Symbolic illustration of Laura's hands holding a glass unicorn

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

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Key Plot Points

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Tom Introduces Himself and Establishes the Play as Memory (Scene 1): Through elaborate stage directions, Williams establishes the physical and metaphysical setting of the play. The action of the play takes place in a St. Louis apartment, part of “one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units.” The Wingfield apartment is flanked on both sides by alleys and features a living room, a set of glass animals, and a photograph of Tom’s father hanging on the wall. However, the play is actually set in Tom Wingfield’s memory. Stage elements such as screen projections, sentimental music, and dim lighting are used to distance the narrative from the strict realism an audience might expect. Tom narrates his story several years after the events of the play, immediately breaking the fourth wall (speaking directly to the audience) to describe the lights, music, and other characters. The first scene centers on the Wingfield family as they sit down for a meal. The dinner is tense: Amanda, Tom’s mother, criticizes Tom’s eating habits, and she pesters Laura, Tom’s sister, for not receiving any gentlemen callers. Amanda reminisces on her past in Blue Mountain when she once received seventeen gentlemen callers in a single afternoon.

Laura Reveals her High School Crush (Scene 2): Laura is polishing her glass animals when Amanda enters the scene, crying theatrically. Amanda has discovered that Laura has been lying about attending business college for the past six weeks. Instead of attending school, the shy and nervous Laura walks around parks and visits the zoo. Amanda worries that Laura has no prospects and will be reduced to spinsterhood. She asks her daughter if she ever liked a boy and Laura replies that she once liked a boy named Jim in high school. Jim called her “Blue Roses” after mishearing Laura say she was diagnosed with “pleurosis.” Amanda states definitively that Laura will “wind up married to some nice man,” and Laura replies doubtfully that she is crippled. Amanda tells her never to use that word and to “develop charm.”

Tom and Amanda Argue (Scene 3): From the fire-escape landing, Tom tells the audience that “the image of the gentleman caller haunted our small apartment.” Believing that the apartment needs redecoration should a gentleman caller stop by, Amanda finds a job selling magazine subscriptions. The tension between Tom and Amanda escalates into a full-blown argument “probably precipitated by his creative labors,” his writing. Amanda accuses Tom of lying when he says that he is going to the movies every night and says that his late nights are jeopardizing his job and by extension the family’s security. Tom retorts that he hates his job and resents the familial responsibility that keeps him there, sarcastically claiming that he is leading a double life as an “honest warehouse worker by day” and a “dynamic tsar of the underworld” by night. Tom calls Amanda a “babbling old witch,” tears off his coat, and accidentally shatters some of Laura’s glass animals. The scene ends as Tom, alone with Laura, silently cleans up the broken glass.

Amanda Asks Tom to Find a Gentleman Caller for Laura (Scene 4): Tom drunkenly returns home after a late night out. Laura opens the door for Tom, who tells her he has spent the whole night watching a long program at the movie theater. The next morning, while Laura is out buying butter, Tom apologizes to Amanda. In turn, Amanda expresses her reliance on Tom, and tells him that he’s becoming more and more like his father, who abandoned the family. She asks where he goes at night and he hesitatingly repeats that he goes to the movies. When pressed as to why, he replies that he likes adventure, something he cannot find in his warehouse job. They argue briefly, with Amanda taking the stance that he should be able to rise above his desire for adventure. As Tom attempts to leave, Amanda stops him and asks him to help Laura find a gentleman caller. She fears that Laura will become a “home girl,” a woman who just “drifts along doing nothing.” She also reveals that she found a letter Tom received from the Merchant Marine. She tells Tom that he will be “free to go” once Laura “has got somebody to take care of her,” and he agrees to bring home one of his coworkers to meet Laura.

