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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
The play begins with detailed stage directions to describe the shabby apartment of the Wingfields, which helps to immediately capture the bleak and depressing mood of the entire play. The narrator of the play, Tom Wingfield, first appears to explain that The Glass Menagerie is a play told from his memory. Williams uses the memory play as a theatric convention to move back and forth in time. Tom then tells that the characters in the play include his mother Amanda, his sister Laura, a gentleman caller Jim, and himself. In the background is his father, who deserted the family when the children were little. Tom explains that "he was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances."
After introducing the characters as a narrator, Tom jumps into the action of the play as a character. He joins his mother, Amanda, and his crippled sister, Laura, at the dinner table. Amanda's constant criticism about his chewing his food properly angers Tom, and he leaves the table to get a cigarette. When Amanda reprimands him for smoking too much, Laura tries to disentangle herself from the quarrel that she knows is coming. She offers to get the dessert. Amanda demands that she stay put and adds that she needs to stay pretty for gentleman callers. When Laura says that she is not expecting any, Amanda launches into her nostalgic and romanticized version of her past life. She explains that on one Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain she had unexpectedly had seventeen gentleman callers. Tom's subsequent sarcastic remark to Laura indicates that this is an oft-heard story. Laura, however, tells her brother not to interrupt, for Amanda loves to relate her past with gleeful relish. Amanda's long list of wealthy, well-placed admirers is followed by her remark, "But -- I picked your father." There is a clear indication that she feels she made a terrible mistake in her choice.
When Laura offers to clear the table, Amanda urges her to go and practice her shorthand. She then reiterates that Laura should stay fresh and pretty for gentleman callers. Laura reassures her that there will not be any, for she is not popular like her mother was in her Southern youthful days. Laura's voice is a little emotional as she offers her apologetic explanation to her mother, who greatly fears that her daughter will never find a husband.
This short scene gives the Background Information for events that will take place later in the play, with Tom, the narrator, initially giving essential information about the characters. Amanda, who loves to present herself as a role model to her children, is a deluded know-it-all, who lives in a world of illusions. She constantly nags at her son and daughter, often not even realizing what she is doing. She also constantly talks about a romanticized version of her Southern past (in romanticized language). It is questionable if she ever had seventeen gentleman callers, but she has repeated the story so often that she now believes this illusion herself; at the same time, she ignores the misery of her life as it is in the present. Additionally, she refuses to see or accept her daughter as she is--a crippled young woman who is shy and nervous, a completely opposite temperament from her vivacious mother. It is obvious from the repeated references to a gentleman caller that Amanda is desperate for her daughter to find a husband and refuses to accept the reality that she has none.
Even in this first scene, Laura is portrayed as a sad, almost pathetic, character. She is obviously bothered by her handicap, seeing herself as a cripple in life; she is certain that the whole world stares at her deformity. As a result, she tries to hide herself away at home, protected from the cruel outside. At dinner, she eagerly listens to her mother's romantic tales of her past and apologizes that she cannot attract gentleman callers herself. It is also obvious that she does not like confrontation, unlike her brother Tom, who seems to encourage conflict with his mother.
Tom feels sorry for himself. He feels a tremendous burden from having to support his mother and sister and escapes from the reality of his existence by smoking too much, constantly attending movies, and dreaming about real-life adventures. Because of the pressure that he feels, he constantly quarrels with his mother and resents her constant criticisms and her overbearing and nagging nature.
When Amanda makes a reference to her choice of a husband, her regret at having made a bad choice is evident. In contrast to the wealthy, landed suitors and the luxurious way of life that she imagines in Blue Mountain, Amanda has a tragic existence. She suffers from being deserted by her husband, accepting the reality of her children's actual lives, and suffering poverty and the claustrophobic apartment in downtown Saint Louis. The reality of her existence is a far cry from the illusion of her dreams.
Williams employs a great deal of foreshadowing in this first scene. The reference to Laura's resistance to doing shorthand practice prepares the audience for the fact that she has not been attending business school as presumed. Tom's restlessness provides an insight to his subsequent plans to desert the family and become a sailor. The reference to Laura having a gentlemen caller foreshadows Jim's arrival.
It is important to notice a statement that Tom makes as a narrator. He claims that in the play "I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." This statement has several layers of meaning. Obviously a play is just that - a play and not real life; but Tom is stating that the play is filled with truth. In deed, there is truth in The Glass Menagerie, both about Tennessee Williams' own sad past and also about the tragedy of life in general.