Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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Essential Quotes by Character: Tom Wingfield

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1035

Essential Passage 1: Scene 1

TOM: I am the narrator of the play, and also a character in it. The other characters are my mother, Amanda, my sister, Laura, and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes. He is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from. But since I have a poet’s weakness for symbols, I am using this character also as a symbol; he is the long delayed but always expected something that we live for.


In the opening scene, Tom Wingfield, a twenty-four-year-old worker in a shoe warehouse in St. Louis, Missouri, introduces himself as the play's narrator and one of its main characters. He announces from the beginning that the play will be a depiction of illusion, of dreams that never come true. It takes place in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when everyone believes that dreams may still come true despite the harsh reality around them. Tom hints at the conflicts in Europe that will soon develop into World War II. In America, there is civil unrest, most notably in the form of labor strikes. Tom also takes the time to portray himself as a poet, one who thinks in symbols.

Essential Passage 2: Scene 4

AMANDA: But, why—why, Tom—are you always so restless? Where do you go to, nights?

TOM: I—go to the movies.

AMANDA: Why do you go to the movies so much, Tom?

TOM: I go to the movies because—I like adventure. Adventure is something I don’t have much of at work, so I go to the movies.

AMANDA: But, Tom, you go to the movies entirely too much!

TOM: I like a lot of adventure.


It is the morning after yet another argument between Tom and Amanda. Tom has called his mother an ugly, babbling old witch. Amanda, having vowed not to talk to Tom until he apologizes, ignores her son, speaking through Laura. She sends Laura to the market, giving Tom a chance to apologize, which she is sure he will do. He in fact does, though reluctantly. Amanda wants this opportunity to talk to Tom about Laura and her future. Because Laura is excessively shy and unable to complete business school, Amanda pins her hope on finding Laura a “gentleman caller” who will prove to be a prospective husband. She approaches the topic by telling Tom that Laura is concerned about him, that he goes out at night, every night. Tom tells his mother that he goes to the movies, ostensibly because he likes adventure. There is not much adventure either at home or at his job, so Tom must seek adventure vicariously through the cinema. Amanda is confused and doubtful, worried that he is planning to escape just as his father did.

Essential Passage 3: Scene 6

TOM: I’m starting to boil inside. I know I seem dreamy, but inside—well, I’m boiling! Whenever I pick up a shoe, I shudder a little thinking how short life is and what I am doing!—Whatever that means, I know it doesn’t mean shoes—except as something to wear on a traveler’s feet! [Finds paper.] Look—

JIM: What?

TOM: I’m a member.

JIM [reading]: The Union of Merchant Seamen.

TOM: I paid my dues this month, instead of the light bill.

JIM: You will regret it when they turn the lights off.

TOM: I won’t be here.

JIM: How about your mother?

TOM: I’m like my father. The bastard son of a bastard! See how he grins? And he’s been absent...

(This entire section contains 1035 words.)

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going on sixteen years!


At Amanda’s request, Tom has invited to dinner his only friend from work. The gentleman caller is Jim O’Conner, who went to high school with both Tom and Laura. Amanda, excited about this romantic prospect for Laura, goes overboard in preparing their apartment, even buying new furnishings. Laura, however, is horrified because Jim was the most popular boy in school, and she was essentially invisible. She has retreated into the living room, too shy to join in the conversation with Tom and Jim. Tom takes Jim out to the landing, where they can smoke and talk in private. Tom confesses to Jim his dreams of a life of adventure. He has joined the merchant navy and has spent the money for the electricity bill on the dues. Tom has planned his escape for the near future, before the electric company shuts off the lights. Tom admits that he is no better than the father who abandoned them because he plans on abandoning them as well. All he can think of is escape from his humdrum life.

Analysis of Essential Passages

Tom Wingfield is part of the lower-middle class of 1930s America, the segment of U.S. society that was most affected by the Great Depression. As Tom points out in his introduction to the play, dreams were shattered, leaving a bewildered populace behind. Searching for some kind of life outside of the small apartment that he shares with a fragile sister and an overbearing mother, Tom plots his escape.

Tom, with a “poet’s weakness,” struggles to find meaning in the episodes he will recount. In the unreal existence left by the economic collapse, Tom finds reality only in and through symbols. Each night, he leaves the confines of his home to indulge in the adventure of the cinema. Movies are only an illusion, but Tom finds in them all that he wants his life to be. Amanda doubts that he actually goes to the movies, suspecting that (like his father before him) he goes to bars, escaping from his family through the solace of alcohol. But Tom's desire for adventure, such as he sees on the silver screen, will manifest in the form of the merchant marines. Just as his father ceased to care for the family that was his responsibility, so Tom abandons them too. He ultimately fails to live out the dreams that were the foundation of his departure. Seeking adventure, he does not find the life he thought he would—life as depicted in the movies.


Essential Quotes by Theme: Deception