The plot of The Glass Menagerie is a three-fold conflict. The first involves Tom, who is thrown into a job he doesn't like because the family has been abandoned by the father and Tom was the only one who could support the family, which consists of the mother Amanda and his sister Laura, who has a brace on her leg. Tom has to decide between his mother and sister and his own life and aspirations. The second involves Amanda who is tragically always remembering her past happy life as proof to herself and her children that she was not deserving of having been abandoned by the one man, out of "seventeen gentleman callers," to whom she gave her affection. She must find a way to make her son's life and daughter's life a successful ones when drunkeness, poverty, shyness, illness and disability weigh against it. The third involves Laura who is troubled by pathological shyness and feelings of unworthiness that stem from natural timidity, illness and the brace on her leg. She must decide whether or not to make a place for herself in the world.
Amanda tries to work with the few resources left to her to help mold a successful future for her two children. One of her resources is her son's ability to work and earn money for the family, a role he bitterly resents. Laura has been sent to secretarial school but, in the fear of extreme shyness, has long ago dropped out. Amanda once again relies on her son to help the abandoned family by finding Laura a potential suitor from work. Tom does so and brings Jim home to a lavish dinner prepared at great expense by Amanda. Laura recoils from meeting Jim because they had known each other in high school and she had had a crush on him. Eventually, she is forced to converse with him just as the lights go out from an unpaid electric bill, the money for which Tom had diverted to the fees for joining the merchant marine in order to escape his life. Jim and Laura have sincere talks about her unrecognized charms and talents; he accidentally breaks the magical, fantasy unicorn while dancing with Laura; then kisses her. In guilty regret he confesses that he has wronged her because he has a fiancee.
In the end, the glass menagerie, Laura's ideal symbolic of a happy life like the one in her mother's stories, is damaged twice, first accidentally by Tom and second by Laura's first "gentleman caller," Jim, who turns out to be engaged. Laura's reaction to the unicorn broken by Jim is that now it is just a regular horse. Tom abandons his mother and sister to an unpaid electric bill and goes in pursuit of his own happiness, though his happiness is never sufficient to be able to dispel the cloud of regret and guilt over Laura, nor is it sufficient to be able to allow him to understand his bitter foolishness or his mother's struggles any better. Laura has an epiphany moment and becomes like her unicorn, just a regular girl. The mother, Amanda, can at least feel comfortable with her daughter's prospects though they still don't see eye-to-eye. Of the three, Amanda is the only one who moves into the future with sorrow because her share in the broken glass menagerie is regret for the lost unicorn though her feelings of sorrow and regret are mixed with comfort for her children's future well-being.