Williams' play is set in St. Louis in the 1930's. All the action takes place in the Wingfield apartment. Amanda Wingfield lives there with her two adult children, Laura and Tom -- both in their mid-twenties. Amanda is a disappointed ex-southern belle, who's been left by Laura and Tom's father, an alcoholic telephone repairman whose name we never learn. After Amanda gave birth to Laura and Tom, her husband left her to pursue a life of travel and adventure. The family is clearly struggling with money, and they live in a small apartment in a sprawling building. The entrance is from the fire escape rather than through a proper hallway. The only interior rooms we see are the dining room, kitchen, and the living room, which doubles as Laura's bedroom, and in which she displays and tends to her glass menagerie, the collection after which the play is named.
Tom narrates the play in a kind of retrospect -- he calls it a "memory play" -- and he's also a character in it. The play begins with dinner at Wingfield's. Tom, Laura and Amanda are having what seems to be a typical conversation: Amanda is frustrated with Laura's lack of "gentleman callers," and she babbles endlessly about the good old days down south when she was a popular, young girl, receiving dozens of callers in a single day. Tom and Laura tease their mother -- not particularly good-naturedly -- about her neurotic repetitions of these scenarios, but they suffer through her tales.
The next day Amanda finds out that Laura's been missing classes at Rubicam's Business College. She comes home and accuses Laura, who finally admits that instead of going to class she's been walking in the park or at the zoo. She says that she dropped out of business school at Rubicam's Business College after having thrown up in the bathroom due to nervousness. Laura's inability to attend classes and pursue a career throw Amanda's naturally high level of anxiety into overdrive. She insists that Laura either work at a job or try harder to meet a man to support her. If Laura can't find a beau, Amanda says, she fears that the two of them will have to appeal to their in-laws for money. Tom can't support them forever.
Amanda's anxiety about Laura's situation causes her to put more pressure on Tom, and she interrogates him about where he goes each evening. She's nervous that Tom wants to leave town, just like his father. Tom tells her he's been going to the movies, but Amanda finds this hard to believe because Tom is out every night and she can't believe anyone could go to the movies that often. They have a rollicking fight on his way out the door, and he rips his coat off and throws it, breaking some of Laura's glass. Amanda doesn't notice the damage and storms out, but Tom stays and helps Laura clean it, during which time we get a sense of how protective he feels of his sister.
When Tom arrives home later, he and Laura have an exchange about his whereabouts. He seems quite taken with the escapism of the movies, although in other moments he's quite critical of the way in which American culture revolves around going to the movies to watch others participate in action while the spectator sits still in the dark only to return to his or her uneventful life. Their conversation worries Laura that her brother is deeply unhappy living in St. Louis and working at the warehouse of Continental Shoemakers, which indeed he is. She expresses her anxiety to Amanda, who takes Tom aside and presses him again to find a man for Laura. She insists that he find Laura a gentleman caller before flying off to unknown shores.
Surprisingly, when we next see Tom he's found someone to bring home to dinner and meet Laura. His friend Jim O'Conner who also works in the warehouse will be coming over the following night. Amanda is thrilled, but when she tells Laura about the impending visit, Laura becomes hysterical. She had had a crush on a boy named Jim O'Conner in high school. At Soldan, he had acted in all the plays and been quite popular. Even though Laura had few friends, they had a special relationship, and Jim had a nickname for her -- Blue Roses -- which was a mishearing of "pleurosis," a lung inflammation that caused Laura to miss school. She vows not to come to dinner if it's this Jim.
When Jim and Tom arrive, Laura takes to the couch, ill and pale. Amanda eats dinner with the boys, during which time the lights go out. Tom's not paid the electricity bill that month, instead sending dues in to the Merchant Marines. He's hatching a plan for escape. Amanda sends Jim in to the living room with a candelabra. When they are alone, Jim and Laura strike up a very intense flirtation. He seems pompous, indeed, but also won over by Laura's quirks. He convinces her to dance a waltz with him, and when they do they knock over a glass unicorn -- Laura's favorite piece -- and its horn falls off. Jim is chagrined, but Laura recuperates the incident, saying that now the unicorn will be like all the other hornless horses, and will be less lonely, since they'll accept him as one of their own.
Jim then reveals to Laura that he'd like to pursue a relationship with her, but can't because he's engaged to be married to a girl named Betty. Amanda re-enters just after this conversation, bearing snacks, and Jim leaves hastily, making his excuses. Amanda is baffled and furious. She accuses Tom of playing a cruel joke on Laura, but he says he didn't know Jim was engaged. The play ends shortly thereafter with Tom's closing narration. He says that he fled St. Louis soon after the dinner and did have the life of travel that he'd aimed for. He moved from city to city, as he had wanted. But he's felt haunted, he says -- felt like something (or someone) was pursuing him, making him antsy. He's been unable to separate fully from Laura. The play closes with him waxing melancholic about his sister. He passes store windows at night, he says, and glass trinkets catch his eye, reminding him.
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