The Glass Menagerie

“The Glass Menagerie” is a 1944 play by the famous American playwright Tennessee Williams. The play was Williams’ first big success and was praised by critics of the time as a triumph.

Williams’ coined the term ‘memory play’ in honor of The Glass Menagerie in order to describe it’s specific format which was supposed to be based on the main character and narrators story if it was being viewed through the slightly distorted glass of his own memory.

The play won many awards including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1945.

The story of the play is that of Tom Wingfield, an aspiring poet living in St. Louis in 1937. Tom works in a shoe factory in order to support his mother and sister both of whom are not physically well enough to work themselves.

Tom’s mother, Amanda, is very old-fashioned and believes that her shy, physically handicapped daughter’s only salvation lie in finding a rich husband. She sets out to find her daughter a good husband

Tom agrees to help find a suitor and eventually brings over a friend from his work, a man named Jim O’Connor.

Soon it is revealed that Tom’s sister, Laura has had a crush on Jim since they attended high school together and that she is still very much in love with him. They two get some time alone and kiss only for Jim to reveal that he cannot take their relationship any farther because he already has a fiancee.

After he leaves, Amanda becomes angry at Tom for not realizing that Jim was already engaged.

Tom is repentant and leaves the room as Amanda comforts Laura. Through narration, he reveals that he eventually left his mother and sister and quit his job at the factory to travel but that he always holds guilt in his heart for treating Laura so poorly.

Book Summary

In the beginning of the play we are introduced to the main character, Tom Wingfield, a shoe factory employee and aspiring poet who is the narrator for the play. Throughout out the story, Tom speaks to the audience directly.

Tom lives with his mother, Amanda and his sister, Laura in an apartment in a middle-class area in St. Louis in the late 1930’s. Tom explains to the audience a bit about the place that the city of St. Louis is in economically after the historic Great Depression.

He also tells us a bit about his family. Tom’s father left the family years earlier. He does not appear in the play and we’re told that except for a single postcard from a town in Mexico, the family have not heard from him.

Tom then enters the apartment and begins to have dinner with his mother and sister.

During the dinner we are introduced to Amanda and Laura’s characters by their actions. Amanda is restless, constantly reminding Tom to chew his food and telling Laura to make sure to sit still and not exert herself in case she has a gentleman caller.

She also relates a long, obviously often repeated story of one evening when she entertained seventeen separate gentleman callers in her home as a young woman.

Through this story, we discover that Amanda had a wealthy, upper-class childhood in Blue Mountain, Mississippi.

Laura reminds her mother that no gentleman callers ever come for her anyway. She worries that her mother thinks she’s going to end up a lonely old maid.

In the next scene, Laura sits carefully polishing a collection of glass animal figurines when her mother enters the apartment.

When she hears Amanda’s approach, Laura hides the figures and pretends to be  busily studying.

Amanda tells her that she stopped by the business school where Laura is enrolled and discovered that she hasn’t been to class in weeks.

Caught, Laura admits that she has been skipping her classes since the first few days of school when she suddenly started suffering from bouts of nervousness and illness.

She confesses that she has been spending her days walking the streets and going to the zoo.

Distraught, her mother questions why she would do this and what is to become of their family if she does not have the prospect of a future business career. She announces that the only acceptable alternative is for Laura to get married.

Laura admits that when she was in school she had a crush on a young man named Jim. She relates a story about Jim in which she told him that she had been away from school due to an attack of pleurosis. Jim misunderstood the name of the disease and as a result gave her the nickname “Blue Roses”, which she found sweet. However, Laura says that by high school graduation, Jim was engaged and that he is most likely married by now.

Amanda insists that Laura marry someone. Laura points out that she is crippled by one of her legs being shorter than the other. Amanda angrily demands that her daughter never describe herself that way and that she learn to be charming.

Tom begins to narrate to the audience again, explaining that he refers to Laura’s admittance to dropping out of college as “the fiasco” and that after that their mother rapidly became obsessed with securing her a wealthy husband.

Tom also notes that in order to make some small amount of money and increase the likelihood of attracting suitors, Amanda got a job collecting telephone subscriptions for a magazine called “The Homemaker’s Companion”.

As he says this, Amanda enters the apartment with a telephone, trying to make a sale and ultimately failing.

