The Glass Menagerie Summary

The Glass Menagerie is a play by Tennessee Williams. The events onstage take place in Tom Wingfield's memory as he looks back on the life he left behind.

  • Tom Wingfield is the sole financial provider for his mother and sister. Amanda worries that Tom will abandon the family, just like his father did.
  • Amanda has Tom invite his coworker, Jim, to dinner as a suitor for his sister, Laura.
  • Laura and Jim awkwardly converse, and Jim impulsively kisses Laura. 
  • Laura is devastated when Jim reveals that he is engaged.
  • Amanda vents her fury at Tom. Tom leaves to pursue his own dreams.

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Last Reviewed on May 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1086

The play, set in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1930s, opens with a monologue by Tom Wingfield. Tom introduces himself to the audience and identifies himself as the narrator of the play; he also explains that the play consists of his memories. Tom tells the audience that the other characters are his mother, Amanda; his sister, Laura; and a young man who comes to dinner toward the end of the play. According to Tom, his father abandoned the family many years earlier, sending a single postcard from Mexico to say goodbye.

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One evening, Amanda calls Tom to dinner. When he starts eating, Amanda begins to criticize his table manners. Irritated, Tom tells his mother that her attentiveness is ruining his dinner, and Amanda dismisses his complaint. As Laura offers to help her mother with the dessert, Amanda begins talking about her past. Tom grows weary, as he and Laura have heard their mother’s stories many times before. Laura appears to understand Amanda’s need to talk about the past, but Tom mocks his mother’s tales of her youth and her many gentlemen callers. The focus shifts from Amanda’s past to Laura’s future, and Laura comments on her mother’s worry that Laura will never marry.

As Laura polishes her collection of glass figurines one morning, Amanda comes home and accuses Laura of dishonest behavior. Amanda reveals that she had stopped by Rubicam’s business school to check on Laura’s progress. To Laura’s dismay, Amanda discovers during this visit that Laura has stopped attending classes. Laura tries to explain that she embarrassed herself during class one day and that she was too humiliated to return. Amanda scolds Laura, but her tone changes when she asks Laura if she has ever liked a boy. Laura admits that she had feelings for a boy named Jim with whom she went to high school. Amanda’s mood improves as she imagines Laura married, but when Laura reminds her mother that she is disabled, Amanda refuses to listen.

Later, Tom narrates from the fire escape of the Wingfield apartment as his mother calls potential magazine subscribers, explaining that Amanda has taken the job in order to make extra money. Moments later, Tom and Amanda argue about Tom’s behavior; Tom feels justified in his choices because he earns the money that pays the rent and the bills, but Amanda feels Tom is putting his job at risk. Tom loses his temper with his mother, and he calls her names. Upset, Tom tries to grab his coat and leave the apartment, but in his emotional state, he breaks some of Laura’s glass figurines. Tom gathers the pieces of broken glass while Laura looks on, pained by her the loss of her figurines.

At five o’clock the next morning, Tom comes home drunk. Laura lets him into the apartment, and he tells Laura about his evening out before he falls asleep on the sofa. An hour later, Amanda’s alarm clock rings, waking Tom. As Amanda prepares breakfast, she refuses to speak to Tom until he apologizes. She then bursts into tears and blames herself for his bitterness towards her. Before Tom leaves for work, Amanda makes Tom promise not to become an alcoholic, and she tells him that Laura is worried about him. Amanda compares Tom to his father, claiming that they share a sense of restlessness. She acknowledges to Tom that she knows about Tom’s desire to leave in order to join the Merchant Marine, but she insists that he stay until there is a man in Laura’s life. Tom is able to leave the apartment only after he promises his mother that he will bring a nice young man home from his job at the shoe warehouse for Laura to meet. As Tom leaves, Amanda calls another potential magazine subscriber. 

One evening, Amanda reminds Tom of his promise to introduce Laura to a young man. He tells Amanda that a young man is coming over to the apartment the following evening. Amanda interrogates Tom about the young man, whose name is Jim O’Connor, wondering if the young man has anything in common with her own charming but untrustworthy husband. Tom cautions Amanda, telling her that Jim does not know that he is coming to dinner to meet Laura; Tom also reminds Amanda to remember that Laura is an unusual young woman. When Tom leaves the apartment to go to the movies, Amanda grows annoyed, but her mood changes when she sees the moon shining outside the window. Amanda tells Laura to make a wish on the moon, but Laura does not know what she should wish for.

The following evening, Tom explains to the audience that Jim O’Connor is an old high school acquaintance. Laura nervously gets ready for dinner with Amanda’s help, and she finds out that the dinner guest is Jim O’Connor, the boy she liked in high school. When Tom and Jim arrive for dinner, Laura shakes Jim’s hand before escaping to the back room. As Tom and Jim talk among themselves, Amanda makes an entrance that surprises both young men. Amanda summons Laura from the other room, and Laura emerges only to rest on the sofa while Tom, Jim, and Amanda say grace. 

After supper, Jim approaches Laura in the living room. The lights go out, and Tom admits that he neglected to pay the electricity bill. Amanda insists that Tom help her wash the dishes while Jim and Laura talk. Jim suggests that Laura sit on the floor next to him, and his friendly manner disarms Laura. Their conversation flows; Laura grows comfortable with Jim and shows him her collection of glass figurines. When the music starts to play from the dance hall across the alleyway, Jim asks Laura to dance. After Jim compliments Laura and tells her that she is pretty, he kisses her. As soon as the kiss ends, Jim voices his regret and offers Laura a mint. He tells Laura that he has a steady girlfriend, and when Amanda enters the living room with a pitcher of lemonade, Jim explains that he needs to go to meet his girlfriend, Betty, whom he is soon to marry. Laura stands back as Jim leaves, Amanda blames Tom for his ignorance, and Tom leaves to go to the movies. The play ends as Tom ruminates on his past and says goodbye to his family and to the audience.

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