Theme is a pervasive idea presented in a literary piece. Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle presents the dilemma of familial relations and also demonstrates different facets of human personality such as self-sufficiency, love with the world of fantasy, and parental irresponsibility. Some of the major themes in The Glass Castle are discussed below.
Themes in The Glass Castle
Fear of Fire
The motif of fire that frequently appears in the novel, The Glass Castle, is one of the major themes as well on account of its feature of making people fearful of it for life. The fire appears to have become a fixture in the life of Jeannette Walls as it brings back her memory of burning when she was just three and was preparing hot dogs on the fire. Despite recovering successfully from those extreme burns, it frequently appears in her memories, reminding her of its burning power and implicit neglect of her parents. It also appears in other chapters of the novel, burning a shed or a house, making the inmates run for their lives and injuring them. In fact, the fire here represents a sort of chaos and disorder in Jeannette’s life.
The Glass Castle
A glass castle, which actually means a dream house, is another major theme of the book. It is its title, too, because it represents Rex Walls’ dream, and that of the entire Walls family, to make them escape into the world of fantasy after confronting the bitter reality of this world where government bills and house rents create problems for them. The idea hits him when going through a desert. It also represents his deep architectural dream of creating something phenomenal, yet it is created to make his children happy. Jeannette, specifically, believes in her father who becomes hopeful that someday he would be able to build this castle on the foundations that he has erected though fill them with garbage. In a way, it becomes a symbol of their dreams and hopes though as an adult Jeannette comes to realize it is just a fantasy.
Self-sufficiency or fending for themselves is another major theme of the narrative. Jeannette Walls has beautifully presented her family saga to show the case of self-sufficiency and her will to reach New York. In fact, Rex Walls and his wife, though running away from the government-imposed structure and financial obligations, have unconsciously put this lesson in the minds of their children that come what may they would have to do everything themselves. That is why when Jeannette Walls sees her mother roaming amidst the garbage, she tries to coax her to her apartment; Rose Mary comes only to meet her and not to live with her for good.
This is the hard lesson of self-sufficiency that she has taught throughout her life to her children. Perhaps this is the same lesson that has become a bedrock of the philosophy of Lori, her success, and then the reason for the success of Jeannette Walls. Rose Mary insists from a very early stage that her children must learn to be self-sufficient even in finding food. That is why they do not rely on charities and doctors and even bring Jeannette home from hospital forcibly when they think she’s been there too long. However, this self-sufficiency is not always good for such people to urbanize, for it is best for survival in the wild and not in an ordered and disciplined society.
Whether it is of an individual or of the whole family, nonconformity is not accepted in a society or a family. The odd ones out have to face obstacles and construct fantasy worlds. The case of the Walls is almost the same. Rex and Rose Mary Walls marry and have kids, yet when it comes to living in a society, they prove nonconformists and also teach the same thing to their children. However, it is up to Lori, Jeannette, and Brian that they quickly come to know that this type of behavior would make them vulnerable to staying in poverty throughout their lives. Rex is also disappointed at Brian when he joins the air force. This nonconformity runs so deep that Rex does not do any job permanently, and his wife, Rose Mary, too, struggles to do the job at which she is an expert.
Love of Nature or Crude Life
These two themes run parallel and put questions before the reader about the parental dream of keeping their children in the dreamy nature or letting them be urbanized and supposedly corrupt. Specifically, the time that the Walls spend in the desert shows that parental stress is upon the nature that man has corrupted. For example, Brian and Jeannette face pesticidal spray when they enter the lettuce field after they come across bullies. Then they face toxic waste when they play in the dump. Such hazards are spurned by the parents who think that the modern lifestyle has corrupted nature. Hence Walls wanted to keep their children in the natural setting as much as possible, little knowing that they are also keeping them away from civilized life and are throwing them into a crude lifestyle.
Turbulence or Order
Rex Walls, a highly ingenious person, and innovative father define it to his son and daughter when they catch fire that there is no rule for turbulence and order. Even if there are rules, nobody has ever been able to understand them. Therefore, they must set their own rules to create an order. Rex asserts it before his children that he has found this boundary. Perhaps that is the very reason that the Walls are always put in the proximity of this boundary between the turbulence and order by the parents to let them find the difference and create their own order. When Rex finds himself addicted to alcohol, they come to know the significance of this point as they do not find any rules and regulations when they find themselves finding food in the streets. Jeannette Walls see this in the flame of the candlelight by the end of the novel. In other words, they unconsciously learn that there exists a boundary between the two and it is very often that they have to cross one to find themselves into another and create their own.
With the moral controversy over the ethical framework that the elder Walls follow about bringing up their children, this autobiography also raises eyebrows about how parents teach perseverance to their children when living in poverty. Although the narratives of Lori and Jeannette about their personal efforts and successes show how a person can raise himself or herself from absolute poverty, the question of parental teaching about the values of self-control, patience, and hard work stays behind the curtain, for it is their parents who have consciously or unconsciously taught them how to be self-sufficient and persevere to be able to reach the top.
Familial relationships and their importance is another major theme of The Glass Castle. Jeannette Walls, though has adopted the narrative style to write her biography, it spans over her entire family, taking into account her father and mother and their roles in making the family. Her view of her parents seems objective, yet it is punctuated with occasional comments about their view of life and view of bringing up children. The strength of the relationships can be gauged from the fact that Brian comes to help her when her sister faces a bully attacking her. She also experiences sexual harassment from her uncle which shows how extended family sometimes poses threats to the life of kids. They also learn self-sufficiency and independent living from their parents, a vital lesson that Lori and Jeannette take to heart and use to succeed in an urban lifestyle.
Home is another major theme of the novel, The Glass Castle. Jeannette’s deep observations of her upbringing and lifestyle her parents adopt for the whole family show that their concept of the home comprises only the glass castle; a dream house that falls apart when they grow up. Her father’s dream of this fantasy is just to satisfy the curiosity of the children and make them feel that they would have a future home.
Responsibility, or lack there-of, is another major theme of the narrative. Although Rex and Rose Mary fulfill their parental responsibility of bringing up their children, they fail to provide them the best education or lifestyle that the time requires.