Tennessee Williams

The Glass Menagerie

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The Glass Menagerie Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 42-page guide for “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 7 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Time and Memory and Generational Burdens.

Plot Summary

Tennessee Williams, who wrote The Glass Menagerie in 1944, refers to the work as a “memory play” (750). Now recognized as one of the greatest American playwrights in history, The Glass Menagerie launched Williams’s career. The play is heavily influenced by Williams’s own life. The character of Laura is based on Williams’s older sister, Rose (alluded to by Laura’s nickname, Blue Roses), who was subjected to a botched lobotomy that rendered her mentally disabled and left her institutionalized. Williams cared for his sister his whole life, and when he died in 1983, designated that the majority of his estate support her ongoing need for care until her death in 1996. The play premiered in Chicago before transferring to Broadway in 1945, earning the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best American Play. Since its debut, the play has received two Broadway revivals, countless productions around the world, and multiple film, television, and radio adaptations. The Glass Menagerie is not Williams’s only play to receive a place of honor in the canon of American dramatic literature. Williams went on to write nearly thirty major plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Summer and Smoke (1948), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

The Glass Menagerie reflects the memory of Tom, the play’s protagonist, who recalls the events that led him to break away from his mother and sister and seek his own fortune and adventure. Laura, Tom’s older sister, is cripplingly anxious. Self-conscious about her disabled leg, she becomes physically ill when facing social situations. Their mother, an aging Southern belle named Amanda, desperately tries to force her daughter to function outside of the home, relying heavily on Tom for support since her husband abandoned the family several years before. Amanda, who frequently regales her children with stories of youth when she was courted by an endless supply of suitors, cannot understand why Laura has not developed the same social graces. She begs Tom, who is stuck in a rut working a factory job while dreaming about adventure, to bring home a friend as a gentleman caller for his sister. Tom invites his friend Jim, who attended high school with the siblings, and who Laura once loved from afar, to dinner. Jim and Laura connect as Jim attempts to bolster her self-confidence and finally kisses her. Jim then apologizes, revealing that he is engaged to be married, and leaves. Shortly after the events of the play, Tom escapes the suffocating apartment and life, but remains haunted by the memories of his family.

The play reflects the expressionist movement which emerged from early 20th century Europe. Unlike realism or naturalism, which attempts to depict an objective representation of life, expressionism offers a consciously subjective view of reality filtered through the lens of perception. To this end, The Glass Menagerie breaks the fourth wall. The imaginary fourth wall, prominent in realism, is the invisible wall through which the audience watches the action onstage as passive observers. Tom addresses the audience directly, which violates the temporal and physical division between the audience and the characters. The play’s reality is presented as subjective and distorted through memory, often stylistically vague or exaggerated. Told from the point of view of a poet, the characters often lapse into slightly poetic language. In the United States and Europe, expressionism responded to the horrors of World War I and the mechanization of death by emphasizing humanized perspective rather than staunch objectivity.

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