What is The Glass Castle About? One Family’s Story

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What is The Glass Castle about? How does Jeannette Walls portray her family and her life?

The Glass Castle is about the childhood of Jeannette Walls. Jeannette and her siblings suffered through a childhood filled with neglect, but formed close relationships with each other and their parents.

So what is The Glass Castle about? Keep reading to find out.

What is The Glass Castle About?

What is The Glass Castle about, and why did Jeannette decide to write it? The Glass Castle is the harrowing tale of Jeannette Wall’s life growing up in poverty with wayward parents. Following the Walls family through the desert to the coal-mining region of West Virginia to the fast-paced life of New York City, this memoir explores the nature of family, loyalty, and tragedy and what it takes to survive together and apart

Father Knows Best

What is The Glass Castle about in terms of Jeannette’s parents? Rex Walls was a smart but unruly patriarch. He was a former Air Force pilot and had vast knowledge of science, physics, and engineering. He was known as a man who could fix everything and talk his way out of anything. These traits should have added up to success for Rex and his family, but his inability to settle down and follow the rules added up to the opposite. 

During Jeannette’s early childhood, Rex moved the family around the desert like a traveling circus. They’d stop in one small cowpoke town after another, set up a life for a few weeks to months, then pack up and start again somewhere else. Rex said they had to keep moving to stay ahead of the law, which was always on his tail, or wealthy businessmen who wanted to steal his ideas. Rex fancied himself an inventor and always had some scheme or another that was sure to help him strike it rich. In reality, Rex was simply dodging bill collectors. 

Striking it rich was Rex’s goal, as was being able to build the Glass Castle for his family, a sprawling home made completely of glass and powered by solar energy. He carried the blueprints everywhere the family went, and Jeannette and her siblings would help him design it.

Jeannette believed in her father and his plans for the future, but until those plans came to fruition, she and her family suffered. 

Fend for Yourself: The Glass Castle is About Survival

Jeannette’s siblings—an older sister, Lori, a younger brother, Brian, and later, a baby sister, Maureen—were often left to their own devices for sustenance. Their mother, Rose Mary, had a lifelong dream of being an artist and spent most of her time painting and what little money she had on art supplies. Rose Mary’s art was her priority, even over feeding her children.

Rex could never hold down a job for very long. He either quit or was fired for fighting with his superiors. He was an alcoholic and drank much of the family’s money away. With Rex drunk and unemployed most of the time and Rose Mary focused on her art, there was never much money or guidance in the Walls household. 

All throughout her childhood, Jeannette and her siblings staved off starvation. She would rifle through garbage cans at school for discarded lunch items or forage for whatever she could find on the streets. On the rare occasions that there was food in the house, the family would gorge until it was gone. There was no sense of management or rationing when it came to food in her home, and by the end of every month, she’d be back to rummaging for garbage. This neglect is an important part of the question “what is The Glass Castle about?”

Survival of the Fittest

Jeannette and her siblings surmounted great adversity in their lives to become stable professionals. Not only were they always hungry, but they were also always too poor to afford clothes, shoes, and other necessities, like toothpaste, heat, and running water. The children were also victim to many close calls with their safety along the way.

For instance, when Rex and Rose Mary moved the family from Blythe, California to Battle Mountain, Nevada, the kids were forced to ride in the back of the U-Haul truck their parents had rented. On the trip, the doors to the storage cab flew open, and the children were almost sucked out as Rex barrelled down the highway without noticing. 

On another occasion, Jeannette fell out of the family’s car while driving down the highway. She sat on the side of the road for what felt like hours waiting for her parents to notice she was gone and come back for her. When they finally did, the family had a good laugh about it. 

Her parents never took these incidents very seriously, and Jeannette and her siblings grew close as they looked out for each other and kept each other safe. When asking “what is The Glass Castle about?” this sense of family is important to consider.

Family Drama

Rex and Rose Mary fought often. Once, Rex tried to run down a pregnant Rose Mary with his car in the desert after they’d argued about how far along she was. There was the time Rose Mary and Rex argued about money and whose responsibility it was to support the family. The fight was so loud, it brought out the entire neighborhood and ended with Rose Mary dangling from an upstairs window after she tried to jump out. 

Rex’s drinking caused many problems for his family, but there were a few stints of sobriety along the way, such as when Jeannette told him her birthday wish was for him to stop drinking. He detoxed in an upstairs bedroom and stayed sober for a couple of months, but he always fell off the wagon. 

After the family moved to Rex’s hometown of Welch, West Virginia, his drinking became a full-time job. The town was small and blue collar, and the family lived in a dilapidated house on the side of the hill. The family would stay in that house until each child eventually packed up and moved to New York City as teenagers. But over the years, the house had fallen down around them. By the time Jeannette left for New York at seventeen, the only way in or out of the house was through the back window.  

A Fresh Start

Lori and Jeannette couldn’t wait to get out of Welch and away from their parents. Lori was a talented artist and moved to New York City after graduating from college. She found a job, took art classes, and saved money for an apartment. A few years later, no longer able to take her mother’s indifference and laziness and Rex’s destructive behavior, Jeannette moved after her junior year and joined her sister. Brian would follow a year later, and Maureen a few years after when she was twelve. 

In New York, the Walls children moved forward and started to make something of their lives. Jeannette had found a penchant for journalism back in high school. After a year of interning at a low-level newspaper in Brooklyn, she enrolled at Barnard College and took a job as an editorial assistant for a high-profile magazine. Brian was training to become a police officer, Lori was working as an illustrator for a comic book company, and Maureen was attending public school in Midtown. 

Not long after Maureen left home, Rex and Rose Mary followed their children to New York. They stayed with Lori for a while and lived in a van for a few months, but eventually, they became homeless. Despite all of their children’s efforts to try to help them, Rex and Rose Mary liked the freedom of homelessness. It was another adventure for two adventure junkies. 

Is The Glass Castle About Moving On?

All of the Walls children were adults and thriving in their chosen professions, all but Maureen. Maureen had never truly fit into the family because of how much younger she was than the other children, and she struggled to find direction in New York. She dropped out of college, moved into a tenement building where her parents were squatting, and eventually was sent to a mental hospital in Upstate New York after stabbing Rose Mary. When she was released, she moved to California and never came back.

During one winter in New York, Rex contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized for six weeks. He was sober again for the first time since Phoenix and moved Upstate to get off the streets and stay that way. But Rose Mary didn’t want to be alone when winter rolled around again, so he moved back to the city and regained his old habits. All of the drinking and smoking finally caught up to him, and he died at the age of fifty-nine. 

Without their patriarch, the Walls family became estranged. Brian got married, had a daughter, and became a detective in the NYPD. Jeannette divorced her first husband, remarried, and moved Upstate to a large farmhouse, where she wrote this book. Five years after Rex’s death, the family came back together to celebrate Thanksgiving, minus Maureen. They reminisced about their wild past and agreed that life with Rex Walls was never dull. At this, at least, they all could finally agree. 

Now you know the answer to the question “what is The Glass Castle about?” and can consider major themes and important characters.

What is The Glass Castle About? One Family’s Story

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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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