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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
Although Laura lies huddled on the couch all through dinner, Amanda remains cheerful. She's so high spirited that you'd think that Jim was invited to dinner for her and not for Laura.
No sooner does the scene start than the lights go out. Tom, you've heard, has not paid the light bill, and the electric company has chosen this moment to cut off the power. Can you imagine what Amanda might say about Tom's failure to pay the bill if Jim weren't present?
NOTE: ON "LIGHT"
You have seen numerous references to lights of all kinds throughout the play: moon, lightbulbs, match flame, candlelight, torch, lightning. If moonlight conventionally symbolizes romance, what could lightning represent? Could it be the harsh light of reality? When Tom remarks that "nowadays the world is lit by lightning" he seems to be referring to war. Since a courtship of sorts dominates this scene, you'll see many lights usually associated with romance: candles, moonlight, and so forth. The abrupt loss of electricity, while reminding you that you can't ignore the reality of paying your bills, also provides a convenient reason for using candles to illuminate this "love" scene between Jim and Laura. At the same time, though, keep in mind that the whole play is dimly lit to represent memory.
Amanda manages to remain charming despite the stress she must feel. But even as she banters with Jim, you'll hear hints of seriousness. In a few sentences of apparently light conversation, she mentions the "mysterious universe," the "high price for negligence," and "everlasting darkness." Perhaps these phrases have been included to prepare you for things to come in the play, although you should guard against reading something too ominous into the words.
Finally, Amanda sends Jim into the living room to keep Laura
company. To light his way, she gives him an old candelabrum, a relic from
the burned-down Church of the Heavenly Rest.
NOTE: ON CHRISTIAN REFERENCE
Are you tempted to seek a symbolic meaning in the church candelabrum? This isn't the first reference to religion in the play, but it comes at a crucial moment. Amanda may view Jim as a "savior" of sorts as he goes to talk to Laura. Could that be the reason she equips him with a holy object? Jim as a Christ figure may be hard for you to accept. Nevertheless, he has been summoned to save Laura. And don't ignore the fact that earlier in the play Amanda plans fish for dinner because Jim is Irish Catholic. Fish, you may know, is a traditional symbol for Christ.
We're about to find out if Amanda's carefully laid plan-or would you prefer to call it a trap?- will work as she hopes. Jim sits down with Laura and talks with her warmly. Frightened and breathless as usual, Laura listens.
Jim dominates the conversation. He's friendly and self assured. Maybe he's practicing what he learned in his courses on how to be successful. His monologue may remind you of Amanda's behavior earlier in the evening. Is he trying to win Laura's admiration as he was won over by Amanda?
Jim obviously likes to talk about himself. Laura is just the opposite. As soon as Jim swings the topic of conversation to Laura's shyness, notice how nimbly Laura tosses the ball back to Jim.
Laura raises the subject of Jim's singing. It's her way of reminding him that they've met before. As they talk, memories of high school come flooding back. Jim remembers that he called Laura "Blue Roses," a name that rhymes with pleurosis, an ailment that kept Laura out of school for a time. The name fits somehow, even six years later, because a blue rose, like Laura, is "different," set apart from others. If you ever see a blue rose, you can bet it's one of a kind.
Laura steers the conversation to Jim's triumphant high school career. When she hands him their high school yearbook (notice its name: The Torch!), Jim accepts it "reverently." To Jim, the book is a precious record of his past glory.
Although he delights in recalling the past, Jim keeps his eye on the present. (Remember, Tom labelled Jim "an emissary from the world of reality.") He confesses to Laura that he hasn't yet accomplished all that he once hoped to. Jim's willingness to talk openly emboldens Laura. She asks about Jim's high school sweetheart. The news that he dropped her long ago sends Laura's insides into a tumult. Instinctively, she reaches for her glass menagerie, her haven in times of stress.
Laura wouldn't think of Jim as her "savior" in the religious sense. Yet, he shows the zeal of a missionary in his effort to redeem Laura from lifelong feelings of inferiority. Notice his long, sermon-like speeches about the proper way to lead one's Life. Christ taught many moral lessons through example. In his preaching, Jim cites his own actions to illustrate self-confidence.
Will Jim actually rescue Laura from misery? If you think so, you're seeing Jim through rose-colored glasses, the way Amanda and Laura do. On the other hand, if Jim strikes you as just an ordinary fellow out for a pleasant evening, you're probably more realistic about him. Look closely at his behavior. Does he truly intend to change Laura? Or does he brag a bit only to boost his own ego?
His advice to Laura could just as well be delivered to himself. It heightens still more his desire to keep striving for success. He's even moved to sing the praises of American democracy.
Jim's vision of American democracy is cloudy. It's based on his naive belief that a young person with the right connections and a few night school courses in executive behavior will zoom to the top of the corporate ladder. But how many young people achieve success that way? Jim's plan sounds like an obsolete success myth-that is, an illusion. In addition, Jim ignores the approach of World War II, a real event which postponed or upset virtually every American's plans for the future.
