The words “After the fiasco—” appear on the screen as the scene opens. Tom stands on the fire escape landing and addresses the audience. He explains that in the wake of what Tom refers to as the “fiasco” with Laura’s college attendance, Amanda has become obsessed with procuring a gentleman caller for Laura. The image of a young man at the house with flowers appears on the screen. Tom says that in order to make a little extra money and thereby increase the family’s ability to entertain suitors, Amanda runs a telephone subscription campaign for a magazine called The Homemaker’s Companion.
The cover of a glamour magazine appears on the screen, and Amanda enters with a telephone. She makes a cheerful, elaborate, unsuccessful sales pitch to an acquaintance on the telephone, and then the lights dim. When they come up again, Tom and Amanda are engaged in a loud argument while Laura looks on desperately. Tom is enraged because his mother affords him no privacy and, furthermore, has returned the D. H. Lawrence novel he was reading to the library. She states that she will not permit that kind of “filth” in her house. Tom points out that he pays the rent and attempts to end the conversation by leaving the apartment. Amanda insists that Tom hear her out. She attributes his surly attitude to the fact that he spends every night out—doing something shameful, in her opinion—though he insists that he spends his nights at the movies. Amanda asserts that, by coming home late and depriving himself of sleep, he is endangering his job and, therefore, the family’s security. Tom responds with a fierce outburst. He expresses his hatred for the factory, and he claims to envy the dead whenever he hears Amanda’s daily call of “Rise and Shine!” He points out how he goes to work each day nonetheless and brings home the pay, how he has put aside all his dreams, and, if he truly were as selfish as Amanda claims, how he would have left long ago, just like his father.
Tom makes a move toward the door. Amanda demands to know where he is going. When she does not accept his response that he is going to the movies, he declares sarcastically that she is right and that he spends his nights at the lairs of criminals, opium houses, and casinos. He concludes his speech by calling Amanda an “ugly—babbling old—witch” and then grabs his coat. The coat resists his clumsy attempts to put it on, so he throws it to the other side of the room, where it hits Laura’s glass menagerie, her collection of glass animal figurines. Glass breaks, and Laura utters a cry and turns away. The words “The Glass Menagerie” appear on the screen. Barely noticing the broken menagerie, Amanda declares she will not speak to Tom until she receives an apology. Tom bends down to pick up the glass and glances at Laura as if he would like to say something but says nothing. The “Glass Menagerie” music plays as the scene ends.
By the end of Scene Three, Williams has established the personalities of each of the three Wingfields and the conflicts that engage them. Tom’s frustration with his job and home life, Amanda’s nostalgia for her past and demands for the family’s future, and Laura’s social and physical handicaps all emerge quickly through the dialogue. There is almost no down time in the play because every scene is dominated by heightened emotions like anger and disillusionment or by major issues in the characters’ lives, such as Laura’s marriage prospects. The play always presents characters with measured ambiguity: each of them is deeply flawed, yet none is completely unsympathetic.
Amanda comes the closest to being a genuine antagonist. Her constant nagging suffocates and wounds her children, and her pettiness decreases her credibility in the eyes of her children and the audience. For example, her complaints about Tom’s nighttime excursions may be legitimate, but they get lost in the reproaches she heaps upon him for his eating habits. Yet the hardship of her life as a single mother inspires sympathy. Her magazine subscription campaign is humiliating work, but it is a sacrifice and indignity that she is willing to undergo out of concern for her daughter’s eventual happiness.
Mr. Wingfield’s photograph hangs over everything that occurs onstage, indicating that, though the family has not seen him for years, he still plays a crucial role in their lives. Tom has been forced to adopt his absent father’s role of breadwinner, and he is both tantalized and haunted by the idea that he might eventually adopt his father’s role as deserter. Tom voices this possibility explicitly at the end of Scene Three, and we suspect that this occasion is not the first time he has done so. In fact, Amanda’s apparently intrusive and unjustified concern with what her son reads and where he goes at night may stem from her awareness of this possibility. Her husband left her, we learn, because he “fell in love with long distances.” With that in mind, it seems perfectly reasonable that she should be suspicious whenever Tom strays, mentally or physically, into any world outside their cramped apartment. The landing on the fire escape, where Tom is seen standing in Scene Three, ominously represents just what its name suggests: a route of escape from the “slow and implacable fires of human desperation” that burn steadily in the Wingfield household.
Close-knit, dysfunctional families are among Williams’s favorite subjects, and the subject matter of The Glass Menagerie is closely connected to Williams’s own life. Williams (whose real name was Thomas) spent a number of difficult years in St. Louis with his family, and for some of that time, he worked in a shoe factory. As a child, he was very close to his older sister, Rose, who, like Laura, was delicate and absorbed in fantasy. Rose even kept a collection of glass animals. As an adult, Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually underwent a lobotomy in 1937. Williams never forgave his mother, a domineering former Southern belle like Amanda, for ordering the procedure. The use of “Blue Roses” as a nickname and symbol for Laura in her happiest moments (which quickly turn painful) is an explicit tribute to Rose Williams.