Tom Finds a Gentleman Caller (Scene 5): Amanda criticizes Tom for having unkempt hair and for spending money on smoking. She joins him on the fire escape and through her questioning he slowly reveals that a gentleman caller for Laura named James Delaney O’Connor will be coming for dinner the following evening. Amanda is pleased but she is also stressed that the apartment is not prepared for visitors. She asks Tom a series of questions about the man. Tom, “submitting grimly to the ... interrogation,” tells her that the gentleman caller works at the warehouse as a shipping clerk, makes twenty dollars a month more than Tom, and goes to night school. Tom tells Amanda not to “expect too much of Laura.” Amanda brushes aside Laura’s disability, but Tom replies that Laura is “very different from other girls”: “she's terribly shy and lives in a world of her own and those things make her seem a little peculiar to people.”

The Wingfields Have Dinner with Jim O’Connor (Scene 6): Amanda has cleaned and redecorated the apartment for Jim’s visit. She hems Laura into her new dress and puts on a girlish yellow frock, reminiscing about her own gentleman callers and the summer she met her husband. Seeing how much work Amanda has put into preparing for the visit and how important it is to her, Laura is nervous. She becomes even more frightened and sick when she discovers that the gentleman caller’s name is Jim O'Connor, the name of the boy she liked in high school. Laura insists she “couldn’t sit at the table if it was him” and that she’s sick and should be excused, but Amanda responds that she’s “sick, too—of [Laura’s] nonsense,” and forces her to open the door for Tom and Jim. Jim introduces himself to her. He is surprised to discover that Tom, who Jim calls Shakespeare, had a sister since he doesn’t remember her from high school. Laura flees the room. While Amanda prepares dinner, Jim attempts to interest Tom in a public speaking course he’s taking. A “Mr. Mendoza” at the warehouse has talked to Jim about Tom, and Jim tells Tom he’s going to lose his job if he doesn’t improve. Tom replies that he hates his job in the warehouse and that he has enrolled in the Union of Merchant Seamen, paying the dues with the money allocated for the light bill. Amanda flirtatiously introduces herself to Jim, continuing to reminisce about the gentleman callers of her youth. Though she tries to manipulate Laura to the dinner table, Laura nearly faints in terror and spends dinner lying on the sofa, holding back tears.

Jim Kisses Laura and Tom Leaves (Scene 7): During dinner, the lights go out. Jim covers for Tom’s neglect of the bill, keeping the secret about the Merchant Seamen’s Union. Amanda takes Tom to wash dishes and sends Jim to care for Laura, who is still lying on the couch in the adjacent room. Laura admits to remembering Jim from high school, and he engages her about her disability and resultant shyness. They look at their high school yearbook together and Laura reveals her former crush. Jim tells Laura that she suffers from low self-esteem and needs to find her interest, as he has. Laura shows Jim her glass collection and her favorite glass animal—the unicorn. Then, using the music from the dance hall across the alley, Jim convinces Laura to dance with him. They accidently bump the table and the glass unicorn falls to the floor, breaking its horn off. Laura says that she will imagine that the unicorn “had an operation . . . to make him feel less freakish.” Jim tells Laura that she is pretty and unique, and that “somebody ought to build [her] confidence up.” He kisses her. Immediately after, he says he “shouldn’t have done that,” and haltingly tells Laura that he won’t call her. He is engaged and didn’t know the dinner invitation was meant to be an introduction. Devastated, Laura gives the unicorn to Jim as “a souvenir.” Amanda enters with lemonade and cookies, but Jim takes his leave, explaining his engagement and “duck[ing] jauntily out.” Amanda tells Tom, who didn’t know about Jim’s engagement, that he has made them look like “fools.” She tells him to “go to the moon,” calling him a “selfish dreamer,” and he “plunges out on the fire-escape,” presumably on his way to the movies. From there, Tom delivers his closing monologue, telling the audience that he was fired shortly after the events of that evening. He left St. Louis, and the memory of his sister followed him everywhere. In the room behind him, Laura blows out the candles and the scene, like a memory, “dissolves.”

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