In The Glass Menagerie, what are the main conflicts in Tom's life regarding his personal desires vs responsibility towards others?
The character-narrator Tom Wingfield is extremely frustrated at his life. He has to work to support his mother and sister, his father having long since deserted the family, and he hates his job in a shoe warehouse and the daily struggle to make ends meet. Furthermore, he is exasperated by his mother Amanda's constant nagging at him to improve himself and also to help his shy, withdrawn sister Laura, who is dependent on him. Tom is genuinely concerned for Laura but ultimately is unable to help her.
Tom feels weighed down by his family responsibilities and longs to escape. This is his main personal conflict. He feels that life is just passing him by:
Whenever I pick up a shoe, I shudder a little thinking how short life is and what I am doing! (Sc 6)
He is a romantic daydreamer and entertains the notion of running away to sea. At the same time he feels extremely guilty about deserting the family just as his father did:
I'm like my father. The bastard son of a bastard! (Sc.6)
Like his father, he too ends up fleeing, after his one attempt to find a suitable marriage partner for Laura ends in disaster. However he never stops feeling remorse for abandoning his sister. The play ends with a picture of him continuing to wander aimlessly, unable to forget his sister no matter how hard he tries:
Oh Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! (Sc 7)
The character of Tom is in many respects autobiographical. For instance, Williams was close to his sister Rose, who developed mental problems during her teens and never really recovered. We see in Tom the playwright's conflicting feelings towards his own family and most of all his poignant sense of loss regarding a beloved and helpless sister.