Entrapment of society in Ethan Frome and the Glass Menagerie

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People are confronted with physical limitations and restraints daily, in the form of doors, walls, or gates. The most burdensome constraints, though, can be those restraints which are intangible, emotionally and/or physically. Laura in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Mattie in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome are both American women entrapped by society’s traditional roles of women in the early twentieth century. Laura is confined by the societal normalities centering around the courtship of women and the expectation of a woman to have a confident personality in the twentieth century, and Mattie is entrapped by society’s fixation on the idea of women working in the household as well as her financial dependency on the Fromes as an unmarried woman in society.

In The Glass Menagerie, Laura is entrapped by society’s fixation that women should be married. America’s traditional woman during the early twentieth century emphasized domesticity and encouraged the necessity of flirtation and confidence. Despite Laura’s shyness and lack of confidence, both Laura’s mother and society expect her to pursue her two options as a woman–work or marriage. After dropping out of school, becoming a working young woman is not an option for Laura. Although Amanda hopes that Laura will be able to charm a gentleman caller, Tom reminds her that Laura “lives in a world of her own-a world of little glass ornaments” (Williams 48).

The confinement of society and the expectations of women forces Laura to desire escape, she finds escape through playing with her glass menagerie. Laura is confined by society’s view of how women are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do, because by society’s definition, Laura must be married. Because Laura is unable to get a job or find a husband, her desire for escape is valid as she must feel so different from the other young women of her same age.

In addition to the confinement of the pressures of society, Laura is entrapped by her shyness. Laura’s future is limited to marriage after her shyness leads her to drop out of college, but her lack of confidence and timidity does not help in finding a gentleman caller. When Tom brings Jim as a gentleman caller for Laura, Laura is overcome with anxiety and an extreme desire for escape when they arrive. Laura’s shyness truly restricts any confrontation with men or women outside of her close circle, after Laura meets Jim “She turns awkwardly and hurries into the front room. She pauses a second by the Victrola. Then she catches her breath and darts through the portieres like a frightened deer” she is unable to control her shyness at all(Williams 58).

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Laura’s shyness limits her opportunities in her life as a whole. Unable to marry, Laura likely spends the rest of her life with her mother, physically entrapped in their apartment. Laura uses her glass menagerie as a form of escaping this entrapment, dreaming of a world in which she is not confined by her shyness. Laura is not able to escape the confinements of the expectations of women in society nor her shyness altogether, although she finds small ways to escape: playing with her glass menagerie to imagine a world without restriction, as well as playing the Victrola for comfort and release from her anxieties.

In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the character of Mattie faces a similar confinement in regards to Laura in The Glass Menagerie: they both face the pressure of following through with the traditional roles of women in society of the early twentieth century. Ethan Frome examines the immense female confinement of traditional gender roles through the character of Mattie Silver. In America in the early twentieth century, women were often coerced to get married and expected to do the domestic work of the house-which implies cleaning, cooking, home maintenance, laundry, and additional chores. Mattie moves in with the Fromes to aid in the domestic work while Zeena is sick, and because Mattie’s help compensates for the wrongdoings of Mattie’s deceased father. Despite her efforts, Mattie’s incompetence in completing housework is noted several times in the novel, “He did his best to supplement her unskilled efforts, getting up earlier than usual to light the kitchen fire, carrying in the wood overnight” (Wharton 32).

It is evident that Ethan helps Mattie by doing some of her work because he desires her pleasant, lively presence, but also because he shares the same perspective as that of society-that women are weak and incompetent. Women of this time were often appreciated for their beauty or personality, yet given connotations of attributes of weakness or inferiority. Despite Mattie’s incompetence in sufficiently completing household work, society agreed that a woman’s place was in the home, whether or not they were particularly skilled in caring for a home.

Mattie is physically entrapped with the Fromes in Starkfield as her parents left her with nothing, and she depends on the Fromes financially. Mattie’s dependence on the Fromes represents the limitations that rested on the women of this time, as women similar to Mattie who were raised only to be domestic servants or simply companions to men, faced difficulty if their lives did not conform to the common ideals of women in society at the time. Her physical entrapment to Starkfield is fixed to the fact that Mattie “hadn’t any other place to go to” after her parents had left her with almost nothing, when her life did not conform to that of a normal young woman in the early twentieth century society (Wharton 52).

Mattie is portrayed as the stereotypical weak, inferior woman in the society of this time, who needed a man to depend on for everything. Mattie’s dependency on the Fromes represents how women were almost expected to rely on men for their needs. Mattie’s physical entrapment to the Fromes rests on instability as an unmarried woman in the early twentieth century society.

Laura is entrapped by society’s expectations for women to be married and for women to have a personality full of confidence, and Mattie is entrapped by society’s fixation on women working in the household and her dependency on the Fromes as an unmarried woman. The restraints of society entrap these women from fulfilling their desires and/or pursuing a career in which they can succeed in. Therefore, it is important to remember that the most oppressive constraints in one’s life can be those which are impalpable, whereas bothersome physical limitations such as fences or walls can be avoided or eliminated altogether.


  1. Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New American Library, 2009.
  2. Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1999.
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