Study Guide

The Glass Castle Themes

By Jeannette Walls

  • Family

    The Walls family in The Glass Castle is more like a traveling circus than the Family Circus. We're talking dysfunctional. With Mom and Dad as the ringleaders, the family bums around the country…and, oh yeah, did we mention that they're a family of bums? Mom and Dad don't realize that one day, the kids will get old enough to know better and will start to look for something else.

    Families often stick together, for better or for worse, but the Walls family falls into the "worse" category. Together, these family members hurt themselves more than they help themselves. Maybe some families are better off apart.

    Questions About Family

    1. What keeps the Walls family together? Would they be better off apart?
    2. Why does Jeannette want to keep her family together when the man from child protective services pays them a visit?
    3. Are there any similarities between the Walls family and yours? What makes them similar? What makes them different?

    Chew on This

    Even after being married twice, Jeannette keeps her last name. If she were truly embarrassed or ashamed of her family, she would have changed her name.

    The Walls family stays together as long as they do because the children are capable of forgiving their parents for all the wrong they do—but they only forgive them because they're their parents. They wouldn't let friends or strangers get away with the same behavior.

  • Home

    The Walls family lives a nomadic lifestyle. Their home, home on the range isn't where the deer and the antelope play; it's in cheap shacks across the southern and southwestern United States, where termites play in the walls and rats play in the children's beds. These dwellings are as far from "home sweet home" as a person can get. We'd love to say that the Walls family succeeds in making these hovels into warm homes, but they don't. For them, home is an idea that exists in the head and the heart, not a place they can find on a map. No Glass Castle here, folks.

    Questions About Home

    1. What are Jeannette's criteria for calling a place a home?
    2. Does Jeannette form an emotional attachment to any place where she lives?
    3. Why are Mom and Dad okay with not having a stable home?

    Chew on This

    Jeannette has a stable home at the end of the novel, and it's a home that combines a solid house—no holes, no leaks, no electrocutions—with wilderness and land for a garden, combining two different ways her family lived when she was a girl.

    The Walls parents are comfortable living as squatters because this aligns with their lifestyle. However, their children are tired of being nomadic, and they find a stable place in New York City to live together.

  • Perseverance

    There are only so many times you can fall through your own living room floor or get electrocuted by your own kitchen appliances before you throw in the towel, right?

    Not if you're Jeannette Walls. When her deity of choice was handing out continues in the great video game of life, Jeannette received an infinite number of them. Many people read memoirs to get inspiration or learn some sort of life lesson. If there's one to be learned by reading the The Glass Castle, it's to never give up. We think.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What keeps Jeannette going, even when she feels like giving up?
    2. Are there ever any instances when Jeannette is too determined? Would her life have been easier if she had given up at certain points?
    3. How does Jeannette's determination eventually pay off?
    4. Do any other members of the Walls family share Jeannette's determination?

    Chew on This

    Jeannette draws on her siblings for motivation. If she were an only child, it's unlikely she would have been be as determined to escape her parents.

    Jeannette continues to be determined today, demonstrating that perseverance is a part of her personality, not just a way to reach a goal.

  • Wealth

    Our theme for The Glass Castle is actually lack of wealth, if we want to get specific. Like the kids in Dickens novels, the Walls tots come from the raggediest rags before they achieve their modest riches. The Walls family sticks together by wearing hand-me-down clothes, not having food, and sometimes having to sleep out under the stars, since they don't actually have a roof over their heads. But they somehow make it through, proving that money can't buy happiness…but it can pay the rent and buy clothes and food, which helps.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. Why is it so difficult for the family to make ends meet?
    2. How would the Walls family be different if they were rich?
    3. Why didn't Mom sell the land, which may have been worth up to a million dollars? Why would she rather live in poverty?

    Chew on This

    The Walls family always lived in very poor communities. They are just one of many families who probably lead similar, or even worse, lives.

    Dad knows that money is the key to his children buying their own freedom. He doesn't want to lose them, so he spends all the family's money as a ploy to keep them all together.

  • Society and Class

    There's no such thing as "normal," but society often expects certain things from its citizens—things like holding down a job, responsibly raising children, and giving back in some way.

    In The Glass Castle, Rex and Rose Mary Walls do none of these things. They don't work, they let their children run wild, and they leave a trail destruction in their wake. They consider living outside of society to be a positive thing. They call themselves pioneers, or rebels. And while it's possible for this lifestyle to work, Rex and Rose Mary are terrible at it.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How did the towns where the Walls family lived influence their lives?
    2. Did Mom and Dad live outside the boundaries of society by choice?
    3. How does Mom try to maintain the appearance of being classy, despite all the evidence to the contrary? Why does she try to keep up appearances in this way?

    Chew on This

    Mom and Dad are so eccentric that if they attempted to get normal jobs and live in society, society would reject them.

    Because Mom and Dad live a bohemian lifestyle, their kids rebel against them by doing the opposite—trying to fit in.

  • Coming of Age

    The Glass Castle is like Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird for the Baby Boomer generation. Even though The Glass Castle is non-fiction instead of a novel, it tells a story similar to those told in these classic novels. It's the story of a smarter-than-your-average-bear young person and their formative experiences early in life. Unfortunately, the battle against society has turned into something a little less noble in this one—Jeannette's mom and dad don't really seem to know what they're fighting for. Coming of age for Jeannette means breaking ties with the 'rents and living her own life, on her own terms.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. What are the most formative events in Jeannette's life? How do they shape her?
    2. Which matters more: the events themselves or Jeannette's attitude toward them?
    3. How would you describe each of the Walls children? What kind of person does each sibling become? What do the siblings have in common?

    Chew on This

    Jeannette's tough life forces her to grow up more quickly than your average child, but it also makes her a more responsible and self-sufficient adult.

    As the baby of the family, Maureen's maturity was stunted, and she has many problems as a teen and young adult.

  • Identity

    It's easy to judge a by its cover: we all do it. But do we ever stop to think that our first impressions might be way off? That homeless woman digging through the trash could be someone's mother; she probably is. And that successful woman might have come from a very difficult background and struggled every step of the way to get to where she is. We can't look inside someone to see what's there, since people aren't made of glass, but The Glass Castle shows what some people are like under the surface—and how they got to be that way.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How is each of the Walls children different? What personality traits do the kids share?
    2. At the end, how is Jeannette like her mom and dad? How is she different?
    3. What leads Jeannette to choose a career in journalism? Why does this career suit her personality?

    Chew on This

    One good thing the Walls parents do is encourage their children to be themselves.

    One bad thing the Walls parents do is refuse to compromise. Their selfishness affects their ability to adequately support their family.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    When Jeannette Walls listens to John Mellencamp's song "Small Town," she probably has heart palpitations. That song is a nostalgic look at small-town life, but John's small towns are not Jeannette's small towns. In The Glass Castle, Jeannette's small-town experience isn't like a warm hug; it's like something smothering her. John Mellencamp "married an L.A. doll and brought her to this small town," but Jeannette Walls never looked back once she got away.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Why does Dad feel stifled by cities? What draws him to the wilderness?
    2. What does Jeannette find in New York City that she never would have found in Welch or any other small town?
    3. How do the kids adjust to their restrictive environments, like living in small towns or being trapped in Erma's basement? What do they do to keep themselves sane?

    Chew on This

    For Dad, who wants to live in the wilderness but isn't good at it, living in a small town is a compromise between living in the outdoors and living in a big city.

    New York City gives Jeannette choices and the ability to find the right mix of freedom and confinement to suit her life. It doesn't impose confinement upon her as the small towns do.