Jeannette Walls’sThe Glass Castle
Dr. MatthewFikeDepartment of EnglishHMXP 102-003
EpigraphStructureWriting in ClassConceptsImagesWhat lies beneathThemesParents’ contradictionsThe Glass CastleThe MoralPaper topics
Epigraph as printed inTGC
Dark is a way and light is a place,Heaven that never wasNor will be ever is always trueFrom: Dylan Thomas’s “Poem on His Birthday”
“Poem on His Birthday”
The poem was written in 1952, a year before his death. It continues a life-long fascination with death but conveys the feeling that his end was drawing near. He sees not only fecundity in the natural world but also the death of other creatures and recognizes that their death, like his own, is inevitable. Nevertheless, he seems to praise the Creator.
The Poem (12 stanzas)
Stanza 1: The poet “celebrates and spurns” his 35thbirthday, watching the birds and thinking of various images of nature’s mutability.Stanza 2: These reminders are personally relevant because he realizes that he “Toils towards the ambush of his wounds; / Herons, steeple stemmed, bless.”He journeys toward the time when there is no escaping the ills of old age.The herons, whose beaks are narrow like steeples, “walk in their shroud” in the next stanza (that is, they are walking reminders of the poet’s mortality).In stanza 2, they “bless” (they bestow some kind of good; OR, more likely, theystriketheir prey; cf. French,blesser, to hurt). In the latter sense, the word “bless” is part of a strand of references to predation.
More on the Poem
Religious languagepermeates thepoem. For example, God is“Him / Who is the light of old.”This God is specifically Christian.“In a cavernous, swung / Wave’s silence, wept white angelus knells.” The Angelus(anjuhluhs) isa devotion in memory of the Annunciation(when the angel Gabrieltells Mary that she ispregnant with Jesus).A bellannounces (knells) whenit should be recited.(Knells are also typically associated with funerals.)The point: Sothere is a contrast between the mutable world that the poet sees with his “five / Senses” in a later stanza and the consolation that the Christian Heaven offers. In other words, he sees in nature not only signs of his own mortality but also reminders of a life after death.Blessings: Toward theend of the poem,he realizes that he has various blessings. Foremost among them is thatthe shortnessof time heightens perception of nature’s beauty. This blessing and his faith in God are with him as he “sail[s] out to die” in the last line. The poem is thus a Christian counterpart to Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” which is written from a nonreligious point of view, and ends with the line, “Downward to darkness on extended wings” (a far superior final line, by the way).
The Key Stanza
And freely he goes lostInthe unknown, famous light of greatAndfabulous, dear God.Darkis a way and light is a place,Heaventhat never wasNorwill be ever is always true,And, in thatbrambledvoid,Plentyas blackberries in the woodsThedeadgrowfor His joy.
The Key Stanza
Thomas’s stanzaParaphrase by F.F.Andfreely he goes lostWith free will he wanders confusedlyInthe unknown, famous light of greatInto the mysterious but renowned lightAndfabulous, dear God.Of great, myth-rich, precious God.Darkis a way and light is a place,Darkness is one path forward and light is a destination[;]Heaventhat never wasHeaven that never existed [here on Earth]Norwill be ever is always true,Nor ever will exist [here] is nevertheless trueAnd, in thatbrambledvoid,And, in that thorny emptiness [the natural world],Plentyas blackberries in the woodsPlentiful as blackberries in the woodsThedeadgrowfor His joy. The living dead mature to give God joy.
Summary of the Stanza
Wayfaring: We journey through life on a dark and thorny path, but well-lit heaven is our final destination.Blackberries: The image of humans as blackberries is highly positive. We grow/mature into something ripe and desirable, thus pleasing God.
