AMANDA [to her son]: Honey, don’t push with your fingers. If you have to push with something, the thing to push with is a crust of bread. And chew—chew!
As the play’s action begins, Amanda Wingfield nags her adult son Tom about how to eat his food. From her first onstage appearance, Amanda annoys the audience as much as she does her son. Amanda acts like the ultimate controlling mother, using every possible emotional trick to get her own way. Here she deploys her trick of treating Tom as if he were still a young boy, hoping to trigger the response of obedience.
AMANDA: They knew how to entertain their gentlemen callers. It wasn’t enough for a girl to be possessed of a pretty face and a graceful figure — although I wasn’t slighted in either respect. She also needed to have a nimble wit and a tongue to meet all occasions. TOM: What did you talk about? AMANDA: Things of importance going on in the world! Never anything coarse or common or vulgar.
Amanda Wingfield, speaking to her grown children, Laura and Tom, recalls the genteel, privileged world of her past. Even without the narrator’s warning that memory manipulates reality, the audience would suspect Amanda’s account. Her story feels rehearsed and presents Amanda’s younger self in the best possible light. Besides, the audience can hear that Amanda’s concerns resonate with common and vulgar preoccupations.
AMANDA [faintly, almost inaudibly]: — No. — No. [Then more forcibly.] I did not have the strength — to go to the D.A.R. In fact, I did not have the courage! I wanted to find a hole in the ground and hide myself in it forever! [She crosses slowly to the wall and removes the diagram of the typewriter keyboard. She holds it in front of her for a second, staring at it sweetly and sorrowfully — then bites her lips and tears it into two pieces.]
Amanda confronts her daughter, Laura, reacting with maximum melodrama to the discovery that Laura has only been pretending to take business classes. Amanda’s reference to the D.A.R., or Daughters of the American Revolution, shows that she thinks of herself as belonging to good society. She plays on Laura’s guilt by emphasizing her own sense of social disgrace. The controlled violence of Amanda’s actions reveals why her daughter feels afraid of her.
AMANDA [hopelessly fingering the huge pocketbook]: So what are we going to do with the rest of our lives? Stay home and watch the parades go by? Amuse ourselves with the glass menagerie, darling? Eternally play those worn-out phonograph records your father left as a painful reminder of him? We won’t have a business career — we’ve given that up because it gave us nervous indigestion! [She laughs wearily.] What is there left but dependency all our lives?
Amanda interrogates Laura about the future after Laura admits she quit school because attending classes made her sick. Amanda’s use of we adds mockery to her speech. The plural form also reveals how much Amanda identifies herself with her daughter. Readers understand that she worries about her own dependency as much as Laura’s. Amanda’s mockery of the phonograph records helps readers understand why Laura plays them so often.
AMANDA: Stop that shouting! TOM: Yesterday you confiscated my books! You had the nerve to — AMANDA: I took that horrible novel back to the library — yes! That hideous book by that insane Mr. Lawrence. [Tom laughs wildly.] I cannot control the output of diseased minds of people who cater to them — [Tom laughs still more wildly.] BUT I WON’T ALLOW SUCH FILTH BROUGHT INTO MY HOUSE! No, no, no, no, no!
Amanda fights with Tom over the books that he reads. She has snooped through his belongings and gotten rid of books of which she does not approve. Now she invokes morality to defend her reprehensible behavior. Tom laughs wildly because his mother’s attack seems so absurd. Amanda’s outburst resembles a child’s temper tantrum. Her need to control borders on insanity. Tom later counters her attack by pointing out that he pays the rent.
AMANDA: You just don’t know. You can’t have a gentleman caller in a pigsty! All my wedding silver has to be polished, the monogrammed table linen ought to be laundered! The windows have to be washed and fresh curtains put up. And how about clothes? We have to wear something, don’t we?
Amanda lectures Tom, after Tom informs her that he has invited a young man to supper the next evening. Amanda’s to-do list reflects her sense of her own gentility. The fact that Amanda still has her wedding silver and table linens serves as a clue that she has somehow managed to hold on to genteel living through years of relative poverty.
[AMANDA:] All of my gentlemen callers were sons of planters and so of course I assumed that I would be married to one and raise my family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants. But man proposes—and woman accepts the proposal! To vary that old, old saying a bit — I married no planter! I married a man who worked for the telephone company! . . . A telephone man who — fell in love with long-distance!
Amanda introduces herself to Jim O’Connor, Tom’s friend from the warehouse. Tom invited Jim at Amanda’s urging so that Laura can meet a young man. Amanda chose to wear a dress from her girlhood and behaves as if she still lived in that time. Amanda’s witticism about her absent husband plays as part of a well-rehearsed routine. In fact, the audience already heard the line from Tom in the opening monologue of the play.
[AMANDA:] Why, Mr. O’Connor, nobody, nobody’s given me this much entertainment in years — as you have! JIM: Aw, now, Mrs. Wingfield! AMANDA: I’m not exaggerating, not one bit! But Sister is all by her lonesome. You go keep her company in the parlor! I’ll give you this lovely old candelabrum that used to be on the altar at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. It was melted a little out of shape when the church burnt down. Lightning struck it one spring. Gypsy Jones was holding a revival at the time and he intimated that the church was destroyed because the Episcopalians gave card parties. JIM: Ha-ha.
Amanda flirts openly with Jim O’Connor, as she has been doing throughout dinner. Now she uses Jim’s interest in her to direct his attention to Laura. With practiced Southern grace, Amanda improvises her own stage lighting to cover the embarrassment of an unpaid electric bill. Her elaborate story represents a classic example of Southern tall-tale humor, playing on stereotypes about Southerners.
[Tom’s closing speech is timed with what is happening inside the house. We see, as though through soundproof glass, that Amanda appears to be making a comforting speech to Laura, who is huddled upon the sofa. Now that we cannot hear the mother’s speech, her silliness is gone and she has dignity and tragic beauty. Laura’s hair hides her face until, at the end of the speech, she lifts her head to smile at her mother. Amanda’s gestures are slow and graceful, almost dancelike, as she comforts her daughter. At the end of her speech she glances a moment at the father’s picture —then withdraws through the portieres. At the close of Tom’s speech, Laura blows out the candles, ending the play.]
Amanda has no spoken lines in her last and most dramatic onstage appearance. The stage directions describe her actions. At the play’s opening, Amanda appears as an annoying harridan. At the play’s end, however, she seems almost a saint or Madonna. Her actions onstage accompany her son Tom’s account of abandoning her. Nevertheless, the scene inspires the audience with belief in Amanda’s strength and will to survive.