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The Glass Castle Theme Essay

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The Daughter’s Relationship With Her Parents
As the author and first-person narrator, Jeannette controls this recounting of her version of her life and one may view this work as a form of empowerment. This is her story and her version of how her parents behaved and, therefore, her perspective dominates the narrative and the thematic strands.
Her view of her parents permeates each tale she recounts and there is an alternating portrayal of how she both loves and despairs of her parents. She refuses to condemn them outright, but at the same time she also reveals condemning details of their neglect of their children. In this light, Jeannette the narrator and author appears to be caught up in a complex relationship with her mother and father long after she has achieved independence and also since her father died.
Both Jeannette’s mother and father exhibit the behavior of adults who refuse to conform and also avoid offering forms of control. Instead, they are described as preferring to let their children learn from mistakes, however dangerous this is on occasions. There is also a strong suggestion that the parents were childlike and had little care for responsibility.
Depending on one’s perspective, their treatment of their growing children may be seen as entirely neglectful or, and as Jeannette appears to believe, this neglect was tempered by a care that was shaded by a laissez-faire attitude (which depends on little involvement or interference). Her parents’ preference for counter-culture influenced the way they treated their children, and this is seen to both allow their children to expand in terms of the way they thought and studied, but also meant that they were always on the margins of mainstream society.
Poverty and Perseverance
This autobiography not only highlights the moral debates over whether Jeannette’s parents were good, bad or indifferent, but also depends on the traditional story of the American Dream for its popularity with the reading public. This is drawn upon in Jeannette’s narrative of personal achievement, in terms of wealth and fame, and also in the wider story of how she and her siblings escaped from the poverty they had been raised in by sheer determination. It is only through hard work that Jeannette, Lori and Brian are reincarnated in New York and because of this they represent the ideal embedded in the American Dream and in the story of The Wizard of Oz.

Book Summary

A tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that, despite its profound flaws, gave the author the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town -- and the family -- Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story.

Chapter 1: A Woman on the Street

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.

Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash while her dog, a black-and-white terrier mix, played at her feet. Mom's gestures were all familiar -- the way she tilted her head and thrust out her lower lip when studying items of potential value that she'd hoisted out of the Dumpster, the way her eyes widened with childish glee when she found something she liked. Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but...

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Though The Glass Castle is brimming with unforgettable stories, which scenes were the most memorable for you? Which were the most shocking, the most inspiring, the funniest?
  2. Discuss the metaphor of a glass castle and what it signifies to Jeannette and her father. Why is it important that, just before leaving for New York, Jeannette tells her father that she doesn't believe he'll ever build it? (p. 238).
  3. The first story Walls tells of her childhood is that of her burning herself severely at age three, and her father dramatically takes her from the hospital: "You're safe now" (p. 14). Why do you think she opens with that...

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