The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams

Study Guide part 1



Act 1

"Preparation for a Gentleman Caller"


Scene 1         “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”


The Narrator, Tom, appears in 1944.  He tells us that this is a memory play, and not realistic.   Memory omits details and exaggerates them according to the value of the memory.  His memory takes place in St. Louis in 1937.  Tom lives in a small apartment with his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura.  His father had abandoned them years earlier, and Tom provides for the family.  Amanda constantly reminisces of of her many “Gentleman Callers” when she was a young Southern belle.  Laura is a frightened and terribly shy girl, who is also slightly lame in one leg.  She escapes the world by caring for her "glass menagerie"- a collection of delicate little glass animals- and relentlessly playing old music on the victrola. The Wingfield apartment faces an alley in a lower-middle-class St. Louis building. There is a fire escape with a landing and a screen on which words or images periodically appear. Tom explains the social and historical background of the play: the time is the late 1930s, when the American working classes are still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression. The civil war in Spain has just led to a massacre of civilians at Guernica. Tom also describes his role in the play as narrator and a character in it.  He introduces the audience to his mother, Amanda and his sister, Laura.  He then tells the audience that one more character  will appear near the end- a gentleman caller.  We learn from the narrator that the gentleman-caller character is the most realistic because he is from the world of reality and symbolizes the “expected something that we live for.”  One character, Tom’s father, does not appear on stage: he abandoned the family years ago and has not been heard from since. However, a picture of him hangs in the living room.  The audience then sees a typical evening in the Wingfield home.  It is dinner time and Amanda is constantly criticizing Tom for the way he eats.  After dinner, Amanda begins talking, describing all her gentleman-callers from the days when she was young.  Laura tells her mother that none of those “callers” are coming for her.



Scene 2         “So what are we going to do the rest of our lives?”


Laura is polishing her collection of glass figurines as Amanda walks up the steps outside. When Laura hears Amanda, she pretends to practice her typing. Amanda tells Laura that she stopped by Rubicam’s Business College, where Laura is supposedly enrolled. A teacher there informed her that Laura has not come to class since the first few days, when she suffered from terrible nervousness and became physically ill. Laura admits that she has been skipping class and explains that she has spent her days walking along the streets in winter, going to the zoo, and occasionally watching movies.  Amanda complains to her daughter about her terror of what will happen to the two of them if Laura remains untrained for work.  Amanda decides Laura will have to marry. Laura again tries to tell the truth to her mother and says it will never happen because she is “crippled.”  Amanda answers Laura by warning her never to call herself that and, she insists, Laura will just have to be more charming.

Scene 3         “You think I'm in love with Continental Shoemakers?”


After the fiasco of the business college, the idea of a gentleman caller for Laura becomes an obsession with Amanda.  She takes on extra work in telephone subscription sales in order to afford entertaining gentlemen callers.  Tom longs to be free, like his father, to abandon Amanda and Laura and set off into the world. He has stayed because of his responsibility for them, but his mother's nagging has made the apartment a depressing and oppressive place. Tom also hates his job.  He escapes into the world of the movies and alcohol.  His nightly disappearances anger Amanda and they have frequent fights.  Tom and Amanda quarrel after she has sent back his library books without telling him. She accuses him of doing things he is ashamed of instead of going to the movies every night. He tells her how he hates working in the warehouse, how he yearns to leave.  In his anger, Tom accidentally breaks some animals in the glass menagerie. He stops, bends to the shelf of glass, collects the pieces but cannot speak.



Scene 4         “He got out of the coffin without removing one nail”


Tom appears drunk and loses his key in the middle of the night. Laura comes to him and begs him to make up with their mother and talk to her. He tells her that he has been at the movies for most of the night and also to a magic show.  He describes how the magician allowed himself to be nailed into a coffin and escaped without removing a nail. Tom remarks wryly that the same trick could come in handy for him but wonders how one could possibly get out of a coffin without removing a single nail. Mr. Wingfield’s photograph lights up, presenting an example of someone who has apparently performed such a feat. The lights dim. The next morning at breakfast, Tom speaks to Amanda and apologizes. Amanda declares her devotion to the children and starts giving him instructions again on how to eat. She makes him promise not to become a drunkard, and then asks him how he feels about his life in the apartment.  Sensing that Tom wants to leave, Amanda tries to make a deal with him. If Tom and Amanda can find a husband for Laura- a man who can take care of her- then Tom will be free of his responsibility to them. Amanda asks Tom to bring home gentlemen callers from his work to meet Laura.



