The Glass Menagerie Summary – Scene 1-2
The play takes place in the apartment of the Wingfield family, which is in an over-crowded, lower middle-class housing complex in St. Louis. In a case in the living room is a collection of transparent glass animals. A photograph of the father hangs on the wall.
Tom, dressed as a merchant sailor, enters and addresses the audience directly. He says he is turning back time to the 1930s, to when America was still recovering from the Depression, and there were violent labor disputes. There was also a civil war in Spain.
Tom states that what the audience is to see is a memory play, in which he is one of the characters. The others are his mother Amanda, his sister Laura, and a “gentleman caller” who appears in the final scenes. Another character, who does not appear in the play, is his and Laura’s father, who gave up his job with the telephone company and deserted his family a long time ago.
As the play begins, Amanda and Laura are seated at a table. Tom joins them, but he and his mother soon fall to arguing since Amanda is critical of him. Amanda alludes to a gentleman caller that she expects that afternoon for Laura. Then she reminisces about her own past in Mississippi, when she once had seventeen gentlemen callers in one afternoon. Tom, who has heard this story many times, indulges her, and Amanda tells of how she was able to entertain them all because she knew the art of conversation. Many of these men went on to become wealthy, although many are now dead.
Amanda tells Laura to go and study her typewriter chart or practice her shorthand. She must stay fresh and pretty because her gentleman callers will be arriving shortly. Laura points out that she is not expecting anyone, but Amanda does not want to believe it. She fears that Laura may become an “old maid.”
In scene 2, an agitated Amanda returns from what would usually have been a D. A. R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) meeting. But it transpires that she did not go to the meeting. Instead, she visited Rubicam’s Business College to speak to Laura’s teachers about the progress she was making. She was told by the typing instructor that Laura did not attend the college. The instructor then recalled that Laura must have been the shy girl who dropped out after only a few days’ attendance. Amanda had assumed that Laura had been attending classes every day for six weeks. She is devastated by the news, and tells Laura that all her hopes and ambitions for her have been destroyed. She asks Laura where she has been going when she pretended to be attending the business college. Laura replies that she went out walking, sometimes visiting the museum or the zoo, or going to the movie theater.
Amanda is in despair. Because Laura has dropped out of college, she sees nothing in their future except dependency. She then turns the subject to marriage, asking Laura if she has ever liked a boy.
Laura replies that there was one boy, named Jim, whom she liked in high school. She shows her mother the school yearbook which has a picture of Jim. She remembers how he used to call her “Blue Roses,” having misheard her tell him that she had had an attack of pleurosis. The yearbook stated that Jim was engaged to be married, so Laura assumes that he is now married, since the yearbook is six years old.
Amanda resolves to marry Laura off to a nice man, but Laura does not believe she will ever marry because she is crippled. Amanda reproaches her for using that word, and insists that all she has to do is cultivate vivacity and charm.
Scene 2 Analysis
The social background that is emphasized several times in the play is important. It is the macrocosmic reflection of the microcosm of the Wingfield family. In scene 1, Tom mentions the economic depression of the 1930s, and this mirrors the economic circumstances and worries of the Wingfield family.
Scene 1 is dominated by Amanda, who reveals how difficult she is to live with. She lectures Tom all the time, telling him what to do and how he should live. It is no wonder that he, who is the poetic, imaginative member of the family, wants to escape.
It is clear that Amanda lives in an illusory world of her own. She is really living in the past, looking back to an ideal South of her youth that probably never really existed. She is surely exaggerating when she recalls her seventeen gentlemen callers on just one afternoon-a story she has told many times before.
If Amanda lives in the past and nourishes illusions regarding the present, Laura has extreme difficulties of her own, as scene 2 shows. She is shown polishing her glass animals, which seem to be all she has in life. Self-conscious about being lame, she retreats inward and cannot face the world. It is clear that both Amanda and Laura, in their different ways, are trapped in their small worlds. There seems to be no future for them.
The Glass Menagerie Summary – Scene 3
Tom speaks to the audience, saying that after the fiasco at the business college, Amanda became obsessed with finding a “gentleman caller” for Laura.
The audience then sees Amanda. Realizing that some extra money will be required to spend on the apartment to make it look nice, she makes telephone calls selling subscriptions to a woman’s magazine.
