Poverty in The Glass Castle: Hunger and Insecurity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What are examples of poverty in The Glass Castle? How does the Walls family deal with poverty?

Poverty in The Glass Castle is a constant issue. The Walls family deals with poverty throughout the story, and the Walls children are frequently left to fend for themselves when it comes to food and shelter.

Read more about poverty in The Glass Castle and Jeannette Walls.

Poverty in The Glass Castle: Christmas at the Walls’ House

Christmas is one of the most striking examples of poverty in The Glass Castle. Christmas for Jeannette’s family was different than it was for other families. Rex and Rose Mary opted to celebrate a week after Christmas to take advantage of the post-holiday sales. They’d pick up used trees from the roadside and wrap small toys and trinkets in wrapping paper discarded by other families. The presents were never from Santa Clause. Rose Mary said she wouldn’t lie to her children, like other parents did, or brainwash them into believing silly myths about elves making toys. 

When Christmas rolled around that first year in the Midland, Rex didn’t have enough money even for their meager celebration. He’d been fired from the mine after arguing with his supervisor. On Christmas Eve, Rex took each child out into the desert and told them to pick out a star in the sky as their present. He said they would always be able to find their stars, which made them luckier than kids who would grow out of their presents in a year. Jeannette chose Venus even though it wasn’t a star. Despite poverty in The Glass Castle, the family still grew closer during the holidays.

Dealing With Hunger

The constant hunger the Walls children felt offers more examples of poverty in The Glass Castle. Rex found a job as a mine electrician, which regulated his time in a more positive way. He was up early, and when he came home in the afternoon, he played with the children. When he wasn’t around, Jeannette and Brian would go exploring in the desert. Jeannette became a collector of treasured rocks, such as turquoise and geodes. 

With Rex working, they could afford to go out to eat Sunday nights. They went to the Owl Club, one of two casinos in town. They’d gorge on burgers and milkshakes and leave stuffed. There was also plenty of food at home. The mine included a commissary, and a monthly stipend for groceries and the rent amount were automatically deducted from Rex’s salary. 

Rose Mary thought cooking was a waste of time. She could paint a picture that would last forever in the time it took to make a meal that would be gone in moments. So at the beginning of each week, they’d pick up their groceries, and whatever wasn’t ready-to-serve would get put in a pot. They’d eat each meal from the pot over the rest of the week, even if the food started to spoil. 

The problem was the Walls’ inability to budget. Their habit of gorging themselves when food was available led to larger bills at the commissary. Rex’s salary would run out before the month was up, and sometimes he owed money. In The Glass Castle, poverty often resulted from this inability to budget.

However, one place money wasn’t going to was the bars. Rex had curbed his drinking, choosing instead to stay home with his family spread around the room reading. A large dictionary was opened in the middle of the room for the kids to look up unfamiliar words. If Jeannette didn’t agree with a definition, she and Rex would write letters to the publishers in protest. 

Poverty in The Glass Castle: Just Like Old Times

The comfortable life the Walls family had enjoyed for the past six months ended after Rex lost his job. It was the longest he’d ever held a steady position. Jeannette assumed they’d be moving again, but they didn’t. Rex said he intentionally got fired so he could have more time to find gold. 

The family no longer had credit at the commissary, and there were no savings. When their food ran out, they couldn’t buy more. Every now and then, an odd job or gambling spoils would give them enough to eat for a few days. Sometimes, Rex left and returned an hour later with an armload of vegetables and made a stew. Mostly, they went hungry in more examples of poverty in The Glass Castle.

Rex’s time at the house dwindled. He stayed out more and more in the evenings. He was gone so much, Maureen’s first words were practically, “Where’s Daddy?” 

Rose Mary wasn’t much help. The children mostly kept their empty stomachs to themselves, not wanting to upset her. When they did complain, she merely shrugged. What was she supposed to do about it?

Desperate Times

One day, after two months of starving, Rex walked in with a bag of groceries. There was canned corn, bread, milk, sugar, margarine, and two containers of deviled ham. The family stuffed themselves on deviled ham sandwiches and milk. After one night, the only thing left was the stick of margarine.

The next day, Jeannette found Lori eating the butter with a spoon after school. She’d mixed it with sugar, and the two girls ate every bite. When Rose Mary came home, she fumed about the missing stick of margarine. She said she was saving it to spread on bread. In The Glass Castle, poverty was not something the family talked about.

When the girls pointed out there was no more bread, Rose Mary countered that she was going to borrow flour to bake some. When the girls pointed out the gas had been turned off, Rose Mary said they could have used the margarine whenever the gas got turned back on. She said thanks to the girls’ gluttony, there would be no margarine if they ever had bread again. 

Jeannette had reached her limit. She screamed that she and Lori were hungry and had nothing to eat. Rose Mary stared stunned. The unspoken rule in the Walls family was to ignore their troubles, and Jeannette was bringing a big one to light. In The Glass Castle, poverty controlled their life but no one was allowed to talk about it.

Poverty in The Glass Castle: Hunger and Insecurity

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Jeannette Walls's "The Glass Castle" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Glass Castle summary:

  • The author's unbelievable childhood as her absent parents went on alcoholic binges
  • How Jeannette and her siblings escaped their parents to strike out on their own
  • The complicated relationship Jeannette had with her parents before they died

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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