Scene 5         “All the world was waiting for bombardments”


Tom becomes the narrator once again, and talks about the Paradise Dance Hall across the alley from them, and how couples were caught up in their private lives while in Spain there was Guernica (Civil War) and in Europe “the world was waiting” (on the brink of war). Tom then turns back to Amanda and tells her they are, at last, going to have a gentleman caller.  He explains that he has asked someone from work to come over for dinner the very next night. Amanda asks many questions of Tom concerning Jim- the gentleman caller.  She wants to make sure that Jim is the sort of man she could trust with her daughter.  She agonizes over the last minute preparations that she must make. Tom, meanwhile, is worried about Laura being different and peculiar. Amanda brushes that aside, and the scene ends with Amanda asking Laura to make a wish on the moon -a wish for “happiness and good fortune.”



Act 2

"The Gentleman Calls"


Scene 6         “In High School Jim was a hero.”


Tom tells the audience the background of the gentleman caller. In high school, Jim O’Connor was a star in everything he did and everyone was certain that he would go far. Yet things did not turn out according to expectations. The lights come up on a living room transformed by Amanda’s efforts over the past twenty-four hours. Amanda adjusts Laura’s new dress. Laura is nervous and uncomfortable with all the fuss that is being made.  When Laura is ready, Amanda goes to dress herself and then makes a grand entrance wearing a dress from her youth.  Amanda mentions Jim’s name, and Laura realizes that the visitor is the same young man on whom she had a crush in high school. She panics, claiming that she will not be able to eat at the same table with him.  When the doorbell rings, Amanda calls for Laura to get it, but Laura desperately begs her mother to open it instead. When Amanda refuses, Laura at last opens the door, awkwardly greets Jim, and then leaves the room. Tom explains to Jim that she is extremely shy.  Tom confides to Jim that he has used the money for his family’s electric bill to join the merchant marine and plans to leave his job and family in search of adventure. Laura refuses to eat dinner with the others as she is feeling ill.  Amanda talks vivaciously with Jim throughout the meal.



Scene 7         “Glass breaks so easily.”


The lights go out in the apartment, and Amanda declares how lucky they are that they have candles on the table. When Amanda realizes that Tom has not paid the light bill, she maintains her southern charm and punishes him by making him come with her into the kitchen and wash the dishes.  Jim and Laura are left alone in the living room. Jim puts the candles on the floor and asks Laura to sit on the floor with him. He immediately tells Laura she is “an old-fashioned type of girl,” and Laura suddenly asks him if he still sings. It is then that Jim realizes that he recognizes Laura. They look at their high school yearbook together. Laura tells Jim that her greatest interest is her collection of glass animals. He tells her that he is going to go into television and make something of himself. She shows him her unicorn.  Jim places the glass unicorn on the table and asks Laura to dance to the music coming from across the alley.  She lets herself go, whirls around and they knock the table, throwing the unicorn on the floor and breaking off its horn.  Jim feels terrible, but Laura tells him it is alright because now the animal is more like the others and will feel more comfortable.  Jim tells Laura how pretty she is and kisses her. He confesses that he won’t be coming back again for another visit because he is engaged to be married.  His fiancée is out of town and that is why he accepted the dinner invitation from Tom.  Laura hands him the broken unicorn and wants him to have it as a souvenir.  When Amanda finds out Jim is engaged, she blames Tom and fights with him.



Scene 8         “Time is the longest distance between two places”


Tom runs away, and as he turns to the audience we see Amanda comforting Laura in a

rare, loving moment in the background. Tom tells of how far and fast he has kept moving, trying to leave Laura’s image behind. In his last words, he asks Laura to blow out the light of her candles. She leans toward them and, in a moment, the theatre is dark.



