The Glass Castle: Fire and What it Means

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 is The Glass Castle fire chapter about? How did her incident with fire shape Jeannette?

In The Glass Castle, fire is both a frequent danger and a lifelong fascination for Jeanette Walls. As a young child, she has an accident with fire that sparks her interest, and has several other encounters that threaten her life.

Read more about The Glass Castle, fire, and Jeannette Walls’ life.

The Glass Castle: Fire

In The Glass Castle, fire is an important part of Jeannette’ memory. Jeannette’s earliest memory is the day she caught on fire when she was three years old. Her family, which included Rose Mary; her father, Rex; older sister, Lori, and younger brother, Brian, lived in a trailer in southern Arizona. Jeannette was wearing a pink party dress and stirring hot dogs in boiling water. She had to stand on a chair to reach the pot. 

Jeannette knew how to cook hot dogs. She did it often as the only means of having something to eat. Her mother was usually consumed with painting, as she was now in the next room. The only other person home was her little brother. The bottom edge of Jeannette’s dress brushed up against the flames and consumed one side of her body. Rose Mary put the flames out with a blanket and calmly asked their neighbor to drive them to the hospital. Rex was out with the car.

A Luxury Vacation

Life was so good at the hospital compared to home, Jeannette never wanted to leave. She loved having her own room and the cleanliness and quiet. She’d also never watched TV before and spent most of her time watching old sitcoms, like The Lucille Ball Show. Sometimes, she’d pass the time reading to the nurses. They were impressed with how well she could read. 

Mostly, Jeannette loved all the food. She was given three meals a day and ice cream, Jell-O, or fruit cocktail for dessert. One of the nurses even gave Jeannette her first piece of gum. There was always more food and gum. Nothing ever ran out like at home. It was paradise. In The Glass Castle, fire led to this positive experience for Jeannette.

Jeannette sustained severe burns on one side of her chest, and the doctors performed skin grafts using skin from her thighs. The hospital staff questioned Jeannette about her injuries. They asked if her parents hurt her, where her other cuts and bruises came from, and why she was cooking by herself. Jeannette wasn’t fazed. She said she was cut and bruised from playing outside and that she always cooked hot dogs. Her mother said she was very mature. 

Paradise Lost

Whenever Jeannette’s family came to visit, they were loud and unruly. Her parents would argue, sing, laugh, and make a general ruckus that earned admonishments from the staff. 

Rex was always the more gregarious. He threatened to beat up the nurses and doctors if Jeannette wasn’t being treated right. Her mother wasn’t much better. When she found out about the nurse and the chewing gum, she went into a tirade about what a disgusting habit chewing gum was. She was going to give that nurse the what-for. 

Rex thought it would have been better if Jeannette had seen the witch doctor they’d taken her older sister to after she was bitten by a scorpion. He said she’d heal faster than being stuck in here with the quacks they called doctors. In fact, Rex started a fight with one of the doctors. He argued that keeping her in bandages didn’t allow the burns to breathe. The doctor countered that the bandages warded off infections. Rex pulled his fist back in anticipation for a punch, but the doctor backed away. A security guard escorted the family out of the hospital. 

The next time the family visited Jeannette, Brian’s head was wrapped in a blood-soaked bandage. He’d fallen off the couch and cracked his head open. Despite the significant amount of blood, they’d bandaged Brian up at home. One hospitalized child was enough, said Rose Mary. 

Checking Out Rex Walls Style

Jeannette had been hospitalized for six weeks when her parents decided it had been long enough. One day, Rex walked into her room and said they were about to check out Rex Walls style. Jeanette questioned the decision, but he told her to trust him. 

She could smell Rex’s signature scent of stale whiskey, cigarettes, and hair product when he leaned over to pick her up. Rex scurried down the hall with Jeannette in his arms. Outside, the whole family sat waiting in the running blue station wagon, the Blue Goose. Rex placed her in the back seat and told her not to worry. She was finally safe. 

Jeannette was back cooking hotdogs days after returning home. She also had a new obsession with fire. She started testing how long she could hold her finger over a candle flame and stared in awe at garbage fires in her neighborhood. She played with matches and made small fires with paper, debris, and plastic dolls. Her parents were proud she’d embraced her accident so bravely, and it’s her first encounter with fire symbolism in The Glass Castle.

The Glass Castle: Fire Fascination

In The Glass Castle, fire became a fascination for Jeannette. Fire was the catalyst for another Walls family skedaddle shortly after arriving in San Francisco. Rose Mary didn’t want to stay in what she called “tourist traps” near the wharf, so the family found an affordable hotel in the Tenderloin District, where many of the residents were prostitutes. 

The children were often left alone in the hotel while their parents went in search of investment capital for the Prospector. Jeannette found a box of wooden matches and took them to the bathroom. She built a mound of toilet paper in the toilet, set it on fire, and flushed only when the flames were lapping high out of the basin. 

A few nights later, Jeannette woke up to a fire in their room. The curtains were flaming a few steps from her bed. Her parents weren’t there, and she couldn’t rouse Brian and Lori. The fire continued to grow, but suddenly the door burst open. Rex led them out of the room and across the street to a bar. Jeannette watched the fire through the bar windows wondering if all the fires in the world were connected. Was the fire that burned her connected to this fire? Was the fire still after her? She took on a new perspective about life. At any moment, your world could go up in a blaze. That truth never left her, and shows how she thinks of fire symbolism in The Glass Castle.

Brian and Jeannette loved exploring. Along with the desert, they explored the town dump. One day, they stumbled onto toxic chemicals in large bins. They took glass jars and filled them with the chemicals, then took them to an abandoned shack. They mixed potions together, but when nothing happened, they decided to see if they could catch on fire. This is another example in The Glass Castle of fire and Jeannette’s interest in it.

The next day, they dropped a match into a mixture of different chemicals, and a fire bomb shot up into the air. The shack caught on fire and spread so fast, they became trapped inside. Jeannette kicked a board out and escaped, but Brian was still inside. She ran for help and happened to run into Rex walking back from work. Rex ran to the shack and pulled Brian out. As Rex watched the shack burn, he marveled at the luck of him walking by right at that moment. Then, he explained the physical reaction that made the top of the flames shimmer like a mirage. In The Glass Castle, fire was both a fascination and a danger. Fire symbolism in The Glass Castle shows that fire can be powerful but also dangerous.

The Glass Castle: Fire and What it Means

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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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