After the theater lights dim, the voices of Tom and Amanda are heard quarreling again. Tom is angry with Amanda’s control over his life. The day before, she returned one of his books to the library because she did not approve of its contents.
The lights come up, showing a typewriter and a pile of manuscripts on the table. It appears that the quarrel was sparked by Amanda’s interruption of Tom’s creative work.
The quarrel continues. Tom says he is going out, and Amanda responds by saying she does not believe he goes to the movies every night. She thinks he must be doing something he is ashamed of. He comes home late and gets only a few hours sleep. Amanda is certain that he is jeopardizing his job, and their security. Tom replies that he hates his job at the warehouse and working there means he has to give up all his dreams. He says that if he was really as selfish as she thinks he is, he would already have left home, like his father did.
When he starts to go out, Amanda says she still doesn’t believe he is going to the movies. He replies with some wild exaggerations about what he is really going to do, including going to opium dens and gambling casinos. He says he is a hired assassin and carries a tommy-gin in a violin case. Carried away by his anger and frustration, he calls Amanda a witch. He hurls his coat across the room where it smashes against Laura’s collection of glass animals. Laura is horrified. Amanda is stunned by Tom’s calling her a witch and says she will not speak to him until he apologizes. Amanda exits, leaving Tom and Laura together. Tom collects the broken glass.
Scene 3 Analysis
If the previous scene showed how Amanda and Laura were each trapped in their own ways, this scene shows how Tom is trapped too. He is by nature a poet and a writer (as the pile of manuscripts on the table shows), and he cannot bear to fritter his life away working at the warehouse. He knows he has to escape.
The difference between Tom and his mother can be seen in their tastes in literature. Amanda likes romantic, escapist fiction of the sort published in The Home-maker’s Companion, which suits her old-fashioned view of the world. Tom prefers D. H. Lawrence, who lauds the sensual, instinctive, earthy dimension to life. But Amanda regards Lawrence’s books as “filth.”
It is obvious that the glass menagerie is a symbol of the fragility of Laura’s life. When some of the animals are accidentally broken, she cries out “as if wounded.”
The Glass Menagerie Summary – Scene 4
Tom does not return until five o’clock in the morning, and Laura tells him to be careful not to wake Amanda. Tom does not care, and he tells his sister about the night’s entertainment at the movie theater. He says there was a show, which featured, among other things, a man who escaped from a nailed-up coffin without removing a nail. He compares his own life to a “nailed-up coffin,” and asks who ever got out of such a thing except by removing one nail. As he speaks, the photograph of the father (who did manage to escape) lights up.
After that scene dims about, a clock strikes six. Amanda, who is not speaking to Tom, tries to get Laura to summon Tom for his coffee. Laura urges Tom to apologize to his mother for his earlier outburst.
Laura goes out to buy butter. Tom enters, and for some moments, he and Amanda do not speak. She stands with her back to him. Then Tom apologizes to her. She cries, and says she worries so much that she cannot sleep. She urges him not to fail in his career. He must try, and then he will succeed. Tom speaks gently to her, with understanding. She asks him to promise her he will never be a drunkard, which he does, grinning.
Amanda then tries to tell him what he should have for breakfast, and he politely insists that all he will have is a cup of coffee. She then says that she sent Laura out so she could discuss her with Tom. She starts by saying that Laura has told her that he is unhappy living in their apartment and working in the warehouse. Tom denies that he goes out at night just to get away, and Amanda again asks him where he goes. He gives the same answer that he gave in the previous scene. He goes to the movies a lot because he likes adventure.
After their discussion about what Tom wants in life goes nowhere, Amanda turns to the subject of Laura. She says it frightens her that Laura is just drifting along, and they must make some provisions for her. She tells Tom that as soon as Laura has a husband and a home of her own, he will be free to pursue his own dreams. But up until then he must look out for her, since none of Amanda’s efforts have worked out, and all Laura does is stay at home, play records and fool around with her glass animal collection.
Tom is about to go to work, Amanda asks if any nice young men work there. She wants Tom to ask a suitable young man back to their apartment, so he can become acquainted with Laura. Tom is impatient and unsympathetic, but he agrees to do what his mother wants.