The Glass Menagerie Study Guide Part 2

Biography of Tennessee Williams


Thomas Lanier Williams III, better known by the pen name Tennessee Williams, was a major American playwright and one of the most prominent writers of the twentieth century.  He was born in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, where his grandfather was the episcopal clergyman.  For many of his formative years he lived with his grandparents, sister, and mother while his father traveled for the telephone company.  At the age of seven, and when his sister Rose was nine years old, his wandering father suddenly took a job with a shoe company and the entire family moved to the bustling city of St. Louis.  The move from the country to the city was traumatic, Tom and Rose were each other’s constant friend and companion. The changes for Tom were painful but for Rose they were disastrous. She began to slip into a make-believe world cut off from the outside.  During the early days in St. Louis, Tom and Rose used to play with her prized collection of small glass animals. They continued to be each other’s best friend. Their mother, Edwina, never accepted her daughter’s limitations and tried to force her to take secretarial courses or would introduce her to prospective friends.   In high school, Williams began writing poetry on a second-hand typewriter. He submitted his work to local journals and began to receive acceptance notices and prizes.  He entered college during the Great Depression and left after a couple of years to take a clerical job in a shoe company.  He stayed there two years, spending the evenings writing.  He entered the University of Iowa in 1937 and completed his course.  While he was in Iowa, his sister, Rose, underwent a lobotomy, which left her institutionalized for the rest of her life.  Williams was never able to overcome the guilt.   In the years that followed, he lived a bohemian life, working menial jobs and wandering from city to city. He continued to work on drama, however, receiving a Rockefeller grant and studying playwriting at the New School in New York. During the early years of World War II, Williams worked in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, but he despised it. He decided to submit his own work entitled “The Gentleman Caller.”  It was rejected by MGM, and in one of those classic twists of fate, it became one of the most beloved American plays, THE GLASS MENAGERIE.  This highly personal, explicitly autobiographical play earned Williams fame, fortune, and critical respect.  One of the key interpretations of the play is its relation to William's life. The character of Amanda is based on his own mother, and the physically handicapped Laura is based on his sister Rose.  For most of his life, Williams felt guilty about leaving his mentally ill sister on her own, to nearly die from a botched lobotomy.  In the play, Tom feels as if he is betraying his sister by leaving home.  The character of Tom- a frustrated writer working at a shoe factory- is, of course, Williams himself (whose real first name was Thomas.).   In 1947, Williams met Frank Merlo. The two fell in love, and the young man became William's romantic partner until Merlo's untimely death in 1961. He was a steadying influence on Williams, who suffered from depression and lived in fear that he, like his sister Rose, would go insane. 


Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 and for Cat On a Hot Tin Roof in 1955.  Major plays also include: The Rose Tattoo, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth, Camino Real, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Orpheus Descending, and The Night of the Iguana.  After The Night of the Iguana his fortunes declined.  The death of his long-time lover, Frank Merlo, sent him into a spiral of depression.  He became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol.  Tennessee Williams died in 1983.




The Glass Menagerie Study Guide part 3

Themes, Symbols, and Theatrical Conventions

1.  Introduction

Tennessee Williams was deeply interested in a concept he called "poetic realism"- the use of everyday objects which, seen repeatedly, become imbued with symbolic meaning. His use of “poetic realism” is evident throughout the play.  The play, being a memory play, is non-naturalistic, toying with stage conventions and making use of special effects like music, projections, and selective lighting. By writing a "memory play," Tennessee Williams freed himself from the restraints of naturalistic theatre.  This is a not a play about necessarily remembering what happened, but what might have been.  Memory is faulty.  Memory is selective.  Memory is not reality.  Memory has different meanings for different people.  For Amanda, memory is a kind of escape. For Tom- the older Tom who narrates the events of the play- memory is the thing that cannot be escaped: he is still haunted by memories of the sister whom he abandoned years ago.


2.  Symbols

Laura’s Glass Menagerie

As the title of the play informs us, the glass menagerie, or collection of animals, is the play’s central symbol. Laura’s collection of glass animals represents different parts of her personality.  She is oddly beautiful and, like her glass pieces, very delicate.  She , like her beloved animals, lives in a cage from which she cannot escape.

The Glass Unicorn

The glass unicorn in Laura’s collection―significantly, her favorite figure―represents her peculiarity.  Laura, like the unicorn, is unusual, lonely, and ill-adapted to the world in which she lives.

Blue Roses”

Like the glass unicorn, “Blue Roses,” Jim’s high school nickname for Laura, symbolizes both Laura’s unusualness and her allure. Furthermore, it recalls Tennessee Williams’s sister, Rose, on whom the character of Laura is based.

The Fire Escape

Leading out of the Wingfields’ apartment is a fire escape with a landing. The fire escape represents exactly what its name implies: an escape.  The fire escape is most closely linked to Tom's character and to the theme of escape.  Tom uses it to escape to the movies, however Laura stumbles on it when she goes out. At the end of the play, Tom will literally use the fire escape to leave forever.

Paradise Dance Hall

As its name suggests, it is a surrogate paradise for the people who frequent it.


A reminder of Amanda’s glorious past.

Gentleman Caller

The “expected something that we live for.”


3.  Themes

Illusion Verses Reality

Among the most prominent themes of The Glass Menagerie is the difficulty the characters have in accepting and relating to reality. Each member of the Wingfield family withdraws into a private world of illusion.  Amanda's memories have given her a picture of the world- and of gentlemen callers- that isn’t a reality in the ghetto’s of St. Louis.  Laura retreats from her unpleasant situation into a world peopled with glass animals.  Tom escapes through literature, going to the movies, and drinking.


The plot of The Glass Menagerie is structured around a series of abandonments. Mr. Wingfield’s desertion of his family has created their economic situation; Jim’s desertion of Laura is the center of the play’s dramatic action; and Tom’s abandonment of his family is the final act.


