The Glass Menagerie – Summary

The Glass Menagerie is a play by Tennessee Williams.


Scene I

The play starts with an elaborate description of the setting. The scene is a memory, so it’s not realistic. Throughout the play some emotions will be exaggerated and some will be subsumed as the whole play depicts the memory of Tom. The setting of the play is also poetic and dreamy; to communicate the essence of memory to the audience.

As the curtain rises, we see a ‘dark, grim’ old Wingfield tenement, the whole play is set in this apartment. The alleyways surrounding the apartment and a fire escape are also a part of the setting. Tom Wingfield enters the stage; he is dressed as a merchant sailor and he starts by addressing the audience. After giving a brief account of the social background of the play, he informs the audience that this is a memory play and he is also a character in it. The other characters are his mother Amanda and his sister Laura. He also mentions his father. Though he left them long time ago, never to return, he is a character in this play. There is a photograph of him on the wall.

The blown-up picture of the father is the most prominent image throughout the play. Though Tom, Amanda, and Laura engage the audience, it is the shadow of the father that haunts all the three major characters in the play. It cannot be denied that the play takes place because the father left, he is the reason behind the present state of the characters; the family is affected psychologically, financially and above all emotionally by his going away. Mr. Wingfield is described;

“It is the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy’s First World War cap. He is gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling, as if to say ‘I will be smiling forever’.” (William, 1)

The picture on the mantlepiece is a reminder of the happier times. The picture continuously reminds the audience about the absent father; now present only in their memories. Tom describes him as a telephone man “who fell in love with long distances”; the poetic quality of this accusation is striking. Tom feels burdened with the responsibility of the family. He is forced to take up the role of a provider by his father’s decision to leave them. So, when he talks about his father, the boy within him comes to the surface; he is angry with him, at the same time he is nostalgic about him. It is to be noted that Tom aspires to be like the ever-smiling man in the photo. He, just like his father, will leave his family behind in order to secure his own freedom, and from the very beginning we know that he has succeeded in doing so. It is ironical that Tom, who has suffered because of his father’s abandonment, follows in his footsteps.

Williams characters are alienated but assert their right to have absolute freedom, even in the most frightful circumstances, at the peak of despair, Williams’ protagonist do not lose their audacity and do not give up; they recognize that it is obligatory for them to struggle and attain their fundamental right to live with dignity. Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie asserts his freedom and seeks adventure by abandoning his mother and his crippled sister. Most critics and writers who have studied Williams’ plays, have identified these three; freedom, challenge and alienation as major characteristics of Williams’ characters. These three characteristics are closely connected to the existential themes. (Vivek p. 34)

The absence of the father has also changed the gender roles in this family. Amanda has taken over the father’s authoritative role but she has not totally accepted her husband’s disappearance; she wears his bathrobe and talks about his well-maintained appearance. She is still caught up in her memories of him. But at the same time his absence has turned her into a mother bear. She is over protective when it comes to her children. She makes sure that Tom does not inherit the bad habits of his father.

It is the absence of the father which thematically binds the play together. The action of the play starts with Amanda and Laura on the dining table. Amanda asks Tom to join them and then continuously nags him about how to chew his food until he becomes frustrated and stops enjoying even a bite whatsoever. Amanda shifts her focus to Laura and asks her to make herself pretty for gentlemen callers. When Laura replies that there will be no caller visiting her, Amanda travels back to her younger days and starts to iterate how she attended to seventeen gentlemen callers on a Sunday afternoon, back in the Blue Mountain. They have listened to the same story several times. Amanda asks Laura to go inside and practice her typing skills and again asks about the gentleman callers.

Scene II

As the light brightens, Laura is seen sitting with her glass figurines and enjoying some old phonograph records. The moment she hears Amanda’s footsteps on the fire escape, she hides the figurines and pretends to learn the type chart.

As Amanda appears before the audience, it is clear that something has happened to her. Laura sees her throwing her gloves in a dramatic gesture and asks her nervously what is wrong. Amanda accuses Laura of being deceptive. Gradually the secret is out before the audience. Amanda tells Laura that she has paid a visit to the business school on her way to the D.A.R (Daughters of the American Revolution) meeting to check on Laura’s progress. To her utter surprise, she comes to know that Laura has quit school. She laments about the wasted tuition fee and Laura’s future. Laura explains how she fell sick on the very first day and how she realized that she was not cut out for business school. But she did not want to deceive her mother, so since then she started pretending to go to the business school every day but visited the zoo, the bird house and glass house that makes tropical flowers instead.

