The lives of Amanda Wingfield, her son Tom, and her daughter Laura are impacted throughout the play by the Great Depression of the 1930s and by their family history and personal relationships. As the internal and external conflicts develop in the drama, the ironies in their lives become increasingly apparent; in some instances, they are tragic.
Amanda Wingfield is plagued with fear throughout the play, primarily fear for Laura’s future. Physically disabled and paralyzed by anxiety, Laura cannot function in the world beyond the Wingfields’ St. Louis apartment. She has no friends or acquaintances, and she resists her mother’s efforts to involve her in social activities. Laura’s dropping out of Rubicam’s Business College after Amanda had paid her tuition with money the family could not afford to waste indicates the depth of Laura’s anxiety and withdrawal from society. Amanda is well aware that Laura can’t support herself financially, and she believes that finding a husband to provide for Laura is imperative.
As Amanda despairs in regard to Laura’s inability to make her own way in the world, she fails to see that Laura’s circumstances ironically mirror her own. “I know so well what becomes of unmarried women who aren’t prepared to occupy a position [in the business world],” she lectures Laura. Unaware that she is describing herself, she adds, “I’ve seen such pitiful cases in the South—“ Amanda’s believing that finding a husband for Laura will insure her daughter’s financial security is also ironic, since Amanda had been abandoned by her own husband years earlier and now struggles to survive the Depression.
After dropping out of business college, Laura spends her days at home, dusting, arranging, and rearranging the fragile glass animals in her collection and listening to her father’s old phonograph records. Losing herself in her glass menagerie and in music of the past offers an escape from reality and from the emotional stress of forging personal relationships. Anxious and insecure, Laura finds no redeeming traits in her own character or realizes that she might attract the attention or the admiration of young men, until an unexpected evening with Jim O’Connor brings her out of self-imposed isolation. Drawn into a conversation with Jim, Laura’s anxiety and self-consciousness give way in response to his warmth and charm, but Jim’s presence in the Wingfield apartment is ironic, and the irony leads to disaster.
Jim’s working with Tom and coming to dinner at the Wingfield apartment is ironic, since Laura had known and secretly loved Jim in high school. The irony is compounded when Laura dares to allow herself to respond emotionally to him and subsequently is crushed to learn that Jim’s romantic kiss was careless and that he is engaged to another girl. Laura’s first, and undoubtedly last, “gentleman caller” breaks her heart and destroys what little peace she had managed to create for herself.
The greatest irony of Jim O’Connor’s visit to the Wingfields, however, develops from its final consequences. When Amanda’s dreams of Laura’s finding a husband in Jim are destroyed, Amanda turns her fury on Tom, driving him out of the apartment and out of their lives forever. In pressing Tom to bring home a young man for Laura, Amanda believes she is securing her daughter’s future; ironically, however, Amanda is setting in motion the events that culminate in her greatest fear becoming a reality—that Tom will abandon her and Laura as his father had once abandoned them.
The ultimate irony in the play—the irony that drives the primary theme of the drama—is reserved for the conclusion as Tom narrates the poignant coda. Years after leaving home, Tom is haunted by his memory of Laura: “It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass . . . .” Despite Tom’s efforts to forget the sister he loved yet abandoned, he cannot escape his memories of her. “Oh, Laura, Laura,” Tom despairs, “I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” Throughout the play, Tom is consumed with anger and resentment, trapped in unbearable circumstances and longing for a life of freedom and adventure. When he frees himself from the life he can no longer endure, however, and travels the world alone, he discovers, ironically, that escape had been only an illusion.