The Glass Menagerie
The screen reads “Annunciation.” Some time has passed since the last scene, and it is now the spring of 1937. Amanda and Laura clear the table after dinner. Amanda nags Tom about his disheveled appearance and his smoking habits. Tom steps onto the fire-escape landing and addresses the audience, describing what he remembers about the area where he grew up. There was a dance hall across the alley, he tells us, from which music emanated on spring evenings. Rainbow refractions from the hall’s glass ball were visible through the Wingfields’ windows, and young couples kissed in the alley. Tom says that the way youth entertained themselves at the dance hall was a natural reaction to lives that, like his own, lacked “any change or adventure.” He notes, however, that his peers would soon be offered all the adventure they wanted as America prepared to enter World War II.
Amanda joins Tom on the landing. They speak more gently than before, and each makes a wish on the moon. Tom refuses to tell what his wish is, and Amanda says that she wishes for the success and happiness of her children. Tom announces that there will be a gentleman caller: he has asked a nice young man from the warehouse to dinner. Amanda is thrilled, and Tom reveals that the caller will be coming the next day. This information agitates Amanda, who is overwhelmed by all the preparations that will need to be made before then. Tom tells her not to make a fuss, but he cannot stem the tide of her excitement. As she leads Tom back inside, Amanda frets about the linen, the silver, new curtains, chintz covers, and a new floor lamp, all the while despairing the lack of time to repaper the walls.
Amanda proceeds to brush Tom’s hair while interrogating him about the young gentleman caller. Her first concern is that he not be a drunkard. Tom thinks she is being a bit hasty in assuming that Laura will marry the visitor. Amanda continues to press him for information and learns that the caller, who is named Jim O’Connor, is a shipping clerk at the warehouse. Tom reveals that both sides of Jim’s family are Irish and that Jim makes eighty-five dollars a month. Jim is neither ugly nor too good-looking, and he goes to night school to study radio engineering and public speaking and is a proponent of self-improvement. Amanda is pleased by what she hears, particularly about his ambition. Tom warns her that Jim does not know that he has been invited specifically to meet Laura, stating that he offered Jim only a simple, unqualified invitation to dinner. This news does not matter to Amanda, who is sure that Laura will dazzle Jim. Tom asks her not to expect too much of Laura. He reminds Amanda that Laura is crippled, socially odd, and lives in a fantasy world. To outsiders who do not love her as family, Tom insists, Laura must seem peculiar. Amanda begs him not to use words like “crippled” and “peculiar” and asserts that Laura is strange in a good way.
Tom gets up to leave. Amanda demands to know where he is going. He replies that he is going to the movies and leaves despite his mother’s objections. Amanda is troubled, but her excitement quickly returns. She calls Laura out onto the landing and tells her to make a wish on the moon. Laura does not know what she should wish for. Amanda, overcome with emotion, tells her to wish for happiness and good fortune.
Although Amanda seems to do everything she can to make her children happy, many of her expectations of what will make them happy are actually egocentric—that is, they are based on Amanda’s own definition of happiness. Amanda claims to value her children’s well-being above her own, and in some ways her behavior supports that claim. She does, for example, subject herself to the pedestrian work of subscription-selling in order to help Laura find a husband. Yet Amanda’s nagging of Tom and her refusal to recognize Laura’s flaws indicate her deep-rooted selfishness. She wants the best for Tom and Laura, but her concept of the best has far more to do with her own values than with her children’s interests and dreams. Tom wants intellectual stimulation and a literary life, and Amanda refuses to admit that these may provide as valid a vision of happiness as financial stability. Gentleman callers hold no interest for Laura, but they hold great interest for Amanda, who refuses to accept that her daughter is not identical to her in this regard.
There is much to condemn in Amanda’s selfishness. However, the trajectory of her life also offers much to pity. Amanda simply cannot accept her transition from pampered Southern belle to struggling single mother. Some of her richest dialogue occurs when the genteel manners of her past come to the surface—when she calls the moon a “little silver slipper” or bursts out with a string of Southern endearments in her subscription-drive phone calls. Such elegant turns of phrase seem tragically out of place in a St. Louis tenement.
The figure of the fallen Southern belle is based loosely on Williams’s own mother, who grew up in a prominent Mississippi family and suffered reversals of fortune in her adulthood. This figuration remains one of the best-known trademarks of Williams’s plays—Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire is perhaps the most famous representative of this type. The social and historical circumstances surrounding characters like Amanda point to some of the broader concerns of The Glass Menagerie. In the decades after the Civil War, many once-distinguished Southern families saw their economic fortunes decline. Daughters of these families, like Amanda, traditionally were raised to take pride in their social status. In a rapidly industrializing and modernizing America, however, that status was worth less and less. New money was seen as far more desirable than old but penniless family grandeur. The promise of Amanda’s past remains unfulfilled and always will remain so, but she refuses to accept this fact and convinces herself, wrongly, that Laura can still live the life that she expected for herself. At the end of the play, Amanda chides Tom for being a “dreamer.” It is clear, however, that the Wingfield children’s inability to deal with reality is inherited directly from their mother.
In Scene Five, Amanda’s far-fetched dreams for Laura appear to be within reach. The screen legend at the beginning of the scene is “Annunciation”—a word that, besides simply meaning “announcement,” also refers to the Catholic celebration of God’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that she is pregnant with Jesus Christ. Jim, then, may be seen as a savior—for Laura and for the entire family. Furthermore, Amanda’s description of the moon as a “little silver slipper” also calls to mind the Cinderella fairy tale, which Williams considered an important story. In one version of this tale, a handsome young prince rescues a maiden from a lifetime of domestic drudgery, and a glass slipper is crucial to cementing the match. Amanda’s hopes for Jim’s visit are high, and clues such as the slipper suggest that they may be correctly so. Soon, though, Williams’s references to the birth of a savior and of fairy-tale romance are revealed as ironic omens of tragedy.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!