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Amanda, a deserted wife and the mother of Laura and Tom, is the protagonist of the play. She is to be pitied, for she lives in a world of dreams and illusions. She has preconceived ideas about what is right for her son and daughter and tries to make her dreams for them come true; she wants Tom and Laura to bring her the happiness that her husband failed to give her. In the process of her dreaming and scheming, she totally ignores the wants and needs of her children, never really understanding either of them. When they fail to live up to her expectations, Amanda nags them and criticizes them unmercifully.
Amanda is obviously a frustrated woman. She resents the fact that the man she still loves abandoned her, leaving her to raise two small children. She romanticizes her past life as a Southern belle, often repeating an exaggerated story of having seventeen suitors at once. She has to live in the past, because her present life is not miserable. Unskilled, she is not able to find a permanent job and depends upon her son Tom to support both Laura and her. She is frustrated with his lack of ambition and refusal to take college courses, and she cannot accept the fact that Laura is a strange cripple.
Throughout the play, Amanda shows that she is totally unrealistic. She refuses to accept the fact that Laura is different. She will not allow either of her children to refer to her as a cripple and tries to pretend that it is not so strange that her daughter spends all of her time with her glass menagerie. She foolishly believes that Jim O'Connor will immediately be taken with Laura and want to marry her, thus providing for the girl's future. At the same time, she makes Tom promise that he will never take after her ex-husband, and yet she nags him into deserting her, just like his father before him. This is the greatest irony of the play.
It is not surprising that Amanda, in spite of her determination, is destined to meet with disappointment and failure. Her dreams and illusions defeat her in the end. This domineering and manipulative mother must accept the fact Laura is probably going to be a spinster and that her son is deserting her, just as his father did.
Laura is a delicate, sensitive girl, who is nearly twenty-four years old. Her life has been shaped by her being a cripple, for she has a terrible inferiority complex because of her handicap. She is so nervous and ashamed that she has trouble facing people from the outside world. Whenever she is exposed to a stressful situation, she becomes physically ill from fear and nervousness. This is seen when she must take a timed typing test in business school and when she is forced to face Jim O'Connor at dinner.
Since Laura cannot relate to people, she develops an intense interest in plants and animals. When she is supposedly attending business school classes, she instead visits the zoo to see the animals and goes to the park to admire the greenhouse and gardens. At home, she occupies herself with her collection of glass animals. Her love for rare specimens -- penguins, tropical flowers, and the sole unicorn among her glass horses, is symbolic, for she is also a rare specimen.
Since she rarely goes out of the house, Laura spends her time by listening to phonograph records and playing with her collection of miniature animals - her "glass menagerie." These actions make her seem even more strange to the outside world. Though Laura lacks 'charm' in her mother's sense of the term, she has inner beauty and grace. Once she overcomes her discomfort in the presence of strangers, she can even become charming, as evidenced in her relaxed manner with Jim. She dances with him and allows him to kiss her. Unfortunately, just as things seem to be going well for Laura for the first time, Jim apologizes to her and states that he is engaged to be married. She graciously accepts the news and gives Jim the broken unicorn as a parting gift. As the action of the play ends with Laura crying on the sofa, the audience knows that Laura will revert to feeling and acting like a cripple. In spite of her tragic self-image and the tragedy of her poor, fatherless existence, Laura is drawn to be a more sympathetic character than her nagging, domineering mother.
Tom, the son of Amanda and younger brother of Laura, is also a pitiable figure. Because Amanda's husband has deserted her and the children, the familial responsibility has been thrust on Tom. At an age when other youths can enjoy life and pursue their personal ambitions, Tom is forced to become the sole breadwinner for the family. With no education beyond high school and little ambition, he works for sixty-five dollars a month at a shoe warehouse, a job that he absolutely hates. Tom's heart is in literary pursuits. He loves to read and to create poetry, even writing poem on the lids of shoeboxes. Unfortunately this causes him to be fired.
To find relief from his boring, tedious, and stressful existence and Amanda's constant nagging and criticism, Tom goes to movies and dreams about future adventures for himself. He thinks about deserting the family to become a sailor, but resists the temptation out of a sense of responsibility. The last straw comes when Tom is falsely accused by his mother of being insensitive, having invited an 'engaged' gentleman caller for Laura. Even Jim admits his engagement was a secret; Amanda just needs a scapegoat, and Tom is it. In the end, he turns his back on responsibility and goes to sea as a merchant marine.
Though Tom repeats history by abandoning Amanda and Laura, he is not drawn unsympathetically. The audience feels that Amanda has driven him away from home, and the poet in him needs free breathing space and real life adventure.
Jim is "ordinary" and "realistic," a striking contrast to the Wingfields. Although he was a popular and winning basketball player and debater in high school, he has not lived up to his potential. In the play, he appears mediocre, having a job in the shoe warehouse, very similar to that of Jim. He knows his life after high school has been very unimpressive, and he tells Laura, "I am disappointed but I am not discouraged". This optimistic outlook is his most positive trait.
Jim comes across as a largely insensitive character. He is impressed by the successes of his high school career and is attracted to those people who remember him as a hero and feed his ego, like both Tom and Laura. In spite of his love for Betty, to whom he is engaged to be married, he makes Laura swoon over him and cruelly kisses her, leading her on. To Amanda, Jim is to be a Messiah, a savior for Laura. Unfortunately, Jim cannot save the poor girl and in the process, he totally crushes Amanda, forcing her to accept reality.
In spite of his insensitivity, Jim is a polite young man. He goes to check on the electricity and takes Laura some wine when Amanda instructs him to do so. Although he finds Amanda's dress inappropriate and humorous, he says nothing and contains his laughter. When left alone with Laura, he takes an interest in her glass menagerie. When he takes the liberty of kissing her without permission, he apologizes to her for his boldness. He also rightly reprimands himself, saying he is a "stumble-John". For this one moment, he likens his condition to Laura's crippled one. His actual stumbling against the table and the breaking of Laura's glass unicorn earlier in the scene actually foreshadowed this later metaphoric stumbling. In spite of his insensitivity, Jim is not portrayed as a cruel fellow.