The Glass Castle Themes: 4 Important Messages

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 the The Glass Castle themes in the book? What can you take away from each of the themes?

The Glass Castle themes revolve around overcoming hardship, familiar bonds, and more. These themes will help you better understand the book, and Jeannette’s message about her life.

Keep reading to find out more about The Glass Castle themes.

The Glass Castle Themes

These The Glass Castle themes are each explored through Jeannette’s experiences.

Overcoming Hardship in The Glass Castle Themes

One of the consistent The Glass Castle themes is the idea of overcoming hardship. Jeannette and all of her siblings overcame hardship to improve their lives.

Themes from The Glass Castle are shown through comparing Jeannette’s adult life and her childhood. Life on Park Avenue was more than Jeannette ever dreamed possible for her life, and she was thriving at the magazine. She made good money and wrote a weekly column, which was basically a gossip column about prominent figures in the New York social scene. She interviewed famous and influential people and was invited to fancy parties and events. Jeannette had finally become someone who had their finger on the pulse of society.

Rose Mary thought Jeannette had sold out. She wanted Jeannette to write important stories about social inequality and housing issues. Rex, however, was Jeannette’s biggest fan. He read all of her articles and researched the people she wrote about at the library. Every now and then, he’d call her up with a piece of juicy gossip he’d unearthed about someone’s past. 

Jeannette kept the secret of her family and background even more closely guarded. She told herself this new exclusive world wouldn’t accept her if they knew the truth. She never brought up her parents, and when asked a direct question, she’d pull out the same lie she told the child welfare worker: Rose Mary was an artist, and Rex was an inventor working on a system to burn low-grade coal. She said they lived in a big house on a hill overlooking Welch. 

Jeannette and Eric were married four years after she moved in. Their life together was stable and uneventful, and that was just the right speed for Jeannette. 

Abuse

Another one of The Glass Castle themes is abuse. Jeannette describes several instances in which she or her siblings are abused.

Shortly after Erma’s death, Uncle Stanley burned their house down after falling asleep with a cigarette. He and his father moved to a small apartment in town. The apartment had indoor plumbing, and the children would bathe there on weekends. 

Jeannette was waiting for her turn in the bath one afternoon while watching television with Stanley. His hand started to move up her thigh, and she saw that he was masturbating. Rose Mary was in the other room. When Jeannette ran to tell her what was happening, Rose Mary said it was sad how lonely Stanley was, and besides, sexual assault is all about perception. “If you don’t think you’re hurt, then you aren’t,” she said. Jeannette stopped going to the apartment to bathe. 

Hunger

The only time there was food in the house was when Rex managed to make it home and Rose Mary received a check from the Texas land. The money she received was enough to stock the pantry for days to weeks at a time. These themes from The Glass Castle are shown through stories like this one.

The family ate pinto beans day after day until they ran out. Sometimes they’d have popcorn for dinner if that was all the food left. When the checks were big enough, Rose Mary would buy a large canned ham, and they’d feast on thick slices. Because there was no refrigerator, the ham would spoil on the counter. One day, Jeannette went to cut a slice and found it infested with maggots. Rose Mary was eating a slice. She told Jeannette she shouldn’t be so picky and to just cut around the maggots. The hunger Jeannette and her siblings experience shows The Glass Castle themes of abuse and neglect.

Family Bonds (and Boundaries)

Family bonds are another of the biggest The Glass Castle themes.

Jeannette felt trapped between wanting a life free from her parents and the guilt of allowing them to languish on the streets. She hid her past from everyone in her life. She didn’t defend her parents when a friend said all homeless people were scam artists, and she didn’t defend herself when one of her professors took offense to her claim that sometimes homeless people wanted to be homeless. 

Jeannette had tried to help her parents a few times, including buying Rex a supply of new winter gear. But they would never accept anything from her. Rose Mary blamed the city, saying it was too easy to be homeless in New York. Jeannette accepted that there was nothing she could do, but her inability to help wasn’t just about her parents refusal. She was struggling to save money for school and, in fact, was short a thousand dollars for her final year’s tuition. 

Rex had taken a keen interest in Jeannette’s education. He read all the books on her course lists so he could help her with her work if she needed it. When he found out she might have to drop out of school, he told her to meet him at Lori’s place. When she arrived, Rex dumped out a bag full of small bills totaling $950. He also had a mink coat she could sell for the other fifty. 

Jeannette didn’t want to accept the money, but he insisted she take it. Rex said he’d earned the money playing poker because it was his duty to take care of his daughter. Jeannette took the money and paid her tuition in ones, fives, and twenties. 

Rex and Rose Mary found an abandoned building on the Lower West Side to squat in. There were other squatters who lived the same life of a nomad, an adventure around every corner, and shared her parents disdain for rules. Rex hot-wired electricity from a nearby pole so they could all have heat and lights. The apartment they’d taken up residence in reminded Jeannette of their home in Welch. It was all she could do not to run out. The Glass Castle themes explore the idea of family and boundaries through stories like this one.

The Glass Castle Themes: 4 Important Messages

———End of Preview———

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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