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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls Essay

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Updated: Dec 3rd, 2019


A family plays a substantial role in shaping a personality. This fact is a problem for children whose parents fail to pay proper attention to their upbringing due to various addictions. Jeannette Walls was such an unlucky child, and she described her growing up in a dysfunctional family in her memoir The Glass Castle. This essay will give a summary of the book, discuss the main characters and problems, and provide a personal opinion of the story.


Jeanette Walls is one of the four children of Rex and Rose Mary Walls. Her father was a drunkard, and her mother was a teacher who saw her calling in painting. At the age of six, Jeannette and her family moved to Battle Mountain, Nevada. They lived there in a railway station adjusted for residence. For a while, stability came to their life since Rex Walls started working for a mining company. However, he soon lost his job and spent all the money earned by Rose Mary. They also happened to attract the attention of the police due to an incident in their house. To avoid taking their children away from them, the Walls decided to move to the home of Grandma Smith, who was Rose Mary’s mother. The old woman died right before their arrival, but left them a substantial sum of money. However, the money soon was spent, and the family moved to Welch, West Virginia, where Rex’s parents lived.

Then, the Walls left the dwelling of Jeannette’s parental grandmother to settle down in a dilapidated house. Rex said that one day he would build a glass castle in that place, but his children did not believe him. Jeannette asked her mother to get a divorce, but Rose Mary refused. Therefore, Jeannette and her elder sister, Lori, began to save money to flee to New York. Their efforts were successful, and soon, all the four siblings moved to the Big Apple. Their parents also came to New York to live off their children, but as they disapproved of it, Rex and Rose Mary became homeless. Later, Jeannette was driving to a party and saw her mother scavenging the garbage cans. The woman offered her help to Rose Mary, but she refused. The story ends with a family dinner at Jeannette’s house where the Walls remembered Rex, who had died a few years ago.

The Main Characters

The first character of the book is Jeannette Walls, the narrator. She had a complicated childhood because of her parents’ irresponsibility, but it helped her to become a strong and determined woman. Being a child, she tried to exonerate her father’s behavior because she believed in him: “I told him that I would never lose faith in him. And I promised myself I never would” (Walls 79). However, as she grew up, she realized that her trust was in vain because Rex was never going to accomplish his plans. As for her mother, Jeannette seems to lack an understanding of her life principles. When she sees Rose Mary in New York scavenging garbage cans, she thinks that her mother needs help. However, when Jeannette hears that Rose Mary is satisfied with her living conditions, she is perplexed. Generally, Jeannette inspires respect because she did not follow her parents’ steps, but became better than they were and reached success in her life.

Another character is Rex Walls, Jeannette’s father, who spent all the money in the family on alcohol. He could have been a conscientious worker since he was smart and had engineering and mathematical expertise. However, he chose the path of an alcoholic and did not bother to stay on any job for long. Some episodes, like the one when he proposed his children to choose their favorite stars as Christmas gifts since he could not give them real presents, prove that Rex had a kind heart and could have made a caring father. However, he was a weak personality who could not conquer his lust for drinks and reluctance to work, and this made his children, including Jeannette, lose faith in him.

The last character worth discussing is Rose Mary, Jeannette’s mother. Although she was qualified as a teacher, she was confident that she was born to be an artist. For this reason, she worked only when Rex had no job to prevent her children from starving. Rose Mary had exceptional values since she did not want to live in comfort, find a high-paid job, or have a happy family with a sober husband. Even when her daughter offered her to help with accommodation because she considered her mother’s lifestyle inappropriate, she refused by saying that “being homeless is an adventure” (Walls 255). Thus, Rose Mary does not evoke sympathy because she has chosen her way of living for herself and appears to be satisfied with it.

The Themes of the Book

The book raises the theme of feeling abnormal and ashamed. According to Bath, young people growing up in nonstandard conditions, like Jeannette Walls, often feel shame because they do not consider themselves normal (132). It is true for Jeannette since she realized that her family was far from being ordinary, and for a long time, she was ashamed to tell anyone about her parents. Eventually, she understood that every person had a past, so there was no need for her to hide her background. It was the reason why she ventured to write her memoir.

Another theme of the novel is individualism and independence from others. Yang and Congzhou argue that it is typical of Americans to rely on themselves and keep apart from their parents after coming of age (53). However, in the Walls family, individualism seems slightly exaggerated and may be interpreted as the parents’ indifference to their offspring. Although Rex and Rose Mary wanted their children to be self-sufficient, they treated them as if they did not care about them. Surprisingly, they achieved this goal since Jeannette with her siblings indeed became independent, but, on the other side, they lost any desire to keep in touch with their parents.

Personal Opinion

Since the book describes the life of a dysfunctional family, it makes readers think of other people who live in similar conditions. However, this story allows viewing the situation from another angle. Usually, the homeless and the poor evoke sympathy because they are assumed to have had bad luck that has led them to their current state. The book shows that there may be no external circumstances, which ruin people’s life. The author reveals to readers that being a pauper with no home can be someone’s voluntary choice (Cardell and Douglas 23). The main point is that there is no way to help them because it is impossible to assist people who see nothing wrong with their behavior.


To sum up, the book is worth reading because it makes readers face reality, which is full of unpleasant things such as alcohol abuse, poverty, and vagrancy. On the other hand, it shows that a person can overcome all of this, like Jeannette Walls and her siblings did. It reveals that people themselves are responsible for their current situation, and sometimes, only their beliefs prevent them from improving their lives.

Works Cited

Bath, Howard. “Pain and the Unspoken Emotion: Shame.” International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, vol. 10, no. 2-3, 2019, pp. 126-141.

Cardell, Kylie, and Kate Douglas, editors. Telling Tales: Autobiographies of Childhood and Youth. Routledge, 2017.

Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle: A Memoir. Simon and Schuster, 2017.

Yang, Liu, and Yang Congzhou. “Analysis of Sino-American Family Education Differences: Collectivistic or Individualistic? – Taking The Glass Castle as an Example.” International Education Studies, vol. 11, no. 8, 2018, pp. 51-57.

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