By Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work and Publication Year
.......The Glass Menagerie is a stage play in the form of a tragedy involving the three main characters. The play debuted in 1944 at the Civic Theatre in Chicago. Random House published the work in 1945.
.......An introductory address to the audience by one of the main characters, Tom Wingfield, takes place in the 1940s. The action in the play takes place in the winter and spring of 1937 in an apartment in a dreary tenement in St. Louis.
.......Tennessee Williams based The Glass Menagerie on "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," a short story he wrote in 1943 and published in 1948. Both works drew upon Williams's own experiences. When he was growing up, he was close to his sister, Rose, who resembled the fragile and psychologically disturbed Laura Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie." His mother resembled Laura's mother, Amanda. Williams himself resembled Laura's brother, Tom Wingfield. Williams was even nicknamed Tom in his youth.
Tom Wingfield: A merchant marine who introduces the play and is one of its three main characters. Tom became a sailor at an undisclosed time after he left home following an argument with his mother. He explains that the action in the play takes place in the 1930s, when he lived in a St. Louis apartment with his mother,
Amanda, and his sister, Laura. The play presents his recollections of the winter and spring of 1937. In that year, he worked in a shoe factory to support himself, his sister, and his mother. He hated his job, argued frequently with his mother, and looked forward to a day when he could leave home and strike out on his own. Tom likes to write poetry. In fact, he was fired from his job at the shoe
factory for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox.
Tom Wingfield's Introduction
.......Tom Wingfield walks onstage wearing the uniform of a merchant marine. He lights a cigarette and tells the audience that he is turning back time to the 1930s, when the vast American middle class was struggling to cope with the Great Depression.
The Play.......Laura and Tom Wingfield are eating at a table with their mother mother, Amanda, in the dining room of their apartment in a tenement building. When Amanda tells her son to chew his food properly, he rises and tells her that her constant nitpicking makes him race through meals. She says he has the temper of a Metropolitan Opera singer. As he leaves the table to get a cigarette, she tells him she has not excused him. He goes for the cigarette anyway, and she says he smokes too much.
.......Laura rises to get the dessert, blancmange, but Amanda goes for it instead, saying she wants her daughter “to stay fresh and pretty for gentlemen callers.” One never knows when a gentleman will come calling, she says.
.......Returning with the dessert, she says she once received seventeen callers one Sunday afternoon at Blue Mountain. Tom, who is smoking on the landing of the fire escape across the alley from Paradise Dance Hall, asks how she entertained them all. She says she did so with intelligent and witty conversation.
.......All of her beaux were gentlemen, she says, and some were prominent planters in the Mississippi Delta. She tells Tom about several of her callers—one who became vice president of a bank, another who drowned and left his wife $150,000 in government bonds, and another—Bates Cutrere—who was shot in a quarrel and left his wife between 8,000 and 10,000 acres of land. Amanda says Bates was in love with her, not his wife, and had a picture of her on the day he died. Then there was Duncan J. Fitzhugh, who went to New York and earned a reputation as the Wolf of Wall Street. Amanda could have married him, she says.
.......Laura sits at a table polishing her collection of glass figurines of animals. On the wall is an illustration of a typewriter keyboard she is supposed to be studying while nursing a cold. Her mother had enrolled her at Rubicam Business School six weeks earlier so that she could get a job to provide for herself and her mother. When she hears her mother coming up the fire escape, she hurriedly hides the figurines and pretends to study the keyboard illustration. Amanda is wearing a cloth coat with an imitation fur collar and carrying a large black pocketbook.
.......When Amanda enters, grim-faced and out of sorts, she removes the illustration from the wall and rips it up. She then informs Laura that on her way to her D.A.R meeting—at which she was to be installed as an officer—she stopped at the Rubicam Business School to discuss her daughter's progress with her teachers. They told her that Laura quit after only a few days because she was too shy to participate in class. Amanda, paraphrasing a teacher, says, “Her hands shook so that she couldn't hit the right keys! The first time we gave a speed-test, she broke down completely [and] was sick at the stomach and almost had to be carried into the wash-room!”
.......Under questioning from her mother, Laura says she spent her school days, from 7:30 to 5, walking in the park even though it was winter. She could not endure going back to class. However, sometimes she visited the art museum, the zoo, and a hothouse for tropical flowers. She did not want to face Amanda.
.......Amanda then talks on about the bleak future that Laura faces but ends up raising the possibility that Laura will marry someday. She asks her daughter whether there was ever anyone she liked. Laura tells her about a boy in high school with whom she occasionally conversed. But he was going with a girl named Emily Meisenbach. Laura thinks they must be married by now (six years after graduation). Her mother then decides that Laura will marry too.
.......“But, Mother . . . I'm crippled,” Laura says.
.......Her mother replies that Laura has only a small defect, “hardly noticeable.”
