The Glass Menagerie

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Tom Wingfield Character Analysis

Amanda’s son and Laura’s brother, Tom plays a dual role in the play as both the narrator and protagonist. The play is from the perspective of Tom’s memories. He addresses the audience directly to frame and present analysis of the events, but he also participates in the play’s actions as a character within his own recollections. Tom feels fettered by the constraints of his job and his family and yearns for escape in all aspects of his life. Dissatisfied with his monotonous warehouse job, he writes poetry on the side and plots a future in the merchant marines. Tom frequently goes to the fire escape and smokes cigarettes, symbolically escaping the house yet remaining trapped onstage and in the tenement. He goes to the movies night after night, attempting to escape into action-adventure narrative; he also attempts to escape through alcohol, as indicated by the bottles poking out of his pockets. The oscillation between Tom’s desire for freedom and inability to escape forms the emotional tension underlying the entire play. Although Tom leaves his family in the end, abandoning Amanda and Laura to pursue an independent future, the fact that he has created this play shows that he can never truly leave his memories, and therefore his family, behind.

Tom Wingfield Quotes in The Glass Menagerie

The The Glass Menagerie quotes below are all either spoken by Tom Wingfield or refer to Tom Wingfield. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Memory Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the New Directions edition of The Glass Menagerie published in 1999.
Scene 1 Quotes

Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the first line that Tom, the narrator of the play, says, thus presenting himself as the author of the events that are to come. Tom is both a character in the play’s drama and the manipulator of the scene that the audience sees. Tom doesn’t spell out exactly what he will give the audience. Instead, he declares that he will give truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion--thus asserting that the events of the play are objectively "true," but filtered and softened through his memory and the artifice of the theatre.

At the same time, there is another "magician" at work beyond the one that Tom explicitly presents. When Tom enters the stage, he himself is presented as the author of the play, and the events of the play are portrayed as springing from his own memory. However, Tennessee Williams, not Tom, is the play’s real author, of course. This means that when Tom steps outside the action to set the stage, as he does in this first scene, he is still a character in a framed, fictional play. The audience is thus watching a stylized portrayal of a character who then presents an elaborately stylized portrayal of the main events of which the drama is composed--further emphasizing the illusory, dreamlike aspect of the action we are about to observe.

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There is a fifth character in the play who doesn’t appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantel. This is our father who left us a long time ago. He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances...The last we heard of him was a picture postcard...containing a message of two words: “Hello—Goodbye!”

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Mr. Wingfield
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom, in the role of the play’s narrator, introduces his father as yet another stage prop, not as a real human being. The father only enters the play as a figure in each of the characters’ memories. Although he no longer has any active interaction with any of the characters, the father looms large psychologically over the Wingfield household--and this is represented symbolically as he looms physically over the play’s deliberately unrealistic set. The father’s absence makes Amanda, the mother, even more domineering and insecure, both because she is the only voice of authority and because she is still in pain over her husband’s disappearance. The father’s absence also makes Amanda even more hectically eager to see Laura married, since she wants to redeem the failure of her own marriage by seeing her daughter happily married.

For Tom, his father’s absence is a huge symbolic burden because of Tom’s conflicting guilt over whether or not he should stay or leave his family. Tom feels trapped in the apartment. He wants to leave and pursue his own life, but he also does not want to be yet another male figure who betrays his mother and sister.

Scene 3 Quotes

You’ll go up, up on a broomstick, over Blue Mountain with seventeen gentleman callers! You ugly—babbling old—witch...

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Amanda Wingfield
Related Symbols: Glass Menagerie, The Movies
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom and Amanda have been arguing vehemently over Tom’s role in the family. Although Laura doesn’t speak during the argument, the spotlight stays on her the entire time, showing that she is often at the center of their fights. Both Tom and Amanda project themselves and their concerns onto Laura. Tom desperately wants to lead an independent life, but he feels trapped at home. Tom yells at Amanda because he feels as though he has no privacy. Amanda accuses Tom of doing sordid things and ruining his reputation when he claims that he is going out to the “movies” at night. Not only does she assume that he’s lying, she assumes that he is being disreputable, which will give the family and thus Amanda herself a poor reputation by association. Tom lashes out so violently against Amanda because he sees that she doesn’t trust him and that she wants to control every aspect of his life. Even though Amanda is stifling Tom, Tom does not exactly demonstrate fair and balanced behavior to Amanda. Tom leaps around the stage, admitting to all the horrible deeds Amanda accuses him of undertaking.

