The Glass Menagerie Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’ first major play to appear on Broadway, is an autobiographical work. In it he delineates several personal and societal problems: the isolation of those who are outsiders for one reason or another, the hardships faced by single mothers, the difficulties a disability may create for a family, and the struggle of a young artist to begin his career.

The play has four characters. Amanda Wingfield is a woman from Mississippi whose husband moved the family to St. Louis and abandoned her and her two children. Laura has been left disabled by disease, and Tom is a would-be poet. Amanda yearns for her youth, when she was a Southern belle in plantation society in the Mississippi Delta. Her life is a mixture of reality and fantasy; she has struggled to support her children, who are now grown, but she refuses to acknowledge Laura’s disability and dreams of a happy married life for her.

Laura, however, still dependent on her mother, seems destined to remain a prisoner in her own little world. Tom, working at a shoe factory to support the three of them, yearns to flee the stifling environment of their apartment and make a life for himself. The fourth character, Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, is an “emissary from a world of reality.” He has no true grasp of the harshness of reality, so he is better equipped to survive in society than the other three characters.

One predominant symbol in the novel is that of the dead-end alleyway, in which cats are trapped and killed by dogs. Amanda, Tom, and Laura are all trapped, although in different ways, and each escapes into some kind of illusion. Laura, painfully shy because of her limp, spends much of her time with her glass animals (the menagerie of the title) and old phonograph records. Tom goes to the cinema and writes late into the night. Amanda, at a moment’s notice, can escape into the past, forgetting in her reveries the brutal facts of her existence. In this play as in others, Williams sees illusion as a sustaining element in troubled human lives. Even the Gentleman Caller, connected as he is to reality, has impossible dreams of rising beyond his present station through attending night school.

The play ends unhappily, for the Gentleman Caller is already engaged, so Amanda’s hopes for a husband for Laura are smashed. Tom runs away to join the merchant marine but is unable to escape the memory of his sister. The burden of the past remains with Tom, wherever he is, just as for the author: Williams’ sister Rose and her mental problems were a constant, painful memory as well as a source of inspiration.

The Glass Menagerie Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Tom and Laura’s father—Amanda Wingfield’s husband—abandoned his family some years ago, and Tom tells the audience that he is about to relate a “memory play,” “truth in the pleasant guise of illusion.” The time Tom recalls is during the Depression, when he lived with his mother and sister in a St. Louis apartment building described as “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units.” Amanda dominated the household as an aging southern belle who retained her girlish charm as well as an eternal optimism and a fierce determination that she and her children would overcome what she insisted on viewing as temporary obstacles. Laura, who had lived at home since high school, spent her days listening to her father’s record collection and playing with the glass animals she collected and called her “menagerie.” Tom worked in a shoe factory, a job he loathed and therefore barely tended to, instead focusing his passion on writing poetry and his leisure on going to films.

Tom’s recollection of the family’s interactions begins with an occasion when Amanda told Tom precisely how to eat his dinner. Tom could not stomach his mother’s remarks and responded to his mother’s lecture with anger. Amanda then turned to Laura, who was upset by the scene, and coddled her while she also cajoled her to remain “fresh and pretty” for the gentleman callers that Laura knew would never arrive. Amanda ignored both her adult children’s frustration and embarrassment, and she proceeded to recall aloud her many beaux who sought her company when she was a girl.

Tom remembers that on another day his mother decided to stop in at the business college Laura was supposedly attending, only to find that Laura had quit school early in the semester. Amanda went home and confronted Laura, accusing her of deception. Laura, disabled from a teenage bout with pleurosis, suffered even greater paralysis from shyness and confessed to her mother that she had spent her hours scheduled for class wandering about the city, taking refuge in the museum, the zoo, and the Jewel Box, a hothouse for exotic plants. Amanda’s hurt at the thought that Laura had deceived her turned to anguish at the notion that Laura had forfeited her future, until Laura admitted to having once liked a boy in high school. Immediately, Amanda perked up and launched a plan to ensure Laura’s welfare by snaring her daughter an eligible man.

Amanda plotted a liaison for Laura while she also attempted to supplement the family income by selling magazine subscriptions. She chided Tom for his lack of ambition, and her actions and words resulted in repeated, escalating arguments between them. More and more often, Tom fled to the movies for respite. One day while Amanda and Tom fought, Laura fell, causing mother and son to temporarily halt their hostilities. The separate nature of their care for Laura caused further angst, as Tom insisted that his mother recognize Laura’s personality and physical impairment in order to accept her as she was, and Amanda recoiled at Tom’s words, declaring that Laura’s crippled state was but a slight “defect.”

Amanda nagged Tom to bring home a “gentleman caller” for Laura, and one evening Tom announced to Amanda that he had invited a man from work to come to dinner the following evening. Amanda’s initial excitement turned to panic when she realized that she lacked the time necessary to completely transform the Wingfield apartment in honor of the rare guest. Amanda performed her magic, however, and when the gentleman caller arrived she had restored not only the Wingfield apartment but also herself to a semblance of former glory.

Prior to the arrival of Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller, Laura discovered that in all probability the man her brother would be bringing home was the same one on whom she had had a crush in high school. When Jim arrived and Laura realized that he was indeed the boy she once knew, shyness and embarrassment overcame her to the extent that she found herself incapable of sharing the meal Amanda pretended her daughter cooked. During dinner, the lights went out, and although Amanda carried forth gaily, noting the romance of dining by candlelight, she knew that Tom had failed to pay the electric bill. What she did not know was what Tom had confessed to Jim—the fact that he had sent the money to the Union of Merchant Seamen as a first step toward leaving home.

