The Glass Menagerie Summary and Analysis

Scene 5

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Summary:

After dinner, Tom reads a paper (the headline reads, "Franco triumphs") as Amanda and Laura clear the table and do the dishes. Amanda nags her son to comb his hair. Tom heads out to the fire escape to smoke, and Amanda complains that he spends too much money on cigarettes; if he saved the money, he would be able to go to night school. Tom replies that he would rather smoke.

Tom delivers a speech to the audience about Paradise Dance Hall, across the alley from the Wingfield apartment. Tom describes the music that emanates from the hall, and the rainbow colored lights that are visible from the fire escape. Tom speaks of the carefree world of the dancers, who drank and danced to swing music while the atrocity of Guernica unfolded in Europe. Those dancers, says Tom, could not have known that change would be coming for them, too.

Amanda joins Tom on the fire escape. Tom reveals to her that he has found a gentleman caller for Laura. Amanda is thrilled, but Tom also tells her that the gentleman caller is arriving tomorrow evening. Amanda is startled, afraid that she will not have enough time to make the home presentable. For Amanda, this is a major event: she'll send for a new floor lamp, polish her wedding silver, put chintz covers on, wear nice clothes, etc. She begins to grill Tom on the gentleman caller's character; she is particularly concerned that he might be a drunkard.

His name is Jim O'Connor. As far as Tom knows, he is not a heavy drinker. He works as a shipping clerk at the warehouse for eighty-five dollars a month (twenty dollars more than Tom's monthly salary). He is not too good-looking, nor is he ugly. He goes to night school, believes in self-improvement, and has great ambitions.

Tom is anxious, however, because he has not mentioned Laura to Jim, and although Amanda has faith in Laura's ability to enchant Jim, Tom has his doubts. Tom asks Amanda not to expect too much of Laura, saying that Tom and Amanda see Laura's beauty because they know her and love her. He mentions that Laura is crippled, and Amanda insists that the word "crippled" is not allowed in the Wingfield home. Tom mentions Laura's peculiar habits - her care of the glass menagerie and her love of their old phonograph records. Tom then departs for the movies. Amanda seems somewhat shaken by Tom's misgivings, but she regains her optimism and calls Laura to come out to the fire escape. Amanda asks Laura to make a wish on the "little silver slipper of a moon," her eyes filling with tears as she tells her daughter to wish for happiness and good fortune.

Analysis

The first part of the scene uses the time setting to reinforce a sense of tension and expectation. The newspaper headline, "Franco Triumphs," gives the audience the first specific marker for the time of the play: 1937. In Tom's speech from the fire escape, the symbolic name of Paradise Dance Hall can be read in a number of ways. "Paradise" is an allusion to the lost Garden of Eden, and here the allusion paints the American thirties as a period of innocence before the turmoil of World War II. The dance hall, because it is being described as a memory, creates a sense of loss due to the passage of time. This loss of innocence occurs for the nation - Tom tells us that the dancers could not have known what was coming, and he makes yet another allusion to the carnage of Guernica, which by the time of writing had become a symbol for the violence in which their entire world would soon be enmeshed. On a personal level, Paradise Dance Hall might symbolize more specific loss that Tom has experienced. For the older Tom narrating the play, the fragile world of his family is lost forever.

But for the characters living through the action of the play, the Paradise Dance Hall symbolizes hope. This scene, with Amanda and Tom sitting on the fire escape, wishing on the moon and surrounded by the music and lights of the nearby dance hall, is lyrical and beautiful. The rainbow-colored lights and the lively music point to a world of leisure, ease, and good times. Paradise, from this perspective, is not a thing lost and receding into the past, but is rather a thing that might be gained in the future. Amanda's life story, as she tells it, includes both kinds of Paradise: she longs for the idyllic world of her youth and her seventeen gentleman callers, and she longs for a future fairy-tale ending for her daughter.

Through the conventions of the stage, however, the dance hall is always just out of reach. The audience can hear the music, possibly see the lights, and hear characters' descriptions of the place, but the Paradise Dance Hall can only be suggested indirectly, as out of reach for the audience as "Paradise" is for Tom, Amanda, and Laura. With the narrator's added perspective and his remarks about the trouble that will engulf the world, we are made to see the illusory nature of the kind of "Paradise" represented by the dance hall.

It is also worth noting that the Paradise Dance Hall is a sort of foreshadowing for Williams' next play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Paradise, dance halls, and colored lights are all prominent symbols in Streetcar, and in that instance operating independently of one another. Further support for the argument that Tom is gay can be found by retrofitting Williams' later associations with these symbols into the earlier play. In Streetcar, paradise (or Elysian Fields) is tied up with sexuality and death; a dance hall is a dreaded place, where Blanche discovered her husband's homosexuality; and colored lights are used as a metaphor for sexual pleasure. Working backwards, it is easy to associate Tom's wistfulness towards the colored lights of Paradise Dance Hall with his sublimated homosexuality.

Despite the lessons from Amanda's own unhappy marriage, Amanda imagines that her daughter will be the princess of a Cinderella story. Jim O'Connor, named in Tom's first monologue as a symbol for that special something that we all wait and live for, is supposed to be the prince in Amanda's dreams who rescues Laura and provides her with a happy ending. Amanda is imagining a fairy tale life for her daughter, and when she asks Laura to wish on the "little silver slipper of a moon," her description of the moon is an allusion to Cinderella. Amanda is ignoring the lessons from her own marriage and the obstacle of Laura's awkwardness.