Amanda starts to make more phone calls in connection with renewing subscriptions for the women’s magazine.
Scene 4 Analysis
Amanda seems oblivious to the fact that her controlling, critical nature is certain to drive Tom away. But she cannot bear the thought that Tom is going to take after his father, and she sees the warning signs already. Their dialog shows that not only are they trapped as far as their external situation is concerned, they are also (like many of the characters in Williams’s plays) unable to communicate their feelings fully. There is an entire emotional world that exists somewhere beyond the grasp of words. Amanda says, for example, that “There’s so many things in my heart that I cannot describe to you!”, and Tom replies, “There’s so much in my heart that I can’t describe to you!” Tom’s solution is that they should just accept this and respect each other’s privacy, but this is not something that Amanda would ever be able to do.
When Tom tells his mother that “Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter,” he is probably influenced by his reading of D.H. Lawrence, since that sounds like something from the Lawrentian creed. Amanda, on the other hand, aspires, or convinces herself she aspires, to a higher realm of being, beyond instinct, which is something humans share with the animals. She wants “superior things! Things of the mind and spirit!” and she mentions Christianity. There is obviously going to be no meeting of minds between these two, however long they talk. But they do have a common concern for Laura.
The Glass Menagerie Summary – Scene 5
It is a spring evening in 1939. The family has just finished supper, and Amanda, as usual, is telling Tom what to do. He should comb his hair more frequently. When Tom, irritated, goes out for a smoke, she tells him that he smokes too much. He should save the money instead.
Tom goes out and speaks directly to the audience. He describes what the Paradise Dance Hall, which is just across the alley, was like on spring evenings. He explains that world events (the coming of World War II) would soon produce adventure and change for all the young people in the area. But until that happened, there was only swing music, liquor, dance halls, bars, movies and sex.
Amanda joins him on the fire-escape, and they make a wish on the moon. Tom keeps his a secret, but Amanda says she wished for the success and happiness of her children.
Tom tells her that he has arranged for a gentleman caller for Laura. Amanda is first excited and then flustered when Tom tells her that the young man is coming for dinner tomorrow. She says she needs more time to make preparations, but Tom chides her for making a fuss. Amanda wants to know whether the young man, whose name is O’Connor, drinks. Tom says he is not aware of any drinking problem; he is impatient with his mother’s fears about men who drink.
As Amanda questions Tom further about his friend, it transpires that he is a shipping clerk at the warehouse, and he earns more than Tom. Amanda says that his salary is not enough for a family man, but Tom points out that O’Connor is not a family man. But he might be in the future, is Amanda’s reply.
She hopes O’Connor is not too good-looking, and Tom confirms that he is rather homely. He goes to night school, studying radio engineering and public speaking, which pleases Amanda, since she thinks that shows ambition. Tom explains that he did not tell Jim anything about Laura, and warns his mother not to expect too much of her. Laura is crippled, shy, and lives in a world of her own; she is not like other girls. Tom tells his mother she must face the facts.
Tom then exits, saying he is going to the movies. Amanda calls Laura over and tells her to make a wish on the moon. Laura asks what she should wish for, and Amanda tells her to wish for happiness and good fortune.
Scene 5 Analysis
The scene begins and ends with wishful thinking, as first Tom and Amanda and then Amanda and Laura make wishes on the moon. For Amanda, this kind of thinking is all she has left. It highlights the gap between the harsh and unpromising world she lives in and her efforts, some practical and others based on romantic illusions, to break out of it and make her life bearable.
In this scene Tom makes another attempt to paint the wider social background, when he mentions Berchtesgaden (Adolf Hitler’s summer retreat), Neville Chamberlain (the British prime minister who thought he had negotiated a peace treaty with Hitler at Munich in 1938) and Guernica. Guernica was a Basque village which was attacked by Nazi bombers on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The planes dropped 100,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries. Seventy percent of the town was destroyed and 1,500 people, a third of the population, were killed.
The Glass Menagerie Summary – Scene 6
Tom speaks, looking back on the past. He says he knew that Laura and Jim O’Connor had been acquainted in high school, but he did not know whether Jim remembered her.