When Tom calls Amanda a witch, however, he has gone too far, and the relationship between them literally shatters: as Tom violently leaps around the stage, he knocks over Laura’s glass menagerie, and some of the animals shatter. Tom and Amanda have reached the breaking point, and this becomes literally rendered in the breaking of the animals.

Scene 4 Quotes

But the wonderfullest trick of all was the coffin trick. We nailed him into a coffin and he got out of the coffin without removing one nail. [He has come inside.] There is a trick that would come in handy for me—get me out of this two-by-four situation!...You know it don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Laura Wingfield
Related Symbols: The Movies
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom’s description of the coffin trick to Laura is deeply symbolic of the way he feels about his own life. Tom escapes the apartment when he goes to the movies at night, but the movies can only offer an imaginary, temporary escape, and he still feels trapped day after day. Because he perceives himself to be stuck and stagnant, with no foreseeable change in his future, he feels dead, caught physically and emotionally in the same place. Tom feels as though the external forces of his mother and the world at large have kept him nailed into place, and the magician’s ability to escape represents his greatest desire. However, Tom never quite articulates what he would do with his freedom.

It's important to note that Tom is also trapped inside his own head and his own memories. The apartment is a coffin, but the stage itself is also a trap for Tom. He keeps putting himself voluntarily back into the coffin of his memories because he feels too guilty to escape completely.

I go to the movies because—I like adventure. Adventure is something I don’t have much of at work, so I go to the movies.

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Movies
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

After Tom and Amanda have had their enormous fight about Tom leaving the house every night, and after Tom has called Amanda a witch, he eventually apologizes to Amanda, and they resume their conversation about the movies in a more measured, civil fashion. Amanda is afraid that Tom has inherited his father’s desire for escape, which is why she objects so strongly to his fantasy life. She becomes domineering and clingy because she fears that if she loses control of Tom, he will leave the family, just as her husband has. Tom feels stifled both at home and at work, so he seeks adventure through other methods. The movies allow Tom to have the freedom, even if that freedom is imaginary, to be the hero of another story. Though Tom is trapped physically, he finds some solace in imagination. However, the movies are only a temporary relief.

The movies also serve as an intriguing parallel to the space of the theater that the play itself inhabits. The Glass Menagerie does not hide its theatricality and artifice. On the contrary, the play is always very aware of its status as an art object. The audience is at the play for some reason, and that reason might well be to escape from some aspect of the real world. Just as Tom seeks adventure at the movies, so the audience might be seeking adventure at the theater.

Scene 6 Quotes

[Jim] seemed to move in a continual spotlight. ... He was shooting with such velocity through his adolescence that you would logically expect him to arrive at nothing short of the White House by the time he was thirty.

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Jim O’Connor
Related Symbols: Fire Escape
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

When Tom begins to describe Jim, the other man seems like Tom’s opposite in many ways. In high school, Jim had been a star. Tom describes young Jim in a way that makes him sound like a hero in one of the adventure movies Tom now watches night after night. Tom’s memory of Jim was of a perfect "golden boy" with an extremely bright future.

At present, however, the paths of the two men have converged. Despite seeming to be on such different paths at the end of high school, Jim and Tom are now both in the same position at the warehouse. Tom’s description of Jim is just as influenced by memory as his description of the rest of the characters, and Jim also relies on memory and the glory of the past to help soothe the harsh realities of the present. Since Tom knew Jim in Jim’s glory days, he can see him in this more flattering light, which allows Jim to see himself as the shining star he was, rather than the stalled worker he is now.

Scene 7 Quotes

Go, then! Go to the moon—you selfish dreamer!

Related Characters: Amanda Wingfield (speaker), Tom Wingfield
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

In Amanda’s final line of the play, she accuses Tom of being selfish and of not facing reality, yet she is also guilty of these exact qualities. She lashes out at Tom because she thinks that he has made a fool out of Laura and, by extension, out of Amanda. Amanda feels like Tom has betrayed the family by creating a dream and then shattering it. By inviting Jim over to dinner, Tom gave both Amanda and Laura the hope that Jim would be the hero who would come in and save the family. However, Jim already has a fiancée, and he will not leave his current life to come live with the Wingfields. Tom has created stage magic, but now the magic evaporates. Amanda is even more furious at Tom for presenting a possibility to them that then gets snatched away. Not only is Tom a selfish dreamer for only thinking of himself, he is also a selfish dreamer for presenting dreams that will not become reality. Amanda would rather live in memories and in a haze of the past than in the present. Tom takes Amanda’s angry cry at her word and leaves the house for good, and unlike their earlier fight, Tom does not return. He has finally succumbed to his desire for escape, and abandoned the family just as his father did.

I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two places.