Note that the poem is about how every year on your birthday you are one year closer to death. We live in a realm of toil and struggle, but heaven is our ultimate destination.This is an appropriate poem to useas a epigraph fora book that celebrates Jeannette’s dead father, for it implies the hope that he is in Heaven and that she will one day be there too.SoTGCis a book about finding blessings(benefits) ina world full of blessings (hurts, wounds).All the trials that Jeannette endured will not be for naught—that is the epigraph’s implication. Struggle is purposeful.
The Book’s Structure
Frame: “A Woman on the Street” and “Thanksgiving”Book starts with shame re. her mother and family.Book ends with reaffirmation of mother and family.Structure:Walls statesin an interview thata story has three parts. This echoes Aristotle who wrote in thePoeticsthat a tragedy has threeparts—beginning, middle, and end.The Glass Castleis similar: beginning (desert), middle (Welch), end (NYC). But sinceTGCis comic, not tragic, there is a nice correspondence to William Blake’s stages:
The Three Main Sections
Desert—innocence (ignorance of life’s ills; you are subject to them but unaware that you shouldbe miserable; example: Jeannette gets burnedbutdoes not register anypain).Welch—experience (awareness of life’s ills; you are subject tothem, are miserable, and knowthat life should not be as it is).NYC—organized innocence (awareness of life’s ills; you know that the world is flawed, but you don’t let it get to you).
Innocence: “Iwas happy in BattleMountain” (81). But this is because she does not know any better.Experience: “Thatsummer morning I’d spent swimming withDinitiaat the public pool was the happiest time I’d had in Welch” (199).Here she is quite aware that life is hard becauseDinitiaet al. have assaulted her multiple times.Organized innocence: “I’d never been happier in mylife” (248), she says regarding her first job atThe Phoenix(as though she has risen from the ashes of her life in Welch). She is fully aware of her parents’ problems but does not let them get to her.
Application of Blake’s Stages
From aYoutubeinterview with Walls at Point LomaNazarineUniversity in California:Oscar Wilde: “Childrenbegin by loving theirparents [the desert];as they grow older they judgethem [Welch];sometimes they forgivethem [NYC?].”This nicely illustrates the stages that Blake is talking about, and it captures the three-part structure of the book.
“Perhaps forgive” is what she said when the Point Loma journalism professor asked her about forgiveness.She does not see herself as a victim, thinks that her parents gave her incredible gifts, and has compassion for her mother, whom she considers “a damaged woman.”So the third stage is probably not forgiveness as such but more likely a wholeness that she achieves, which allows her to live and let live without recriminations.
Another Structural Point
Here is another way of charting the family’s trajectory. They are supposed to report to the courthouse in Phoenix (89). If theyhad not skedaddled,their lives might have changed for thebetter. Later(the climax) the family assembles in court after Maureen stabsRose Mary(275). At last there is a kind of reckoning (an openacknowledgement thatthere really is a problem in the family).Jeannette says: “You never truly escape your past” and “carry these things around.” The important thing, she stresses, is confronting the past in order to come to terms with what and who we really are. In other words, there has to be an inner reckoning. We must acknowledge (bring light to) the shadows that lurk within. What is repressed will fester. See next slide.
Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”TGCis an exercise in bringing forth. Writing it is part of her inner work.
Comedy vs. Tragedy
Rose Mary to Jeannette:“‘Lifeis a drama full of tragedy and comedy . . . You should learn to enjoy the comic episodes a littlemore’” (129).Desert: Comedy in the sense that all the misbehavior seemsfunny(note that a comic-strip writer from theVillage Voiceinterviewed Rex).Welch: The potential for tragedy clearly emerges. The outer situation may sully the family members’ inner spirit; psychological chaos may win the game.Will the children escape the gravity field of parental dysfunction?IfTGCwere a tragedy, the story would end in Welch.NYC: A higher sense of comedy is achieved so that harmony, integration, and forgiveness are possible.In comedy, persons overcome problems, though sometimes just barely. Ultimately, comedy is not about laughter; it is about comic resolution, which hinges on an honest acknowledgement of problems: owning them, not letting them own you.
