[The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation. The fire escape is part of what we see — that is, the landing of it and the steps descending from it.]
The stage directions introduce the theme of escape at the beginning of Scene One, setting the tone for readers as much as for producers of the play. The set decoration of a building fire escape symbolizes the struggle by the play’s characters with human desperation. A physical structure by which the Wingfields can literally flee their apartment represents the possibility of flight from their personal hell. Tom also stands on the fire escape when he appears as the narrator.
LAURA: I went in the art museum and the bird houses at the Zoo. I visited the penguins every day! Sometimes I did without lunch and went to the movies. Lately I’ve been spending most of my afternoons in the Jewel Box, that big glass house where they raise the tropical flowers.
Laura Wingfield talks with her mother, Amanda, who has just discovered that Laura has not been attending business college. Laura explains that school made her ill, so instead of going to classes she has just been walking around every day. The episode belies her mother and brother’s image of her as fragile or withdrawn from reality. On the contrary, she seems quite capable of lying to her mother in order to get away for a few hours. Clearly, she, like Tom, also needs and wants to escape.
[TOM:] For sixty-five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever! And you say self — self’s all I ever think of. Why, listen, if self is what I thought of, Mother, I’d be where he is — GONE! [He points to his father’s picture.] As far as the system of transportation reaches! [He starts past her. She grabs his arm.] Don’t grab at me, Mother!
Tom responds in anger to his mother, after Amanda reprimands him for staying out all night and putting his job in jeopardy. Amanda accuses Tom of being selfish. In his anger, Tom pulls out his cruelest emotional weapon, the threat to escape as his father did. Amanda instinctively grabs him; just as instinctively, he interprets her touch as a threat to imprison him. Tom’s growing anger will soon lead to a turning point in the play, when Tom shatters some of Laura’s glass animals.
[AMANDA:] Don’t think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job! Don’t let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure! Just go, go, go — to the movies! TOM: All right, I will! The more you shout about my selfishness to me the quicker I’ll go, and I won’t go to the movies! AMANDA: Go, then! Go to the moon — you selfish dreamer! [Tom smashes his glass on the floor. He plunges out the fire escape, slamming the door. Laura screams in fright.]
At the end of the play, Amanda Wingfield criticizes Tom for bringing Jim O’Connor home to meet Laura when Jim was already engaged. Amanda went to great effort to entertain Jim and feels that Tom has made fools of her and Laura. Tom responds by storming out. Amanda’s unfair blaming of Tom for her own shattered illusions and her manipulation of him through guilt impel his impulse to escape. Laura’s scream reminds the audience that the conflict between her mother and brother victimizes her.