine years after the atomic bombing of his hometown Nagasaki in 1945, Ishiguro would have to carry that pain and have an urge to change the past, like Ruth. A similar theory can be applied to Amanda in The Glass Menagerie but for her, some elements of the past are forgotten. In the text, Williams presents the idea that Amanda has a selective memory by often avoiding the topic of her husband in any conversation, a man who ‘fell in love with long-distance’, shattering any dreams she had for the future. The ‘blown up’ photograph of the father in the living room is a visual reminder of the past. This represents how Amanda’s memories of Mr. Wingfield were an emotional burden.

Attitudes towards the past are not always negative. Although the past has connotations of regret, the past can be a source of comfort and even distort an individual's reality. Like Tom, Amanda’s escapism separates her from the life that she hates but instead of dreaming of the future, Amanda is stuck in her own bubble, characterised by the sweet memories of her youth. In particular, Amanda adopts the idea of ‘Southern Belle’ which is based on Williams’ mother. This demonstrates the conditioning of young women to value their social status more than anything else. Hovis argues that “Amanda adopts the role of the belle in an effort to survive within a social milieu in which they are disempowered.” After social class had lost its value, Amanda continued to hold onto the notion of its importance for survival, even after losing everything. Amanda’s selective memory is used as a defence mechanism, one that evokes feelings of pride in one area and shame in the other. Williams makes it clear that Amanda uses her memories of an untainted and privileged youth with her many ‘gentlemen callers’ to provide comfort from a life characterised by a failed marriage and poverty. Kevin Catchpole argues that Amanda is “the inadequate, self-centred mother...locked in absorption in her own lost youth.” exhibiting the fragmented nature of her reality and her psychological dependence on purely the ‘good’ aspects of her past. She may do this not only to maintain her mental stability but also to keep her family together, by providing them with hope for the future. Comparably, distortion of reality is portrayed in Never Let Me Go through Chrissie, who clings hopefully to the possibility of being deferred from donations. In the past, there were rumours that couples in love could get their donations postponed and go on to ‘work in a clothes shop’ or ‘go on to be a park keeper’, which gave Chrissie hope of a different reality to what she knew. For clones, their only future was to ‘[...] donate [their] vital organs,’ which Miss Lucy made clear was their function. As a result of this hopeful rumour, Ruth became determined to maintain her relationship with Tommy, to have the opportunity for a deferral, regardless of how this destroyed her friendship with Kathy and Tommy. The effects of the speculation reveal to the reader the importance of the past, and the influence it has in the future. Like Chrissie and Ruth, Laura also lives her life fixated on things from the past. Laura is a character based on Williams’ schizophrenic sister Rose, she is depicted as chronically shy and fragile. Dominic Maxwell believes that Laura is, “afraid of the real world,” illustrated through her deep fascination with the ‘delicately spun’ glass animals that are her only reminder of the Wingfield’s old life of luxury. It is also a reminder of how quickly and easily their wealth and comfort was destroyed, represented by the fragility of the glass menagerie. The menagerie seems to provide Laura with hope in an oppressed society where there is none. Later on in the text when Jim breaks Laura’s glass unicorn, it represents her illusive world being shattered. One critic argued that Jim “becomes so engrossed in the past that he not only breaks Laura's favorite piece of glass, but he also breaks Laura's dreams and hopes.” This suggests that Jim was just another form of escape for Laura; he gave her hope — like the menagerie — that she could have a better future. But Jim ‘hurt [Laura’s] feelings’ and disappointed her like the America that promised a “dream” for a life. Laura, Jim and Amanda’s inability to leave the past behind fragments their reality like the broken glass from the menagerie. While Ruth and Chrissie’s inability to do so causes regret and the desire to change what has already been done. Although this suggests that it is human nature for elements of the past not to die or be forgotten, it shows that the purpose of the past is also to inform the future.

Another attitude is that history repeats itself. There is an overbearing sense of this notion at the end of both texts. In Never Let Me Go, Kathy witnesses the death of Ruth and then Tommy before going on to start her own ‘donations’ like many other clones before her. The noun ‘donation’ itself in the context of the novel highlights the selfishness of human nature, cloning real human beings only to take from them for our own benefit. Ultimately the clones live to fulfil a specific function and then die once they have completed their task. While this sounds similar to human life, in the novel Miss Emily revealed to Kathy and Tommy that their art was taken away to 'prove [they] had souls at all.’ By questioning their humanity, they are simply reduced to experiments. For a clone, their past is their future and all with the same ending. Some critics argue that Never Let Me Go is about how “we attempt to run away from the idea of our own mortality.” An example of this is shown through Kathy and Tommy’s attempt to get a ‘deferral’. Knowing this, one of the most unnatural events in Never Let Me Go is when Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth just seem to accept their fate instead of fighting to change it. Being Human, Ishiguro was able to leave his rehabilitating city and change his future by moving to England, an autonomy that the clones lacked. This reminds the reader that as much as all three characters seem human, they are ultimately still products of an experiment and only have a certain level of control over their ‘life.’ In comparison, at the end of The Glass Menagerie Tom reveals that he finally made attempts to escape his past and change his future by following in his ‘father's footsteps’, a prime example of history repeating itself. Tom ‘was pursued by something,’ as he tried to escape his past. In the play, he says that it was his ‘sister [who] touched [his] shoulder’ and prevented him from moving on. In this final scene, Laura is the personification of the past; she follows Tom and draws him back, reiterating that the past is not dead.

Overall, Both writers have formed this central attitude that the past either pursues or is pursued but never lost or left behind, echoing a similar message in Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World where Ono is pursued or haunted by the past. While this idea is more evident in The Glass Menagerie than Never Let Me Go, when discussed, both texts highlight that confrontation with the past can force us to contemplate the events of yesterday and alter ourselves for tomorrow. Both writers point to the continuous struggle between the past and the present, with each constantly trying to dominate over the other. In conclusion, I confirm that “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” as it is clear in both texts that the past can either aid in growth, which is the case for Tom and Kathy, or destruction illustrated through Ruth and Amanda.

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The Attitudes To The Past In The Texts The Glass Menagerie And Never Let Me Go. (2021, August 26). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“The Attitudes To The Past In The Texts The Glass Menagerie And Never Let Me Go.” Edubirdie, 26 Aug. 2021,
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