Writing in Class: 15 minutes
On the following slide are the book’s key concepts.Step 1: Spend 5 minutes copying them in your notebook.Step 2: Then underline the ones that you think are most important.Step 3: Then circle the three underlined concepts that interest you the most.Step 4: Finally, spend 5 minutes writing aboutTGCin terms of one of those three concepts.
Adaptability, addiction, adventure, being special, benighted sheep, brainwashing, brokenness, compassion, conformity, conservatism, employment, extroversion, fear, focus, freedom, frontier, happiness, hardship, hunger, gambling, imagination, inflation, killjoy, liberalism, luck, perversion, pioneer, positive thinking, prejudice, pride, prostitution, racism, resistance to authority, rules, self-esteem, security, self-reliance, secrets, self-sufficiency, the shadow, shoplifting, skedaddle, struggle, theft, truth, values, violence, wealth, welfare.
What did you discover aboutTGCin terms of your concept?End of Day One
Day Two:Causes of Brokenness
Harm from something bad: Jeannettesuggeststhat Rex is the way he is because Erma(his mother) may have sexuallyabusedhim (see 148). Re. Erma’s death: “Ermahad seemed to have some sort of an evil hold over Dad, and I thought he’d be relieved to be free ofit” (180).Harm from providing something good: “Welfare, she said, would cause irreparable psychological damage to us kids. . . . ‘Once you go on welfare, it changes you. Even if you get offwelfare, younever escape the stigma that you were a charity case. You’re scarred forlife’” (188). Ironically, the assumption is that neglecting her children’s well-being would NOT scar them for life. (Her scaris mentioned on191: sheis literally scarred forlife by the fire when she was three.)Questions:How does Rex react when Erma dies? What happens when he no longer has his mother to blame for his problems?Is Rose Mary right? Does receiving public aid scar you for life? What are the alternatives? Might it actually engender a helpful humility? Is her statement a fallacy of overgeneralization?
Pride and Self-Delusion
References to pride: 12,46, 55,73, 118, 121, 129,134, 138, 159, 171,225-27, 237, 239, 252,258,267,269.The underscored pages specifically use “pride” or “proud.”Questions:What TYPES of pride did you notice inTGC?What is the role of pride in the family’s dysfunction?
Suggestion about Pride
Jeannette to her professor: “‘But if some of them [the homeless] were willing to work hard and make compromises, they might not have ideal lives, but they could make ends meet’” (257).Pride is one reason they might not be willing to work.There is also the vain hope that one can make it big, strike it rich, etc. (Ironically, the gold Cadillac is the closest thing to gold that Rex ever gets.) See 171: “He [Rex] was focused on striking it rich.”POINT: Jeannette is giving you a formula for success in college and in your professional life: work toward your goals, don’t expect to get everything you want instantly, be willing to make compromises.
Hatred of Cops and Resistance to Authority
48:Car chase, gestapo.50: A cop would be “‘hauling your asses off to jail.’”88-89: Copcomes to their house in Battle Mountain after the shooting incident.106:Policeshoot a mountain lion in Phoenix.109: Securityguardsat the Phoenix zoo.118: Rangers at the Grand Canyon.205:Parentssuspicious of all cops.255:Copswake them up inNYC.262: Cop breaks up a fight between Rex and Rose Mary in Phoenix.267Resistanceto housing agency (“battling authority”).275: Father picks fights with security guardsatcourt.Question: Is pride the origin of Rex’s hatred of all authority? Where does that hatred come from? Does it come perhaps from his relationship with his mother?
Geode:60, 90 125, 152, 183, 239.Knives:Dinitiafatally stabs her mother’s boyfriend (200), Rex uses knife to cut piggy bank (228), Rex gives knife to Jeannette (240), and Maureen stabs mother (275).Venus: 40, 247, 281.Fool’sgold/iron pyrite: 59.Snake biting its tail: 207.Gold Cadillac: 224.Caryatid: 208.Drowning woman: 195.Question: Why are these significant images inTGC?