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom ends the play with a long monologue that describes his escape from the Wingfield apartment. When Tom leaves his family, he leaves behind not only their reality but also their fantasy lives. The moon symbolizes hope and dreams throughout the play, as the family wishes on the moon to make their lives better. However, Tom realizes that wishing on the moon and dreaming is keeping himself tied to illusions and the past, rather than allowing him to move forward in his life. Tom abandons the promise of the moon and the dreams of his youth to try and pursue a new kind of life for himself (but also by following Amanda's angry command to "go to the moon").

The final monologue also re-introduces time into the play. This monologue pulls the audience out of the scenes in the apartment and presents a span of time over many years. Throughout the play, there is a continual tension between the characters’ recollections of the past and the present that they live in now. Amanda wants to cling to the past, and she fights against the realities of the present. Laura seems to exist in a bubble outside time. Tom, meanwhile, resents the past and the present and wants to fling himself into the future.

Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left St. Louis.

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom’s literary ambitions and his desire for adventure finally outgrow his life, and he breaks free of what he perceives to be his prison. Boxes are extremely symbolic for Tom. He sees the apartment that he lives in as a stifling box, and the fire escape is the only place that provides any kind of relief. Tom describes the magic trick with the man who escapes from the coffin as a metaphor for Tom’s own life, since he feels trapped and dead inside his physical and symbolic box. The warehouse is another box that imprisons Tom inside a dead-end job. Even the movies, Tom’s escape mechanism, are inside a screen and a theater that are both box-like. The shoe-box is symbolic of Tom’s feeling of being trapped. However, the shoe-box is also what sets Tom free. He takes the symbolic shoes out of the symbolic box and walks away from what he perceives to be his prison. Tennessee Williams’s description of Tom’s literary ambitions is also somewhat autobiographical. Williams himself had literary ambitions that extended beyond the scope of his own life in St. Louis, and he, too, left the city to pursue bigger dreams.

I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches.

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Mr. Wingfield
Related Symbols: Fire Escape
Page Number: 96-97
Explanation and Analysis:

The image of the city sweeping about Tom like dead leaves is perhaps a reference to a famous description in the Inferno, in which Dante describes souls as fluttering around the Underworld as lightly as dead leaves. Tom believed that when he left the apartment and sought his freedom, he would be able to escape (via the "fire escape," symbolically) the forlorn nature of the house. Tom felt like he was dead in that apartment, as he signified in his speech to Laura about the magician’s trick of getting out of the coffin. However, Tom learns, perhaps too late, that though he thinks he can find freedom by roaming far afield, he is still in the underworld, since he is still trapped within his own memories and his emotions. Physical freedom is not the same thing as psychological escape. Tom’s world becomes an inferno, the seasons and cities as empty and fruitless as dead leaves and dead souls. Just as the family is haunted by the specter of the father who left them, Tom is haunted by the specter of the family he himself left. Tom’s sudden break feels like a victory in the moment, but in reality, because he has had no closure, a huge part of Tom still remains in that apartment (as the very existence of the "memory play" itself makes clear).

The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Laura Wingfield
Related Symbols: Glass Menagerie
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

In Tom’s final monologue, memory, reality, symbols, time, and space all swirl together in Tom’s head. Although Tom thinks that he can escape the prison of his stifling home life when he leaves the Wingfield apartment and travels far afield, Tom cannot escape the memories of his past. Tom is heartbroken at the end of the play because he feels as though he has betrayed his sister. Even though Tom left the family to obtain his own freedom, which is what he thought he wanted, he hadn’t counted on the deep bond between himself and his sister, and his deep love and affection for her. He sees images of her everywhere, representing the guilt he feels. Tom shattered a bond between himself and Laura when he left, and every time he sees delicate glass objects, he is reminded of this symbolic shattering, because glass reminds him of Laura. Tom also sees himself in the glass, or, rather, the memory of his former self. 

For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura—and so goodbye...

Related Characters: Tom Wingfield (speaker), Laura Wingfield
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom’s final line of the play emphasizes the symbolic importance of the many different kinds of light and darkness that appear throughout the play. The lightning that strikes in this line is a very violent kind of light. Lightning is even more cruel and harsh than electric light or the light of the sun, since it is so highly concentrated and powerful. The lightning here also represents Tom’s feelings of guilt at leaving his family behind. Like the moon or the stars, lightning is a natural phenomenon, but it is quick, powerful, temporary, and all too real. The lightning also symbolically divides Tom’s present from his past. Tom knows that he can never return to the world of moonlight and candlelight that Laura and Amanda inhabit, because this world doesn’t even exist anymore. The memories of his family haunt Tom, but he must live in the present day. He thinks about Laura all the time, and his interior life has been lit by her memory since he left the family physically, but he also knows that he has to let her go in order to move forward with his own life.

