Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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Discuss the character of Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.

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I go to the movies—I like adventure.  Adventure is something that I don’t have much of at work.

Tom Wingfield is the narrator and also a character in the play The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. The entire play is a flashback; however, the author and Tom call it a memory scene.  This is Tom’s memory of leaving his mother and sister to their own devices. 

Everything is seen through the eyes of the narrator.  Through his guilt, a much older Tom looks back at why he left home and never came back.  Trapped—Tom felt that he had taken on the responsibility that his father left when he ran away. Although the play eventually centers on Laura, this is Tom’s drama.  It is his memory. Point of view becomes very important in the play because it is Tom’s version of what happened

The reader learns that Tom has been haunted by his decision to leave his family and go out in search of adventure.  He guides the readers and sets the tone of guilt, anxiety, and empathy that runs throughout the play.

Tom’s problem centers on resentment.  He is unhappy because he has to help support the family.  This is not his obligation.  He resents his mother nagging about his job, his life, and his future. The bitterness that he feels runs over to the only thing that keeps in at home: his crippled sister Laura.  Tom loves her and knows that she needs him, ye he is unable to help her and so he runs away.

Tom chooses his personal dreams over the reality of his family’s needs.  His mundane job and life keep him unhappy and cynical.  Despite trying to take classes at night, nothing really satisfies him. He wants to be a writer, believing that if he gets away from his terrible life that he will find adventure and be able to include that in his writing.

Lacking the qualities of a hero, Tom abandons his family and particularly his innocent, handicapped sister.  This is why he is retelling the story—he cannot find peace until he is able to forgive himself.

What does the reader know about Tom?

  • He despises his job at the shoe factory.
  • He goes to the movies to live vicariously through the adventures.
  • His mother drives his crazy because of her constant nagging.
  • He loves his sister but cannot take responsibility for her life.

The only way for Tom to survive with his sanity is to run away.  He has made efforts to do his duty.  He has worked at the factory to support the family.  His final attempt to help falls flat when he brings home the “gentleman caller” in the hope that she will attract him and find her own happiness.

When he leaves, wherever he goes he feels Laura touching his shoulder.  “

I turn around and look into her eyes.  Oh, Laura, I tried to leave you behind, but I am more faithful than I intended to be.

Tom’s self-loathing comes from his desertion of the only person that he really loved.  Laura lived in a secret world which enabled her to survive: her glass menagerie allows her to lose reality and becomes her saving grace.

Escape means that a person is able to leave behind whatever has alienated him.  Tom’s escape meant that he left behind two people who needed him. 

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