Tom Wingfield, the narrator in The Glass Menagerie, tells us the story in the past tense, while the action of the play brings his narration to life. Tom is a rebel. When he tells us the story he has fled from his life in St Louis, from the tedious tyranny of the shoe warehouse, the often infuriatingly unrealistic demands of his mother, and the agonising emotional problem of his sister’s plight. But he finds that ultimately rebellion does not bring escape. As he tries at one point to make his mother acknowledge the truth about Laura, that she is “different from the other girls… She lives in a world of her own – a world of – little glass ornaments, Mother…” (271-2), the description cuts deeply into his own imagination, and he seeks flight from what he realistically sees to be an impossible situation. “I’m going to the movies” (272). At the end of the play he tells us how he went “further… [than] the moon” (313) trying to escape his pain, “attempting to find in motion what was lost in space” (313), but his love and pity for Laura are inescapable; his rebellion does not really work. “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” (313).The only successful rebel in the play is his father.
Tom’s rebellion against his mother is partly driven by a contempt for what he sees as her deep desire for conformity. Amanda’s dreams of the past sound like episodes from Gone With the Wind. It is a South very close to stereotype, so much so that we might wonder how much of it is true. (Blanche Dubois’ words about Belle Reve, with its “long parade to the graveyard” (126), are an interesting contrast). “One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain – your mother received – seventeen! – gentlemen callers!” (237). Her nostalgia summons up a world in which everything and everyone conforms to type. “Girls in those days knew how to talk” (237) and they talked about nothing “common or vulgar” (238). The gentlemen went on typically into conventional careers; “Champ Laughlin… became vice-president of the Delta Planters Bank…. That Fitzhugh boy went North and made a fortune…” (238-9). The same sort of romantic ideals emerge in her picture of herself in her youth: “That was the spring I had the craze for jonquils… Whenever, wherever I saw them, I’d say, ‘Stop! Stop! I see jonquils’” (277), and finally in the absurd way she dresses when the gentleman caller comes. Even Jim “blinks a little” (284) as she appears “coyly smiling, shaking her girlish ringlets” (284), grotesquely playing the conventional role of Southern belle.
This fantasy of stylish life brings with it demands about behavior that infuriate Tom. Grace has to be said at meals. Tom is lectured on how to eat (236), how to appear (264) and even what books to read: “That hideous book by that insane Mr. Lawrence… I WON’T ALLOW SUCH FILTH BROUGHT INTO MY HOUSE!” (250), while her own choice of literature, the stories in The Home-maker’s Companion, which “you couldn’t go out if you hadn’t read” (249), are characterized by such conventional conformist details as “delicate cup-like breasts, slim, tapering waists, rich, creamy thighs” (248) and so on. These are all in the interest of conforming to what is socially acceptable to Amanda’s dream, while all around them, as Tom points out, the world is breaking apart. The apartment is typical of those inhabited by the “fundamentally enslaved section of American society” (233). When Tom is nagged to comb his hair he is reading the paper bearing the headline “Franco Triumphs” (264) and fate is “suspended in the mist over Berchtesgaden” (265). He feels that Amanda’s refusal to recognize these realities is a part of her inability to see the truth about their lives and Laura’s likely fate. Tom feels that he is in “a nailed-up coffin” (255), but for the present, because the price of full rebellion is the suffering of his sister, he apologizes to Amanda for his conduct, and suppresses his longings a little longer.
For Laura, on the other hand, the ability to conform is a dream. She is so aware of her disability that life in the world is virtually impossible for her. At the shorthand class she broke down with shyness, “was sick at the stomach and almost had to be carried into the wash-room” (243), and, with infinite pathos, concealed her absence from her mother by going out everyday to the museum or the movies. She shrinks with horror at the thought of Jim O’Connor’s arrival. When he breaks the horn from the unicorn the symbolism is subtle and complex. The unicorn, like Laura, is different from the others – “Poor little fellow, he must feel sort of lonesome” (301) – so that breaking off his horn, as Jim does, might well be “a blessing in disguise” because “now he will feel more at home with the other horses” (303). The agonizing irony is that it is indeed not a salvation but a mark of Jim’s ultimate emotional as well as physical clumsiness. Laura’s loss in the play is all the greater for the momentary glimpse of a fulfilling life that Jim’s reckless kiss gives her. Jim’s shallowness expresses itself in the urge to conformity in all his ambitions, and the sense of unreality that seems to mark his conventional dreams. He was “astonishing” in school, but now works in the shoe warehouse. But he is studying public speaking and radio engineering, and believes optimistically that success in the world is a matter of having “social poise” (281). He has picked up the conventional language of management courses: “I’m planning to get in on the ground floor. In fact I’ve already made the right connexions…” (300). He lacks any real intelligence; he cannot see through Amanda, and his departure from the apartment after the demolition of so many dreams is exquisitely painful: “He stops at the oval mirror to put on his hat. He carefully shapes the brim and the crown to give a discreetly dashing effect” (310). He could never be a rebel, and is only an accidental companion for Tom.
Tom tries at one point to explain to Amanda what is in his soul, though his awareness of her inability, or even refusal, to understand keeps his manner partly ironic. He goes to the movies for adventure, he says. “Adventure is something I don’t have much of at work” (260). Amanda’s conformist view is that “most young men find adventure in their careers”, ignoring the real nature of Tom’s job. He tries to make her see that “man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter” (260), but her determination to follow social forms and what she would describe as “the civilized” makes her reject instinct. “Instinct is something people have got away from” (260). No wonder she hates Lawrence! There is little hope of making Amanda see his point, and Tom gives it up. But his rebellion is surely inevitable. He knows that in his contemporary world “Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them” (282). For Tom the pressure is intolerable. He keeps thinking “how short life is and what I am doing!” (283). But what he cannot rebel against is the fate of the sister he feels such tenderness for.
References to the text are from Browne, E.Martin, Ed. Tennessee Williams. Sweet Bird of Youth. A Streetcar Named Desire. The Glass Menagerie. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962