Soon after, we are shown Tom and Amanda arguing over the lack of privacy in the household. Tom is particularly upset that his mother has returned the novel he was reading,a book by D.H. Lawrence, to the library without his permission. His mother argues that she doesn’t want “filth” like that in her house.

Tom points out that he is the one who pays the rent for the apartment and then tries to end the fight by walking out of the building. But Amanda stops him, demanding to be heard. She insists that his bad attitude is just because he spends every night out and that he is endangering his job by losing sleep. She assumes that he is doing something untoward while out, but Tom assures her that he only goes to the movies.

Tom becomes outraged, saying that he hates the factory and that he wishes he was dead but that he still goes to work everyday and brings home a paycheck.

He points out that he let go of all of his dreams long ago and that if he were as selfish as his mother claims he would have left in the same way his father did years earlier.

Tom makes to leave again and Amanda demands to know where he is planning to go. He reiterates that he is going to the movies but when she does not accept this response, Tom sarcastically admits that he is going to spend time with criminals and in opium dens.

He ends his tirade by calling his mother an “ugly babbling old witch” and then grabs his coat to storm out. Unfortunately, his coat proves difficult to put on in his heightened state and he accidentally knocks into Laura’s collection of glass animal figurines.

Laura yells out when she sees the glass break.

Amanda ignores her daughter and tells Tom that she will not speak to him again until he apologizes to her.

Tom crouches down to collect the broken figurines. He looks over at his sister like he would like to say something helpful or perhaps apologize but says nothing.

Later that night, Tom returns home after staying out all night drinking. After struggling with his key he accidentally drops it between the cracks on the fire escape. Luckily, his sister hears him outside and opens the door. He lies to her and explains that he has been at the movies for most of the night and that he also went to a magic show.

He makes up an elaborate story about a magician who can turn water into whiskey and then hands Laura a rainbow-colored scarf which he says the magician gave to him.

He also describes a trick the magician pulled where he nails himself into a coffin and then escapes without removing any of the nails. Tom drunkenly says that he would like to learn the trick in case it could ever get him out of a tight spot, but that he doesn’t know how someone could escape a coffin without removing a single nail. At this point, the picture of their father that hangs on the wall lights up as if to say that he did this in leaving them.

A few hours later at dawn, Amanda wakes her Laura and tells her to wake her brother, since she is not speaking to him. Laura does so and urges Tom to apologize to Amanda to keep the peace in the household. Tom is still reluctant to do so.

Amanda soon sends Laura out to buy some groceries. On the way out, Laura slips and falls down but is thankfully unhurt.

Back inside, Tom apologizes to his mother and Amanda begins to cry. She tells him how proud she is of him and Laura and begs him to never become an alcoholic like his father.

She then tells Tom that she has caught Laura crying because she feels that Tom is unhappy living with them and that he only goes out every night to escape them. Amanda says that she understands that Tom does not want to work at the shoe factory forever but that she worries about him going out late into the night and doesn’t want him to turn into his father. She asks him again about where he goes at night and Tom repeats that he goes to the movies for the exciting adventure of a film which he feels is so absent from his everyday life.

Amanda considers this silly and thinks that it isn’t a fit concern for a “Christian adult” to have.

Tom decides to leave for work but Amanda keeps him by expressing her worry about Laura’s future.

She confesses that she only enrolled Laura in business school because she thought it would make her come out of her shell and that she often takes her to Young People’s League meetings at church. However, neither of these things have worked.

Laura is still uncomfortable speaking to people outside of the family and spends all of her time with her glass menagerie and an old record collection.

She also admits that she knows that Tom has received a letter from the merchant marines asking him to enlist and that he is eager to leave but that she wants to make sure that Laura is taken care of first.

Getting to her point, she finally requests that Tom finds a decent man from his work and bring him back home to meet his sister. Tom reluctantly agrees.

In the next scene we are told that some time has passed and it is now the spring. Amanda and Laura are clearing the table from dinner. Tom speaks to the audience again, describing his memories of the area where he grew up. He tells us that there was a dance hall across the alley from his apartment and music would drift out from it on nice evenings. He also says that reflections could be seen from the halls chandeliers through his family’s windows and that young couples used to kiss in the alleyway.