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Tom Wingfield Character Timeline in The Glass Menagerie

The timeline below shows where the character Tom Wingfield appears in The Glass Menagerie. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Scene 1
Memory Theme Icon
The Wingfield apartment is in a lower-middle-class St. Louis tenement building that faces an alleyway. Through the... (full context)
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Tom enters, dressed as a merchant sailor and smoking a cigarette, and speaks directly to the... (full context)
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Tom tells the audience about the four characters in the play—himself, his mother Amanda, his sister... (full context)
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Tom enters the apartment and joins Amanda and Laura at the dining-room table. The words “Ou... (full context)
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Illusions and Dreams Theme Icon
...many times before. The lights dim and music begins to play. At Laura’s gentle urging, Tom mechanically plays along, asks his mother questions about the story, as though reading from a... (full context)
Scene 3
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The words “After the fiasco” appear on the screen. Tom stands on the fire escape and tells the audience that after the “fiasco” at the... (full context)
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Tom and Amanda are heard arguing behind curtains hanging over a door. Laura is standing in... (full context)
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Tom rips the curtains over the dining room door open, and he and Amanda continue to... (full context)
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Tom explodes at Amanda, claiming that he’d rather be bludgeoned to death with a crowbar than... (full context)
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When Amanda declares again that she doesn’t believe Tom is going to the movies, Tom sarcastically tells her she’s right and claims that he... (full context)
Scene 4
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As a church bell tolls five times, Tom stumbles up the fire escape and into the apartment, visibly drunk. Movie ticket stubs and... (full context)
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...calls out her customary “Rise and Shine!” She asks Laura to relay the message to Tom, as they are still not speaking. Laura begs Tom to apologize, but he remains unwilling.... (full context)
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“Ave Maria” plays softly in the background as Tom finally apologizes to Amanda for his behavior. Amanda nearly breaks down as she speaks of... (full context)
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...theme begins to play. Amanda says that she has caught Laura crying because Laura believes Tom is unhappy and that he goes out every night to escape the apartment. Amanda tells... (full context)
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When Amanda presses Tom to explain where he goes, Tom says that he goes to the movies for the... (full context)
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Amanda tells Tom that they have to make “plans and provisions” for Laura. She knows that he has... (full context)
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Amanda asks Tom to bring home a gentleman from the warehouse to introduce to Laura, and as he... (full context)
Scene 5
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It is spring, 1937. Amanda nags Tom about his appearance and his smoking. Tom steps onto the fire escape with his cigarette... (full context)
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Amanda joins Tom on the fire escape, and they look at the moon together. They each make a... (full context)
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Tom reveals that a gentleman caller will be coming to dinner: he has invited a colleague... (full context)
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Amanda begins to whisk around the apartment, simultaneously re-organizing the apartment and brushing Tom’s hair while interrogating him about the gentlemen caller. Her first concern is that the gentleman... (full context)
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Amanda continues to pump Tom for information. She learns that the caller’s name is O’Connor, and he works as a... (full context)
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Tom tells Amanda that he hasn’t told Jim about Laura: he just invited Jim over for... (full context)
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Tom leaves for the movies, and Amanda calls Laura to the front room. She points out... (full context)
Scene 6
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Leaning on the fire escape, Tom tells the audience about Jim. He describes Jim as the high-school hero, captain of sports... (full context)
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...carries a bouquet of jonquil flowers and reminisces about when she first met Laura and Tom’s father. (full context)
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Tom and Jim arrive and ring the doorbell. Laura is terrified and begs Amanda to open... (full context)
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After awkwardly greeting Jim, Laura dashes to the Victrola and then through the portieres. Tom explains that Laura is terribly shy. Jim and Tom go onto the fire escape as... (full context)
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Tom tells Jim that he’s sick of the movies and wants, instead, to move. He reveals... (full context)
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Jim and Tom re-enter the house to find Amanda transformed into a grotesque version of herself as a... (full context)
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Amanda sends Tom to fetch Laura for supper, but Tom returns and announces that Laura is not well... (full context)
Scene 7
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...box, which he does, although he knows why the lights have gone out. Amanda asks Tom if he has paid the light bill, and Tom admits he has not. Amanda assumes... (full context)
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“Things have a way of turning out so badly,” says Amanda. She accuses Tom of playing a joke on them, but Tom insists that he didn’t know about Jim’s... (full context)
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Tom smashes his drink glass on the floor and bursts onto the fire escape. Inside the... (full context)