Summary (Identities & Issues 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...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 937 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1023 words.)