He notes that this was how the young people entertained themselves and that soon they wouldn’t lack any entertainment since the country was preparing to enter World War II.

Amanda joins Tom outside and the two seem to reconcile. They each make a wish on the moon.

Amanda wishes for the happiness and success of her children but Tom will not say what his wish is.

Tom then tells his mother that he found someone to call on Laura, a nice young man from the factory is coming over the next day. Amanda is delighted by this but worried that she will not be able to prepare in time. Tom insists that she doesn’t need to make a fuss but cannot waylay her excitement.

Amanda begins to worry about a long list of items that need to be cleaned or replaced in the apartment, from the couch covers to the wallpaper.

She then begins to brush Tom’s hair while asking him about the gentleman caller.

She relates that she does not want him to be an alcoholic. Tom interrupts her to say that she should wait and meet him before assuming that Laura will marry him.

Tom also says that the man, who is named Jim O’Conner, is a shipping clerk at the factory. He also reveals that Jim is Irish and that he makes eighty-five dollars a month.

He also studies radio engineering and public speaking in night school.

Amanda is gratified by all of these details. Tom warns her that Jim thinks that he is coming over for a simple dinner invitation and not only to meet Laura. Amanda says that she is not worried and assumes her daughter will surely make an impression on the man.

Tom reminds his mother not to expect too much of Laura and says that to outsiders, Laura probably appears odd since she lives in somewhat of a fantasy world.

Amanda won’t hear this and insists that Laura is strange in an endearing way.

Tom starts to leave again and Amanda wonders where he is going. He tells her that he is only going to the movies. This leaves Amanda feeling curious and troubled but she quickly returns to her former excitement and finds Laura to tell her about the visitor.

At the start of the next scene, Tom is leaning against the fire escape and smoking a cigarette. He once again addresses the audience members, recollecting what he knows of the background of the gentleman caller, Jim.

Jim was a very popular student and a huge success in high school. He was an athlete, a singer and the leader of his class. Everyone assumed that he would go far but for some reason he did not live up to expectations. Six years later, Jim was working in the factory at a job that was only a little above Tom’s.

He says that he and Jim are friends and that since he knows about Jim’s past glory, Jim considers him useful to his ego.

He also notes that Jim has nicknamed him ‘Shakespeare’ because of his habit of sitting to write poetry when the factory work is slow.

Tom finishes addressing the audience, and we are shown the living room of the apartment which has been transformed by Amanda over the last twenty-four hours.

She adjusts Laura’s new dress and assures her that she will be able to incite Jim with her beauty. Laura is uncomfortable by all of the attention and fuss.

Amanda goes to get dressed and reenters wearing an elaborate dress that she says is from her cotillion days in Mississippi. She says that she wore it to many balls and to receive her own gentleman callers.

Amanda finally mentions Jim’s name and Laura are embarrassed to realize that he is the same Jim that she had such a crush on in high school. She begins to panic and says that she’ll never be able to eat next to him. Amanda brushes her off and begins to busy herself in the kitchen.

The doorbell rings and despite Laura begging her mother to answer it she eventually has to do it herself.

Laura shyly greets Jim and then runs off to dawdle around the record player.

Tom explains to Jim that his sister is extremely shy and Jim seems to find this endearing.

Jim and Tom begin to talk about work and Jim’s classes. Tom admits that he is planning a “big change” in his own life. He also says that, unbeknownst to his mother he has taken the money for this month’s electric bill and used it to join the merchant marines. Tom says proudly that he intends to take after his father.

Amanda enters and introduces herself to Jim, cheerfully. She sings Laura’s praises before giving a brief account of her own childhood suitors and failed marriage.

Amanda tells Tom to tell Laura it’s time for dinner but Tom returns saying that Laura has announced that she is ill and does not wish to have dinner.

Amanda goes to get her daughter herself but sees that Laura appears to be truly ill and tells her to rest on the couch in the living room.

Amanda, Tom and Jim have dinner in the dining room. After dinner is over, the electricity goes out. Believing that is the storm going on outside, Amanda asks Jim to check the fuses. Jim tells her that the fuses seem to be in order and Amanda asks Tom if he remembered to pay the electric bill. He admits that he didn’t and she assumes that he must have forgotten.

