The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class populations and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism. (stage directions, 1.1)
Williams uses a description of the setting to establish the prison-like feel the Wingfield apartment takes on for Tom.
The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these large buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation. The fire escape is part of what we see - that is, the landing of it and steps descending from it. (stage directions, 1.2)
The fire escape attached to the apartment speaks to Tom’s desired escape from the family.
"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).
While Tom is at first presented as confined to the Wingfield apartment, his father has already made the escape that Tom will later make (unsuccessfully) himself.
Tom enters, dressed as a merchant sailor, and strolls across to the fire escape. There he stops and lights a cigarette. He addresses the audience. (stage directions, Scene One).
Tom’s attire at the outset of the play highlights his having escaped – from the apartment and the family.
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).
Tom’s father displays no guilt at having made his escape from the family.
Tom speaks from the fire escape landing. (Scene Three, stage directions.)
Tom the narrator often speaks from the fire escape, emphasizing that, at the time he tells the story, he is no longer confined to the apartment and family.
"Look! I’ve got no thing, no single thing…
…in my life that I can call my OWN! Everything is…
…Yesterday you confiscated my books!" (3.11, 3.13, 3.15, Tom).
Tom feels confined not only because of his job and position as breadwinner, but because of Amanda’s added restrictions on his life.
"House, house! Who pays rent on it, who makes a slave of himself to—" (3.17, Tom).
Tom uses hyperbole to emphasize the overwhelming sense of imprisonment he feels.
"What do you think I’m at? Aren’t I supposed to have any patience to reach the end of, Mother? I know, I know. It seems unimportant to you, what I’m doing – what I want to do – having a little difference between them!" (3.30, Tom).
Tom is trapped not only by his confining situation, but also by his mother’s inability to recognize his desires.
"Listen! You think I’m crazy about the warehouse? [He bends fiercely toward her slight figure.] You think I’m in love with Continental Shoemakers? You think that I want to spend fifty-five years down there in that – celotex interior! with—fluorescent—tubes! Look! I’d rather somebody packed up a crowbar and battered out my brains—than go back mornings! I go! Every time you come in yelling that Goddamn ‘Rise and Shine! Rise and Shine!’ I say to myself, ‘How lucky dead people are!’ But I get up. I go! For sixty-five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever! And you say self—self’s all I ever think of! Why, listen, if self is what I thought of, Mother, I’d be where he is—GONE! [He points to his father’s picture.] As far as the system of transportation reaches!" (3.34, Tom).
Tom uses hyperbole to emphasize the overwhelming sense of imprisonment he feels.
"Where have you been all this time?"
"I have been to the movies."
"All this time at the movies?"
"There was a very long program. There was a Garbo picture and a Mickey Mouse and a travelogue and a newsreel and a preview of coming attractions. And there was an organ solo and a collection for the Milk Fund—simultaneously—which ended up in a terrible fight between a fat lady and an usher!" (4.7).
Just as Laura uses the glass menagerie as a means of escape from reality, so Tom uses the movies.
"And, oh, I forgot! There was a big stage show! The headliner on this stage show was Malvolio the Magician…But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and hr got out of the coffin without removing one nail. There is trick that would come in handy for me—get me out of this two-by-four situation!
[…] "You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who the hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?" (4.9, 4.13, Tom).
Tom recognizes that to escape from his own coffin of his job, apartment, and family obligations, he would have to upset his surroundings.
"And you-when I see you taking after his ways! Staying out late-and-well, you had been drinking the night you were in that-terrifying condition! Laura says that you hate the apartment and that you go out nights to get away from it! Is that true, Tom?" (4.63, Amanda).
Laura recognizes Tom’s desires more clearly than does Amanda.
"But why—why, Tom—are you always so restless? Where do you go to, nights?
"I—go to the movies."
"Why do you go to the movies so much, Tom?"
"I go to the movies because—I like adventure. Adventure is something I don’t have much of at work, so I go to the movies." (4.65-4.68).
Tom seeks from the movies what his own life lacks, and thus uses them as a means to escape from the confines of his daily goings-on.
"Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter, and none of those instincts are given much play at the warehouse!" (4.76, Tom).
Tom seeks escape to the life he believes he was meant to lead.
"Across the alley from us was the Paradise Dance Hall. On evenings in the spring the windows and doors were open and the music came outdoors. Sometimes the lights were turned out except for a large glass sphere that hung from the ceiling. It would turn rather slowly about and filter the dusk with delicate rainbow colors. Then the orchestra would play a waltz or a tango, something that had a slow and sensuous rhythm. Couples would come outside, to the relative privacy of the alley. You would see them kissing behind ash pits and telephone poles. This was the compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure. Adventure and change were imminent this year. They were waiting around the corner for all these kids. Suspended in the mist over Berchtesgaden, caught in the folds of Chamberlain’s umbrella. In Spain there was Guernica. But here there was only hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows…All the world was waiting for bombardments! (5.10, Tom).
Tom recognizes that many others, not just he himself, use dancing and movies as a means to escape the reality of their own lives.
"You and me, we’re not the warehouse type." (6.84, Jim).
Jim and Tom find camaraderie in their both wanting to escape.
"I’m planning to change." [He leans over the fire-escape rail, speaking with quiet exhilaration. The incandescent marquees and signs of the first-run movie houses light his face from across the alley. He looks like a voyager.] "I’m right at the point of committing myself to a future that doesn’t include the warehouse and Mr. Mendoza or even a night-school course in public speaking." (6.110, Tom, Scene Six stage directions).
Tom plots his escape well in advance; therefore his abandoning the family is a pre-meditated act, not something executed in the heat of an argument.
"Yes, movies! Look at them—[a wave toward the marvels of Grand Avenue]. All of those glamorous people—having adventures—hogging it all, gobbling the whole thing up! You know what happens? People go to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them! Yes, until there’s a war. That’s when adventure becomes available to the masses! Everyone’s dish, not only Gable’s! Then the people in the dark room come out of the dark room to have some adventures themselves—goody, goody! It’s our turn now, to go to the South Sea Island—to make a safari—to be exotic, far off! But I’m not patient. I don’t want to wait till then. I’m tired of the movies and I am about to move! (6.114, Tom).
Tom is so dissatisfied at his confinement that he would even prefer war to staying at home.
"I’m starting to boil inside. I know I seem dreamy, but inside—well, I’m boiling! Whenever I pick up a shoe, I shudder a little thinking how short life is and what am I doing! Whatever that means, I know it doesn’t mean shoes—except as something to wear on a traveler’s feet!" (6.120, Tom).
Tom describes his desire to escape in a way that makes him sound a victim helpless to his impulses, rather than a conscious, decision-making adult.
Tom smashes his glass on the floor. He plunges out on the fire escape, slamming the door. Laura screams in fright. The dance-hall music becomes louder. Tom stands on the fire escape, gripping the rail. The moon breaks through the storm clouds, illuminating his face. (Scene Seven, stage directions.)
Tom spends a lot of time on the fire escape, foreshadowing his eventual departure.
"I didn’t go to the moon – I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two poles. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left St. Louis. I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space." (7.321, Tom).
Although they differ in their emotional responses to escape, Tom makes it clear that he left the Wingfield apartment in much the same way his father did.
"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 is able to literally escape the Wingfield apartment, Tom is never able to completely escape the ties of his familial obligations to Laura.