Study Guide

The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie Summary

The play begins with a current-day (1940s at the time) Tom explaining to us that the play is his memory (1930s) being re-told, and has lots of funky memory elements in it like weird lighting and music. We are also introduced to a large screen that Williams uses to project images and pictures on as the play progresses. Tom explains that his father happily abandoned them years ago. We see Tom having dinner with his mother, Amanda, and his sister Laura. Amanda expresses a desire for Laura to have "gentlemen callers" (a.k.a. dates) as she used to, back when she was a Southern Belle.

Laura describes a boy named Jim she used to have a thing for in high school, and we see her glass menagerie obsession. Amanda gets angry at Laura for dropping out of a typing class due to her painfully shy nature.

The conflict with Tom is quickly established; he is at odds with his mother because he hates his job and wants to leave, but has a duty to support the family. His mother calls him selfish for his constant reading, dancing, drinking, and escaping to the movies. Laura encourages them to make up, which they do – ostensibly. But the issue is unresolved.

Amanda asks Tom to get a gentleman caller for his sister, which he does – one of his friends from work that turns out to be the Jim that Laura had spoken of. Amanda gets all excited and prepares the house. When Laura finds out that it’s Jim coming to visit, she hides in the living room. Jim, however, talks to her and gets her to open up. They bond; they kiss; Jim is engaged to someone else. He takes off, Laura gets sad, and Amanda yells at her son and then comforts Laura during Tom’s closing speech to the audience. Tom reveals to us that he abandoned his family shortly after that night, but has been haunted by Laura, the sister he abandoned, ever since.

  • Scene One

    • OK, the scenery first. You’ve got your standard mid-Depression apartment complete with fire escape and desperation, some fuzzy lighting which Williams claims is to create a "memory scene," a big transparent wall blocking the audience’s view to start, a living room and dining room, and this picture of a guy in a World War I hat, smiling. He’s the absent father. Oh yes, and a typewriter. For kicks.
    • Enter Tom Wingfield, dressed as a "merchant sailor" and smoking.
    • Turns out the entire play is his memory recreated for us.
    • Tom’s speech is full of lots of lovely, pedantic metaphors.
    • Tom lets us know that his Dad peaced out on them when Tom and his sister Laura were little and sent a postcard that said, "Hello—Goodbye!"
    • Did we mention that there’s this theatrical device that Williams invented for this play – a big fancy technological thing otherwise known as a "screen"? Words and images get projected onto it. In this first scene, such words happen to be "Ou sont les neiges."
    • That phrase is from the title of a poem called "Ou sont les neiges d’antan," which means "where are the snows of yesteryear." So Williams’s screen just says "where are the snows." You know, because it’s warm in that room.
    • Amanda (Tom’s mother) annoys Tom at the table with etiquette rules about elbows and not picking his nose.
    • Tom retaliates by shouting and then leaving. In other words, aggression for dinner followed by a lovely little passive aggressive tart for dessert.
    • Amanda gives the classic "back in the good old days" speech, only she focuses on herself having been a Paris Hilton-esque socialite instead of bread costing twenty cents a loaf.
    • In case you missed it, the image of Amanda as a young socialite is projected on the screen.
    • Then, because Williams realized he left a word off the first time, the screen now says "Ou sont les neiges d’antan." And if you were wondering, the French still means "where are the snows of yesteryear."
    • Amanda expresses not-so-subtly that Laura ought to have some "gentlemen callers." And that she should type on the typewriter.
    • We almost forgot. There’s this little, light, circus-y tune called "The Glass Menagerie" that gets played every once in a while, usually when the audience is looking at Laura.
  • Scene Two

    • The screen has an image of blue roses.
    • Laura is polishing her tiny collection of glass animals (a glass menagerie – get it?)
    • When Amanda approaches, Laura puts away the glass and pretends she was typing on her typewriter.
    • Amanda is thoroughly pissed off. This tends to happen a lot.
    • Turns out Laura has been playing hooky from typing school and Amanda just found out at her DAR meeting (Daughters of the American Revolution).
    • The screen projects a bunch of typewriters, in case you didn’t know what a typewriter looks like.
    • Laura gives her excuse: she’s painfully shy to the point of nausea and has a crippled leg that makes her hobble.
    • Laura responds to the accusations by...playing the Victrola (a CD player but way cooler).
    • The screen says "The Crust of Humility."
    • Amanda expounds on this crust – it is the result of not marrying, she says.
    • Laura reveals that she used to have a crush on this demigod of high school boys, Jim.
    • The screen projects a picture of Jim for us.
    • Jim used to call her "Blue Roses."
    • Amanda denies that Laura is crippled and daydreams about her missing husband’s charm.
  • Scene Three

