[TOM:] There is a fifth character in the play who doesn’t appear except in this larger-than-life-size photograph over the mantle. This is our father who left us a long time ago. He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town . . .
In his role as narrator, Tom addresses the audience in the opening monologue of the play. Tom specifically lists his absent father as one of the play’s characters. Mr. Wingfield’s presence permeates the play, as readers gradually discover the emotional effects of his departure on his family. The witticism about a telephone man preferring long distances recurs as part of the Wingfield family narrative.
AMANDA: That Fitzhugh boy went North and made a fortune — came to be known as the Wolf of Wall Street! He had the Midas touch, whatever he touched turned to gold! And I could have been Mrs. Duncan J. Fitzhugh, mind you! But — I picked your father!
Amanda talks to Tom and Laura, remembering her past romantic conquests. Her children—and the audience—understand that her memories seem unrealistic. Amanda casts her absent husband as a character in a narrative she constantly rewrites in order to maintain her own illusions. In that narrative, Amanda loved her children’s father so much that she gave up her chance at great wealth.
AMANDA: And you — when I see you taking after his ways! Staying out late — and —well, you had been drinking the night you were in that — terrifying condition! Laura says that you hate the apartment and that you go out nights to get away from it! Is that true, Tom?
Amanda, not for the first or last time, worries that Tom’s behavior begins to resemble his father’s destructive ways. Since Mr. Wingfield drank, Amanda gets nervous every time Tom drinks. Thanks to Amanda’s insecurities, the shadow of his father’s legacy hangs over everything Tom does. The audience understands that Amanda’s nagging may have played a role in her husband’s departure.
AMANDA: That innocent look of your father’s had everyone fooled! He smiled — the world was enchanted! No girl can do worse than put herself at the mercy of a handsome appearance! I hope that Mr. O’Connor is not too good-looking.
Amanda talks to Tom about Jim O’Connor, the young man whom Tom invited to dinner to meet Laura. The impending dinner party brings up Amanda’s memories of her own romance. Amanda wants Laura to avoid the mistake she herself made. Amanda seems self-centered. In her own imagination, she constantly substitutes herself for her daughter and confuses her daughter’s suitor with the man she herself married.
TOM: I’m a member. JIM [reading]: The Union of Merchant Seamen. TOM: I paid my dues this month, instead of the light bill. JIM: You will regret it when they turn the lights off. TOM: I won’t be here. JIM: How about your mother? TOM: I’m like my father. The bastard son of a bastard! Did you notice how he’s grinning in his picture in there? And he’s been absent going on sixteen years!
Tom confides in Jim O’Connor about his plan to leave for the Merchant Marines. The playwright waits until late in the play to insert a date that dramatically alters our perspective. The sixteen-year absence means that Tom and Laura were six and eight when their father left. So as much as Amanda tries to shift her burdens to Tom, readers realize that her labor, even more than Tom’s, has ensured the family’s survival.