"The Glass Menagerie" Character / Plot Summary

Jane Wyman & Arthur Kennedy in movie about The Glass Menagerie. Getty Images

What is The Glass Menagerie?
The play is a melancholy family drama written by Tennessee Williams. It was first performed on Broadway in 1945, meeting with astounding box-office success and a Drama Critics Circle Award.

The Characters: In the introduction of The Glass Menagerie, the playwright describes the personalities of the drama’s main characters.

Amanda Wingfield: Mother of two adult children, Tom and Laura.

 

  • “A little woman of great vitality clinging frantically to another time and place...”
  • “Her life is paranoia…”
  • “Her foolishness makes her unwittingly cruel…”
  • “There is tenderness in her slight person…”

 

Laura Wingfield: Six years out of high school. Incredibly shy and introverted. She fixates on her collection of glass figurines.

 

  • She has “failed to establish contact with reality…”
  • “A childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other…”
  • “She is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile…”

 

Tom Wingfield: The poetic, frustrated son who works at a mindless warehouse job, supporting his family after his father left home for good. He also serves as the play’s narrator.

 

  • “His nature is not remorseless…”
  • “To escape from a trap (his overbearing mother and crippled sister) he has to act without pity.”

 

Jim O’Connor: The gentleman caller who has dinner with the Wingfields during the second part of the play.

He is described as a “nice, ordinary young man.”

Setting:
The entire play takes place in the Wingfield’s meager apartment, located next to an alley in St. Louis. When Tom begins narrating he draws the audience back to the 1930s.

Plot Summary:
Mrs. Wingfield’s husband abandoned the family “a long time ago.” He sent a postcard from Mazatlan, Mexico that simply read: “Hello – and Good-bye!” With the absence of the father, their home has become emotionally and financially stagnant.

Amanda clearly loves her children. However, she constantly reprimands her son about his personality, his fledgling job, and even his eating habits.

 

Tom: I haven’t enjoyed one bite of this dinner because of your constant directions on how to eat it. It’s you that makes me rush through meals with your hawk-like attention to every bite I take.

 

Even though Tom’s sister is painfully shy, Amanda expects Laura to be more outgoing. The mother, in contrast, is very sociable and reminisces about her days as a southern belle who once received seventeen gentlemen callers in a single day.

Laura has no hopes or ambitions for her future. She quit her typing class because she was too shy to take the speed exam. Laura’s only apparent interest seems to be her old music records and her “glass menagerie,” a collection of animal figurines.

Meanwhile, Tom is itching to leave the household and seek adventure in the wide open world, instead of being held prisoner by his dependent family and a dead-end job. He often stays out late at night, claiming to go to the movies. (Whether or not he watches the movies or engages in some sort of covert activity is debatable).

Amanda wants Tom to find a suitor for Laura. Tom scoffs at the idea at first, but by evening he informs his mother that a gentleman caller will be visiting the following night.

Jim O’Connor, the potential suitor, went to high school with both Tom and Laura. During that time, Laura had a crush on the handsome young man. Before Jim visits, Amanda dresses in a beautiful gown, reminding herself of her once glorious youth. When Jim arrives, Laura is petrified to see him again. She can barely answer the door. When she finally does, Jim shows no trace of remembrance.

Out on the fire escape, Jim and Tom discuss their futures. Jim is taking a course on public speaking to become an executive. Tom reveals that he will soon be joining the merchant marines, thereby abandoning his mother and sister. In fact, he purposefully failed to pay the electricity bill in order to join the seaman’s union.

During dinner, Laura – faint with shyness and anxiety – spends most of the time on the sofa, away from the others. Amanda, however, is having a wonderful time. The lights suddenly go out, but Tom never confesses the reason!

 

By candlelight Jim gently approaches the timid Laura. Gradually, she begins to open up to him. He is delighted to learn that they went to school together. He even remembers the nickname he gave to her: “Blue Roses.”

 

Jim: Now I remember – you always came in late.

 

Laura: Yes, it was so hard for me, getting upstairs. I had that brace on my leg – it clumped so loud!

Jim: I never heard any clumping.

Laura (wincing at the recollection): To me it sounded like thunder!

Jim: Well, well, well. I never even noticed.

 

Jim encourages her to be more self-confident. He even dances with her. Unfortunately, he bumps a table, knocking over a glass unicorn figurine. The horn breaks, making the figurine just like the rest of the horses. Surprisingly, Laura is able to laugh about the situation. She clearly likes Jim. Finally, he declares:

 

Somebody needs to build your confidence up and make you proud instead of shy and turning away and—blushing—Somebody ought to—ought to—kiss you, Laura!

 

They kiss.

For a moment, the audience might be lured into thinking that everything will work out happily. For a moment, we can imagine:

 

  • Jim and Laura falling in love.
  • Amanda’s dreams for Laura’s security coming true.
  • Tom finally escaping the “trap” of family obligations.

 

Yet, a moment after the kiss, Jim backs away and decides, “I shouldn’t have done that.” He then reveals that he is engaged to a nice girl named Betty. When he explains that he will not be back to visit again, Laura bravely smiles.

She offers him the broken figurine as a souvenir.

After Jim leaves, Amanda scolds her son for bringing an already-spoken-for gentleman caller. As they fight, Tom exclaims:

 

Tom: The more you shout about my selfishness to me the quicker I’ll go, and I won’t go to the movies!

 

Then, Tom assumes the role of the narrator as he did in the play’s beginning. He explains to the audience how he soon left his family behind, running away just as his father did. He spent years traveling abroad, yet something still haunted him. He escaped the Wingfield household, but his dear sister Laura was always on his mind.

The final lines:

 

Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura – and so good-bye…