.......Later in the winter and early spring, Amanda sells magazines subscriptions to make enough money to properly prepare her daughter as an attraction for young men.
.......One day, Tom and his mother argue viciously. She had returned a book he was reading to the library, a book by D. H. Lawrence which Amanda says was shamefully obscene. She will not allow such books in the house, she asserts. Tom reminds her that it is he who pays the rent and supports the family and, therefore, has a right to read the books he pleases.
.......When they continue to argue, she accuses him of taking part in unseemly activities whenever he goes out. He pretends to go to the movies, she says, but his real purpose is to drink. Then he comes in around two in the morning, stumbling and mumbling, and gets three hours of sleep. He has no right to jeopardize his job and thus jeopardize the security of the whole family, she says. He is selfish.
.......Tom says he gives up all his dreams—all that he would like to do—to work in a dead-end job at Continental Shoemakers just so he can support the family. If he decided to think only of himself, he says, he would do what his father did—leave. Becoming even angrier, he calls his mother an old witch. When he attempts to put on his coat to leave, he catches his arm in the sleeve, then hurls it across the room. It falls on a shelf containing Laura's figurines. There is the sound of shattering glass.
.......“My glass!—menagerie,” she says.
.......He helps Laura pick up the the figurines while his mother shouts that she will not speak to him again until he apologizes.
.......At five the next morning, Tom arrives home drunk. His first attempt at opening the door fails when he drops the key. Laura opens the door and asks where he has been. To the movies, he tells her. There was a long program—the feature, a cartoon, a travelogue, a newsreel, coming attractions, and a stage show with Malvolio the Magician.
.......At about seven, Tom apologizes to his mother while drinking coffee. Amanda, sobbing, says her devotion to her children has made her hateful to them. Tom tells her she's not hateful. Having been pacified, Amanda then praises him for his considerable abilities and makes him promise never to be a drunkard. After they talk further, Amanda says she is worried about Laura, who spends all her spare time fooling with her glass menagerie and playing her father's old records on the Victrola.
.......When Tom asks what he can do about her situation, his mother says, “Overcome Selfishness! Self, self, self is all that you ever think of !”
.......Angry, Tom gets up and puts on his coat and hat. Before he leaves, Amanda asks him to find a beau for Laura at the Continental plant. He refuses to cooperate at first, but after she pleads with him he agrees to see what he can do.
.......At sunset on a spring night, Tom informs his mother that he has arranged for a young man from Continental to come to dinner the next evening. He is a shipping clerk named James Delaney O'Connor, who makes good money and goes to night school to study public speaking and radio engineering. Tom says, however, that he did not tell him about Laura.
.......Amanda, delighted, says, “When he sees how lovely and sweet and pretty she is, he'll thank his lucky stars be was asked to dinner.”
.......In high school, Jim O'Connor was a star basketball player, president of the senior class and the glee club, captain of the debating team, and a singer of light opera. Now, however, he works in the warehouse of Continental Shoes, making only a little more money than Tom. Laura knew Jim in high school and admired his voice, Tom recalls. But he doesn't think Jim remembers Laura.
.......By five Friday evening, Amanda has worked wonders with the apartment—new curtains, chintz covers on the sofa and chairs, and other touches. She is now crouching before Laura as she works on the hem of her new dress. Laura looks fragile but pretty, like translucent glass. Amanda then enlarges Laura's bosom with powder puffs. Laura protests but ends up wearing the “Gay Deceivers,” as her mother calls them.
.......A short while later, Amanda reveals herself in a yellow frock with a blue sash, recapturing a semblance of her youth. She says, “This is the dress in which I led the cotillion, won the cakewalk twice at Sunset Hill, wore one spring to the Governor's ball in Jackson!”
.......When Laura asks what Mr. O'Connor's first name is, she becomes suddenly flustered when she hears her mother say Jim. She asks whether it is the same Jim O'Connor that Tom knew in high school. Amanda says she thinks they first became acquainted at the warehouse. Laura says if it is the same one, she won't make an appearance. But her mother orders her to answer the door when they arrive. Amanda will be in the kitchen preparing the food.
.......When Tom arrives with Jim, he introduces Jim to Laura, who is exceedingly nervous. Laura then excuses herself and hurries into another room. When Jim asks about her strange behavior, Tom explains that she is exceptionally shy. While awaiting dinner, Tom and Jim talk about work, and Jim warns Tom that Mr. Mendoza, a boss at Continental Shoes, has been threatening to fire Tom.
.......Tom then discloses that he will soon make a major change in his life. He says he has joined the Union of Merchant Seamen, paying his dues from money for the light bill. When Jim asks what will happen when the lights go out, Tom says he won't be around. He will be leaving just as his father did sixteen years before.
