One of the central themes of The Glass Menagerie is that of longing and desire. Each of the five characters in the play has something that they desire but cannot obtain. Jim O’Connor is a high-school friend of the two main protagonists, and peaked during his high school years. Since leaving school, however, Jim has been unable to reach the heights of his popularity and success as an athlete, and his one true desire is to regain his former life. He aims to achieve this goal by studying public speaking and self-improvement; something which is reminiscent of Dale Carnegie and has resonance for modern life. The purpose of this paper is to explore Jim’s desire to regain his popularity and some of the barriers that he faces in achieving this goal. It will become evident that there is a conflict between not only desire and reality, but expectations and reality for this character in The Glass Menagerie.
In scene 6 of the play, the audience is introduced to Jim O’ Connor. He is described as seeming “to move in a continual spotlight…he was shooting with such velocity through his adolescence that you would logically expect him to arrive at nothing short of the White House by the time he was thirty” (Williams, 1999, p.67). This is the first hint that we get that Jim’s expectations for himself and the expectations that the other characters have for him are not necessarily in line with how his life has turned out. This quote is delivered in the past tense, and is unresolved: we would expect Jim to be in the spotlight, but he has not achieved this goal. As with many of the other characters, Jim’s desires to reach the heights of success have not been met and there is a conflict between expectation and reality.

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One of the central themes of The Glass Menagerie is the idea of memory and longing, and in Jim’s case his past life and the successes that he associates with it also feed into his desires for a better life. We are told that “Jim, just like Amanda, spends excessive time discussing both the glory days of his past and his dreams for the future.” (Williams, 1999, p.81) This gives an idea that Jim’s longings for the future are linked to his ideas of the past, and as he was a successful athlete and popular student, the audience gets the idea that he wants to be as successful in the present day as he was in the past.

The character of Jim is also interesting as he is seen to be actively working towards meeting his goals and dreams. He is studying the art of public speaking, for example, which shows that he has the drive to achieve his goals. The play works to resolve the conflict between desire and reality for this character by giving him the drive to move forward: he is studying hard to better himself, and wants to become a merchant marine. Whilst this is far off the expectations that the other characters had of him reaching the White House, this is indicative in itself. It shows that our expectations for the future may not match our expectations from the past, but if we let go of the memories and longing and nostalgia, we can take a different path to success and still get what we really want. The character of Jim in The Glass Menagerie is perhaps the most useful in understanding the central message of the play.

  • Williams, T. (1999). The Glass Menagerie. New Directions Publishing.