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...
(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...
(The entire section is 1023 words.)
The Glass Menagerie opens with some fairly elaborate stage directions which serve both to describe the setting and to introduce themes and symbols through their tone. For example, the apartments in the Wingfields' neighborhood are described as "warty growths'' and the people as "one interfused mass of automatism." Tom Wingfield is the first character on stage, and he functions here as both narrator and interpreter. In this role, Tom exists several years after the primary action of the play. He introduces the other characters, and his presence in this role guides the audience in the direction of the play.
The action begins with Amanda, Tom's mother, calling him to the supper table. Throughout the meal, Amanda instructs and criticizes Tom in his eating habits, until Tom responds with disgust. At once, the audience realizes that Tom and Amanda live in a state of tension. The other character present at this meal is Laura, Tom's sister, who wears a brace on her leg. When Laura offers to serve the dessert, Amanda says that she wishes Laura to "stay fresh and pretty—for gentlemen callers!" Amanda will remain concerned with the possibility of "gentlemen callers" for Laura throughout the play, and here she reminisces about her own youthful days. When Laura indicates that she's not expecting any gentlemen callers, Amanda appears to be astonished, although this conversation seems to be a frequent one. Laura explains that "I'm not popular...
(The entire section is 1265 words.)