• Analysis Scene 1-2
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.
• Analysis Scene 3
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.”
• Analysis Scene 4
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.
• Analysis Scene 5
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.
• Analysis Scene 6
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.
• Analysis Scene 7
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.
• Character Profil
Jim O’Connor Jim O’Connor is a friend of Tom’s from the warehouse where they both work. Tennessee Williams describes him in his notes to the play as “A nice, ordinary young man.” Jim is the “gentleman caller” who is invited to dinner by Tom, and in whom Amanda places her hopes for finding a husband for Laura. Jim was an outstanding success in high school, and everyone thought he would succeed in life. However, in the six years that have elapsed since he graduated, he has found life much tougher than he might have expected. At the warehouse, he is a shipping clerk, which is only a slightly better position than Tom’s. However, Jim is a cheerful, optimistic young man, who is determined to get on in life. He is studying public speaking and radio engineering at night school, and wants to go into the fledgling television industry. When he visits the Wingfield family, Jim does his best to draw Laura out of her shell, but his enthusiasm runs away with him and he makes the mistake of kissing her. He then has to explain that he must disappoint her because he has a steady girlfriend named Betty.
Amanda Wingfield Amanda Wingfield is the mother of Tom and Amanda. Amanda spent her youth in the south, and in a way she continues to live there, endlessly telling her children stories of her life back in those days. Her desire to live in the past is perhaps not surprising, given that it was so much more enjoyable than the life she has in the present-living on limited means in an apartment in a rundown area of St. Louis. Amanda’s husband deserted her sixteen years ago, and she is scared that Tom will turn out like his father. But she does not realize that by her constant attempts to manage his life for him, she is driving him away. Amanda is resourceful and energetic, and her sole ambition is that her son and daughter should be successful and happy. But her attempts to marry off Laura to Jim are a terrible failure and leave her desolate, although she still manages to put a brave face on things.
Laura Wingfield Laura Wingfield is Amanda’s daughter. She is an extremely shy young woman in her early twenties. Following a childhood illness she is crippled, and wears a leg brace. Laura is so withdrawn, so unable to make contact with reality, that she spends her time playing with her collection of glass animals and listening to gramophone records. The failure of her encounter with Jim makes her even more withdrawn. Tennessee Williams wrote of her, “she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.”
Tom Wingfield Tom Wingfield is the narrator of the play as well as a character in it. He is Amanda’s son and Laura’s brother. Tom is a poet, and he feels stifled by his unrewarding job at the warehouse and the tense situation at home, where he is always quarreling with his controlling mother. He wants to escape his situation, just as his father managed to escape many years before. His goal is to join the merchant marine, and he is prepared to be ruthless in accomplishing his goal-for example, paying his dues to the seaman’s union with the money that should have been used to pay the electricity bill. But even though he does manage to leave the family home, he does not find happiness. As he travels from city to city, he cannot forget the sister he left behind.
• Theme Analysis
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.
• Metaphor Analysis
victrola – the escape and the private world of Laura.
jonquils – a reminder of Amanda’s glorious past.
magic show – the escape so desired by Tom.
glass menagerie – Laura’s private world, and the breaking of it.
fire escape – simply the escape from Amanda’s world. Tom seeks to leave it, but Laura stumbles whenever she does.
unicorn – Laura’s singularity, her return to reality, and her return to her retreat back into her world.
candelabrum – Tom’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his family.
scarf – Tom’s attempt to share his magic and desire for escape with Laura.
gentleman caller – the real world as opposed to Amanda’s imagined one.