After dinner, Jim sought out Laura and engaged her in conversation. Laura learned that Jim was not married, as she had first thought. Jim told Laura that her singular traits made her special instead of defective. They danced, and Laura’s self-consciousness turned to romantic hope. Laura’s dream shattered when Jim accidentally broke the horn off her favorite glass animal, a unicorn, and as he told her he was engaged to another woman. Laura gave Jim the broken unicorn as a “souvenir.” After Jim left, Amanda railed against Tom, first accusing him of having known Jim was engaged and then calling him irresponsible for not having realized the truth.

In the end, Tom again addresses the audience alone. Years and miles separate him from the mother he cannot live with and the sister he could not forget. In the darkness, Tom cries out his anguish that “nowadays the world is lit by lightning!” and that his memory of Laura is but a candle that he must blow out to free himself of her haunting, dreamlike presence.

The Glass Menagerie Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Williams begins The Glass Menagerie with a comment by Tom Wingfield, who serves as both narrator of and character within the play: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” In one sentence, Williams has summarized the essence of all drama. To the very end of the play, he maintains a precarious balance between truth and illusion, creating in the process what he contends is the “essential ambiguity of man that I think needs to be stated.”

Williams suspends the audience of his interplay between reality and illusion by having Tom, who has run away from home, serve as a storyteller. As he remembers bits of his past, he fades from the role of narrator into the role of character and then back again, providing a realistic objectivity to a highly subjective experience. The transitions between past and present are accomplished by the use of lighting, legends (signs), and mood-creating music. Both outsider and insider, Tom cannot escape from the memories that haunt him; traveling in some foreign country, he sees or hears something that reminds him of his past. In writing a memory play, Williams successfully balances past with present, illusion with reality, fragility with brutality, mind with body, freedom of the imagination with imprisonment of the real world, and other unresolvable paradoxes of life. The combining of narrator and character in one person is itself a paradox, as Tom tells his story both from the outside looking in and vice versa.

Tom Wingfield’s story is about himself, a young man who finds himself working as a stock clerk in a shoe factory to provide a living for his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura. The father has long since deserted the family. Only his larger-than-life photograph hangs on a wall to remind Tom of a father “who left us a long time ago” because, as a telephone man, he had “fallen in love with long distances . . . and skipped the light fantastic out of town.”

Both the photograph and the family’s economic plight serve to remind Amanda of the many “gentleman callers” she might have married instead of her ne’er-do-well husband. She escapes into the past even as she attempts to make things happen in the present, supplementing Tom’s income by selling women’s magazines over the telephone. She also attempts to provide Laura with some means of earning a living by sending her to a business school to learn typing. Rather than having Laura become a barely tolerated spinster among her relatives, Amanda wishes to see her able to support herself. Amanda’s instinct for the preservation of the family (reality) and her memories of her girlhood and the many gentleman callers (illusion) give her life a balance in a world that otherwise would be overwhelming in its dreariness.

Laura, a victim of her family situation, is painfully conscious of her “crippled” condition, one leg being shorter than the other. She throws up from nervous indigestion in her early days at Rubicam’s Business College and, after that experience, spends her time walking in the park and visiting the art museum, the zoo, and the “big glass house where they raise the tropical flowers.” She herself is a hothouse flower, needing special care. In the family apartment, she has still another escape, her collection of glass animals, the most singular of which is a unicorn, a nonexistent animal. In a Darwinian world, her survivability, like the unicorn’s, is questionable.

Like his mother and sister, Tom, suffocated by the mindlessness of his job, has created his own world, writing poetry at work and earning the nickname “Shakespeare” from his fellow workers. He spends his evenings attending motion pictures, which in the 1930’s also included live acts, frequently those of a magician.

All three family members hold in precarious balance their respective worlds of reality and illusion. In an ironic sense, all three are like the husband and father who sought escape.

The catalyst for a change in the family situation is Laura’s inability to continue in business college and Amanda’s decision that a gentleman caller must be found for Laura. Much against his better judgment, and after many emotional arguments with Amanda, Tom gives in to her repeated requests that he invite a fellow worker, Jim, to dinner. On that fateful day, a rather ordinary one which Williams succeeds in making extraordinary, Jim arrives.

Predictably, Amanda has bought new furnishings—a floor lamp and rug—and new clothes for Laura. Appearances, so important to Amanda, have improved, but ironically Laura is seized with a nervous attack. To make matters worse, the electricity goes off during the dinner, Tom having failed to pay the electric bill.

Candles, however, save the day. Laura recovers a bit, and in one of the most touching scenes in American drama, she enjoys a brief romantic moment with Jim—a dance and kiss. In that dance, however, the unicorn, swept off its shelf, is broken, a symbol of Laura’s shattered dream when she is told by Jim that he is already engaged to someone else.

Following one final, desperate argument with the bitterly disappointed Amanda, who shouts to him to “go to the moon,” Tom runs away, not to the moon, as he says, but “much further—for time is the longest distance between two places.” He attempts “to find in motion what was lost in space.”

Williams’s techniques, in addition to the use of a narrator, are those made famous by Bertolt Brecht, a German dramatist whose expressionism influenced many modern dramatists. Among the Brechtian techniques found in The Glass Menagerie are its use of lighting, the signs (legends) that provide the audience with information, and music that enhances either the romance or the harshness of the mood of the moment. Brechtian techniques make for a loosely told story in episodic scenes rather than a tightly knit sequence of actions that produce high drama.

The Glass Menagerie Summary

Scene I
The Glass Menagerie opens with some fairly elaborate stage directions which serve both to describe the setting and...

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