    • There’s been a fiasco! Which we know, because the screen says "After the Fiasco."
    • Tom chills out on the fire escape and narrates:
    • He explains how Amanda wants gentlemen callers for Laura, and an image of...yep, you got it, a gentleman caller appears on the screen.
    • Turns out Mrs. Wingfield (that would be Amanda) sells magazine subscriptions.
    • Then we see Amanda making these ridiculous phone calls trying to get people to subscribe.
    • Screen says, "You think I’m in love with Continental Shoemakers?"
    • OK, this is really important: for the next whole conversation, the stage light is on Laura, not the people talking. Got it?
    • Amanda and Tom argue because he’s been reading the trashy romance novels of D.H. Lawrence. Oh, he also escapes to the movies.
    • Tom makes it clear that he hates his job and life in general and wishes someone would come along and bash his brains out. No, literally, he wants someone to bash his brains out, and preferably with a crowbar. Check it out, because we are not making this stuff up.
    • He wants to skip town like his father did. Oh, the apple doesn’t fall far from the abandonment tree.
    • When accused that he’s not actually going to the movies, Tom tirades on all the Satan-worshipping, alcohol-consuming, prostitute-soliciting things he is really doing. That’s sarcastic, by the way.
    • In a rage, he accidentally breaks several of the glass animals.
    • Laura is sad. In a far more eloquent way than this.
    • "The Glass Menagerie" music plays again.
  • Scene Four

    • Tom comes home late and drunk and tries to sneak in quietly.
    • He runs into Laura and tells her all about the movies and shows he saw and totally ruins the endings for her.
    • There is discussion of a coffin and how one might escape from a coffin. Oh, and then the picture of their father lights up.
    • The next morning, Tom and Amanda aren’t speaking. Ah, family.
    • Laura heads out onto the fire escape but slips on her way out.
    • The lights illuminate Amanda and "Ave Maria" plays.
    • So Tom apologizes, because you can’t be angry at a person who makes "Ave Maria" magically come out of the air.
    • Amanda discusses the plight of Laura (so she comes up on the screen) and how Tom needs to find her some "gentleman callers." And by that we mean set her up on a date with a boy who doesn’t drink.
    • She is concerned that Tom is taking after his father.
    • Tom defends his nightly movie-going experience. He likes the adventure.
    • Amanda calls Tom selfish. Well, actually, she calls him selfish, selfish, selfish in that great, nagging, mothering tone.
    • The screen displays the cover of a glamour magazine as Amanda makes more humiliating and pleading phone calls in an attempt to get subscribers.
  • Scene Five

    • Legend on the screen says "Annunciation." This is a biblical reference to when the angel tells Mary she got pregnant and the savior is coming.
    • Tom narrates to us about The Paradise Dance Hall across the street from the Wingfield’s apartment. He says people go there to escape their mundane lives.
    • Amanda joins him in the porch while they discuss Laura – Tom has coerced one of his friends into being a gentleman caller.
    • When Tom says this, a blast of music hits the audience. Williams is really into this whole drama thing.
    • Amanda is all excited and freaks out because she has to primp herself and her house and her daughter for the big occasion.
    • Then she harps on the fact that this guy (with the Irish last name of "O’Connor") better not be a drinker, because Tom’s father drank and we all know how that turned out.
    • The music gets ominous while they discuss Laura and her peculiarities (you know, the glass fetish and the crippled leg).
    • Tom goes...to the movies. Where else would he go?
    • Amanda and Laura wish on the moon, accompanied by the screen projection of...a moon.
  • Scene Six