A Key Image: Fire
9ff.: Jeannette is injured by fire (in this episode, she gains consciousness; see also the Prometheus myth).15: Fascination with fire.33-34: Jeannette lights toilet paper; motel burns; she wondersif themotel firehad been out to gether for flushing the burning TP (participationmystique, attributing a human psychological characteristic to somethinginanimate; this is verytypical of innocence, her early point ofview).115: FatherlightsChristmastree onfire.147: Ermafears kids will burnthe house down.178: Keroseneas fire-starter inWelch.183: UncleStanley burns down his parents’house.253: Fathersets room onfire.Question: What is the significance of all the references to fire?
Images of Things That Lie Within/Beneath
Geode: 60, 90 125, 152, 183, 239. (See “innerspirit”on 104, “inner beauty” on 245vs. outwardappearance.)Termites: 101. Phoenixhouse is internally unsound. On 101 father patches holes with metal from beer cans: this is cosmetic—like putting aBandaidon a tumor. Parallel to father’s deterioration physically and psychologically.Cash jar: 17. It is buried somewhere.
What Lies Within?
Monster: Fatherwhen drunk turns into “an angry-eyedstranger” (23).Wheredoes this come from?It is inall of us. Butitisburied in a part of the mind that we hide. The shadow.Violence: On71Rex tries to kill Rose Mary. They battlein BattleMountain. They have another fight on 122ff. Jeannette shoots at BillyDeelon 88.Maureen inner life: imaginary friends on 81, 111; bogeymen on 103.Questions: Doesalcohol impose violence on a drunk, or does it merely unlock it?What kind of darkness lies within? Do you have experience with imaginary friends? Why don’t you see them now? (See CU.)
Major Theme: Turbulence and Order
61: “theboundary between turbulence andorder.” There is the imageof the “invisible shimmery heat” above a flame or over the desert. “It’s a place where no rules apply.”261:“the transition between order and turbulence . . . turbulence was not in fact random but followed a sequential spectrum of varying frequencies. If every action in the universe that we thought was random actually conformed to a rational pattern, Dad said, that implied the existence of a divine creator, and he was beginning to rethink his atheistic creed.”(Herescience and faith begin to work together.The statementimplies that there was purpose in her chaotic upbringing.)288: “A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order.”(Thisseems to be the sweet spot where personal growth is possible, between ease and hardship.)Question: How do you readTGCin light of this theme?
Tensions: Conflicting Value Systems
Realism vs. inflation (thinking you are great).City vs. wilderness:34: “Thesecities will kill you, hesaid.”106: “He felt it was good for your soul to have buzzards and coyotes and snakes around.” (106)Rules vs. freedom.Instruction in self-sufficiency vs. child abuse.“‘respect[ing] your parents’” (119) vs. enabling their addictions.
Another Major Theme:A Generational Swing to the Opposite
27: Rex and Rose Maryhave to get away from their mothers; Rose Marybecomes very unlike her mother.59: “Mom believed that children shouldn’t be burdened with a lot of rules and restrictions.”73: “She thought rules anddisciplineheld people back and felt that the best way to let children fulfill their potential was by providing freedom” (73).This is Rose Mary’s educational philosophy.73-74: Grandma Smith had forcedJeannette’smother to get a teaching degree; she’d really wanted to be an artist.91: Grandma Smith’s rules for Rose Mary vs. the latter’s never setting rules for her children.100: Jeannettesuggests roachspray.262ff., 274: Brianbecomes a cop 262ff., 274.268: In her first marriage, she “woundup with a man[Eric] whowas exactly the opposite [of her father].”286: Brianrenovates houses286. He doesto places in NYC what Rex never did in Welch.Jeannette lives on Park Avenue and writes about the rich and famous.Question: Why does a generational swing happen? How does Jeannette get out of this cycle? (Think about her husbands.) [violation of free will & Oedipal hatred]
“God helps those who help themselves” (113), which Jeannette’s parents do not do.Father’s stories: On 25 there isheavy inflationabout himself, and a talltaleappears on37. Yetthe kidsare not allowed to believe in Santa on 39.Father writes to the dictionary people but gets the definition of “Immaculate Conception” wrong on 114. (It means that Mary was conceived without sin; the virgin birth refers to Jesus’s conception without sexual intercourse.)Question: Can you think of others? (These are the kinds of things that trouble people in the experience stage.)
