The Glass Menagerie follows Tom’s memories of the time period leading up to his eventual abandonment of his mother and sister. As he remembers the intolerable situation he once lived in, with a boring job that he had to take on in order to be nearly the sole breadwinner for his overbearing, delusional mother and his timid, ghost-like sister, he nevertheless shows himself to be similar to them. Each of the Wingfields is trapped in their own private drama of illusions and despair, and each of their illusions serves to hurt the other members of the family. Amanda’s escapism into her past places intolerable pressure on Tom and Laura. Laura’s refusal to work toward a future puts financial strain on Tom and Amanda. Tom’s desire to leave means abandoning Amanda and Laura. As the only member to escape this toxic dynamic, Tom narrates the play as if to explain why he had to leave, but ultimately finds himself unable to let go of Laura.
Tom’s misery is apparent from the beginning as he trades barbs with Amanda at the dinner table. Amanda turns dinner into an entire production despite their poverty by reminiscing about her glorious youth in Blue Mountain. The way she forces the whole dinner to fit into the context of her illusions creates a claustrophobic atmosphere with palpable strain between Amanda and Tom. The primary inciting incident occurs in scene two, when Amanda discovers that Laura has dropped out of business college because of her anxiety. The looming reality that Laura will likely never be independent throws Amanda into a frenzy. The more agitated Amanda gets, the more trapped Tom feels. He constantly goes to the movies, both to physically escape his mother’s delusions and to imagine a life where he is free to have adventures on his own terms. The more Tom leaves, the more frightened Amanda becomes that he will leave for good, just like his father. Finally, Amanda begs Tom to find Laura a “gentleman caller,” a potential husband who could help take some pressure off them both.
Thus, when Tom finally relents and invites Jim over, Amanda responds with almost manic joy. At the beginning of the play, Tom describes Jim as “the long delayed but always expected something we live for,” a dream, the prospect of a future. For the Wingfield family, Jim is a potential escape from their personal miseries, a suitor for Laura, which would provide stability for Laura and Amanda. In addition, Tom reveals to Jim just before they arrive at his house that he used his last paycheck to enlist in the merchant marines instead of paying the electricity bill. Although Tom does not really believe Jim and Laura will marry, him complying with Amanda’s wishes and bringing Jim to dinner implicitly make Tom’s planned exit less of an abandonment, as if he’s leaving having done everything he could. This is the first shattered illusion as just after dinner the lights go out.
The ensuing scene with Jim and Laura sees her romantic fantasies destroyed. Laura reminisces over an almost heroic past version of Jim, whom she had a crush on in high school, and she allows him to relive his glory days. Caught up in the romance of the candlelight, his glory days, and Laura’s fawning, Jim leads Laura in a dance, accidentally breaking her favorite glass unicorn. At first, this destruction and Laura’s calm rationalization of it seem to indicate that she might be abandoning her illusions for the real world, but tragedy looms. At the climax of the play, Jim kisses Laura, caught up in the beautiful past she’s conjured and her flattery. However, his illusion is instantly shattered. He remembers where and when he is, and that he is engaged. Laura is shell shocked, but she gives him the broken unicorn as a souvenir, as if asking him to take her dream of romance with him. With all of Amanda’s expectations unfulfilled, she turns all her anger on Tom, who leaves, this time for good.
The play ends with Tom’s monologue, describing his travels all over the world, living out the adventure he desired so badly, and yet, he still always sees Laura in his mind. Him thinking that he could simply leave Laura, whom he did care for, without feeling guilt was in and of itself an illusion. When Tom carelessly invited Jim over knowing Amanda’s expectations for the evening and didn’t pay the electric bill, he hurt Laura when it was Amanda he was truly angry at. He begs Laura to blow her candles out, which would shroud her image in darkness so he no longer has to see her, the innocent casualty of his escape plan.