Tennessee Williams' play opens with Tom Wingfield addressing the audience directly; he offers some background that describes the setting (1937, St. Louis) and his family: a mother, Amanda, and slightly handicapped sister, Laura. They live in an apartment, having been abandoned by the father years before.
It is a memory play, and the scene dissolves into the dinner table in the Wingfield apartment. Amanda admonishes Tom to chew his food and Laura to keep herself fresh for "gentleman callers." Tom pushes back against his mother's admonitions. Amanda repeats a story regarding her popularity as a young woman in Mississippi and the day she received seventeen gentleman callers. It is made clear by Laura that she is expecting no gentleman callers.
The next memory is a scene in which Laura is washing her collection of glass animal figurines. Amanda comes home wearing a cheap and outdated hat and coat and confronts Laura, who has not been attending her typing classes. Laura's deception is revealed; she has been walking, going to the zoo and art museums instead of typing school. She confesses to being overwhelmed by the stress of the course, which had made her physically ill.
Amanda worries aloud about her and her daughter's future. If Laura cannot manage a job, Amanda reasons that she will need to marry, and she asks Laura if there were any men that interest her. Laura can think of only one from her high school days.
Amanda becomes obsessed with finding a man for Laura to marry. She gets a job selling magazine subscriptions for extra money and endeavors to make Laura into an attractive "catch."
The next memory is a confrontation between Amanda and Tom. She has gone through his belongings and thrown out some books she considers indecent, such as the work of D.H. Lawrence. Tom has aspirations to become a writer, and his mother does not support him. She insists that he be more practical because he has to look after her and Laura. Tom pushes against his mother's demands that he stop going to the movies at night. He tries to get her to understand how unfulfilling his job at the warehouse is. In his fury, he accidentally breaks one of Laura's glass animals. Tom leaves, and returns home late at night, drunk. He and Laura speak briefly.
Amanda refuses to speak to Tom, and Laura is briefly forced to be the intermediary. Eventually, Amanda and Tom have a heart-to-heart and he speaks of his discontent. Amanda tells Tom that he can't leave the family until there is a man to take his place: a husband for Laura. She pressures him into inviting a male friend home from work.
Tom invites Jim O'Connor home, and he is the boy that Laura admired in high school. The arranged date does not go well. During the dinner, the power goes out because Tom has not paid the bill. Jim is actually quite seriously involved with another woman and not looking for a future with Laura. Amanda verbally attacks Tom for bringing home an unavailable man and tries to comfort Laura, who is shattered by the rejection.
Tom is fired from his job for writing poetry during his shift. He leaves St. Louis to pursue life on his own. He is haunted by the memory of how he has left Laura behind.