On a Friday evening, at about five, everything is ready for Jim’s arrival. Laura is so nervous she trembles. Amanda stuffs a couple of pads down Laura’s dress, because she is flat-chested. Laura says she will not wear them. Amanda disappears and then re-emerges wearing girlish dress, one that she wore when she was young. She wore it for her gentleman callers, and was wearing it the day she met her husband. Then she lets slip that the young man’s name is Jim O’Connor. Laura fears that it may be the boy she knew in high school, whom she liked. If it is the same boy, she says she will not come to the dinner table. Amanda tries to reassure her that it will not be the same person.
The doorbell rings, and Amanda tells Laura to answer it. Laura pleads with her mother, and says she is sick. But Amanda insists the she open the door. Tom introduces Jim to Laura and she manages to get out a few anxious words before excusing herself. Tom explains to Jim that she is terribly shy.
After glancing at the newspaper, Jim and Tom go out on to the fire-escape. Jim talks about how his public speaking course has helped him. He says the most important thing in life is social poise, being able to hold your own on many levels. He also tells Tom that one of the supervisors, a Mr. Mendoza, has indicated that Tom will be out of a job soon if he doesn’t wake up. Tom says he is waking up, but the signs of it are interior. He is ready to go to sea. He is tired of going to the movies all the time, and wants some adventure of his own. He shows Jim his membership card of the Union of Merchant Seamen. He paid his dues instead of paying the electricity bill. When the lights go off, he says, he won’t be there.
They go inside, where Amanda greets them. She turns on the excessive charm. Jim is taken aback at first, but quickly adjusts. She chatters on, hardly letting Jim get a word in edgewise.
Supper is on the table, but Laura has not appeared. After Amanda calls her, she comes in but walks unsteadily. She is obviously terrified. She stumbles and catches at a chair. Amanda realizes she really is sick, and tells Tom to help her to the living room, where she rests on the sofa.
The scene ends as Tom says grace before the meal, and Laura holds her hand to her mouth to hold back a sob.
Scene 6 Analysis
Amanda’s frantic preparations, and the dress she wears, are out of all proportion to the event. Once more shows how she is still living in an idealized southern past, in which invitations for young ladies keep pouring in and there were parties all over the Delta: “Evenings, dances!-Afternoons, long, long rides! Picnics-lovely!-So lovely, that country in May.-All lacy, with dogwood, literally flooded with jonquils!”
Jim is a sharp contrast to the other three characters. Just as he arrives, Amanda says in frustration to Laura, “Why can’t you and your brother be normal people?” Jim is one of those normal people. He has found that real life is much harder than being in high school, where he was outstanding, and in six years he has not advanced very far in life. But he is ambitious, and ready to take his place in the American mainstream (unlike any of the marginalized Wingfield family). His chosen interest is radio engineering and television-the industries of the future, and his evening classes in public speaking make it clear that he believes in the American Dream. He believes that if you work hard and study, you can get ahead, which is an ethos that Amanda has earlier tried to instill in Tom, without any success. Jim is therefore attuned to the society in which he lives, but Amanda, Laura and Tom are all, in their different ways, people who do not fit in.
The Glass Menagerie Summary – Scene 7
Half an hour later, dinner is just being finished. Laura is still huddled on the sofa.
The lights go out. Amanda lights candles while Jim checks on the fuses, which are all intact. Amanda asks Tom about the bill, and it soon transpires that he did not pay it.
Amanda tells Jim to go and keep Laura company while she and Tom wash the dishes. Jim takes the candelabra and some wine with him, and talks to Laura in a gentle, humorous way, to help her overcome her shyness. He tells her about the Century of Progress exhibition he saw in Chicago the previous summer. He is excited about what the future holds for America.
Laura asks him whether he has kept up with his singing. Jim is surprised at her inquiry, and Laura supposes he does not remember her. He replies that he remembers her from somewhere, and when she responds with the nickname he gave her, Blue Roses, he remembers who she is. Jim wonders why she didn’t say something when he arrived, but she says she was too surprised.
They recall a choral singing class they took together, and Jim remembers that she always came in late. She explains that that was because of the leg brace she wore, but Jim says he never noticed it. When Laura confesses that she never had much luck making friends, Jim tries to help her overcome her shyness, telling her that people are not so dreadful when you get to know them.
