In the opening lines of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie, the narrator Tom Wingfield addresses the audience and says, “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic” (Williams 1.1.12-13). When he makes that statement, he establishes that he is not a reliable narrator; he is not omniscient. From the audience’s perspective, this statement means that they can regard both what he says directly to them as narrator and the statements he and other characters make to each other as not necessarily accurate. The play consists of his memories of his life and those events, and so one would expect his memories to have been somewhat altered by time and distance. At this point it is not possible for the audience to know if Tom will make himself look better in his memories than he actually was, or if he will make himself look worse, or if there has been enough time for him to give a more or less objective representation of himself when he was younger.
Williams chose Tom to be the narrator, it seems apparent, because Tom is the only member of the family who ultimately escapes the genteel prison of his family’s existence at that time. Neither Amanda nor Laura would work effectively to tell the story of their life and Tom’s reasons for leaving, because they are still locked in that life. Neither of them would be a more reliable narrator than Tom. Amanda regards the present as something to be endured, and wishes to live in the past when she was young, beautiful, and desirable. Laura does not want to face reality and prefers her own daydreams and glass figurines. All three major characters escape their situation, but Tom is the only one who does so literally. Amanda escapes through living in the past; Laura escapes through retreating into a fantasy world.
In choosing Tom to be the narrator, Williams also allows Tom to stand in for himself. Many of the details of The Glass Menagerie come from Williams’ own life. In an article on Williams’ life, Cave notes that Williams’ father for years was a travelling salesman, who drank alcohol at times to excess (13). There were many episodes of arguing within his family, most notably between his parents, and his father threatened to desert the family (Cave 13-17). His sister Rose, whom he loved intensely, eventually had a nervous breakdown and was subsequently lobotomized, much to the regret of Williams and other family members (Cave 18-27). The character of Jim was also based on someone Williams knew. As noted by Cave when describing Williams’ studies at the University of Missouri, “One of his best friends there was Jim Conner, an energetic Irish Catholic who became an FBI agent after college. Apparently he had met Rose once but was not interested in her and thought her to be frail” (17). To anyone at all familiar with Williams’ life history, the play itself and especially the character of Tom allow Williams to explain his decision to leave his family to become an artist and to express his regret over what happened to his sister after he left.
Tom plays a dual role in the play in more than one way. He functions as both narrator and character in the play. As narrator, he is looking back at the past and recalling it, while as the character he is living in the present. As the older narrator, he has more insight into what was going on with his family and his own actions than he would have at the time he was living through the events in the play. He does not just recall the past; he interprets it and places it into historical context. His words as narrator soften the often argumentative words of his character, making the audience more sympathetic to him. The narrator role also allows him to give some background information about his family in a straightforward direct address to the audience. If there were no narrator, the characters would need to explain this information in dialogue, with a good bit of exposition that could well be awkward. For example, it is much easier for Tom as narrator to explain about his father’s desertion of the family than it would be for Tom and Amanda, or any other two or three characters, to speak dialogue giving the details of what happened to the father.
As narrator, Tom addresses the audience at the beginning of the first scene and explains when the play is set. When he says, “I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind” (Williams 1.1.4-5), he conveys to the audience that play takes place during the Great Depression. Because of this information, the audience will anticipate that money will be a big issue. He also alludes to the civil war in Spain as being somewhat comparable to class problems in the United States. By mentioning this war, he foreshadows the strife the audience will witness in the play. The tragedy of the play, though, does not on a distant battlefield, but in the middle of a dysfunctional family. As a character in the first scene, Tom also establishes his ongoing issues with his mother because of her never-ending nagging. After one or two trivial words, he finally bursts out, “I haven't enjoyed one bite of this dinner because of your constant directions on how to eat it. It's you that makes me rush through meals with your hawk-like attention to every bite I take” (Williams 1.1.38-39). These words convey his impatience with his mother’s attitude and remarks; they also reinforce the impression that Amanda cannot resist the temptation to criticize him.
For the rest of Scene 1, Tom allows Laura to make peace between him and his mother; Laura calls on him to let their mother tell her stories of what her life used to be like. Through Amanda’s comments, the audience can clearly see the difference between Amanda’s youth and Tom’s youth; she spent her time entertaining suitors while Tom works at a dead-end job to support his family. He has never experienced the carefree enjoyable life that Amanda had. At this point, it is easy to feel sorry for Tom because he so clearly wants something else in life but allows his devotion to his sister to keep him in place.
