The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, and all the events are drawn from the memories of the play’s narrator, Tom Wingfield, who is also a character in the play. The curtain rises to reveal the dimly lit Wingfield apartment, located in a lower-class tenement building in St. Louis. The apartment is entered by a fire escape. Tom stands on the fire escape and addresses the audience to set the scene. The play takes place in St. Louis in the nineteen-thirties. Tom works in a warehouse to support his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura. A gentleman caller, Tom says, will appear in the final scenes of the play. Tom and Laura’s father abandoned the family many years ago, and except for a single postcard reading “Hello––Goodbye!” has not been heard from since.
Tom enters the apartment, and the action of the play begins. Throughout the play, thematic music underscores many of the key moments. The Wingfields are seated at dinner. Amanda nags Tom about his table manners and his smoking. She regales Tom and Laura with memories of her youth as a Southern belle in Blue Mountain, courted by scores of gentleman callers. The stories are threadbare from constant repetition, but Tom and Laura let Amanda tell them again, Tom asking her questions as though reading from a script. Amanda is disappointed when Laura, for what appears to be the umpteenth time, says that she will never receive any gentleman callers.
Amanda has enrolled Laura in business college, but weeks later, Amanda discovers that Laura dropped out after the first few classes because of her debilitating social anxiety. Laura spends her days wandering alone around the park and the zoo. Laura also spends much of her time caring for her glass menagerie, a collection of glass figurines. Amanda is frustrated but quickly changes course, deciding that Laura’s best hope is to find a suitable man to marry. Laura tells Amanda about Jim, a boy that she had a crush on in high school. Amanda begins to raise extra money for the family by selling subscriptions for a women’s glamour magazine.
Tom, who feels stifled in both his job and his family life, writes poetry while at the warehouse. He escapes the apartment night after night through movies, drinking, and literature. Tom and Amanda argue bitterly, he claiming that she does not respect his privacy, she claiming that he must sacrifice for the good of the family. During one particularly heated argument, precipitated by Tom’s manuscripts pouring out of the typewriter, Tom accidentally shatters some of Laura’s precious glass animals.
Tom stumbles back early one morning and tells Laura about a magic trick involving a man who escapes from a nailed-up coffin. Tom sees the trick as symbolic of his life. Due to Laura’s pleading and gentle influence, Tom and Amanda eventually reconcile. They unite in their concern for Laura. Amanda implores Tom not to abandon the family as her husband did. She asks him to find a potential suitor for Laura at the warehouse. After a few months, Tom brings home his colleague Jim O’Connor, whom he knew in high school and who calls Tom “Shakespeare.” Amanda is overjoyed and throws herself into a whirlwind of preparation, fixing up the lighting in the apartment and making a new dress for Laura. When Laura first sees Jim and realizes that he is her high-school love, she is terrified; she answers the door but quickly dashes away. Amanda emerges in a gaudy, frilly, girlish dress from her youth and affects a thick Southern accent, as though she is the one receiving the gentleman caller. Laura is so overcome by the whole scene that she refuses to join the table, instead lying on the sofa in the living room.
After dinner, the lights in the apartment go out because Tom has not paid the electricity bill––instead, as Tom and Jim know but Laura and Amanda don’t, Tom has paid his dues to join the merchant marines. Amanda lights candles, and Jim joins Laura by candlelight in the living room. Laura slowly warms up and relaxes in Jim’s gently encouraging company. Laura reminds Jim that they knew each other in high school and that he had nicknamed her “Blue Roses,” a mispronunciation of her childhood attack of pleurosis. Jim tells Laura that she must overcome her inferiority complex through confidence. Laura shows Jim her glass collection and lets him hold the glass unicorn, her favorite. They begin to dance to the strains of a waltz coming from across the street. As they dance, however, Jim knocks over the unicorn, breaking off its horn.
Jim kisses Laura but immediately draws back, apologizing and explaining that he has a fiancée. Laura is devastated but tries not to show it. She gives him the broken glass unicorn as a souvenir. Amanda re-enters the living room and learns about Jim’s fiancée. After he leaves, she accuses Tom of playing a trick on them. Tom storms out of the house to the movies, and Amanda tells him to go to the moon. Tom explains that he got fired from his job not long after Jim’s visit and that he left his mother and sister. However, no matter how far he goes, he cannot leave his emotional ties behind. The play is his final act of catharsis to purge himself of the memories of his family.