Before beginning this summary and analysis of “Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, it is important to point out that this play is not happening in the narrator’s (Tom’s) present, but it is based on his memories. The setting of “The Glass Menagerie” is a cramped apartment in a lower-class part of St. Louis in the year 1937. The main character and narrator of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, Tom, is in a merchant sailor’s uniform and he details the setting even further, telling us that America’s lower classes are still recovering from the Great Depression.
In the early stages of the plot of the Glass Menagerie, we also learn that his father left the family a long time ago, even though there is a picture of him that is plain sight throughout “The Glass Menagerie”. While Tom is speaking (as well as throughout the play) pay attention to the screen which presents certain words and images important to the text and try to imagine how this might be if you were sitting in the audience. In these first few scenes of “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, we meet the mother, Amanda, who still seems caught up in her life as a former Southern belle. She chides both of her children about being odd (Laura wears a brace on her leg and is painfully shy while Tom writes poetry and disappears every night to go the movies and get away from the depressing house). Laura is a fragile figure and collects glass animals and one night, when Amanda and Tom quarrel, he breaks several of Laura’s prized possessions.
True to her character in “The Glass Menagerie”, Laura does not angry, she only becomes more sad and fragile and the family that is falling apart before her eyes. Amanda is constantly pressuring Laura (click for a character analysis of Laura in “The Glass Menagerie”) to find a suitor and even enrolls her daughter in business classes to improve her chances of snagging a man. Instead of going to these, however, she skips class and wanders through the streets with her gimp leg simply because she is too shy to manage. Both Tom and Laura live in their own fantasy worlds and their mother’s insistence that they strive to be better somehow only causes more tension. In a last-ditch effort to secure a husband for Laura, Amanda tells Tom to keep an eye out at the warehouse for a suitable match for Laura. Finally, Tom asks an acquaintance from work, Jim, to come over for dinner, not knowing that it was Laura’s secret crush from high school whom she was far too shy to ever speak of.
When he arrives, she hides for most of the evening until Jim brings her a glass of wine and the two sit and talk. He does not remember her until she says that he called her “Blue Roses” because he misunderstood the name of her disease. He tries to tell her to be more confident as he examines one of her favorite figurines—a glass unicorn. Unfortunately, the unicorn slips from his hand and the horn breaks off, making it “just a regular horse.” Laura does not seem upset. He then tells her she needs to be kissed, and does so, sending the poor girl reeling. Unfortunately, he quickly leaves the house since he is to be married soon. Laura tells him to keep the unicorn as a “souvenir” and it is clear that she is crushed. At this point in “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, the lights are all out (because Tom used the electric bill money to pay for his secret new job as a merchant sailor) and Amanda accuses Tom of bringing Jim even though he was engaged. Tom did not know Jim was engaged at he leaves, never to return again. He is narrating from the future in the play by Tennessee Williams and admits his guilt about leaving Laura.
For anyone familiar with other plays by Tennessee Williams, particularly A Streetcar Named Desire,some of the characters in this work will seem familiar. The aging ex-Southern Belle, the mentally unstable young woman, the frustrated young man…. This is partly because they are figures from Williams’ past and family life (see the biography). The reason why these characters resonate so clearly is because this is a play based on memories—albeit of Tom Wingfield. It would be rather simple to draw any number of parallels between Williams’ life and that of Tom Wingfield—they both worked at a shoe factory, both had a sister with a crippling mental illness (and in the case of the play, a physical malady as well) and both dealt with a mother still living in her Southern Belle days. In short, if you haven’t yet read the biography of Tennessee Williams below or elsewhere, it might be illuminating, especially if you’re going to go on to read Streetcaror Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : The Tragic Figure of Laura in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams • Short Biography of Tennessee Williams