    • Tom is smoking on the fire escape again. Man, it’s almost like cigarettes are habitually addictive or something.
    • Anyway, the screen projects "the high school hero" while Tom narrates about Jim and his many high school hero-related achievements. Basically, Jim was the captain of everything.
    • Tom reveals that he and Jim work together at the warehouse, and that Jim has no idea he is being set up with Laura.
    • The screen says "The accent of a coming foot."
    • Amanda cleaned their house and decked it out for the coming guest.
    • Laura’s all dolled up, too, or, as Williams so subtly puts it, she is "like a piece of translucent glass."
    • Her mom stuffs powder puffs in Laura’s top, but only because they didn’t have Wonder Bras back then.
    • Then Amanda says that pretty women are a trap, and the screen concurs with its caption.
    • Laura checks herself out in the mirror while the screen says, "This is my sister: celebrate her with strings." Oh, and there’s music, too.
    • Amanda gets herself all dressed up, too, harkening back to the days when she was a Southern Belle.
    • Laura hears the name of the man coming to call and FLIPS OUT. In case her flip out wasn’t dramatic enough, the screen says "Not Jim!"
    • It’s the same Jim that Laura had a crush on. You got that, yeah?
    • Laura sits and is terrified of opening the door when Jim and Tom get there. So the screen says, "The Opening of a Door!" Gasp! Shock!
    • The boys show up and Laura is too afraid to answer the door until Amanda verbally abuses her into doing it.
    • Cue "Dardanella," a jazzy little number, while she answers the door, shyly greets Jim, and retreats to play the Victrola.
    • Jim discusses work with Tom, and how he’s taking classes in public speaking and becoming adept at winning friends and influencing people.
    • The screen projects an executive sitting at his desk that’s supposed to be Jim or something.
    • Tom describes the movies and adventure and the good old pirate ship pops up on the screen again while he hints that he may be leaving soon.
    • Tom declares he has joined the Union of Merchant Seamen and paid fees to them instead of the light bill.
    • Amanda bustles towards the two boys and they’re both thinking, "Oh my god, who is this crazy chick?"
    • She acts all southern-y while an image of her as a young girl comes up on the screen.
    • Laura is all faint and shy and, well, Laura-esque at dinner (the screen reads "terror!" and there’s a storm a-rumbling outside), so her mother tells her to lie down in the living room.
    • Those not having fainting spells say "Grace" together.
  • Scene Seven

    • The lights go out.
    • Amanda asks Tom about paying the light bill and the screen says, "Ha!"
    • Amanda sends Jim into the other room to, er...keep Laura company on the couch. Wink wink.
    • The screen reads, "I don’t suppose you remember me at all!"
    • Laura is all hot and bothered. Or maybe just bothered. Laura’s on the couch to start off, but Jim has them both sit on the floor.
    • Jim’s all talkative and breaking through Laura’s shy exterior. They reminisce about that time when they barely knew each other and he called her "Blue Roses."
    • Laura talks about having a limp from her crippled leg in high school, but Jim says it wasn’t noticeable and that she ought to be more outgoing and confident and all that.
    • They look together at their old high school yearbook, called "The Torch." Laura praises him for his performance in a high school play and confesses that she used to want his autograph. So Jim graffiti’s away on her program (that she saved from his play) with his signature.
    • Laura discloses that she dropped out of high school.
    • She asks about Jim’s old girlfriend, but he says they’re not together anymore. You know how high school relationships go.
    • Laura is all, "Hey baby, want to see my...glass collection?" And the tinkly, thematic music plays again.
    • She shows Jim a unicorn, her favorite piece of glass, because its horn makes it different from all the other horses.
    • They listen to the music from the Paradise Dance Hall across the street and Jim has them waltz to it.
    • During their rambunctious dancing, they break the horn off of the unicorn, but Laura calls it a blessing in disguise.
    • Jim hits on Laura. "Blue Roses" comes up on the screen again. He kisses her, exclamation point!
    • He backs away and the screen reads "a souvenir."
    • Jim gets all awkward and then explains that he has a fiancé named Betty.
    • He waxes poetic about love. The screen, very helpfully, says "Love."
    • Laura gives him the former-unicorn in its post-horn state as a souvenir.
    • Williams gives the director two options for the screen, either "Things have a way of turning out so badly!" or the image of a gentleman caller waving goodbye. Definitely the biggest decision of our day.
    • Amanda comes to see how things are moving along and finds out about the engagement just as Jim takes off. The screen says, "The sky falls."
    • She yells at Tom after Jim leaves so he takes off for the movies while the screen reads "and so, goodbye..."
    • OK, here’s the deal: Tom gives an ending speech while the audience watches Amanda comforting Laura.
    • The speech goes something like, "I took off and left my family behind, etc., etc., I couldn’t stop feeling guilty about leaving Laura, I can’t blow her candles out."
    • Then Laura blows the candles out while Jim theatrically says, "And so, goodbye..."