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The Glass Castle

  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs

Fire

Dangerous fires appear throughout Jeannette’s childhood, highlighting the danger Mom and Dad’s negligence places their children in. At three years old, Jeannette catches on fire while cooking unsupervised, and after the incident she becomes obsessed with starting small fires. Mom and Dad encourage Jeannette’s fascination with fire and claim it shows bravery in the face of adversity. This rhetoric hides their culpability for Jeannette’s accident by implying that fire attacked Jeannette, instead of acknowledging that a three-year-old shouldn’t use a stove. At age four, the family’s hotel in San Francisco catches fire, and Jeannette starts to worry that all fire has a grudge against her. Here, she assigns agency to fire, imitating her parents by blaming fire for attacking her. When Jeannette and Brian set a batch of hazardous waste on fire and almost burn to death, Dad finally acknowledges fire as a natural force by explaining what happened in terms of physics. His assertion that “no rules apply” at the chaos they’ve created with their fire means that the usual Walls philosophy of showing no fear cannot apply to an explosion.

Animals

The Walls family adopts dozens of animals over the course of the memoir, whose ill-fated ends display the family’s unhealthy living situation. When flies infest their house in Battle Mountain, Jeannette asks about getting a No-Pest Strip to kill them. Mom refuses on the grounds that what kills the flies likely will hurt humans too. Mom’s policy against animal toxins in the house may appear logical, but it ignores the toxic conditions the humans in the family face. Most of the family’s animals, including their dog Juju, can’t survive in Blythe, where the Wallses live for several months. Dad drowns a litter of kittens the family cannot afford to take care of, displaying a cruel disregard for their lives when they become inconvenient. In Welch, the house gets so cold that Brian’s iguana freezes to death. The Wallses routinely live in environments that kill animals, both passively and actively, which means, by Mom’s judgment, they can’t be very good for the Walls family either.

Hypocrisy

As Jeannette grows throughout the memoir and notices the repeated instances of hypocrisy in her parents’ behavior, she realizes convenience and desperation create hypocrites. More often than not, Mom and Dad change their values to serve their immediate needs. Jeannette explicitly makes this connection when Mom says they have to tolerate Erma’s racist rants because they would be homeless without her. In another instance of this, Mom believes that Lori’s poor eyesight means she should exercise her eyes instead of buying glasses, but changes her mind as soon as the school offers to pay for Lori’s glasses. Mom finds the prospect of getting something for free tempting enough to change her opinion. Furthermore, when Jeannette and Lori attack Erma after she molests Brian, Dad admonishes them for disrespecting their grandmother. Dad’s unhinged response contradicts the lessons he teaches his children about “Pervert Hunting” and never showing the enemy fear. In this instance, Dad’s hypocrisy likely stems from his deeply repressed sexual trauma, demonstrating that his emotional need to diminish and ignore what happened to him takes precedence over protecting Brian.