Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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Scenes 1–2 Summary

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Scene 1

The scene takes place in an apartment belonging to the Wingfield family. The apartment “faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape.” The playwright explains in the stage directions that the scene is not intended to be realistic, because it takes place entirely in memories. When the curtain rises, the audience sees the back wall of the apartment, as well as the alleyway that runs along both sides of the building. The living room doubles as the room where Laura, the daughter of the family and Tom’s sister, sleeps on a sofa bed. A collection of fragile glass animals is visible inside a cabinet in the living room, and a photograph of a handsome man in a military cap hangs on the wall. Tom, the narrator and the only son of Amanda Wingfield, enters and lights a cigarette while standing in front of the curtains.

After telling the audience that he will go back into the past to the 1930s, when America is suffering from “a dissolving economy,” Tom introduces himself to the audience as both the narrator of the play and as a character. He explains that the other characters are his mother, Amanda; his sister, Laura; and a young man who appears at the end of the play. Tom identifies the photograph on the wall as his father. Mr. Wingfield left his family “a long time ago,” and his last message to them took the form of a postcard from Mexico.

Amanda speaks from behind the curtains. Tom separates the curtains, and Amanda and Laura sit at a table, making gestures to appear as if they are eating a meal together. Amanda calls Tom to the table, and when he sits down, she criticizes his table manners and compares him to an animal. She explains her comparison in excessive detail, causing Tom to lose his appetite. When Amanda dismisses her son’s irritated response, he leaves the table in order to smoke a cigarette. Laura offers to fetch the dessert, but Amanda refuses to let Laura do any work; she prefers that Laura “stay fresh and pretty—for gentleman callers!” Laura reminds her mother that she is not expecting any visitors, but Amanda dismisses Laura’s reminder and leaves the room. Tom and Laura know what Amanda will say next, and sure enough, when Amanda enters with dessert, she starts telling a long-winded story about her own gentleman callers that Tom and Laura have heard many times before.

Amanda describes young women of her youth, telling Laura and Tom that she and other girls were gifted conversationalists when she was young. Then she lists a few of her suitors and describes them to Laura and Tom. In between Amanda’s lengthy descriptions, Tom interrupts with unhelpful questions, and Amanda finishes her story on a negative note: “And I could have been Mrs. Duncan J. Fitzhugh, mind you! But—I picked your father!” Laura changes the subject by offering to clear the table, but Amanda does not allow Laura to do anything that might cause her strain in case a guest arrives. When Laura insists no one will come, Amanda mocks her and suggests that extreme weather conditions must be taking place if Laura is so sure. Tom groans when he hears his sister admit that she is “not popular like you were in Blue Mountain,” comparing herself negatively to her mother. Laura says out loud that Amanda is scared that Laura will be a spinster.

Scene 2

Laura is sitting at a small table with her collection of glass animals. She hears Amanda on the steps of the fire escape. When Amanda reaches the landing, Laura appears nervous, and she touches her face when she sees Amanda’s stormy facial expression. Laura greets her mother, but Amanda interrupts her, exclaiming that she would like to bury herself in a hole in the ground. Laura asks her mother why and if something has happened to explain her mother’s dramatic behavior. Amanda reveals that while she was out, she made a stop at Rubicam’s business college to let Laura’s teachers know that Laura has a cold. Laura grows quiet when her mother continues to explain that one of the instructors told her that Laura has not attended any classes at the secretarial school program at the college in six weeks. Laura tells her mother that she went for walks and to the museum and the movies to maintain the deception; she explains that she could not go back to class after humiliating herself by throwing up in front of her classmates and teachers. Amanda makes a lengthy speech about Laura’s future as an unmarried woman, and at the end of the speech, she asks Laura if Laura has ever cared for a boy. Laura tells her mother about Jim, a popular boy from her high school who used to call her “Blue Roses.” Laura tells her mother that Jim has likely married the girl he went out with in high school. Amanda insists that Laura will marry someday, and Laura protests, implying that because she is “crippled,” no man will love her. Amanda scolds her daughter for using the word “crippled” and encourages Laura to develop her charm, a quality Amanda once admired in her husband.

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Scenes 3–4 Summary