Tom Wingfield: the original millennial


There's an abundance of talk about millennials in today's newspapers and magazines, so much so that the only people who aren't talking about millennials seem to be millennials themselves.
For those who've managed to avoid the discussion, the term millennial refers to the generation born between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, and it's rarely a flattering nickname. However, the character traits for which these writers denounce our generation are hardly unique to millennials, and it's not as if millennials were the first to espouse them - rather, they stretch back long before our time. As Tennessee Williams' inimitable "The Glass Menagerie" makes its way back to Broadway this autumn, I've been thinking a lot about its protagonist Tom Wingfield, and I've been tempted to identify him as the first of our kind- the original millennial, if you will.
Hear me out. Granted, he does live in the forties long before the millennial era, but Tom is dreamy and soulful, stifled and resentful, infatuated with escapism and grossly misunderstood- which of these characteristics hasn't also been attributed to millennials? Tom leads a life whose anxieties seem not unfamiliar to those of this generation- as the sole man of a household abandoned by its patriarch. Tom works in a shoe factory by day to support his mother Amanda and sister Laura, a washed-up southern belle and a fanciful recluse. However beholden, burdened, and misunderstood he feels himself to be by his family, Tom is an escapist at heart with movies and poetry and his choice drugs. I can't help but see so much of my generation in him- the desire to transcend reality through art and media, the fascination with escapism, the crippling affliction of feeling like an outsider.
The Glass Menagerie is Williams' most autobiographical work, with Tom often interpreted as a thinly-veiled avatar for the playwright himself, and I would even go so far as to argue that it's his masterpiece, the fragile, fraught, funny play he seems to be searching to live up to in his subsequent works. Williams was a tattered soul, a playwright of deep lyricism, spellbinding violence, and perhaps most significantly of all a haunting loneliness unmatched by any writer since. Loneliness and isolation are so very much married to the millennial condition- as we grow ever more connected through technology, we somehow grow ever more disconnected. To me, Williams was a playwright who arrived on the scene fifty years too soon- the cocktail of loneliness, self-destruction, and sexuality threaded throughout his body of work is better suited to this generation than to those that came before.
My deepest identification with Tom as a millennial stems undoubtedly from the heartbreaking final monologue in which he describes how he wanders the country after ultimately abandoning his mother and sister. Tom searches the world without any understanding of what he's searching for, and yet he still can't leave behind where and who he comes from, as evidenced by the fact that he sees Laura everywhere he turns. To me, this strikes at the heart of the millennial condition- we search and search, but for what? As Tom puts it, we're seeking "the long delayed but always expected something that we live for." So few of us know what that something is, and so many of us feel forever pinned between where we've come from and where we're going.
In the play's penultimate moment, Tom flees the family apartment as his mother calls after him, "Go to the moon, you selfish dreamer!" Critics call millennials narcissistic, entitled, self-involved, so perhaps this epithet is the greatest and kindest encapsulation of this generation- maybe we're all just selfish dreamers, all of us striving toward the distant escape of where we want to be and away from the responsibilities of where we are. Whatever we are, I can think of worse company than Tom Wingfield.

-Westenfield is is a junior from Fort Wayne, Indiana majoring in English Writing and minoring in French and Media Studies.