Amanda gives Jim a candle and some wine and requests that he go spend some time with Laura in the living room while she and Tom clean up.

In the living room, Jim begins to talk to Laura and she reminds him that they knew each other in high school. He confesses that he had forgotten but when she reminds him of his nickname for her, ‘Blue Roses’ he remembers. They begin to reminisce about high school. Laura remembers how embarrassed and uncomfortable she was about her condition in school and Jim assures her that she was being too self-conscious and that everyone has their share of problems. After chatting for a while, Laura finally gets the courage to ask him about the girl to whom he was engaged. He insists that he was never actually engaged and that the girl announced their attachment as a result of wishful thinking.

When asked what she has been doing since high school Laura begins to tell Jim about her glass menagerie collection. She shows him her favorite animal, a small unicorn.

Jim hears the music coming from the dance hall across the alley and begins to lead Laura around in a waltz despite her clumsiness from her bad leg.

During the dance, the couple accidentally bumps into the table where the menagerie is kept and the little unicorn falls to the floor, breaking off it’s horn. Laura takes this in stride, saying that now the unicorn can just be a regular horse.

Jim becomes flustered and apologetic, he admits that Laura is different from anyone that he has ever met and kisses her. Afterward, he immediately begins scolding himself out loud for doing so. Jim shortly admits that he is involved with an Irish girl named Betty.

Laura is upset by this but recollects herself enough to hand Jim the broken unicorn and request that he think of it as a souvenir of her.

Amanda enters the room bringing drinks. Still flustered, Jim quickly explains that he needs to leave and that he must pick up his fiancee at the train station.

Amanda bids him goodbye even though she is disappointed to hear that he is already engaged.

Jim leaves quickly. After he is gone, Amanda accuses Tom of playing a trick on them. Tom insists that he had no knowledge of Jim’s engagement and that he doesn’t know much about any of his coworkers. He starts to leave to go back to the movies. Amanda yells at him for being a “dreamer” and calls him selfish. She tells him that he might as well go not just to the movies but all the way to the movies for how much he obviously cares about his mother and sister.

Tom finally leaves, slamming the door behind.

Once outside, Tom speaks to the audience again, delivering a final closing monolog.

We see that Amanda is comforting Laura inside the apartment. Tom tells the audience that soon after this incident he was fired from the factory for writing a poem on shoebox lid. After this he left the family and traveled for a long while, pursing something that he cannot fully understand. But he has since found that he can’t seem to dispel his guilt for leaving Laura behind. He admits that no matter where he travels, he will often see a piece of glass with light shining through that will remind him of his sister.

Back in the current time, he bids her goodbye as she blows out the candles.

Character Analysis

Tom Wingfield – a minimum-wage employee at a shoe factory who longs to be a poet. Tom is the main character and narrator of the play and thus, the story is told through his recollections.

The play’s main focus is the dichotomy between objective fact and fuzzy memories.

At the same time that Tom is plainly providing a detached viewpoint of what is happening offstage, he is still also directly interacting with the scenes, sometimes in a very emotionally immature manner.

This uneven characterization can sometimes confuse the perception of Tom’s character and make him hard to pin down.

Tom was written to be a stand-in for the author, Tennessee Williams. Thomas is William’s given name and he also grew up in St. Louis with an emotionally unstable mother and sister and with a father who was often away.

Because of this, we can assume that some elements of Williams own memories from his youth are present.

As a character, Tom is very contradictory. On one hand, he is a lover of classic literature and poetry. An artistic spirit who dreams of escaping his lack luster life and traveling the world like he assumes that his absentee father has.

However, he seems bound to care for his mother and sister for reasons that he never elaborates on during the play.

Even though Tom seems to care for his mother and sister he is often indifferent and even sometimes cruel toward them throughout the play. At the end of the play, he demonstrates in his closing speech his deep love for Laura but then states that he left her quickly and without much thought.

Only once in the play does he seem to show any slight concern for Laura’s feelings, after he accidentally knocks over several figures in her menagerie. And even then he does not actually voice his apology.

Thus, the true relationship between these characters remains unclear.

Amanda Wingfield – Tom and Laura’s mother a former southern belle who was previously married to an alcoholic and now lives in a cramped apartment mostly supported by her son’s paycheck.

