Essential Passage 1: Scene 1
TOM: Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. To begin with, I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.
Tom explains that his purpose as the play's narrator is not to present an illusion that has the appearance of the truth, but to give truth in the guise of an illusion. Tom says that the play takes place in the 1930s (“a quaint period”) in Saint Louis, Missouri, in the midst of the Great Depression. It is a time when the happy illusions of the “Roaring Twenties” have been striped away by a U.S. economic disaster that has spread worldwide. In Europe, the people are revolting, instigating a violent change that will result in the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini. In America, labor unions go on strike and have physical confrontations in what were once peaceable cities. In these unsettled times, the play opens on Tom Wingfield's unsettled family.
Essential Passage 2: Scene 2
AMANDA: Laura, where have you been going when you’ve gone out pretending that you were going to business college?
LAURA: I’ve just been going out walking.
AMANDA: That’s not true.
LAURA: It is. I just went walking.
AMANDA: Walking? Walking? In winter? Deliberately courting pneumonia in that light coat? Where did you walk to, Laura?
LAURA: All sorts of places—mostly in the park.
AMANDA: Even after you’d started catching that cold?
LAURA: It was the lesser of two evils, Mother. I couldn’t go back up. I—threw up—on the floor!
AMANDA: From half past seven till after five every day you mean to tell me you walked around in the park, because you wanted to make me think that you were still going to Rubicam’s Business College?
LAURA: It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I went inside places to get warmed up.
AMANDA: Inside where?
LAURA: I went in the art museum and the bird-houses at the Zoo. I visited the penguins every day! Sometimes I did without lunch and went to the movies. Lately I’ve been spending most of my afternoons in the Jewel-box, that big glass house where they raise the tropical flowers.
AMANDA: You did all this to deceive me, just for deception? [Laura looks down] Why?
LAURA: Mother, when you’re disappointed, you get that awful suffering look in your face, like the picture of Jesus’ mother in the museum!
Amanda returns home, clearly upset. She did not have the courage to go to her DAR meeting as she had originally planned, so Amanda dropped by Rubicam Business College, where Laura is ostensibly enrolled in business courses to pursue a career as a secretary. Amanda is shocked when she is told that Laura is no longer enrolled and had attended only a few days. Laura, in humiliation, explains that she had become nervous during a timed typing exercise and thrown up on the floor in front of the entire class. In shame, she did not go back. Instead, she had been going to the zoo, or in rare moments to the movies. Amanda is discouraged more than angry....
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She had been counting on Laura's getting a regular job to help provide for the family, since it seemed increasingly unlikely that Laura would find someone to marry.
Essential Passage 3: Scene 5
AMANDA: The only way to find out about those things is to make discreet inquiries at the proper moment. When I was a girl in Blue Mountain and it was suspected that a young man drank, the girl whose attentions he had been receiving, if any girl was, would sometimes speak to the minister of his church, or rather her father would if her father was living, and sort of feel him out on the young man’s character. That is the way such things are discreetly handled to keep a young woman from making a tragic mistake!
TOM: Then how did you happen to make a tragic mistake?
AMANDA: That innocent look of your father’s had everyone fooled! He smiled—the world was enchanted! No girl can do worse than put herself at the mercy of a handsome appearance!
Now that Laura’s business career is over, Amanda hopes that her daughter will find a young man to marry. Because Laura is painfully shy, Amanda implores Tom to bring someone home from his work so that Laura will have the chance to meet a man. After repeated requests, Tom announces that he will be bringing someone home the next evening. His name is Jim O’Conner, a clerk at the warehouse and thus a few notches higher than Tom. Jim and Tom knew each other in high school, where Jim was the “big man on campus.” Previously, Laura had pointed him out to her mother in the year book as someone on whom she had had a crush at the time. Amanda asks Tom about his character, but Tom is vague about any knowledge of this type. Amanda becomes wary, warning him that, in her day, a man’s character was carefully scouted out to prevent a “tragic mistake.” Bluntly, Tom asks his mother how her own “tragic mistake” happened. Amanda admits that she, along with everyone else, had been deceived by her future husband's charm and good looks. At this remembrance, she hopes that Mr. O’Conner is not “too good-looking.”
Analysis of Essential Passages
Deception molds and defines the characters in The Glass Menagerie. From the play's beginning, Tom is the fractured voice of reality in the Wingfield family. His bluntness toward his mother is a reaction to Amanda's self-portrayal as a popular Southern belle. It is the very fact of her “popularity” in Blue Mountain that led her to being deceived by her future husband. Rather than seeking out Mr. Wingfield's true character, she is led astray by his good looks and charm. The price she pays is desertion and betrayal, left with two children who cannot make their way in a world that is so far removed from the genteel turn-of-the-century South in which Amanda grew up. She is unable to guide her children into the present, thus forcing them to deceive her as well as themselves.
Laura Wingfield, “crippled” and shy, has gone through life pretending to be invisible. When confronted with the reality of having to work and socialize, she succumbs to emotional illness and withdraws once again into the fragile world of her glass menageries. Those glass animals, unreal portrayals of nature, are as vulnerable and brittle as Laura is herself. When her favorite piece, the unicorn, is broken and loses its horn, she pretends that now he is “just like the others.” In the same way, her encounter with Jim O’Conner has removed her uniqueness. When she discovers that Jim is engaged, she becomes—like her unicorn—broken.
Tom himself, though he functions as the voice of reality, deludes himself into the possibility of adventure beyond the confines of his present life. The merchant marines promise him the sort of glamorous life that he sees in the movies. When Tom finally escapes, he discovers that that world that he believed was “out there” is just as bleak and demanding as his family is.
The inability of each character to function beyond a manufactured world is a direct result of self-deception. As the play ends, the outcome of each Wingfield is left in question. Tom aimlessly wanders the country, Laura is unable to leave the sheltered world that she has created for herself among her glass animals, and Amanda realizes that she has two adult children whom she has failed to bring into a functioning relationship with the world.