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.
Tom and Laura’s father—Amanda Wingfield’s husband—abandoned his family some years ago, and Tom tells the audience that he is about to relate a “memory play,” “truth in the pleasant guise of illusion.” The time Tom recalls is during the Depression, when he lived with his mother and sister in a St. Louis apartment building described as “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units.” Amanda dominated the household as an aging southern belle who retained her girlish charm as well as an eternal optimism and a fierce determination that she and her children would overcome what she insisted on viewing as temporary obstacles. Laura, who had lived at home since high school, spent her days listening to her father’s record collection and playing with the glass animals she collected and called her “menagerie.” Tom worked in a shoe factory, a job he loathed and therefore barely tended to, instead focusing his passion on writing poetry and his leisure on going to films.
Tom’s recollection of the family’s interactions begins with an occasion when Amanda told Tom precisely how to eat his dinner. Tom could not stomach his mother’s remarks and responded to his mother’s lecture with anger. Amanda then turned to Laura, who was upset by the scene, and coddled her while she also cajoled her to remain “fresh and pretty” for the gentleman callers that Laura knew would never arrive. Amanda ignored both her adult children’s frustration and embarrassment, and she proceeded to recall aloud her many beaux who sought her company when she was a girl.
Tom remembers that on another day his mother decided to stop in at the business college Laura was supposedly attending, only to find that Laura had quit school early in the semester. Amanda went home and confronted Laura, accusing her of deception. Laura, disabled from a teenage bout with pleurosis, suffered even greater paralysis from shyness and confessed to her mother that she had spent her hours scheduled for class wandering about the city, taking refuge in the museum, the zoo, and the Jewel Box, a hothouse for exotic plants. Amanda’s hurt at the thought that Laura had deceived her turned to anguish at the notion that Laura had forfeited her future, until Laura admitted to having once liked a boy in high school. Immediately, Amanda perked up and launched a plan to ensure Laura’s welfare by snaring her daughter an eligible man.
Amanda plotted a liaison for Laura while she also attempted to supplement the family income by selling magazine subscriptions. She chided Tom for his lack of ambition, and her actions and words resulted in repeated, escalating arguments between them. More and more often, Tom fled to the movies for respite. One day while Amanda and Tom fought, Laura fell, causing mother and son to temporarily halt their hostilities. The separate nature of their care for Laura caused further angst, as Tom insisted that his mother recognize Laura’s personality and physical impairment in order to accept her as she was, and Amanda recoiled at Tom’s words, declaring that Laura’s crippled state was but a slight “defect.”
Amanda nagged Tom to bring home a “gentleman caller” for Laura, and one evening Tom announced to Amanda that he had invited a man from work to come to dinner the following evening. Amanda’s initial excitement turned to panic when she realized that she lacked the time necessary to completely transform the Wingfield apartment in honor of the rare guest. Amanda performed her magic, however, and when the gentleman caller arrived she had restored not only the Wingfield apartment but also herself to a semblance of former glory.
Prior to the arrival of Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller, Laura discovered that in all probability the man her brother would be bringing home was the same one on whom she had had a crush in high school. When Jim arrived and Laura realized that he was indeed the boy she once knew, shyness and embarrassment overcame her to the extent that she found herself incapable of sharing the meal Amanda pretended her daughter cooked. During dinner, the lights went out, and although Amanda carried forth gaily, noting the romance of dining by candlelight, she knew that Tom had failed to pay the electric bill. What she did not know was what Tom had confessed to Jim—the fact that he had sent the money to the Union of Merchant Seamen as a first step toward leaving home.
After dinner, Jim sought out Laura and engaged her in conversation. Laura learned that Jim was not married, as she had first thought. Jim told Laura that her singular traits made her special instead of defective. They danced, and Laura’s self-consciousness turned to romantic hope. Laura’s dream shattered when Jim accidentally broke the horn off her favorite glass animal, a unicorn, and as he told her he was engaged to another woman. Laura gave Jim the broken unicorn as a “souvenir.” After Jim left, Amanda railed against Tom, first accusing him of having known Jim was engaged and then calling him irresponsible for not having realized the truth.
In the end, Tom again addresses the audience alone. Years and miles separate him from the mother he cannot live with and the sister he could not forget. In the darkness, Tom cries out his anguish that “nowadays the world is lit by lightning!” and that his memory of Laura is but a candle that he must blow out to free himself of her haunting, dreamlike presence.