Amanda is extremely disappointed and questions Laura about her future; without any work or gentlemen callers. She asks Laura if she has ever liked a boy. Laura confesses that she was infatuated with a boy named Jim from school who used to call her ‘Blue Roses’. She once had pleurosis and when Jim asked her about it he heard it wrong and the nick name Blue Roses stuck. Amanda informs Laura that she will be married off soon but Laura tries to say that she is a cripple and so marriage is not a possibility. Amanda does not pay any attention to that and says what Laura needs is some charm.

Scene III

Tom explains to the audience how Amanda stays determined once she sets her mind on something. Now that Amanda knows that Laura has quit the business school, she is obsessed with attending to some gentleman caller and marrying Laura off. Tom knows that she will make it happen. The impending decision of marriage hangs like a shadow on the Wingfield house.

While talking about Amanda’s determination he mentions how Amanda has started a telephone campaign to get more subscribers for a woman’s magazine. Amanda is calling someone over the phone. With a business-like attitude, she tries to convince some woman to subscribe to the magazine. Tom is writing something he does not want to reveal to his mother. Amanda prances in and he stops writing. Amanda starts arguing about a D.H. Lawrence book which she found in the house and returned to the library instantly. Amanda does not want such books at her house. Tom reminds her it is he who pays the rent. During their heated discussion Amanda accuses him of doing something shady as it is impossible for a man to go to the movies every single night. She also shows her concern about Tom’s lack of rest as he stays up late. Tom is infuriated at the sudden attack and continuous nagging. He starts telling Amanda some fancy story about how he goes to the opium den at night and so on, and ends up calling her an “ugly …babbling…witch”. He tries to storm out with his coat in his hand and accidentally breaks some of the glass figurines of Laura.

Scene IV

The scene starts with Tom returning from the movies late at night and finding out that Laura is awake. Laura wonders if the movies go on till that late. Tom starts to talk about the movie he saw that night. He also saw a stage show where a magician nails himself in a coffin and then frees himself. This trick impressed Tom the most.

The scene fades out. Amanda’s voice is heard calling Tom to “Rise and Shine”. Laura requests Tom to apologize to Amanda for the argument. Amanda sends Laura to the store to buy some butter. While leaving, Laura trips on the fire escape, Tom and Amanda run to help her. After an uncomfortable silence, Tom reluctantly apologizes to his mother. She immediately starts to nag him about his breakfast and continues to say that Laura feels sorry for Tom’s unhappiness. She asks him why he goes to the movies every day. Tom explains how men, by instinct want adventure and he tries to findt some at the movies, as his work at the warehouse is boring.

Amanda now starts talking about Laura. She tells him that she has found Tom’s letter to the Merchant Marine and she knows that Tom is going to leave them behind just like his father. But she wants to make sure that Laura is taken care of, before he leaves. She knows really well that old songs and the glass figurines cannot be the ultimate future for Laura. Amanda requests Tom to try and find a nice young man in the warehouse and invite him to their house in order to introduce him to Laura. Tom promises to do so and Amanda immediately restarts her campaign for the subscribers.

Scene V

The scene starts with Amanda telling Tom to comb his hair and she is immediately reminded of her husband. She admired how he always kept his appearance well maintained. She continues to scold her son; she complaining how much he smokes and how much money he could have saved if he did not do so.

Tom turns to the audience and starts to talk about the Paradise Dance Hall in the alley and its past glory. He informs Amanda that a friend from the warehouse will visit them the next day. Amanda is not happy as it would be very difficult to spruce up the house at short notice but Tom warns her not to make too much of a fuss about his friend. She asks Tom if O’Connor drinks or not because, according to her, it is better to remain an old maid than to marry a drunkard. She also makes sure to find out how much money he earns. Though eighty- five dollars are just enough to run a family, she is relieved that he goes to night school in order to improve himself.

Tom warns Amanda that his friend does not know about Laura and he feels that it will be difficult for Laura to open up before a stranger as she is different from other girls, and his mother should not to expect much from her. Amanda forbids Tom from calling Laura a cripple. But what Tom tries to say tis hat Laura is different from the others because she lives in her own world of glass figurines and old records. He leaves for the movies. Amanda calls Laura and asks her to look at the moon and wish for a better future.

