Summary of Scene 4 of The Glass Menagerie
Scene Four begins with Tom returning home. The lights on the stage are low, except for a light in the alley. A church bell rings five times showing that it is five in the morning.
The playwright's notes say that each time the church bell rings, Tom shakes a little noise-maker "as if to express the tiny spasm of man in contrast to the sustained power and dignity of the Almighty. This and the unsteadiness of his advance make it evident that he has been drinking." (Williams uses this description to show that people fight uselessly against their problems. They are weak, but God is strong. Williams also is showing that Tom uses movies and alcohol to escape his reality: a job he hates and his need to take care of his family.)
As Tom climbs the steps of the fire escape, the lights come up in the living room area of the stage. The audience sees Laura in her nightgown looking at Tom's empty bed. Tom arrives on the fire escape landing outside the door of the apartment. He tries to find his key, but he has many things in his pocket. They include movie ticket stubs and an empty bottle. Finally, he finds the key, but drops it, and it falls into a crack on the landing. Laura hears Tom and opens the door.
When Laura asks him where he has been all night, Tom tells her that he has been at the movies. Laura asks if he was at the movies all of the time he had been gone. Tom says that he saw a movie starring Greta Garbo (a famous actress of the time), a Mickey Mouse cartoon, a travel movie, a short movie with current news (TVs not yet in existence), and a preview of coming attractions. Tom says there also was an organ solo and a collection for the milk-fund which "ended up in a terrible fight between a fat lady and an usher!" (An "usher" is a worker at movie theaters.)
Tom says that he also saw a magic show, in which a magician who called himself Malvolio the Magician changed water to wine, then to beer, and finally to whiskey. Tom says he knew there was whiskey because he went up on stage to help the magician for two shows and the magician gave him souvenirs (including whiskey - an alcoholic drink). Tom then gives Laura a rainbow-colored scarf, which he says the magician gave to him. (The scarf is like Laura's glass animals which bring color to her life because when the light shines on them, she can see the colors of the rainbow. The rainbow is a Christian symbol of hope and of God's promise to never flood the entire Earth again.) He describes how the magician allowed himself to be nailed into a coffin and escaped without removing a nail. (The coffin trick is a reference to Christian resurrection--to Jesus and his believers rising from death.) Note: The rainbow-colored scarf and the magician's escape from the coffin have given Tom some hope for a better future.
Tom says that the coffin escape trick could help him escape the apartment. (The coffin represents the trapped and desperate conditions experienced by Tom and people of the American lower middle classes in the 1930s. At the beginning of Scene One, Tom had used the word "illusion" which is related to magic. Illusions and magic are not real. The magician uses a trick to escape the coffin. Tom is looking for a way to escape his life. He isn't physically trapped, but he is emotionally trapped because he feels that he must take care of his mother and his sister. To free himself, Tom will need to cut his emotional ties. He will need to care more about himself than he cares about his family. )
Tom sits on his bed and starts taking off his shoes. Laura tells him to be quiet, so he won't wake their mother. Tom says it would be nice to wake up Amanda for a change, since she is the one who always wakes him up by saying, "Rise and Shine." (Tom is gentler with his sister than he is with his mother, but he does not like the responsibility of taking care of them.)
Note: Laura expects more from her brother than she does from her mother; she thinks Tom can change to give their mother what she wants, but she doesn't think her mother can change to give Tom what he wants.
Tom tells Laura that anyone can get into a coffin. He asks her how anyone could get out without removing a nail. The playwright's directions says the photograph of Mr. Wingfield’s smiling face lights up as if to answer Tom's question. The photograph represents an example of someone who has escaped a situation of being trapped, like the magician escaping being trapped in a coffin. (Tom feels like he is in a coffin because he is trapped by his life. He wonders if he can stop taking care of his mother and sister without hurting them. Can he be like the magician who got out of the coffin without hurting it or will he be like his father and escape only by destroying his family?) The lights dim.
The church bell rings six times and Amanda's alarm clock goes off. Amanda asks Laura to tell Tom to “Rise and Shine!” because Amanda refuses to talk to Tom until he apologizes (for yelling at her in Scene Three when she said she didn't believe that he just went out at night to go to movies and for calling her an old witch). Laura gets Tom out of bed and asks him to apologize to their mother. He doesn't want to. Amanda then sends Laura out to buy butter on credit. Laura doesn't want to go because the grocer is unhappy when she can't pay for the food until later. (Credit cards had not been invented yet, so Laura would have to ask the grocer to give her butter by signing a paper promising to pay him later.) Laura quietly asks Tom to do what she had asked him to do (apologize to Amanda). Amanda gets impatient and tells Laura to "Go now…" On the way down the fire escape, Laura slips and falls but is not hurt. (Laura's fall is a symbol for her inability to escape her reality--her lonely and purposeless life. She cannot use the fire escape that is the only way out.) Tom and Amanda hurry to see if Laura is okay. Amanda says the owner of the apartment they are renting should be sued if anyone breaks a leg on the fire escape stairs. Laura leaves.
