I married no planter! I married a man who worked for the telephone company! . . . A telephone man who—fell in love with long-distance!
Tom leans against the rail of the fire-escape landing, smoking, as the lights come up. He addresses the audience, recollecting the background of the gentleman caller. In high school, Jim O’Connor was a star in everything he did—an athlete, a singer, a debater, the leader of his class—and everyone was certain that he would go far. Yet things did not turn out according to expectations. Six years out of high school, Jim was working a job that was hardly better than Tom’s. Tom remembers that he and Jim were on friendly terms. As the only one at the warehouse who knew about Jim’s past glories, Tom was useful to Jim. Jim called Tom “Shakespeare” because of his habit of writing poems in the warehouse bathroom when work was slow.
Tom’s soliloquy ends, and 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, but Amanda assures her that it is only right for a girl to aim to trap a man with her beauty. When Laura is ready, Amanda goes to dress herself and then makes a grand entrance wearing a dress from her youth. She recalls wearing that same dress to a cotillion (a formal ball, often for debutantes) in Mississippi, to the Governor’s Ball, and to receive her gentlemen callers. Finally, her train of memories leads her to recollections of Mr. Wingfield.
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. Amanda dismisses Laura’s terror and busies herself in the kitchen making salmon for dinner. 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 retreats to the record player. Tom explains to Jim that she is extremely shy, and Jim remarks, “It’s unusual to meet a shy girls nowadays.”
Jim and Tom talk while the women are elsewhere. Jim encourages Tom to join him in the public speaking course he is taking. Jim is sure that he and Tom were both meant for executive jobs and that “social poise” is the only determinant of success. However, Jim also warns Tom that, if Tom does not wake up, the boss will soon fire Tom at the warehouse. Tom says that his own plans have nothing to do with public speaking or executive positions and that he is planning a big change in his life. Jim, bewildered, asks what he means, and Tom explains vaguely that he is sick of living vicariously through the cinema. He is bored with “the movies” and wants “to move,” he says. Unbeknownst to Amanda, he has taken the money intended to pay for that month’s electric bill and used it to join the Union of Merchant Seamen. Tom announces rather proudly that he is taking after his father.
Amanda enters, talking gaily and laying on the Southern charm as she introduces herself to Jim. She praises Laura to him and, within minutes, gives him a general account of her numerous girlhood suitors and her failed marriage. Amanda sends Tom to fetch Laura for dinner, but Tom returns to say that Laura is feeling ill and does not want to eat. A storm begins outside. Amanda calls Laura herself, and Laura enters, stumbling and letting out a moan just as a clap of thunder explodes. Seeing that Laura is truly ill, Amanda tells her to rest on the sofa in the living room. Amanda, Jim, and Tom sit down at the table, where Amanda glances anxiously at Jim while Tom says grace. Laura, in the living room alone, struggles to contain a sob.
Laura’s glasslike qualities become more explicit in Scene Six, where, according to the stage directions, she resembles “glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance.” She embodies the “momentary radiance” of glass more completely in Scene Seven. Here, however, it is the fragility of glass that is most evident in her character. Before now, we have merely heard about the panic that results from her shyness. In this scene, we witness it directly, as her reason breaks down in the face of the terror that Jim’s presence instills in her.
The straightforward, iron-willed Jim contrasts sharply with the elusive, delicate Laura. Jim is, as Tom says in Scene One, a representative from the “world of reality.” His entrance marks the first time in the play that the audience comes into contact with the outside world from which the Wingfields, in their various ways, are all hiding. As embodied by Jim, that world seems brash, bland, and almost vulgar. His confidence and good cheer never waver. He offers Tom, and later Laura, a steady stream of clichés about success, self-confidence, and progress. Whereas Laura’s life is built around glass, Jim plans to build his around the “social poise” that consists of knowing how to use words to influence people.
Jim is as different from the rest of the Wingfields as he is from Laura. Whereas Tom sees the warehouse as a coffin, Jim sees it as the starting point of his career. For Jim, it is the entrance to a field in which he will attain commercial success, the only kind of success that he can perceive. Amanda lives in a past riddled with traditions and gentility, while Jim looks only toward the future of science, technology, and business. Given these contrasts, one might expect Jim to be bewildered and disgusted by the Wingfields and to be repulsed by the claustrophobia and dysfunction of their household. Instead, he is generous with them. He is good-natured about Tom’s ambivalent performance at his job, and most important, he is charmed by Laura’s imagination and vulnerability. Given Jim’s philosophy of life and belief in the value of social grace, it is possible that his remarkable tolerance and understanding is not a result of genuine compassion but, rather, an expression of the belief that it is always in one’s best interest to try to get along with everyone.
While Jim’s presence emphasizes the alienation of the Wingfields from the rest of the world, it simultaneously lends a new dignity and comprehensibility to that alienation. Jim’s professed dreams present a nightmare vision of the impersonality of humanity—shallow, materialistic, and blindly, relentlessly upbeat. We are forced to consider the question of whether it is preferable to live in a world of Wingfields or a world of Jims. There is no easy answer to this question, but it seems possible that, for all their unhappiness, Amanda and Tom would choose the former because the Wingfields’ world is emotionally richer than Jim’s. Along these lines, it seems possible that the outside world has not so much rejected the Wingfields as they have rejected the outside world.