William’s plays often showcase disgraced southern belle characters who are uncomfortable with their new lower class role in society and Amanda is no exception.

Amanda may seem a stubborn or even tragic character in her refusal to give up her past and adapt to her new life but she does show a work ethic in obtaining a job to support her daughter’s bid for a husband. In this way, Amanda is almost a more hopeful character than Tom.

Amanda, like her children, regularly indulges in a fantasy world in order to withdraw from reality. However, unlike her children, she does not admit to this. Amanda’s fantasy world is her past, where she was a debutante and a rich southern belle being doted on by many gentleman callers.

But Amanda’s constant hopefulness and cheerfulness in the face of defeat in marrying her daughter to Jim are proof that although she is perhaps a deeply flawed woman she is not inherently evil or bad.

Laura Wingfield – Tom’s sister, a physically crippled girl who is very sweet, kind and understanding.

Laura’s delicacy (both emotionally and physically) is represented in the glass menagerie which she so lovingly attends.

Despite the play being mostly about her, she has the fewest lines of all the characters. A device intended to show her selflessness.

Other characters seem to decide that Laura is capable of being whatever they wish, like a transparent piece of glass that is colorless until the light is shined through it. In this way, Amanda assumes that she can relive her debutante youth through her and Tom and Jim both assume that Laura is a fragile but exotic animal, completely different from the rest of society.

However, such a fragile creature could hardly walk the streets all day avoiding class like Laura does. It seems that Laura has a will of her own and an inner spirit that defies the other character’s perceptions and never gets called out in the actual text.

Jim O’Connor – a coworker of Tom’s at the shoe factory and a former high school friend of Laura’s. Jim is a former all-star high school athlete and generally popular kid. He is also Laura’s crush.  Like Tom, Jim is a bit of a tough character to pin down although for different reasons. He does not appear in most of the play and is only referenced in all but two scenes.

During Tom’s discussion with Laura in the living room, he reveals that he is aiming for a future in television production after suffering a bit of depression after being so successful in high school.

During his conversation with Laura, he also seems to care for her a great deal. At several points, he gets oddly passionate about telling Laura not to have such low self-esteem and to try believing in herself more. He appears to find Laura attractive and perhaps even wishes he could be with her instead of the girl that he is already promised to.

As a result of this, Laura and Jim’s short love story strikes a tragic note in the story.

Jim is a generally cheerful, easy going man who is obviously still very popular  and wishes to escape his life in the same way Tom does.

However, it is implied that he does not wish to let his personal feelings get in the way of his goals.

Tennessee Williams Biography

Tennessee Williams was an American playwright regarded as one of the foremost dramatists of the 20th century. Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911 and named John Lanier Williams. He spent most of his youth in Saint Louis. After attending the University of Missouri and Washington University, he received a B.A degree in 1938. He worked odd jobs until 1945 when he made his debut on Broadway as the author of ‘The Glass Menagerie’. This evocative ‘memory play’ won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award as the best play of the season.

His emotional  play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1947) has been touted as the best American play of all time and won Williams his first Pulitzer Prize for drama. He was soon awarded another Pulitzer for ‘Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’ (1954).

All three of these plays contain the poetic dialogue, the symbolism and the original characters for which Williams is famous. All are also set in the American south, a regional identity which the author used to create a never before seen a blend of sensuality, nostalgia, and decadence.

In the 1930’s, William’s came out as openly homosexual and joined New York’s small circle of openly gay intelligentsia.

Despite Williams success and acclaim he often felt restless and suffered from addiction to drugs and alcohol. This only worsened when he began to see a decline in his success in the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1963 his partner of many years, Frank Merlo died and Williams spiraled into a depression which left him visiting many rehabs and treatment facilities.

Most of his plays in during this time were critical failures. His last play, ‘A House Not Meant to Stand’ was produced in 1982 and only went for 40 performances.

In 1983, Williams was found dead in his New York hotel at the age of 71. The initial coroners report stated that he choked on the cap of a bottle of eye drops that he’d been using, but was later amended to include that his copious drug and alcohol abuse most likely contributed to his death by suppressing his gag reflex.

Williams was buried in St. Louis by his surviving family members.