Laura, Amanda, Tom, and Jim resort to various escape mechanisms to avoid reality. Laura, fearful of being denigrated as inferior by virtue of her innate inability to walk, is shy and detaches herself from the unfeeling modern world. Amanda tries every means to integrate her into society, but to no avail. She sends her to business school and invites a gentleman caller to dinner. She is both unable to cope with the contemporary world's mechanization represented by the speed test in typing and unable to make new acquaintances or friends due to her immense inhibition with people. Her life is humdrum and uneventful, yet it is full of dreams and inundated with memories.
The actual animal collection, or glass menagerie, symbolizes each character and the story. Like the glass animals, the character's realities are very fragile and in danger of being shattered. It is also as though the characters are stuck in glass, unable to move or change, also like the glass animals. They are inanimate, as the characters have learned to be to hide and escape from the pain that life has given them. Laura loves the glass animals because her family is like them. It will not take much, like Tom leaving, to shatter their whole world.
Laura is symbolized by her fragile collection of glass animals, the glass menagerie. Her favorite animal is the unique unicorn. The unicorn is different because it has a horn. When Laura was in high school, she wore a brace. The unicorn and Laura are alike in this way. Whenever the outside world threatens Laura, she seeks solace and retreats to her glass animal world and old phonograph records.
Amanda, her mother hints at the alternative of matrimony for failure in business careers and Laura "utters a startled, doubtful laugh. She reaches quickly for a piece of glass." The glass menagerie becomes he tactile comfort. The little glass ornaments represent Laura's self and characterize her fragility and delicate beauty. In particular, the glass unicorn greatly symbolizes her. As the unicorn is different from all the other glass horses, it adds a unique quality and virtual "freakishness" to her very characteristics. When Jim dances with Laura, he knocks over the unicorn and the horn breaks off.
Now it is like all of the other horses. "The unicorn losing its horn is a symbol. The unicorn in its original state symbolizes something different. It is delicate, beautiful, and precious in it's own unique way. This could symbolize Laura has natural beauty in an "unearthly way" that is hidden by her shyness and limp.
Laura's physical handicap differentiates her from others. She is just as easily broken as the glass unicorn is as unique. She instantly regresses, just as it appears that Laura finally overcomes her shyness and hypersensitivity with Jim, the gentleman caller. To comfort Laura, he kisses her and then shatters her hopes and dreams by telling her he is engaged.
Both Laura and the glass menagerie break upon exposure to the outside world. Laura offers Jim her broken unicorn, symbolizing her broken heart that Jim will take with him. She is unable to cope with the truth and once again retreats to her fantasy world of glass figurines and Victrola records. Laura can only live a brief moment in reality.