The Glass Castle: Essay Q&A

1.  Give an outline of Jeannette’s character and her relationship with her family.

As this is an autobiographical work, a direct line may be drawn between Jeannette Walls the author and Jeannette the first-person narrator. The style of the writing is relatively straightforward as the author records her memories and her perception of her memories with apparently little doubt.
She tends to characterize herself and her two closest siblings in terms of age most fully and all three are depicted as intelligent, well-read and often humiliated for the poverty they live in.
The parents are more quixotic and, therefore, less easy to quantify. Her father is described as an alcoholic, especially as he gets older, but she is also quick to show the readers how intelligent and curious he was too. In this way, she avoids stereotyping her father and other alcoholics and does not condemn him too readily. This is also in keeping with the content of this book as this highlights how both were relatively close to each other.
Her mother is drawn less favorably and it is difficult to know if this is because she was as monstrous as she appears or because Jeannette the author is less forgiving of her.
2. Consider the title and explain how representative it is of the work as a whole.

The reference to the Glass Castle comes about from the dream of Jeannette’s father to construct such a building for the family. The idea sounds preposterous and unlikely, to build a castle made of glass, and yet her father drew up plans and blueprints to bring this about.
This tension between impossible dream and everyday reality (where it is unlikely that such a castle will be built) typifies the upbringing Jeannette had. Her mother also had dreams, such as being an artist or a writer, and persevered with this although she was never successful in terms of achieving great sales. Both parents, then, were idealistic and full of hopes, but overlooked the practical necessities of earning money and, it must be said, feeding their children.
3. Discuss Jeannette’s reading matter and compare the books she read as a child with this work.

Jeannette recalls how as they were growing up Lori used to love reading works such as Lord of the Rings whereas she preferred the stuff of human conflict and so was more likely to read Lord of the Flies and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
As she points out, the latter text may be seen as having many similarities with her life and, by implication, with this autobiography. Both here and in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the central heroine is raised in poverty and yearns for something better. In addition, both girls fail to see the full problems that their fathers bring to the family.
4. Analyze the limits and possibilities of autobiography and discuss in relation to The Glass Castle.

The premise of an autobiography is that it is a life story of the author. It depends on the author’s memories and research, but is ultimately their subjective responses to their own lives and because of this is limited by their subject position.
In this particular work, Jeannette Walls avoids engaging with any type of overt theoretical response to the nature of autobiography. Instead, she prefers to follow a mainly linear path from childhood to adulthood. The only change from this straight line comes at the beginning of the book when she offers her reasoning for telling her life story.
5. To what extent are the poor conditions that the children are raised in attributed to the wider problems of a capitalist society in this work?

On the whole, the author tends to avoid discussing her family’s poverty in relation to material politics and as the work progresses it becomes apparent that in this instance the family was not as poor as it appeared to be. Although the children are often described as being hungry and extremely cold in winters in Welch, it transpires that their mother not only held on to the diamond ring that Brian found, but also had land worth around one million dollars. Because of these factors, it seems that their poverty was unnecessary and neglectful on the part of the parents rather than being explicable by economic and social factors.
The subject of poverty is barely examined here as the main content is taken up by Jeannette recounting events and circumstances rather than questioning why such things happened. On one of the few occasions it is raised, she refers to the visit paid to Welch by the then new President Kennedy when he gave out the first food stamps. At this point it is highlighted how poverty has been (and still is) rife in the wealthiest country in the world.