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The Glass Menagerie | Study Guide

Tennessee Williams

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Scene 4

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Scene 4 of Tennessee Williams's play The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie | Scene 4 | Summary



A church bell tolls 5:00 A.M. as Tom staggers home from a night watching movies and drinking. Laura lets him in and asks where he has been. He describes a Mickey Mouse cartoon, a travelogue, news, and the main feature, a Greta Garbo film. Then he creates an outlandish story about a magician who turns water into whiskey and asks him to share it with him. He gives Laura a colorful scarf he says was the source of the illusionist's magic. As Laura helps him to his sofa bed, she tries to keep him quiet so they won't wake up their mother. Tom thinks it would be payback for all of her annoying "Rise and Shine" wake-up calls. He is no sooner in bed when in fact Amanda does call out "Rise and Shine." As they come face to face, Amanda and Tom are now not speaking to each other. Amanda sends Laura to the store for butter. Anxious about going because they owe the storekeeper money, Laura slips going down the fire escape steps. Tom finally apologizes to Amanda, who admits to alienating her children by constantly trying to improve them, which she says she does from love and concern for a better future. She confesses to Tom that his attitude and words mirror his father's and begs him to stay until Laura is married. Her plan is for Tom to find a decent young man to bring home for dinner for his sister to meet and ultimately marry. Tom is appalled at the request. The scene closes with Amanda on the telephone chatting up D.A.R. friends so they will buy magazine subscriptions.


Tom's patience and gentleness with his sister are diametrically opposed to his alternating anger and contempt toward his mother. But just as Amanda loves her children, her children do love her. Tom shows his love in his apology and his supportive responses to her concerns about her love for her children, as well as her hopes and fears about their futures. In a stage direction just before Tom apologizes, Williams mentions that Amanda's mournful face looks like "a Daumier print." Honoré Daumier (1808–79), a French artist, was known for caricatures of famous people and for satirizing social and political life. If he were still alive and commissioned to draw a caricature of Amanda, he would exaggerate the tragic and woebegone façade she adopts when she wants an apology from her son. Because of her false gaiety, her affected Southern charm, and her inability to be emotionally honest, her explanations are ultimately more self-absorbed than altruistic.

When Amanda discloses she knows Tom wants to join the Merchant Marines and begs that he stay until he finds a suitable husband for Laura, his anger boils to the surface once again. He is furious that she is holding him hostage until her ploy is successful. His mother's manipulations and commands offer clarity to his comment to Laura at the beginning of this scene after he describes the magician's coffin trick and his desire to be free from "this 2 by 4 situation." As he falls into bed, he says to his sister, "It don't take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin, Laura. But who in hell ever got himself out of one without removing one nail?" He knows one person who did, though—his father. His own challenge will be to figure out what separates self-preservation from complete selfishness if he is going to make an escape.

Tom understands that if he is to turn his visions of his future into reality, he will have to remove more than one metaphoric nail that secures him to the tomb of his home life. First, he must find the strength to sever the tie on him with his mother's name on it, the one that keeps him submissive to her every whim, wish, and need. Second, and more painful, he will have to sever ties with Laura, whom he has always tried to protect from Amanda's unreasonable demands and expectations. He knows Amanda wants her children to become the reality of her own dreams, not theirs, but he has stayed so Laura could remain content with her glass animals and their father's records. The only reason he consents to his mother's husband-finding scheme is that maybe he can see his sister find some happiness and a life she has a part in choosing, with his help, before he leaves. He is not deluded into thinking this could really happen, but perhaps he is willing to be wrong. He knows she would never have the courage to oppose their mother's wishes after he is gone.

The fire escape symbol appears twice in this scene. Tom drops his house key on the landing, and it falls to the ground, suggesting he go downstairs to look for the key—and possibly his future—instead of retreating into the world he refers to as a coffin. However, Laura opens the door, and he enters. Later in the scene, as Laura trips on the stairs when hurrying to the store, Tom and Amanda both rush to the door to make sure she is unharmed. Her fire escape mishap may be seen to foreshadow the impossibility of her leading her own life in the world or as a sign that she hasn't the desire or strength to leave her home and family.

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