Tom addresses the audience from the fire escape, telling us about Amanda's determined preparation for a gentleman caller. Mention of the gentleman caller pops into every conversation in the Wingfield apartment, and the stage is haunted by the gentleman caller's projected image. Because it will take money to make their home presentable, Amanda takes a job searching for subscribers to The Homemaker's Companion, a magazine for women. We see Amanda speaking on the telephone to a woman whose subscription is about to run out. Amanda tells the woman that she needs to renew her subscription, trying to convince her with the prospect of a new serial novel that has just begun. Amanda alludes to Gone With the Wind, comparing the new serial to the famous story of Scarlett O'Hara. Eventually, the potential subscriber hangs up on Amanda.
We then cut to a very different scene, of Tom and Amanda locked in a vicious argument, which is already in progress. A horrified Laura watches as Tom and Amanda scream at each other. Tom expresses outrage that Amanda confiscated his books. Amanda is not cowed, saying that she will not allow any books by "Mr. Lawrence" in her home. Tom responds that he is the one who pays the rent, and that he is the one who has given up his dreams to support their family. Stage directions indicate that the upright typewriter is surrounded by manuscripts in a state of disarray, and that the battle between Tom and Amanda was probably instigated by Amanda's interruption of Tom's writing. Amanda is also outraged because she does not know where Tom goes at night. She does not believe his claim that he spends his nights out at the movies, and she is angered by the drunken state in which he often returns home. She fears that his nights out jeopardize his day job, and that if he loses his job their security will be threatened.
Tom fires back with anger and frustration that he goes to work every morning even though he hates it. And to Amanda's doubt about where he goes every night, Tom answers with a sarcastic speech that is one of the play's most famous and memorable moments. With bitter sarcasm, he warns her that by night he is a czar of the underworld (known and feared as "Killer Wingfield" and "El Diablo") and that his enemies plan to dynamite the Wingfield apartment. He calls his mother a witch. As he is trying to leave the apartment, he accidentally knocks over the glass menagerie. Amanda storms off, enraged, and Tom remorsefully helps Laura pick up pieces of her collection.
The idea of a gentleman caller becomes Amanda's obsession and the great hope for the Wingfields to attain financial security. With a husband, Laura will be provided for and the two women will no longer be dependent on Tom. However, Amanda's ambition for Laura shows the level of her disconnection from real life and the fragility of her dreams. Even if Laura could find a husband, it is strange that Amanda should have so much faith that a husband for Laura would mean security for their family. After all, Amanda's own husband was faithless, and his decision to leave their family led to their current predicament.
The "Mr. Lawrence" Amanda refers to is D.H. Lawrence, one of the most important influences on Tennessee Williams. The allusion to D.H. Lawrence tells us about Tom's needs. Lawrence's work was daring and provocative, especially for its time. Novels such as Lady Chatterley's Lover depicted sexuality as a powerful force, and Tom's interest in Lawrence's work suggests both Tom's literary ambitions and his frustration. Tom is trapped in the apartment, with no outlets at home for the ambitions or desires of a young man.
One of the play's important themes is the conflict between the desire to live one's own life and the responsibility for one's family. Tom's wages pay the bills, but Amanda continues to treat him as a child. She confiscates his books, and during their argument she attempts to control their discussion as an adult controls an argument with a little boy.
Tom's nightly disappearance "to the movies" has been played in different ways, depending on the production. While his later discussion of his frustration with movies suggests that he goes to the movies at least part of the time, some critics have argued that Tom might be spending his nights exploring the city's hidden gay world. The text does not give enough evidence to make a definitive argument either way. In his monologues to the audience, Tom does not give firm indication of where he used to spend his nights. Nothing in the text rules out the possibility that Tom spends his nights seeking out men for sexual encounters. He never really directly denies that he is going somewhere other than the movies, and with the audience he never addresses the question of whether or not he really goes to the movies. He also arrives home at hours - five in the morning, in one scene - when it seems unlikely that a movie would just be ending.
His anger at being questioned does not help to shed light on the matter: he would be angry if he was telling the truth about going to the movies, and he would be angry if he had something to hide. Critics who favor the sexual interpretation of Tom's nightly disappearances often cite Tennessee Williams' youth and his grappling with his own sexuality. The play is in many other respects autobiographical, and Tom is Williams' surrogate - he even bears Tennessee Williams' real name. If Tom were gay, his frustration with home would be even greater. Tom would feel even more isolated and restless, unable to tell the truth to his mother and sister.
When Tom accidentally breaks some of the pieces in the glass menagerie, the incident foreshadows Laura's heartbreak later on. The event emphasizes the collection's fragility, and so metaphorically we are reminded of Laura's own fragility. Tom is the one responsible, and the pain of his position is made clear. As much as he would like to live his own life, his actions have a deleterious effect on the well-being and security of his mother and sister. By being reckless, he can destroy the pretend-world of his sister.