Stage directions say that a light shines on Amanda's face, making it look like a Daumier print. (Daumier was a French artist who drew caricatures—pictures which exaggerated the bad parts of people, things, or events in order to comment on social issues.) The music "Ave Maria" plays. (Earlier in the play, Laura had said her mother looked like "the picture of Jesus' mother." "Ave Maria" is a prayer and music that the Catholic church uses and it is dedicated to Jesus' Mother—the Virgin Mary. "Ave Maria" means "Hail Mary" or "Hi, Mary" or "Good health, Mary." The audience is supposed to see that Amanda is like Mary because both women have been made sad because of their love for their children. Mary suffered when her son Jesus was killed on a cross. Amanda is sad because her children are not happy and successful.)
There are several moments of silence in the dining room as Tom drinks his coffee and Amanda stands nearby. Finally, Tom stands up and apologizes to Amanda for being angry and calling her a witch. Amanda cries, and Tom speaks gently to her. She says her "devotion" to her children (her true desire to help her children) has made her a witch, and she has made her children hate her. Tom says she hasn't made them hate her. When Amanda says how worried and nervous she is about him and Laura, he says he understands. Amanda says Tom is her "right-hand bower" (her strongest shelter or support). She asks Tom to not fall or fail. Tom says he tries to support her. Amanda says she is proud of her children and asks Tom to promise her that he will never be a drunkard. (She is afraid he will be an alcoholic like his father.) Tom says he will never be a drunkard. (Unlike his father, Tom escapes his reality more by reading his books and going to movies.)
Tom and Amanda have a moment where it seems they will be able to understand each other. Both of them have tried to support the family and keep it together. The moment ends, though, when Amanda tells Tom he should eat. He just wants coffee, and Amanda continues to tell him to eat, to take care of himself so he can work. Finally, Amanda says she really sent Laura to the grocery store, so she could talk privately with Tom. She tells him she wants to talk about Laura.
The “Glass Menagerie” music begins to play. (“The Glass Menagerie" music plays when Amanda discusses Laura with Tom and at other important moments which include Laura. The title and timing of the music show that Laura is like her glass animals; she is very delicate and easily broken.) Amanda says she saw Laura crying a few days ago because Laura is worried that Tom is not happy living with them and that he goes out every night to escape the apartment. Amanda says that life is hard and people need "Spartan endurance" (bravery like the soldiers from the old Greek city of Sparta). Amanda says she worries about Tom staying out late. She says Tom is acting like his father. She says Laura said Tom hates the apartment and goes out nights to get away from it. Tom says that he goes to the movies for "adventure" because he doesn't get adventure at work.
At the mention of the word “adventure,” a pirate ship appears on the screen. Amanda says that most men get adventure from their careers, and Tom says they must not work at a warehouse. Amanda says that if men don't find adventure at work, they do without it. Tom disagrees, and says, “Man is by instinct [from birth] a lover, a hunter, a fighter…” He says the warehouse does not give him the chance to love, hunt, or fight. Amanda does not want to hear about instinct. She says instinct belongs to animals, not “Christian adults.” She says Christian adults want the more important things of "the mind and the spirit." Amanda says that Tom surely wants more than monkeys and pigs want.
Amanda says she wants to talk about Laura. Tom is worried about being late for work, but Amanda says he has five minutes. Amanda says they have to make plans for Laura. She says Laura is two years older than Tom, but "she just drifts along doing nothing." Amanda says Laura needs a husband. She says, "More and more you remind me of your father! He was out all hours without explanation! - Then left! Good-bye!" She says Tom's father left her holding "the bag" (holding all the debts and responsibilities). (Amanda does not want to be left holding the bag again. She does not want to have to support herself and Laura.)
Amanda tells Tom that she knows that he has gotten a letter from the Merchant Marine (an organization of civilian officers and crew members who work on private or government ships to conduct business and transport products). Amanda asks Tom to wait to join the Merchant Marine until Laura has someone to take care of her. She then asks him to find some decent man at the warehouse and bring him home to meet Laura. Amanda says Tom doesn't have to stay to take care of her, his mother, because she is old and doesn't matter, but he does need to take care of Laura because his sister is "young and dependent." Amanda says she has tried to get Laura to fit into the rest of the world by enrolling her in a business college and by taking her to Young People’s League meetings at church, but nothing has worked.
Tom asks what he can do about it, and Amanda gets angry and tells him he needs to stop thinking only about himself. Tom gets up, puts on his coat, and starts to leave. Amanda holds his arm and says, "Down at the warehouse, aren't there some - nice young men?" Tom doesn't like the idea of asking a coworker to date his sister, but his mother talks him into agreeing. Tom leaves.
A glamour magazine cover appears on the screen. Amanda makes another call for the magazine subscription drive, this time to Ella Cartwright, a woman with a kidney health problem. Amanda calls her a "Christian martyr," tries to talk her into buying another magazine subscription, and the lights are turned down as Amanda talks.
Note: Although she does not have a job and does not help the family by earning money, Laura holds the family together emotionally. Laura is the peacemaker who gets Tom and Amanda to listen to each other, and because Laura is so helpless, both Tom and Amanda (capable workers) keep the family together to take care of Laura.
The scene begins with a church bell, refers to Christian beliefs of an afterlife, has Amanda saying that Christians need superior things of the mind and spirit, and ends with Amanda referring again to Christian martyrs. Amanda and Tom see themselves as martyrs sacrificing themselves for the family’s good. Although audience members hear Amanda referring to Christian ideas, they do not see her praying to God for help (except for saying a prayer over food for dinner) or see her receiving God's help. Williams does not show that religion helps people escape poverty and sadness. At the time of the first performances of The Glass Menagerie, many Christian leaders did not like Williams' play.