The play takes place in the apartment of the Wingfield family, which is in an over-crowded, lower middle-class housing complex in St. Louis. In a case in the living room is a collection of transparent glass animals. A photograph of the father hangs on the wall.
Tom, dressed as a merchant sailor, enters and addresses the audience directly. He says he is turning back time to the 1930s, to when America was still recovering from the Depression, and there were violent labor disputes. There was also a civil war in Spain.
Tom states that what the audience is to see is a memory play, in which he is one of the characters. The others are his mother Amanda, his sister Laura, and a "gentleman caller" who appears in the final scenes. Another character, who does not appear in the play, is his and Laura's father, who gave up his job with the telephone company and deserted his family a long time ago.
As the play begins, Amanda and Laura are seated at a table. Tom joins them, but he and his mother soon fall to arguing since Amanda is critical of him. Amanda alludes to a gentleman caller that she expects that afternoon for Laura. Then she reminisces about her own past in Mississippi, when she once had seventeen gentlemen callers in one afternoon. Tom, who has heard this story many times, indulges her, and Amanda tells of how she was able to entertain them all because she knew the art of conversation. Many of these men went on to become wealthy, although many are now dead.
Amanda tells Laura to go and study her typewriter chart or practice her shorthand. She must stay fresh and pretty because her gentleman callers will be arriving shortly. Laura points out that she is not expecting anyone, but Amanda does not want to believe it. She fears that Laura may become an "old maid."
In scene 2, an agitated Amanda returns from what would usually have been a D. A. R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) meeting. But it transpires that she did not go to the meeting. Instead, she visited Rubicam's Business College to speak to Laura's teachers about the progress she was making. She was told by the typing instructor that Laura did not attend the college. The instructor then recalled that Laura must have been the shy girl who dropped out after only a few days' attendance. Amanda had assumed that Laura had been attending classes every day for six weeks. She is devastated by the news, and tells Laura that all her hopes and ambitions for her have been destroyed. She asks Laura where she has been going when she pretended to be attending the business college. Laura replies that she went out walking, sometimes visiting the museum or the zoo, or going to the movie theater.
Amanda is in despair. Because Laura has dropped out of college, she sees nothing in their future except dependency. She then turns the subject to marriage, asking Laura if she has ever liked a boy.
Laura replies that there was one boy, named Jim, whom she liked in high school. She shows her mother the school yearbook which has a picture of Jim. She remembers how he used to call her "Blue Roses," having misheard her tell him that she had had an attack of pleurosis. The yearbook stated that Jim was engaged to be married, so Laura assumes that he is now married, since the yearbook is six years old.
Amanda resolves to marry Laura off to a nice man, but Laura does not believe she will ever marry because she is crippled. Amanda reproaches her for using that word, and insists that all she has to do is cultivate vivacity and charm.
The social background that is emphasized several times in the play is important. It is the macrocosmic reflection of the microcosm of the Wingfield family. In scene 1, Tom mentions the economic depression of the 1930s, and this mirrors the economic circumstances and worries of the Wingfield family.
Scene 1 is dominated by Amanda, who reveals how difficult she is to live with. She lectures Tom all the time, telling him what to do and how he should live. It is no wonder that he, who is the poetic, imaginative member of the family, wants to escape.
It is clear that Amanda lives in an illusory world of her own. She is really living in the past, looking back to an ideal South of her youth that probably never really existed. She is surely exaggerating when she recalls her seventeen gentlemen callers on just one afternoon-a story she has told many times before.
If Amanda lives in the past and nourishes illusions regarding the present, Laura has extreme difficulties of her own, as scene 2 shows. She is shown polishing her glass animals, which seem to be all she has in life. Self-conscious about being lame, she retreats inward and cannot face the world. It is clear that both Amanda and Laura, in their different ways, are trapped in their small worlds. There seems to be no future for them.