How do the characters of Jim, Tom, and Amanda show their poverty throughout the play?
The Glass Menagerie is developed within a backdrop of poverty, isolation, and inevitability. This is due, in part, to the historical context of the play. It takes place during the 1930s, during a time when the American economy still suffers through the Great Depression while, in the horizon, looms the advent of World War II. It is no wonder why Tom's angst could very well be a reaction to the plentiful limitations that push him inward more and more.
Poverty is a common topic in a society that has been so dented by circumstances. In Tom's case, poverty is more evident in his inability to free himself from his family. He knows that, whatever income he brings in, is still better than nothing. As the head of the household (his father abandons the family), he has to fulfill the role of son and father alike. For this reason, his sense of duty to his mother and sister traps him, for which he has to find some form of catharsis either walking in the alley, smoking, or watching movies. These very comforts are another sign of Tom's poverty. In the 1930's the prices of cigarettes and movies were way more permissive than they are today. These small things were the cheapest methods of escapism that Tom could find.
Amanda's poverty is more evident still because she continues to attempt to re-live the past. As a child, she is raised in the South, seemingly filled with comforts and luxuries that she could never dream of today. We can see her poverty in the way that she dresses, still trying to convey some form of "class" standard without success.
She has on one of those cheap or imitation velvety-looking cloth coats with imitation fur collar. Her hat is five or six years old, one of those dreadful cloche hats that were worn in the late twenties and she is eloping an enormous black patent-leather pocketbook with nickel clasps and initials. This is her full-dress outfit, the one she usually wears to the D.A.R.
She also sells magazine subscriptions for a living. This practice seems to be dwindling due to the economy. She uses the little money that she makes to put Laura through vocational school. When she realizes that Laura cannot even handle that, her hopes come down.
Jim, who is described as the only "normal" character in the play, and as a "High School Hero", shows his poverty through what he is doing for a living. Once at the top of his game, Jim has come down considerably from the pedestal that had been built for him during his high school years.
He was shooting with such velocity through his adolescence that you would logically expect him to arrive at nothing short of the White House by the time he was thirty. But Jim apparently ran into more interference after his graduation from Soldan. His speed had definitely slowed. Six years after he left high school he was holding a job that wasn't much better than mine.
In Jim's case we can perceive that the economy didn't help much in his success. His poverty is entirely circumstantial. However, we see a little bit of ambition in that he is at least taking public speaking courses to attempt for a managerial position. One wonders, though, if Jim merely wants to extend his high school days and merely "act" a part. Either way, poverty is the common denominator that quenches the dream of all the characters.