The Glass Menagerie

Summary and Analysis of Scene 4

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Summary:

As the church bell strikes five am, a drunken Tom stumbles home. The script does not make clear exactly how much time has passed between Scene Four and the argument that ended Scene Three, but it has been no more than a few days. Laura, who sleeps on the couch, hears him and opens the door for him. Tom insists that he has been at the movies all night. When Laura expresses doubt that her brother could really have been at the movies all this time, Tom tells her about the length of the program and the magician that he went to see. He gives her a rainbow colored scarf as a souvenir from the magic show. The magician's most impressive trick was to escape from a coffin without removing a single nail. Tom is awestruck by the trick, and shares his wonder with Laura: "You know 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?"

Cut to one hour later. After the church bell strikes six times, we hear Amanda calling out "Rise and Shine!" After just an hour of sleep, an exhausted Tom stumbles out of bed for another day of work at the warehouse. Laura, who has been sent to wake him, begs Tom to apologize to Amanda. Meanwhile, Amanda is calling out from the kitchenette for Laura to go get butter from the grocery store. Laura, exiting on the fire escape, slips and cries out. The noise gives Tom and Amanda a scare, but Laura seems to be fine.

Awkwardly, Tom tries to apologize to Amanda as he takes his morning coffee. Amanda feels that she suffers and struggles for the sake of her children, and that her efforts go unappreciated by Tom. Tom tries to tell her that he doesn't hate her and that he understands her feelings. Amanda also tells Tom he cannot fail; without him, she cannot keep the family together. She believes that if Tom applies himself he will succeed; the idea of her children's success is an exhilarating one for her, and she becomes breathless just speaking about it. Amanda also asks Tom to promise that he will never be a drunkard. She exhorts him to eat, but he refuses everything except for black coffee, implying that he is hungover.

Amanda is concerned. She tells Tom that Laura thinks he is unhappy. She asks why - and if - he goes to the movies every night. Tom responds that he likes lots of adventure, and that his job at the warehouse does not provide any. Amanda is worried that Tom will abandon them. Fearful for Laura's future, Amanda tells Tom that he can leave if he can find a replacement - a gentleman caller for Laura, who will eventually marry her and provide for her. Amanda exhorts Tom to overcome selfishness. An increasingly frustrated Tom tries to break off the conversation and go to work, but not before he begrudgingly agrees to look for a gentleman caller for his sister.

Analysis

Tom's fascination with the movies and the magician reveals his need for fantasy and escapism. Tom is always dreaming of fantastic places far from St. Louis, but for now he can only escape through the illusions offered by the movie house and the stage magician. He dreams of leaving home, but his responsibilities for his sister and his mother have so far kept him tied to the Wingfield apartment.

What Tom sees at the magic show is directly connected to the theme of conflict between Tom's responsibility for his family and his need to live his own life. The magician's most impressive trick becomes a symbol for what Tom wishes he could do - to make a clean, easy escape, without destroying the coffin or removing any nails. The use of the coffin as a symbol for Tom's predicament shows the depth of his unhappiness. He feels spiritually dead, despising his work and stifled by the atmosphere at home. In his talk with Amanda, he suggests that his work emasculates him, making it impossible for him to follow the instincts of a man. The magician is able to escape the coffin without the messiness of having to remove nails, which would damage the coffin. Tom can escape, but only at great cost - he would have to abandon his sister and mother and leave them to an uncertain fate. Tom is in awe of the magician because he does not have to choose; he can escape without causing any harm, a feat that might be impossible for Tom.

Laura's vulnerability is emphasized in that symbolic space most closely linked to Tom, the fire escape. Tom will later climb down the fire escape one final time, leaving the apartment forever. But in her one attempt to even step briefly on to the symbolic space of the fire escape, Laura stumbles. This fall symbolizes her inability to fend for herself in the outside world, and the ultimate hopelessness of her situation.

The scene balances Tom's frustration with his home situation against the tenderness the Wingfields feel for each other. Laura is able to exhort Tom to apologize, and at the start of his conversation with Amanda, Tom's affection for his mother is clear. As their conversation continues, however, the old rifts seem inescapable. There is a moment of dramatic irony when Amanda tries to get Tom to eat and to promise that he will not become a drunkard; the audience knows, although Amanda does not, that Tom is probably horribly hung over and that he came home drunk only a few hours ago. This moment shows the greatness of the divide between mother and son; she knows nothing of his state, and so her attempts to care for him are met with irritability. Tension escalates gradually but steadily, suggesting that no peace between Tom and Amanda can ever be easy or long-lasting.

Amanda is still fixating on the idea of the gentleman caller. She proposes a swap; Tom's freedom in exchange for a husband for Laura. Amanda is still putting her security into the hands of men. Indeed, perhaps she sees no alternative. Although her old husband's irresponsibility and Tom's increasing restlessness would seem to argue against the reliability of male providers, Amanda is still hoping to find an ideal husband for her daughter. This hope will prove to be misplaced. Even the gentleman caller, when he finally comes, will be careless with Laura.