He recalls how in high school there was a write-up about him in the yearbook that said he was bound to succeed in anything he went into. Laura produces the book, and points to a photo of Jim performing in an operetta. She tells him she went to all three performances and wanted to ask him to autograph her program, but he was always surrounded by his own friends. Jim signs the yearbook for her with a flourish. Laura then finds out from him that he never married the girl the yearbook says he was engaged to.
Jim inquires about what she has been doing since high school, and she confesses to dropping out of business school. She doesn’t do much, she says, and tells him about her collection of glass animals.
Jim says that her problem is that she has an inferiority complex. She lacks confidence in herself as a person. He advises her to think of herself as superior in some way. Everyone excels in something, he says; you just have to discover what it is. Then he talks about his interest in radio engineering and how he believes in the future of television. He is already making the right connections so he can get into this new industry.
After he asks her whether there is something she takes more interest in than anything else, she shows him her glass collection, and gives him a glass unicorn to hold.
Jim invites her to dance, and overcomes her objection that she has never danced in her life. As he swings her around the floor, they bump into the table, and the unicorn falls off and breaks. Jim is very apologetic, but Laura says it doesn’t matter.
Jim tells her that she is different from anyone else he knows. He asks her whether anyone has ever told her she is pretty, and says he wishes she were his sister; he would teach her to have confidence in herself. He then takes her hand and kisses her on the mouth.
Realizing his mistake, Jim backs off, lights a cigarette, and says he shouldn’t have kissed her. He confesses that he has a regular girlfriend called Betty, with whom he is in love.
Laura is devastated by this, but she tries to recover. She offers him the broken unicorn, as a souvenir.
At that moment, Amanda comes into the room, chattering gaily. She anticipates Jim coming often to call on them. Jim says he must be going, and mentions Betty’s name, saying they are engaged to be married.
Amanda is stunned, but she puts a brave face on this unwelcome news, wishing Jim luck, happiness, and success.
After Jim has left, Amanda confronts Tom. She finds it hard to believe his protests that he had no idea Jim was engaged. Tom says he is going to the movies. He smashes his glass on the floor and rushes out. Laura screams.
In Tom’s final speech, he looks back from his later viewpoint. He was fired from his job, and left St. Louis, traveling from city to city. But wherever he goes, he cannot forget Laura. Whenever he sees some transparent glass, or a familiar piece of music, he thinks of her. He tries to distract himself from the memory by telling her to blow her candles out.
Laura, who has been acting out a soundless scene with Amanda while Tom has been speaking, blows out the candles, ending the play.
Scene 7 Analysis
This is the longest scene in the play, and takes up about one-third of the action. It is dramatically effective in part because it focuses on the meeting between the extravert Jim and the introvert Laura. Will he succeed in drawing her out? Will he be the Prince Charming to her Cinderella? But the audience senses that this cannot be.
Jim does his best with Laura, using what he has learned in his night school classes about how to have self-confidence in dealing with others. The “pop” psychology has been good enough for him in his quest to improve himself, but poor Laura is in need of much more than a pep talk. Jim is well-meaning, but he allows his enthusiasm to run away with him. His clumsy breaking of the glass unicorn is a very obvious piece of symbolism, foreshadowing his unintentional shattering of Laura a few moments later.
Laura is broken completely by this sudden disillusionment. As the playwright puts it as the scene with Laura and Jim begins, this scene “is the climax of her secret life.” The truth is that in six years, she has not forgotten Jim, even though they were barely acquainted with each other. For Laura to live without hope is one thing, but to have hope and joy suddenly erupt so unexpectedly, followed by their sudden loss, is an even more devastating experience than mere hopelessness. The look on Laura’s face is one of “almost infinite desolation.”
After Jim’s departure, the play draws to a close with the predictable pattern reasserting itself, as Amanda accuses Tom of selfishness and he goes out to the movies. Nothing much has changed in these difficult, restricted lives.
At the end, as Tom describes his life since he escaped from this stifling environment, the audience watches Amanda and Laura acting out a soundless pantomime; it is as if the characters are behind transparent, soundproof glass. They have both become like members of a glass menagerie, cut off in an unfulfilled, desperate and fragile world of their own.