How does the playwright develop Tom’s character in The Glass Menagerie?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tom is a character that faces a serious dilemma in this play. How can he achieve the escape from his mother and sister that he desires without causing pain to both himself and to them? Tom seems to experience a kind of symbolic life-in-death experience in his family life and work. Tom is also haunted by the "trick" his father played in deserting his family, clearly having a sense of admiration for his father in spite of moments when he displays anger towards him. For example note how he refers to himself as "the bastard son of a bastard" to Jim, yet shortly after, speaking about his father's photograph, he says:

See how he grins? And he's been absent going on sixteen years!

Thus Tom feels a compulsion to follow in the footsteps of his faithless father, but not necessarily for the same reasons. It is clear that the apartment where he lives with his mother and his sister and/or the warehouse where he works is slowly sucking the life out of this fledgling poet. Amanda makes it impossible for Tom to devote himself to his writing, and Tom feels dehumanised and alienated by his work. There is a constant conflict between the adventure that Tom desires in his life and the monotony of his job with its tedious mind-numbing tasks. We see his sense of frustration culminating at the end of scene 6 when he says:

I'm not patient... I'm tired of the movies and I am about to move!

Living life as a spectator sport is not enough for him. He wants to be an actor in his own movie, living new experiences and adventures rather than watching them second-hand.

Note how Williams describes this character he has created:

A poet with a job in a warehouse. his nature is not remorseless, but to escape from a trap he has to act without pity.

Williams presents Tom in this incredible play as a poet who is engaged in a battler for his own spirit. The only way he can achieve self-fulfilment is to reject society and its conformism and materialism, symbolised through Amanda's endless stories of Blue Mountain and "plans and provisions." Tom feels he has to leave after the action in the play to be true to himself, but he is always haunted by his memories, trapped in a kind of no-man's land of his own creation. Exile may have been what he wanted, but there is certainly a price to pay.

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tom's character begins almost as if he were still dependent on his mother and sister to subsist in a world where he is not understood. The plot does not offer any significant foreshadowing that would show how Tom will eventually change, other than the fact that Tom is telling the story as it had already occurred.

What we can see is how Tom goes from an idealistic drunkard to a complying son and brother, to an independent man. At the beginning of the play, we see how Tom is still living "with mom." He has no idea on what to do with his future as he tries to care for his sister. Tom tolerates his life through drinking and watching movies at the cinema.

Later on, we see how he complies with his mother's and sister's wishes to meeting Jim.  Tom basically has to go out of his comfort zone to attend this meeting. This is a way to show how he is analyzing the situation at home as he comes to realize the fact that he does not belong there.

Finally, when Jim disappoints Amanda and Laura, Tom goes away from the story and explains how he understands that he had to go and how he had to let his sister and mother be. Every individual has a right to lead their life the way they choose to, but they do not have the right to drag others down with them. That was Tom's biggest paradigm to understand. He jumps ship before it sink. He finally grows up. That is how the character develops.

Read the study guide:
The Glass Menagerie

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