Imprisonment and Escape
The Wingfields’ apartment is like a prison from which Amanda and Laura are unable to escape. By the end of the play, they are even more deeply enmeshed in their claustrophobic, closed world than they were at the beginning. Amanda’s great hope was that Laura would graduate from a business college and pursue a career as a secretary, but once she finds out that Laura was too shy even to attend classes, she pins all her hopes on finding Laura a husband. When that scheme fails too, all hope seems lost. A life of worry, economic insecurity and dependency seems inevitable.
As a contrast to this, an image of escape is presented throughout the play, in the form of the photograph of the father that hangs on the wall. But when Tom follows his father’s example and walks out on his family, he finds that however far he travels, he remains trapped by the reach of memory. He cannot forget his sister and her plight. So, in the end, there is no escape from the family prison for any of the three characters.
Illusions and Reality
The two women in the play, Amanda and her daughter, Laura, live inside their own illusions because the outside world is too painful for them to face. Amanda lives in another time and place, the genteel, idealized world of the south during her youth. But St. Louis during the 1930s is a different proposition altogether, and Amanda fails to make the adjustment. She endlessly repeats exaggerated tales of the south, and her numerous “gentlemen callers.” She assumes that what worked for her (even though the man she chose walked out on her) will work for Laura too, even though times have changed. Tom tries to force her to face the facts that Laura is different than other girls, but Amanda refuses to accept this. All she can do is wish on the moon that things will turn out the way she wants them to.
Laura is even more deeply enmeshed in an illusory world than her mother. Too shy and too lacking in self-confidence to cope with the real world, she retreats to an inner world. She talks of her glass animals as if they are real beings, and her only other interest is in playing the old gramophone records that her father left behind. It is hard to imagine what the future might hold for her.
The American Dream
Set against the economic frustration of the Wingfield family, which leads to a closed circle of experience, is the ideal of the American Dream, which points ever upward. In spite of her impoverished life in the St. Louis of the 1930s, Amanda is a believer in the Dream. She tells Tom that he simply has to work hard, and he will succeed. But the poetic, imaginative Tom is not the sort of man to cultivate a normal career leading to success and wealth. Those are not his goals. The idea of the American Dream is represented more by Jim. He is in love with the achievements and the promise of technology, and he has embraced the spirit of self-help and advancement through education. He believes that his life is on an upward trajectory, and that if he studies and plays his cards right, he can go as far as he wants to go in his career.