The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’ first major play to appear on Broadway, is an autobiographical work. In it he delineates several personal and societal problems: the isolation of those who are outsiders for one reason or another, the hardships faced by single mothers, the difficulties a disability may create for a family, and the struggle of a young artist to begin his career.
The play has four characters. Amanda Wingfield is a woman from Mississippi whose husband moved the family to St. Louis and abandoned her and her two children. Laura has been left disabled by disease, and Tom is a would-be poet. Amanda yearns for her youth, when she was a Southern belle in plantation society in the Mississippi Delta. Her life is a mixture of reality and fantasy; she has struggled to support her children, who are now grown, but she refuses to acknowledge Laura’s disability and dreams of a happy married life for her.
Laura, however, still dependent on her mother, seems destined to remain a prisoner in her own little world. Tom, working at a shoe factory to support the three of them, yearns to flee the stifling environment of their apartment and make a life for himself. The fourth character, Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, is an “emissary from a world of reality.” He has no true grasp of the harshness of reality, so he is better equipped to survive in society than the other three characters.
One predominant symbol in the novel is that of the dead-end alleyway, in which cats are trapped and killed by dogs. Amanda, Tom, and Laura are all trapped, although in different ways, and each escapes into some kind of illusion. Laura, painfully shy because of her limp, spends much of her time with her glass animals (the menagerie of the title) and old phonograph records. Tom goes to the cinema and writes late into the night. Amanda, at a moment’s notice, can escape into the past, forgetting in her reveries the brutal facts of her existence. In this play as in others, Williams sees illusion as a sustaining element in troubled human lives. Even the Gentleman Caller, connected as he is to reality, has impossible dreams of rising beyond his present station through attending night school.
The play ends unhappily, for the Gentleman Caller is already engaged, so Amanda’s hopes for a husband for Laura are smashed. Tom runs away to join the merchant marine but is unable to escape the memory of his sister. The burden of the past remains with Tom, wherever he is, just as for the author: Williams’ sister Rose and her mental problems were a constant, painful memory as well as a source of inspiration.