Jim takes a polite interest in Laura's glass collection. Observe how respectfully Jim accepts Laura's fantasy about her unicorn. A less sensitive person might ridicule Laura's notion that the unicorn "loves the light," but not Jim. He's more appreciative than she could wish.
Then he asks Laura to dance. You have to admire him, for who would have thought that anyone could ever get Laura to dance? While dancing they bump the table. The unicorn falls to the floor. Its horn has broken off. Now it's like all the other horses.
The symbolism of the unicorn's breakage is as transparent as the glass itself. But that doesn't make it any less poignant or effective. Without its horn, the unicorn is no longer unique. During the evening Laura has broken out of her world of unreality. She, too, has become less "freakish." It's a significant moment in the play.
Jim blames himself for the mishap, but Laura seems not to mind at all. How much Laura has changed! Recall that earlier in the play she had been distraught when Tom knocked the menagerie shelf to the floor. Jim is struck by Laura's graceful good humor as well as by her uniqueness. Suddenly, he's overcome by emotions he can't control. He is tongue tied. He can't think of anything better to do than kiss Laura on the lips.
Jim immediately realizes his mistake. He shouldn't have led her on. Gently, he breaks the news to Laura that he won't be calling again because he's engaged to Betty. Laura is speechless with shock. As Tennessee Williams writes, "The holy candles on the altar of Laura's face have been snuffed out." Jim asks Laura to speak, but she can't. Instead, she gives him the broken glass unicorn as a souvenir. A souvenir of what? Of a happy evening? Maybe a token of appreciation for his attempt to help her overcome her problem? Or does she intend to make him feel guilty?
Do you blame Jim for withholding the information about his engagement? Was it wrong for Jim to lead Laura on under false pretenses? Or is he perfectly justified in doing so because he had been invited to dinner only for the purpose of meeting Laura? You might sympathize with him for being a victim of his own conflicting emotions. Perhaps he would like to love Laura, but he feels compelled to hold back because she doesn't fit the mold of a business executive's wife.
Amanda chooses this moment to serve lemonade. As bubbly as before, she encounters a tense and somber situation in the living room. Her gaiety makes the news of Jim's engagement all the more shocking. In a moment, Jim is out the door. Not only has Jim failed to be Laura's knight in shining armor, but he hasn't even been an eligible candidate.
While the evening may not have been a disaster for Laura, it has been for Amanda. She casts about for someone to blame. She won't blame herself, of course, although you might argue that she should have known the risks of investing so much in one evening. Tom, therefore, has to be responsible. Amanda's temper rises. She accuses Tom of deliberate deception, of living in a dream world and manufacturing illusions. Do you see that Amanda could just as easily be talking about herself? In this instance there may be truth in the old idea that we dislike in others what we dislike about ourselves.
Tom refuses to take the blame. It was an innocent mistake, he claims, but Amanda refuses to accept such an excuse. Tom knows his mother well enough to realize he has no hope of dissuading her, so he immediately sets off for the movies. But, as you'll see, he goes much farther. He has fulfilled his obligation at home and can do no more. As he leaves, Amanda shouts after him, "Go to the moon-you selfish dreamer!"
Do you share Amanda's judgment that Tom is a selfish dreamer? You may also appreciate Tom's desperation and his need to do what every young person must do at some point in life: break from home and find one's own identity and place in the world.
Tom leaves the apartment in a rage, but he doesn't leave St. Louis until he is fired from his job. If you could look into Tom's head you might find considerable confusion. He wants to leave home, but it's difficult to do so. He also may realize that he could fail to find his dream out in the world. To guard against assuming total responsibility for possible failure, he waits until he is fired. As a result, he can blame his boss instead of himself in case things turn out badly. Tom, like his mother, needs a scapegoat.
Tom's closing speech reviews his wanderings since he left St. Louis. Does he believe that he made the right choice to follow his father's footsteps? Did he find the adventure he sought in the merchant navy? Tom declares that "cities swept about me like dead leaves... torn from the branches." Does the statement suggest that world travel suited him?
Why did Tom apparently fail to find the romance he craved? Has life so embittered him that he can't ever be saved from self-pity and sullenness? Or is he guilt ridden over deserting his mother and sister? Still another possibility is that Tom was doomed to chase rainbows. Adventure, romance, excitement-that's what you see in the movies. To pursue them in real life amounts to self-deception, for they are often as elusive as illusions.
Tom can't shake loose his memories of the past. Images of Laura haunt him. His emotional ties to the past may stretch, but they never break. Do you think we are all held captive by our past or is Tom a special case? In the last moment of the play Laura blows out her candles, casting the stage into total darkness. Williams has devised a dramatic ending to the play, but the action also suggests that Tom has finally rid himself of Laura's memory. Why he should suddenly be able to do so, however, is not totally clear. Perhaps the war, symbolized by lightning, has changed everything, including the way men think.