Character of Tom Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie”

Tom and the play’s author, Tennessee Williams, are very similar as they both have serious drinking problems. Tom gets drunk almost every night, going out at midnight and returning home at 2 a.m. Amanda says to Tom: “I think you’ve been doing things that you’re ashamed of. … Nobody goes to movies night after night. … Come in stumbling. Muttering to yourself like a maniac!” (Williams 3.31). In the fourth scene, Tom comes home at 5 a.m. so drunk that he has lost motor control. He approaches home unsteadily, acting noisy and inadequate. Looking for a key, Tom empties his pockets and reveals a bottle. “At last he finds the key, but just as he is about to insert it, it slips from his fingers” (Williams 4.2sd). Tom starts crouching below the door, mumbling to himself until Laura lets him in. She listens to Tom’s drunk talk when he “flops on to a bed” and groans (Williams 4.12-4.16). Tom risks losing his job. He works at a shoe warehouse from dawn till dusk and then goes drinking at night. Tom gets no more than three hours of sleep; he is tired and depressed, and his quality of work decreases which may lead to his dismissal. Amanda cries out to Tom: “You get three hours’ sleep and then go to work. Oh, I can picture the way you’re doing down there. Moping, doping, because you’re in no condition” (Williams 3.31). Furthermore, Tom’s routine is risking his family’s survival. Tom works at a much-disliked job to support Amanda and Laura. They are unemployed because Amanda believes that the family’s financial security is a man’s responsibility. Laura, on the other hand, is physically and emotionally crippled. Amanda continues her argument: “What right have you got to jeopardize your job – jeopardize the security of us all? How do you think we’d manage if you were…?” (Williams 3.33). If Tom loses his job, he will leave his family with no money to exist. Tom’s habits are similar to his alcoholic father’s. Tom’s father stayed out late drinking because he wanted to get away from his family, and Tom has taken after his ways. Amanda says: “More and more you [Tom] remind me of your father! He was out all hours without explanation!” (Williams 4.91). Tom’s father eventually left his job at a telephone company and escaped from his family, the same thing Tom tries to do at the end of the play. Tom uses alcohol to escape reality and distance himself from family obligations. He does not change, staying true to himself as an alcoholic. Tom says in his final monologue: “I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink…” (Williams 7.321). Years later, Tom has lost his job, and he still drinks every night. Tom seems to revel in his addiction without realizing that it is chronic alcoholism that has ruined his life.

Like Tom, Williams had a severe drinking problem, but, in this case, he was a diagnosed alcoholic. “Williams was a frightful malcontent who hastened his self-destruction through brandy and barbiturates” (Thomson). He even drank excessively in rehab “after driving his car into a tree at high speed” in the 1950s (STC). He would obsessively write about his addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs, enumerating everything he drank in his diary. Similar to Tom, Williams had his own routine. He would drink while writing, drink on planes using the trip as an excuse, drink every morning, day, and evening, and sometimes drink at night (Lahr). “Williams was reluctant to give up his beloved brandy Alexanders. He drank as though he was immune from hangovers” (Thomson). Like Tom, Williams sometimes lost motor control. He regularly was dead drunk, and people used to drag him to where he needed to be (Lahr). Williams suffered from alcohol addiction and drank until he could not walk or even sit. As in the play, Williams eventually put his career and personal life at risk. In the 1960s, Williams’ career started to crumble with the death of his long-term partner, personal secretary, and lover Frank Merlo. His new plays failed as critics accused him of self-plagiarism, so he found a fresh way of living (Laing). “He began relying on a ritualistic combination of ingredients – strong coffee, cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol” (Gussow). This lifestyle led to mental issues, and eventually, Williams was admitted to a psychiatric ward at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis in 1969 by his brother (“Tennessee Williams”). Although Williams got better, he could not stop his abuse of substances. His addiction only worsened during the subsequent years and unfortunately led to his death. Like Tom, Williams took after his father, a traveling salesman Cornelius Coffin. CC “was absent from home for much of the time, … a drunkard” and an abuser who used violence against Williams and his sister (Thomson). CC was a traveling shoe salesman, which, interestingly enough, may correspond to Tom’s job at a shoe warehouse that he hated. Alcoholism was like a gene that passed to the playwright from CC. Still, the main reason for the playwright’s exacerbating depression and alcoholism was that his sister suffered from a botched lobotomy in 1943 (Thomson). In the end, Williams did not change his ways, drinking alcohol and pills until his death. The playwright realized his drinking problems but speculated that all writers drink because of tension, and alcoholism is “a little nervous support” rather than a problem (Laing). On February 25, 1983, Williams died at 71, “from a cocktail of booze and sedatives, or possibly choking on a medicine-bottle cap” (Thomson). His body was found in the morning lying on the floor of his room in the Hotel Elysee in New York (Gussow). One addiction led to another, and Williams found himself in a never-ending loop of self-destruction. Williams’ life shows what will happen to Tom if he continues with his alcoholic habits.

In conclusion, Tom Wingfield, one of the main characters of The Glass Menagerie, mirrors the play’s author, Tennessee Williams, and the theatre piece is a reflection on the playwright’s life. Both were alcoholics, suffered from depression, and did not have perfect relationships with their families. However, alcoholism is the main similarity, gradually ruining the life of both men. On top of everything else, Tennessee Williams had mental health issues and was a drug addict, which only exacerbated his drinking problems. Unfortunately, an alcohol use disorder is common, affecting millions of people in the US. It is especially true for creative people who are often more sensitive than others. Nonetheless, the question lingers whether Tennessee Williams would be as successful and thought-provoking if he did not have his drinking routine.

Works Cited

Gussow, Mel. “Tennessee Williams Is Dead at 71.” The New York Times, Web.

Lahr, John. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.

Laing, Olivia. “What Drives Writers to Drink?” The Guardian, Web.

STC. “Feature: Tennessee Williams – Life on a Hot Tin Roof.” Sydney Theatre Company, Web.

“Tennessee Williams.” State Historical Society of Missouri, Web.

Thomson, Ian. “The Very Imperfect Ten: Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.” The Irish Times, Web.

Williams, Tennessee. The Glass Menagerie. Edited by Robert Bray, New Directions Publishing, 1999.

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