.......When Amanda comes in, she musters all of her Southern charm and lavishes it on Jim, then makes excuses for Laura. Laura, she says, has been cooking the dinner and the heat of the stove made her a bit ill. Laura is in another room lying on a sofa.
.......The lights go out. Amanda lights candles, and Jim goes with her to check the fuse box. His finding: All the fuses appear okay. Tom then owns up that he did not pay the light bill. “Shakespeare probably wrote a poem on the back of it,” Jim says. (Shakespeare is his nickname for Tom because Tom likes to write poetry.) She then asks Jim to keep Laura company in the parlor. When he assents, she gives him a candelabrum and some wine.
.......Jim speaks gently to the very shy girl gently as he sets the candelabrum down and sits on the floor. He invites Laura to join him. She does, with the candelabrum between them. He says Laura seems like an old-fashioned girl.
.......“I think that's a pretty good type to be,” he adds.
.......When Laura compliments him on his singing voice and asks him whether he remembers the name “Blue Roses,” he realizes she went to high school with him. They were in the same singing class in the auditorium. Laura recalls then that whenever she entered the auditorium she always made a loud clumping sound with her lame leg. Jim says he didn't notice. They go on to discuss Jim's singing, and Laura gets out their yearbook, The Torch, and shows him his picture as he sings in The Pirates of Penzance. Her shyness is gone.
.......When she asks him how Emily Misenbach is, he says, “Oh, that kraut-head . . . I never see her.” He says Laura has an inferiority complex, and that he had one too until he took his public-speaking course. As four her lame leg, he says, “A little physical defect is what you have. Hardly noticeable even! Magnified thousands of times by imagination!”
.......He says he's taking a course in electro-dynamics—that is, radio engineering—and plans to become part of the television industry when it begins to blossom.
Laura tells him about her interest—her collection of tiny glass animals, a glass menagerie. When he sees the figurine of a unicorn, he remarks that they are supposed to be extinct and adds that the little thing must feel lonesome.
.......“Well, if he does,” Laura says, “he doesn't complain about it. He stays on a shelf with some horses that don't have horns and all of them seem to get along nicely together.”
.......When they hear music coming from the Paradise Dance Hall, Jim talks Laura into dancing with him. They waltz. Laura seems to be enjoying herself. As they move about the room, they bump into a table, knocking the glass unicorn to the floor and breaking off its horn. Laura doesn't mind, though, saying, “I'll just imagine he had an operation. The horn was removed to make him feel less—freakish!”
.......Jim tells her she's pretty and kisses her on the lips. A few moments later, though, he tells her that he is going steady with an Irish Catholic girl named Betty. He met her the previous summer, he says, and fell in love with her. Laura is deeply disappointed—in fact, devastated.
.......“Being in love has made a new man of me,” he says.
.......Laura opens his hand, then closes it around the unicorn, saying she wants him to have it as a souvenir. Amanda gaily brings in fruit punch and macaroons, then asks Laura why she looks so serious. Jim says the reason is that they were having a serious conversation.
.......“Good! Now you're better acquainted,” she says.
.......She then says she's going to leave them alone to continue their conversation. But Jim says he himself is leaving. Amanda, thinking he has to get up early, says, .......“You're a young working man and have to keep working men's hours.”
.......He tells her he has two clocks two punch: one for work and one Betty. Amanda asks who Betty is, and Jim tells her. He says he and Betty will soon get married. After Jim leaves, Amanda calls Tom and says, “You didn't mention that he was engaged to be married.”
.......Tom says he was not aware of the engagement. Amanda says it is odd that he was unaware, considering that he works with Jim and is his very good friend. When she starts in on one of her rants, Tom crosses over to the door, saying he is going to the movies.
.......Amanda says, “That's right, now that you've had us make such fools of ourselves. The effort, the preparations, all the expense ! The new floor lamp, the rug, the clothes for Laura!”
.......Amanda continues to browbeat him. Tom smashes a glass and leaves.
.......A short while later, Continental Shoemakers fires him for writing a poem on a shoebox. Tom leaves St. Louis and travels. And the image of his sister travels with him.
.......Escape motivates each of the main characters. Amanda—disenchanted with her dreary and unglamorous life in a tenement—frequently steps out of the present and into the memories of her past as a Southern belle with numerous beaux. She recounts her memories for her children.
.......One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain, your mother received seventeen gentlemen callers! . . . Among my callers were some of the most prominent young planters of the Mississippi Delta - planters and sons of planters!.......Because of her extreme shyness, Laura escapes any situation in which she must interact with others. She quit high school. She quit business school. She hides from Jim O'Connor when he comes to supper. When O'Connor's kindness and easygoing manner draw her out of herself and away from her glass menagerie, she enjoys a few moments of normalcy with a young man she thinks is interested in her. But when she learns that he is engaged to marry another woman, she returns to her sheltered world.
