Tennessee Williams expressed himself in the language of symbols. They were not ornaments to his work, but were to his mind the only satisfactory means of expressing himself as an artist, and predate almost every other consideration in the process of composition. Characterization, dialogue, plot and setting were all selected based on their potential to represent symbolically his identity and experience, and more specifically, the conflict between spirit and flesh which he felt had come to define him. However, before transforming his life into symbols, he attempted to abstract the world of his experience into something pure, something elemental and universal, as he insisted all artists should.
The imagery of stasis is his primary symbol for spirituality and innocence, whereas the imagery of flux, particularly of rivers flowing into oceans, is his symbol for carnality. In The Glass Menagerie, Laura and her glass figures represent spirit, while her brother Tom, who abandons her and becomes a sailor, represents flesh. Laura also represents things Williams considered related to spirituality: the Old South, romantic idealists, and what he calls those "small and tender things that relieve the austere pattern of life and make it endurable to the sensitive," entities which time, industrialism, and the modern world ultimately destroy. Virtually every element of the play serves as a symbol which amplifies the struggle between Laura and all she signifies and the forces ranged in opposition to her. In his discussion, Barnard analyzes each character in turn, explicating those symbols which pertain to him or her; thereafter, he shows how these symbols interact as the play draws to a close.