Tom does not have any role in Scene 2, and then resumes his role as narrator at the beginning of Scene 3. He summarizes for the audience what happened after Mrs. Wingfield’s discovery about Laura having quit business school. He lets the audience know Amanda’s plan to get a gentleman caller for Laura, in hopes that she can marry someone who will take care of her. Again, his function here is mostly expository, but it saves a good bit of time that would otherwise be used in dialogue. His words and tone convey the desperation his mother feels about Laura; as narrator, though, he seems a little more detached from that desperation. However, as the character Tom in the first parts of Scene 3, he exhibits no detachment. When Amanda criticizes him yet again, he loses his temper and yells, “For sixty-five dollars a month I give up all that I dream of doing and being ever! And you say self – self’s all I ever think of. Why, listen, if self is what I thought of, Mother, I'd be where he is - G 0 N E!” (Williams 1.3.78-80). This speech is the first time, at least in the play, that Tom threatens to emulate his father and leave his family behind. His trips to the movies that Amanda has criticized represent his attempt to escape from his family and reality at least temporarily, but now he articulates a desire to escape for real. These words hint at what his final act will be in the play. For the audience, Tom’s words seem understandable. He is an adult who is being treated as a child by his mother, who at the same time expects him to be the very adult breadwinner in the family. The audience can sympathize with Tom, even though they will also empathize with the plight of Amanda and Laura. This sympathy is reinforced during Scene 4, when Tom makes peace with Amanda for Laura’s benefit.
In Scenes 5 and 6, Tom as narrator also provides some context for what is happening in the play. At the beginning of Scene 5, he establishes the contrast between the young people who dance in clubs because they are bored and escalating tension in Europe, including Spain. He also uses this speech to emphasize again the very natural desire of young people, such as himself, to experience excitement in their lives. As a character in Scene 5, Tom seems likeable because he did make the attempt to find a gentleman caller for Laura. His departure in that scene to go to the movies again seems to foreshadow his eventual departure from his family, but within the context of his having found a gentleman caller for Laura, the audience can hope his departure can occur without causing grief to his family. In Scene 6, Tom as narrator explains to the audience how he knew the gentleman caller Jim, and his comments emphasize that his friendship with Jim is very superficial. When he says that Jim had no idea that Tom had a family, those words seem (at least in retrospect) to serve as an apology for the debacle that will soon occur. Obviously, Tom’s intention was not to hurt Laura, but if he had talked to Laura first about him or talked more intimately with Jim, the situation could have been averted.
As a character in Scene 7, Tom seems mostly unengaged with his family and with Jim. He makes minimal conversation and plays a passive role in the dinner, feeling perhaps that he has done his good deed for the day. There is nothing really unlikeable about him in this scene, but he seems clueless about the heartbreak his sister is enduring in the next room. Unlike the other scenes in which Tom also served as narrator, in Scene 7 he does not speak at the beginning of the scene but at the end. After the final argument with his mother as the character Tom, he assumes the role of narrator once again and describes his final departure from his family. There would be some mixed feelings from the audience at this point. Most people, myself included, understand why he had to leave, but at the same time would worry about what will happen to Laura, who has been presented as the truly innocent victim in this family. As if to answer that question and have the audience retain sympathy for Tom, Williams has Tom articulate his regret very poignantly. Tom says, “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger -anything that can blow your candles out!” (Williams 1.7,545-547). Through those words, Tom makes it clear he has not forgotten Laura, even though he has attempted to do so. Physically he escaped from his family but he is still bound to Laura emotionally. The audience can sense his very genuine anguish and forgive him for leaving.
Had there had been no narrator, Tom would seem more selfish for deserting his family when his sister obviously needed both emotional and financial support. Because Tom as the narrator provided insight into his character’s motives and emotions, Tom remains a sympathetic character.
Cave, Mark. "Something Wild in the Country: The Fugitive Life of Tennessee Williams." Southern Quarterly 48.4 (2011): 11-31. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
Williams, Tennessee. “The Glass Menagerie.” The American Tradition in Literature. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.