Tom, the narrator of the play, and one of its three main characters, wants to escape from his deeply unsatisfying situation: the life he lives with his overbearing, neurotic mother and his shy, nervous sister. And a big symbol of the play is the fire escape where all the play's entrances and exits are made:
The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.
Yes, Tom is desparate to get out, to escape. He wants what he says we all want: romance and adventure, and he is not finding either in his apartment or his work with The Continental Shoemakers.
Upon returning very late one night, he tells Laura of an imaginary magic show he just saw:
But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail, There is a trick that would come in handy for me - get me out of this 2 by 4 situation!
Down the alley from the apartment, Tom witnesses other attempts at escape from a world devoid of excitement down the alley outside the Paradise dance Hall :
Couples would come outside, to the relative privacy of the alley. You could see them kissing behind ash-pits and telegraph poles.
This was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure.
And, of course he says all this from his favorite vantage piont: the fire escape.
And what of Amanda and her daughter Laura? What is escape for them? Amanda wants to escape from worry. Worry about money, worry about Tom. But most of all she wants to escape from her worry about Laura. What is to become of her if Tom leaves and she dies? How will she take care of herself. Amanda's worry for her daughter is so great that she gets Tom to bring home a man, "gentleman caller" who she hopes will fall in love with Laura and sweep her away into the safety of wedded bliss. What a sad mistake.
As for Laura, she seems rather satisfied in her sad, meek way. She does escape briefly from the business college her mother enrolled her in. She went to visit the penguins in the zoo. Laura doesn't seem to want or expect much from the little life she has. Her ultimate escape is right there in the apartment. It's her glass collection. She spends lots of time looking at it and polishing the tiny, fragile pieces of glass. Late in the play, she shares the collection with the first person outside of her family, Jim, the gentleman caller:
LAURA:Well, I do - as I said - have my - glass collection...
JIM: I'm not right sure I know what you're talking about What kind of glass is it?
LAURA: Little articles of it, they're ornaments mostly. Most of them are little animals made out of glass, the tiniest little animals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie!
As the play ends Tom says:
I descended the step of this fire-escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father's footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space...
And so he makes his getaway, the final escape, at least in space. But in his mind, Tom can never really free himself from the old apartment and the memory of his dear and loving sister Laura.