Study Guide

The Glass Menagerie Duty

By Tennessee Williams

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A blown-up photograph of the father hangs on the wall of the living room, to the left of the archway. It is the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy's First World War cap. He is gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling, as if to say "I will be smiling forever." (stage directions, Scene One).

Unlike Tom, Tom’s father seems to have shirked his responsibilities without thought or regret.

"There is a fifth character in the play who doesn't appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel. This is our father who left us a long time ago. He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town…

The last we heard of him was a picture postcard from Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, containing a message of two words: "Hello - Goodbye!" and no address." (1.1, Tom).

Again, Tom’s father doesn’t seem to regret abandoning his family.

"They knew how to entertain their gentlemen callers. It wasn't enough for a girl to be possessed of a pretty face and a graceful figure - although I wasn't slighted in either respect. She also needed to have a nimble wit and a tongue to meet all occasions." (1.27, Amanda).

Amanda believes that, while men have the responsibility of bringing home money, women, too, have duties to fulfill.

"I know so well what becomes of unmarried woman who aren't prepared to occupy a position. I've seen such pitiful cases in the South - barely tolerated spinsters living upon the grudging patronage of sister's husband or brother's wife! - stuck away in some little mousetrap of a room - encouraged by one in-law to visit another - little birdlike women without any nest - eating the crust of humility all their life!

Is that the future that we've mapped out for ourselves? I swear it's the only alternative I can think of! [She pauses.] It isn't a very pleasant alternative, is it? [She pauses again.] Of course - some girls do marry." (2.34, Amanda).

Amanda believes it is a woman’s duty to marry.

"House, house! Who pays rent on it, who makes a slave of himself to—" (3.17, Tom).

Tom makes it clear that he is fulfilling his responsibilities at the moment.

"What right have you got to jeopardize your job? Jeopardize the security of us all? How do you think we’d manage if you were—" (3.33, Amanda)

Amanda believes that, since her husband left, Tom is responsible for their family.

She crosses through the portieres and draws them together behind her. Tom is left with Laura. Laura clings weakly to the mantel with her face averted. Tom stares at her stupidly for a moment. Then he crosses to the shelf. He drops awkwardly on his knees to collect the fallen glass, glancing at Laura as if he would speak but couldn't. (Scene Three, stage directions).

Even when he is fighting with their mother, Tom never wavers in his care for Laura. This is one duty he never fails to fulfill.

Tom glances sheepishly but sullenly at her averted figure and slumps at the table…Tom blows on his coffee, glancing sidewise at his mother. She clears her throat. Tom clears his throat…

[hoarsely]: "Mother. I—I apologize, Mother." (Scene Four stage directions, 4.32, Tom).

Tom’s responsibility is not only to support the family financially, but to hold it together emotionally.

"I’ve had to put up a solitary battle all these years. But you’re my right-hand bower! Don’t fall down, don’t fail!" (4.37, Amanda).

Amanda places the responsibility on Tom to hold the family together.

"We have to do all that we can to build ourselves up. In these trying times we live in, all that we have to cling to is-each other…" (4.51, Amanda).

Amanda believes that all members of the family have an obligation to each other

"However, you do act strangely. I—I’m not criticizing, understand that! I know your ambitions do not lie in the warehouse, that like everybody in the whole wide world—you’ve had to—make sacrifices, but—Tom—Tom—life’s not easy, it calls for—Spartan endurance!" (4.61).

Amanda believes that duty and responsibility are more important than one’s own dreams.

"Oh, I can see the handwriting on the wall as plain as I can see the nose in front of my face! It's terrifying! More and more you remind me of your father! He was out all hours without explanation!-Then left! Goodbye! And me with the bag to hold. I saw that letter you got from the Merchant Marine. I know what you're dreaming of. I'm not standing here blindfolded. Very well, then. Then do it! But not till there's somebody to take your place." (4.91, Amanda).

Amanda believes that duty and responsibility are more important than one’s own dreams.

"I mean that as soon as Laura has got somebody to take care of her, married, a home of her own, independent-why, then you'll be free to go wherever you please, on land, on sea, whichever way the wind blows you! But until that time you've got to look out for your sister. I don't say me because I'm old and don't matter! I say for your sister because she's young and dependent." (4.93, Amanda).

Amanda focuses on Tom’s obligation to his sister, rather than to herself.

"What can I do about it?"

"Overcome selfishness! Self, self, self, is that all you ever think of?" (4.94, 4.95, Tom and Amanda).

Amanda constantly berates Tom for his dreams and ambitions.

"We are going to have one."


"A gentleman caller!" (5. 30-5.32).

Tom fulfills the family duty of bringing home a man for Laura.

"You don’t have to make any fuss."

"Oh, Tom, Tom, Tom, of course I have to make a fuss! I want things nice. not sloppy! Not thrown together. I’ll certainly have to do some fast thinking, won’t I?"

"You just don’t know. We can’t have a gentleman caller in a pigsty! All my wedding silver has to be polished, the monogrammed table linen ought to be laundered! The windows have to be washed and fresh curtains put up. And how about clothes? We have to wear something, don’t we?" (5.57, 5.59, Amanda).

While Amanda believes it is Tom’s duty to bring home money, she takes on for herself many home-related tasks.

"I paid my dues this month, instead of the light bill."

"You will regret it when they turn the lights off."

"I won’t be here." (6. 124-6.126, Tom and Jim).

In contrast to Amanda’s selflessness, Tom at moments does indeed appear to be selfish.

"That’s right, now that you’ve had us all make such fools of ourselves. The effort, the preparations, all the expense! The new floor lamp, the rug, the clothes for Laura! All for what? To entertain some other girl’s fiancé! Go to the movies, go! Don’t think about us, an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job! Don’t let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure! Just go, go, go—to the movies!" (7.319, Amanda).

Because Jim was engaged, Amanda believes that Tom has failed to fulfill his obligations to the family.

"GO, then! Go to the moon—you selfish dreamer!" (7.320, Amanda).

Amanda views even the small pleasure of going out at night as a selfish endeavor.

"Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. 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 anything-anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura-and so, goodbye… (7.321, Tom).

Although he tries to escape his responsibility to his family through geographical distance, Tom never escapes the chains of family obligation.

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