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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams-Book Notes
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THE PLAY

THE PLOT - SHORT PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

How does a young man with the mind and heart of a poet wind up as a sailor in the merchant marine? Tom Wingfield can tell you. He's done it. Years ago, he ran away from home and joined up.

One reason Tom left home was his mother, Amanda. She drove him to it. How? You'll see the instant you meet her. She nags Tom about his smoking, scolds him about getting up in the morning, and instructs him in the fine art of chewing food. It isn't easy to have a mother like Amanda. Yet Tom put up with her until one tragic night when his patience ran out, and he abandoned his family.

Of course Tom may simply be following in his father's footsteps. Mr. Wingfield deserted his family years ago, leaving Amanda to raise Tom and his sister Laura in a run-down tenement in the St. Louis slums. Amanda is used to better. She repeatedly recites stories of gracious young gentlemen who came to court her on the veranda of her family's plantation. But she married Mr. Wingfield, and ever since, she copes with life by recalling gentle days in the Old South. The details often change, however, and her children sometimes suspect Amanda's stories to be mere fabrication.


Lately, Amanda has begun to notice similarities between Tom and her husband. Tom is bored with life and very restless. Down at the warehouse he ducks into the washroom during slow hours and writes poems. Every night, after a dull day of work, he escapes to the moviesfor adventure, he says. Amanda is worried that Tom drinks. She fears that Tom will run away. She gets him to promise that he won't leave, at least not until his sister has a good man to provide for her.

Laura, in fact, is Amanda's gravest problem. A childhood disease has left her partly lame. She is frail and terribly insecure. Although she's older than Tom, she's never held a job. One attempt to send her to a business school ended dismally. She, like Tom, escapes to an unreal world, spending most of her time listening to old records and playing with her collection of glass animals. What the future holds for Laura, Amanda can't even guess.

That's why Amanda hounds Tom to bring home a friend, some eligible young man who will fall for Laura and marry her. Tom agrees, not because he thinks Amanda's scheme will work, but because he has pledged himself to help Amanda before he leaves home. Tom invites Jim O'Connor, an acquaintance from work. Amanda is thrilled, but Laura gets sick with fright.

Jim turns out to be someone Laura knew and admired from a distance back in high school. He charms Amanda and treats Laura kindly. He advises Laura to feel more sure of herself. To be a success you need confidence, he tells her. He shows her how to dance, and gently kisses her. In every respect, Jim seems like Laura's rescuer, the man to save her from a life of dependency and illusions. While dancing, they accidentally break the horn from Laura's prized glass unicorn. Now it looks like an ordinary horse. Symbolically, Jim has released Laura from her dream world.

But Laura's excursion into reality is a short-lived disaster. Jim won't be calling on Laura again. He's already engaged to be married. When Amanda finds out, she accuses Tom of deliberately making a fool of her. In her fury, Amanda refuses to hear Tom's denials. For Tom, this is the last straw. He packs up and leaves. Literally, he escapes.

But he fails to escape completely. As he wanders the earth, searching for some elusive paradise, the memory of his sister haunts him.

You're left with the thought that happiness, like so much else in Tom's life, is an illusion, too.

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