According to Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie is a “memory play.” It is narrated from the perspective of the character Tom Wingfield. What Williams calls “personal lyricism” is employed in the play not so much to challenge the accountability of Tom’s narrative as to display, from a character’s point of view, the impact that illusion has on individuals. The play, for example, portrays a large group of characters whose obsession with the past complicates their connection to the present. Illusory worlds are created by these characters, either to cherish the not-so-accurate memory of an idealized past or to protect an already-tattered emotional integrity. It is typical of Williams, a self-proclaimed romantic dramatist, to create characters who prefer dwelling in a fantasy world. Yet, the playwright, aware of the inevitability of the conflict between illusion and reality, also leaves the audience with no doubt about his cynical and bitter attitude in dramatizing the sometimes self-deceptive but always debilitating nature of his characters’ illusory world. Flashbacks are used effectively to underscore the struggle that characters must undergo when they do not know how to disentangle themselves from the past.
The main plot of The Glass Menagerie centers on what happens to the Wingfield family on one unforgettable evening. A childhood illness has left Laura Wingfield crippled; one of her legs is slightly shorter than the other and is held in a brace. Self-consciousness and a lack of self-confidence have turned Laura into an extremely shy person. She prefers living in a dream world created through her fantasies and her collection of glass animals. Laura’s mother, Amanda Wingfield, believes strongly in tradition. Her faith in the traditional Southern practice of having a “gentleman caller” has led her to make an arrangement for Laura to meet with one of Tom’s coworkers at the warehouse.
Jim O’Connor shows up one evening at the Wingfields’ apartment as the “gentleman caller.” He behaves like a gentleman, charming Amanda and strengthening her belief in this tradition. During the meeting, Jim’s outward glamour and glibness temporarily rekindle hopes in Laura’s closed heart. She tells him how much she admired him in high school and entrusts him with her favorite glass animal, the unicorn. When Jim clumsily breaks the unicorn’s horn and tells her that they are not compatible with each other, Laura loses even more of her ever-dwindling confidence in herself and furthers her alienation from reality.
At the end of the play, Laura is apparently thrown off her emotional balance and ready to retreat permanently into her fantasy world. Amanda, holding Tom responsible for the fiasco of Jim and Laura’s meeting, blames him as the manufacturer of dreams and illusions. Tom, now fully aware of the detrimental effects of the conflicts between the past and the present and between illusion and reality, decides to leave the family and take on the challenge of shaping his own life.