Tom is a daydreamer who longs for a life of adventure. His particular dream is to go to sea to lead a romantic roving life and he sets out to achieve this goal by applying to join the Merchant Marines.
However, he faces a considerable obstacle to the realisation of this dream. He has to provide for his mother and sister after his father deserted the family, and to this end he works in a warehouse. It is a boring, dreary and ill-paid job, very different from the kind of career he would like to have. However, he has to keep at it and stay in the family home, instead of leaving to pursue his own dreams.
Tom does care for his family, especially his quiet, shy sister Laura, but he often finds himself quarrelling with their mother Amanda, who is always nagging at him to improve himself, get a better job, and get Laura settled. His only form of relief is to go to the cinema to watch the kind of films to provide him with the kind of excitement and entertainment missing from his life.
Tom feels extremely constricted in his life, therefore, and his frustration is evident throughout the play. Although he really does not want to desert his family, he is finally driven to do so after yet another heated confrontation with Amanda. She more or less blames him for the disastrous visit of Jim, his friend, whom she hoped would be a match for Laura, but who turned out to be already engaged. He leaves in a fury, never to return.
Now Tom is free to pursue his own career, but rather than leading a fulfilling life and career of his own, he appears to just end up drifting aimlessly about the country. This is due in no small part to the fact that he cannot escape his sense of guilt at deserting his family. He is particularly torn with remorse at leaving Laura.
Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! (scene 7)
Tom, then, simply cannot forget Laura, no matter how hard he tries to extinguish her memory. Although he wrenches himself away from the family in order to follow his own path, it does not seem to do him much good. He does not manage to achieve his dreams and goals.