Scene VI

The scene starts with Tom introducing Jim to the audience through his monologue. He says that Jim used to be very popular at the high school. He was a hero back then. He was an excellent basket ball player but with time he has lost his speed and secured a job at the warehouse, just like Tom. In the warehouse Tom is on friendly terms only with Jim. Tom knows that he is also valuable to Jim because he reminds Jim of his past glory as a high school hero. He adds that Jim knew about Tom’s love of writing and used to call him Shakespeare. He also knows that Laura admires Jim’s voice but he is not sure if Jim remembers Laura or if he knows that Laura is Tom’s sister. Amanda and Laura prepare for the gentleman caller. Amanda continuously pushes Laura to look pretty. She even uses some powder puffs to enlarge her breasts. Amanda dresses herself in a ridiculous fashion, with a gaudy frock and some accessories used for her past engagements with gentlemen callers.

During their conversation Laura finds out that it is Jim who is coming for dinner and immediately wants to be excused from joining them. She informs her mother that she cannot come in front of the gentleman and obviously cannot open the door. As this will destroy her plan, Amanda chooses not to pay any attention to it and retires to the kitchen. As the doorbell rings, she pushes Laura to open the door, after many mistrials, Laura manages to let Tom and Jim in and goes back to her room.

Tom and Jim start talking about work upon which Jim warns Tom that he will lose his job soon. Tom tells Jim about joining the Union of Merchant Seamen and how he has paid the first subscription with the money Amanda gave him for the electricity bill. Amanda baffles Jim with the stories of her past and gentlemen callers. When Tom checks and informs that supper has been served, Amanda insists that she is not going to eat without Laura. Laura comes to the table and trips. Seeing that she is sick, Amanda asks Tom to help her lie on the living room sofa while the others have their evening meal.

Scene VII

In the initial part of the final scene Laura is lying on the sofa, while the others are having their meal. As they are about to finish, the lights go out. Amanda suspects that Tom has not paid the electricity bill and asks Jim to check the fuse. As a punishment for his irresponsibility, Amanda asks Tom to wash the dishes after dinner while Jim can keep Laura company. She advises Jim to take some wine with him for Laura which will strengthen her.

Laura becomes nervous as she sees Jim approaching her. Jim is comfortable and sits on the floor. He offers her a gum and asks her why she is so shy and calls her “old fashioned”. Laura asks if he still sings. After her question, he remembers that he knows Laura from high school. They were in the same singing class. She mentions how she was always late for the singing class and her braces clumped in front of everyone. Jim says that she is too self- conscious, he remembers nothing of the sort.

Laura tells Jim how she wanted him to sign the high school yearbook but could not gather any courage to do so as he was extremely popular at the time and always surrounded by girls. He signs the book now. Laura asks him about his high school girlfriend but Jim assures her that it was just a rumor. He asks her what she has done after high school, she talks about the business school and her glass figurines. But Jim interrupts her and goes on talking about her inferiority complex. When he is done talking, Laura shows him her glass menagerie. Jim is afraid that he will break the figurines if he touches them. Laura shows him the unicorn figurine which she has kept for the last thirteen years. He asks if the unicorn feels different among other animals and Laura confirms that it gets along with them.

Some music drifts to the apartment from the neighborhood, and Jim asks Laura to dance with him. Laura declines but Jim insists and they start dancing. During the moves Jim breaks the horn of the unicorn and Laura says that it is now like the other horses. Jim tells Laura how different she is from others, like “blue roses” and she should be kissed. He kisses her and instantly backs off. He informs Laura that he is engaged to be married and he should not have done so. Laura is taken aback and presents him with the broken unicorn as a souvenir.

At this point, Amanda enters the stage with lemonade. After her coquettish chatter, Jim casually informs Amanda that he is engaged to be married and cannot stay any longer as he has to pick up his fiancé from the bus station, and leaves. Amanda is shocked to find out this truth.

Amanda bursts out at Tom for inviting an engaged gentleman to meet his sister. Tom is equally surprised to hear this news but cannot convince Amanda of his innocence. Amanda complains that Tom does not care about his mother, who has been abandoned by his father or his crippled sister, unmarried and without a job. Though Tom cannot convince them, he ends the play saying he would always care about his sister, no matter what.

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