Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1058
Three days after his last drinking binge, Don Birnam sits alone in the New York apartment he shares with his younger brother Wick. Wick has gone to meet their friend Helen at a concert after failing to persuade Don that he should join them. After a short time alone, Don becomes agitated and impulsively decides to drink again. Taking the money Wick has left for the maid, he goes to Sam’s bar. While looking in the mirror there, he conceives a short story called “In a Glass” based on his own sensitive youth and subsequent adult failures.
Don returns home and watches from hiding as Wick leaves for a long weekend in the country, a trip originally planned to help Don in his recovery. Again alone in the apartment, Don reflects on all the times he has broken his promises to the brother who is now supporting him. After another drink, he becomes elated and decides to go out. Borrowing money from a laundrywoman, he proceeds to a bar in Greenwich Village. He begins to drink and imagines himself more sophisticated than the other patrons; then, on a sudden whim, he steals a woman’s handbag. Just as he is congratulating himself on his performance as a thief, the bar’s doorman apprehends him and pushes him into the street. In acute embarrassment, he rushes home, where he drinks some more in search of oblivion.
Don awakes, not knowing if it is morning or early evening. He realizes that he has been off on another binge and that he will not be able to stop drinking until he is physically unable to get liquor. He reflects on his career as an alcoholic and remembers with disgust his pretensions of the previous night. He knows all too well that he is anything but a worldly sophisticate. Furthermore, he thinks, who would want to read the short story he now self-contemptuously dismisses as a tale of “a punk and a drunk”? He understands himself—he realizes his basic immaturity. He knows that drinking leads only to misery, yet he feels no hope that he can ever stop. Changes of scenery, trips abroad, psychiatry—nothing has helped; he always drinks again.
Don buys a bottle of liquor and returns home for some “safe” drinking. After indulging in a fantasy of himself as a great pianist, he grows restless and ventures out again. Eventually, he wanders back to Sam’s bar. Over drinks, he tells Gloria, the host, an involved lie that he is a rich man with a frigid wife. Gloria agrees to meet him after she gets off work, and he goes home to drink and wait. He begins to reminisce, eventually recalling his expulsion from a fraternity for suspected homosexuality. Overwhelmed with self-pity, he gulps liquor until he passes out.
Don awakes to an empty bottle and curses himself for drinking the last drop the previous night. He knows that he must have more liquor, but somehow he has lost all his money. Faint and sick, he takes his typewriter to a pawnbroker, amazed that he can walk so far. Finding the door to the pawnshop locked, he staggers dozens of blocks down the busy avenue, but he finds that every pawnshop is closed for a holiday. Exhausted, he flees for home and borrows liquor money from the local grocer. After a soothing drink, he reflects that his quest to pawn his typewriter would make a good story—but to whom could he tell it? He has no friends left; his drinking has made him a pariah. Abruptly deciding that he needs to get more liquor while he is able, he leaves the apartment. Distracted by trying to appear sober before his neighbors, he falls down two flights of stairs and is knocked unconscious.
The next time Don wakes, he is in the alcoholic ward of the hospital with a black eye and a fractured skull. Other patients with delirium tremens babble and moan around him. The doctor on duty treats Don in a detached, impersonal manner. Bim, an aggressively homosexual male nurse, seems to be both taunting and propositioning him. Don refuses further treatment and signs himself out of the hospital. Somehow he has lost his money again, but at the bar Sam accepts Don’s watch in exchange for a bottle. Gloria upbraids him for missing their date, but Don does not even remember making it. He goes home, determined to stay there and drink quietly. After pretending to be a literature professor and a Shakespearean actor, he passes out and has a long, vivid dream. He awakes weeping, drains his bottle, and passes out again.
When Don comes to, he has no liquor and no hope of getting any. Whisperings come out of nowhere, and soon he is experiencing other auditory and visual hallucinations. He sits suffering for hours, tortured by the ringing of the telephone. He knows the caller is Helen, the woman who once loved and now pities him, but he cannot bring himself to answer. Hours later, Helen finds him trembling in a chair and takes him to her apartment. She cleans him up and feeds him, but he still has to face delirium that comes with alcohol withdrawal. Don watches in horror as a bat attacks and devours a mouse, but Helen shows him that this was a hallucination. She reassures Wick by phone that Don is recovering.
The next morning, Don still craves alcohol. After failing to manipulate Helen’s maid into opening the liquor closet, he considers murdering the woman, but instead he steals Helen’s fur coat and pawns it for five dollars. On the way to the store, he discovers all of his lost money in the breast pocket of his suit—during blackouts he had put it there for safekeeping, but forgot it each time. Now he has plenty of cash; he buys six pints of liquor and returns home. Wick is back from the country but is temporarily out of the apartment. Don hides two of his bottles in the toilet tank, hangs two more out the window, puts one in the bookcase for Wick to confiscate, and gulps the last one. Drunk again, he reflects that he is home and safe; his ordeal is over. Why, he wonders, did everyone make such a fuss?
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