.......Tom escapes in small ways—smoking on the fire escape, going to the movies, drinking—before escaping in a big way by leaving home. While traveling, the image of the wounded Laura remains with him. He continues to travel, trying to escape this image, to no avail.
.......When Tom and his mother discuss serious or even trivial matters, the conversation frequently erupts into an argument—usually because of Amanda's sarcasm and nitpicking and Tom's volatile temper. They can go only so far in their discussions before rising anger
short-circuits their ability to communicate. As for Laura, she would rather run from a problem than talk it over with someone.
The Haunting Past
.......Memories haunt the main characters. For example, after Tom leaves home, the memory of his fragile sister follows him wherever he goes. He travels from place to place to escape the memory of Laura, the records she played, and her glass menagerie.
It [the memory of Laura] always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of coloured glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colours, like bits of a shattered rainbow........Amanda frequently resurrects the glory days of her past as a popular young lady with many gentlemen callers. They give her temporary refuge from the harsh reality of the present as an abandoned, middle-aged woman living in a dreary apartment and dependent on her son's earnings to get from one day to the next.
.......Laura, meanwhile, suffers from her painful memories of high school, when the brace on her leg hampered her ability to arrive on time for classes. When she arrived late for music class in the auditorium, she recalls, "everybody was seated before I came in. I had to walk in front of all those people. My seat was in the back row. I had to go clumping all the way up the aisle with everyone watching." Laura also has only bad memories of her short stay at business school. One of her for teachers describes what happened to Laura there: "Her hands shook so that she couldn't hit the right keys! The first time we gave a speed-test, she broke down completely [and] was sick at the stomach and almost had to be carried into the wash-room!"
.......The climax of the play occurs shortly after Jim kisses Laura. The shy girl thinks her prince has come. And she feels comfortable around him. Then Jim tells her devastating news: He is already engaged to be married to a young woman he fell in love with the previous summer. Laura retreats back into her little world of her father's Victrola records and her glass figurines—perhaps never again to emerge. This event precipitates Amanda's outburst against Tom for matching Laura with a young man who is already halfway to the altar with another woman. Although Tom maintains that he was unaware of Jim's engagement, Amanda doesn't believe him. When Amanda further browbeats him, he leaves—for good.
.......Amanda and Tom are both in conflict with their situations in life. Amanda—middle-aged, abandoned by her husband—must live in an gloomy tenement on the earnings of her son. Tom is a cog in shoe factory whose talents as a writer are largely untapped. They are also in conflict with each other, mainly because of Amanda's fault-finding. In the opening scene, her criticism of him at the dinner table—and his sharp response to it—foreshadows the direction of this mother-son relationship.
AMANDA [to her son]: Honey, don't push with your fingers. If you have to push with something, the thing to push with is a crust of bread. And chew !chew! Animals have sections in their stomachs which enable them to digest flood without mastication, but human beings are supposed to chew their food before they swallow it down. Eat food leisurely, son, and really enjoy it. A well-cooked meal has lots of delicate flavours that have to be held in the mouth for appreciation. So chew your food and give your salivary glands a chance to function.Laura suffers from a serious psychological problem—deep feelings of inferiority—that put her in conflict with virtually all social situations
.......Twice during the play (if staged according to the author's directions), the audience sees the words "Où sont les neiges" on a screen. These words are part of a refrain at the end of each stanza of "Ballade des dames du temps jadis"
("Ballad of the Dead Ladies"), a poem by François Villon (1431-1463?). It was translated into English by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). The complete refrain is "Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!" Rosetti translated this line as "But where are the snows of yester-year?" Villon's poem laments the passing of once-famous ladies. They are all dead; their glory has
disappeared. The refrain sums up the theme of Villon's poem with a metaphor comparing the past and its people to snow that eventually melts and disappears.
After the fiasco at Rubicam's Business College, the idea of getting a gentleman caller for Laura began to play a more and more important part in Mother's calculations. It became an obsession. Like some archetype of the universal unconscious, the image of the gentleman caller haunted our small apartment.This comment occurs before the following dialogue:
TOM: All right! What about Laura?Williams also uses music and images to indicate the direction of the plot. An example is a screen image of a sailing ship flying a pirate flag. Here is the dialogue that follows:
AMANDA: Most young men find adventure in their careers.Dramatic Irony
.......Williams uses dramatic irony throughout the play to call attention to Amanda's self-centeredness. For example, when Tom and his mother are having a heated discussion about Laura's inability to socialize, Tom asks, "What can I do about it?" His mother answers, "Overcome Selfishness!
Self, self, self, is all that you ever think of!"
Berchtesgaden: Town in southern Germany. On a mountain above the town was Adolf Hitler's chalet, the Berghof, where he conducted fateful meetings before World War II. Other Nazi leaders maintained chalets nearby.