The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams presents three characters searching for happiness. Amanda Wingfield and her children---Tom and Laura--- cannot find the reality that each of them desires. This unique memory play employs Tom as the narrator who looks back at a small portion of his family’s life which drove him to desert his mother and sister.
These three characters try to find happiness in a bleak world that seems to have no place for them. Tension between the family members demonstrates their dysfunction. Ruled by Amanda, who cannot face the real world because it is unpleasant, her children try to please her but fall short in her estimation.
Who is the strongest character in the play? This is a difficult question since each of the family members faces emotional instability. Within this framework, Laura steps forward as the character who despite her many contradictory characteristics has found a world that she can live in without the outside world hurting her.
When the gentleman caller comes, Laura initially displays her typical shyness especially since she remembers him from her unpleasant high school experiences. As she talks to Jim, his affable personality draws out her real personality, and she rises to the occasion communicating with him emotionally. She reminds him of the nickname that he gave her—Blue Roses—when he misunderstood her illness pleurisy. It is obvious that this was a happy time for her.
When Jim admits that he has a girlfriend, Laura handles the situation much better than her mother and brother. She retreats back into her world of glass. At every circumstance, Laura appears to lose. From her experience at the business school to her encounter with Jim, she is able to survive and go on. In fact, Laura has the ordinary feelings of having a crush on the school hero. When she quits school, she is able to survive by walking in the cold day after day.
Her family perceives her as a fragile, mysterious character who must be carefully handled much like her glass animals. However, at every set back, Laura unlike her mother uses her strong will to return to the world where she finds her place. Laura is the pivotal character in the play. Her mother wants her to be happy; her brother wants to help her. What is forgotten is that no one asks Laura what she really wants.
Jim finds her attractive. It is this encounter with an ordinary person that allows Laura to come out of her shell and stand on her own. Unfortunately, Jim does not have the ability to see that he is drawing Laura into his world by his return to his glory days. He treats her like he might have in high school forgetting that he has his own life which does include Laura.
Jim: You’re pretty…You think I’m making this up because I’m invited to dinner and have to be nice. I’m talking to you sincerely. I happened to notice you had this inferiority complex that keeps you from feelings comfortable with people. Somebody ought to kiss you….I can’t call again—I go out all the time with a girl named Betty.
Jim hurts Laura. She controls her emotions and hands over the broken unicorn to Jim. In the family, Laura is the only one who does not crumble after this incident. Amanda returns to her nagging and accusatory attitude toward Tom. Tom runs away. Laura’s use of the glass menagerie as her place of sensitivity and serenity enables her to find a way to go on.
On the face of it, none of the characters in this play seem to be strong characters. The Wingfield family appear lost in day dreams. Amanda endlessly recalls the days of her successful and long-lost youth; Tom longs to run away to sea, and then seems to be reduced to a life of aimless wandering after he does finally leave; and Laura whiles away all her time with her collection of glass and old records. Even Jim, the one character who appears more in touch with reality, has not turned out to be particularly successful, and he shows himself to be a nice enough young man but not endowed with either exceptional intelligence or understanding.
If there is any one character who does make a notable effort to surmount limitations, it is probably Amanda. It is true that she is trapped in the apartment along with the rest of her family, long-deserted by her husband, relying on memories of a better time to sustain her, but she does actively make plans for the future. In this she shows herself to be more practical than the others. As Tom notes:
Mother was a woman of action as well as words. (Sc. 3)
She runs subscription campaigns to collect money, and strives to do what she can to secure Laura's future. She tries to establish a business career for her and when that fails, determines to find a good husband for her. In this way she does face up to reality; she doesn't withdraw from it.
It is true that Amanda does not seem able to interact with, or understand her children very well; she is undoubtedly an overbearing character, irking Tom with her constant chatter and nagging, and she does ignore the extent of Laura's problems. However, it is also the case that if Jim had not turned out to be already engaged, her plans for Laura would have been fulfilled, in a way to satisfy both mother and daughter - as Laura shows in her scene with Jim that she can be comfortable enough with the right person.
Amanda, then, tries to do the right thing by her daughter, and she is not really very far from the mark. She also recognises Tom's need to leave, and she doesn't really attempt to thwart him. Her main concern is that he do something to help Laura get settled before he goes.
Abandoned by her husband, adrift in a world completely different from the one she grew up in, Amanda has done what she can with the resources she has. Williams himself, while not downplaying her faults, pays tribute to her sterling qualities:
There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at. Certainly she has endurance and a kind of heroism.
In many ways, Amanda appears to be the strongest character in the play.