War and Strife

The allusion to Guernica and the turmoil in Spain, compared to the uneasy peace in America, establishes a tense atmosphere as the play's background. The Americans of the thirties lived in relative peace, but for the 1944-5 audience of the play's first production, the thirties would have been seen as the calm before the storm of World War II. There is symmetry between the uneasy peace of the time period and the uneasy peace in the Wingfield house.



The Glass Menagerie is a memory play.  As Tom himself states clearly, the play’s lack of realism, its high drama, its overblown and too-perfect symbolism, and even its frequent use of music are all due to its origins in memory. The creator of a memory can cloak his or her true story in unlimited layers of melodrama and unlikely metaphor while still remaining confident of its substance and reality. Tom―and Tennessee Williams―take full advantage of this privilege.


4.  Theatrical Conventions


The Words and Images on the Screen

In Williams’ first version, there was a screen onto which were projected images or titles. The purpose of this was to give slides certain values or a particular point to a scene. Meaning was to be found not only in the spoken word; the screen was to give the primary point of each scene.  The device thus seems at best ironic, and at worst somewhat pretentious or condescending. Directors who have staged the play have been, for the most part, very ambivalent about the effectiveness and value of the screen, and virtually all have chosen to eliminate it from the performance. The screen is, however, an interesting example of Tennessee William's expressionist theatrical style, which downplays realistic portrayals of life in favor of stylized presentations of inner experience.



Music is used often in The Glass Menagerie to emphasize themes and to enhance the drama. Sometimes the music comes from inside the play.  For example when Laura plays the Victrola or when the music is heard from the nearby Paradise Dance Hall.  Williams is not concerned with reality and has this music appear whenever it suits his dramatic needs.  Other times, the music comes from outside the play.  For example, separate themes exist for Laura's retreat into the world of her glass animals, for the picture of the father who left them,  and for Amanda's recollections of her past.



Lighting also reflects the meaning of the play.  The lighting in the play is not realistic.  In keeping with the atmosphere of memory, the play is dim.  Shafts of light are often focused on selected areas or actors, sometimes in contradiction to what is the apparent center of attention.



A Few Suggested Discussion/Essay Questions

A  Characters

1.  Why does Tom go to the movies so often?  Does he go to the movies, as he says,

     or does he go somewhere else?  If so- where?

2.  What are the similarities between Tom and his father?

3.  Why does Amanda nag Tom so much?

4.  Why does Amanda live so much in the past?

5.  Why is Laura so shy?

6.  Why does Laura give the unicorn to Jim?

7.  Does Jim have the potential for greatness attributed to him by Laura?

8.  Why does Amanda blame Tom for the failure of the evening?

9.  What do you think of Tom’s act of rebellion at the end of the play? Is he justified in

      what he does? Explain.

10. Does the "older Tom" who narrates the events of the play feel the same way about

      the events as the "younger Tom" who lives them?

11. What do you think are the strengths or weaknesses of each character.

12. Pick a character in the play and pretend you are that person. 

      Make up the story of your life before the time when the play begins.

13. Pretend that it is 10 years after the play and write a short biography of what

      happened to each of the characters.

14. Who is the play mainly about-Tom, Amanda, or Laura?  Why?

15  Who is the hero of the play?  Is there a hero?  Is there an antagonist?

B   Themes and Symbolism

1. How is the fire escape a symbol that reveals something about each character’s

    personality?  Do you think the fire escape represents one character more than

    another? Explain.

2. In what way is Laura’s limp symbolic of her inner nature?  In what ways are her glass

    animals symbols of her personality?

3. When, in scene seven, the unicorn is knocked off the table and it loses its horn, how

    does this incident relate to Laura? What is the playwright saying about Laura when

    she says, “now the unicorn will be like the other animals”?

4. What other symbols can you find in the play and what do they mean?

5. At the very end of the play, Tom asks Laura to blow out her candles. What do you

    think that action symbolizes to Tom?

C   Theatrical Conventions

1. Which aspects of The Glass Menagerie are realistic? Which aspects are the most

    non-realistic? What function do the non-realistic elements serve?

2. In his opening monologue to the audience, Tom says that the stage magician “gives

   you illusion that has the appearance of truth, I give you truth in the pleasant disguise

   of illusion.” What does he mean?

3. Tom is a character in the story of the play and the narrator who steps outside of the

    story and creates the memory. Do you like that technique in playwriting?

    Why, or why not?

4. The scenes in this play are told as Tom remembers them.  Do you think the story

    might be different if Amanda were telling it? Write one or more of the scenes as one of

    the other characters might tell them.  You may use some of the dialog from the

    play, if you wish.


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