At the end of The Glass Menagerie, what is Tom's realization about his personal desires against his responsibilities towards others?
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At the end of the play, Tom realises that he cannot wholly sacrifice his responsibilities towards others, particularly towards his family, in order to satisfy his own personal desires.
Tom does finally make a physical break with his family during the dramatic climax in the final scene. This is just after Jim’s visit which, from the Wingfields’ point of view has turned out a disaster, as Jim cannot after all be a partner for Laura, being already engaged. Amanda blames Tom for this, driving him from the house ‘never to return’ (scene 7).
However, Tom cannot forget his family, particularly Laura. He is ‘pursued’ by her in his mind, although he tries his utmost to forget:
I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger – anything that could blow your candles out!(scene 7)
Being in new places, drinking and smoking, satisfying his immediate appetites, contact with strangers – none of this can dispel the power of memory.Tom continues to be wracked with guilt for deserting the family like his wastrel father before him.
Tom finally realises that he cannot fulfil his personal desires without having fulfilled his family responsibilities also. He thought that in order to be true to himself he had to repudiate his family links, but it does not work this way. He does not appear to achieve anything worthwhile after leaving his mother and sister; he is shown to be just drifting aimlessly about. We can conclude that his lack of direction has a lot to do with his being emotionally damaged by his break with the family.
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