The Glass Castle
The Glass Castle is mentionedon25: First mention of. Financing it requires finding gold83: Mentioned.152,155, 157: Holefor foundationofTGCfillingup withgarbage.238: Blueprints for.279: Never got built.Similar images:Lorisees NYC “as a sort of Emerald City”(223).Thediamondring they find on 186, the rings Jeannette sells.Geodewould sparkle like a diamondon 238.When Jeannette gets her own home, it is a sturdy farmhouse made of solid wood and stone. It is not glass or emerald or diamond; but it is what she needs, and it suggests that she is on solid ground in her psychological life and in her marriage.Jeannette in an interview:TGCis “one of my father’s drunken promises or hope for the future”; “it is whatever you choose to make of it” (a symbol).Question: What do you think the Glass Castle represents?
A Possible Interpretation
Theglass castle never gets built, but it conveys psychological truths about the Walls family.It represents, for example, Rex’s tendency tofocus on unobtainable dreams (the castle, theinventions, striking gold)and to ignore the immediate need to fix the house in Welch, WV.It is where theWallseswould live if Rex were to strike it rich (171). But in the absence of that kind of good fortune, it symbolizes his inflation.
Writing in Class:The Moral Lesson
Write down what you believe the book’s moral to be? (A moral is a short statement of the main point that one is supposed to take away from the experience of reading the book.)
A Possible Answer
Page 256: “‘I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want.’”
Values: In her interview at Point LomaNazarineUniversity (available on Youtube.com),Jeannette(mis?)quotesOscarWilde as stating,“A necessity is a luxury once sampled.”Another version of the statement is “A luxury once tasted becomes a necessity.” (The Internet assigns the statement and others like it to various people, so who knows who originally said it?) Her point is that we think that we cannot survive without things we have grown accustomed to. Did readingThe Glass Castlehelp you see any of your values in a different light? Is anything that you always considered a necessity really a luxury? Here is a great opportunity to make a connection to BrianSwimme’spiece on consumerism. (For “values” seeTGC, pages 269.)
Science vs. religion: Jeannette makes statements about science and religion on pages 104-05 and261.Can you embrace religious faith AND reason/science? Of course, science and religion start from very different assumptions, which are mutually exclusive, orarethey? Using connections to Jeannette’s book and a narrowly focused experience of your own, explain where you stand on a spectrum ranging from science’s materialism to religion’s emphasis on things not seen. Where does the author stand vis-à-vis science and religion?
City life vs. wilderness: Rex Walls, for all his problems, loved nature. “‘These cities will kill you,’ he said” (34). Later, Jeannette writes a paragraph that begins, “Dad missed the wilderness,” in which she develops her father’sbiophelia(106; see also the top paragraph on 185). Later, of course, working in “untamed country” in upstate New York seems to do him some good versus the temptations of NYC (262). On the other hand, one might argue that a couple of days in the desert would be more likely to kill you thanlifein the city. Using an example from your own experience, engage with Rex’s view and its opposite in order to inquire into your own environmentalethic. Will cities really kill you? If so, in what sense?
Harm vs. benefit: To a large extent,The Glass Castleis a book about growing up while “living in a state of neglect” (193). Yet Jeannette suggests that a hardship that one considers a curse may become a blessing in later life.As hermother says, “‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’” (179). Believe it or not, Jeannette even states inher PointLomaNazarineinterviewthat her parents gave her “incredible gifts.” In the same interview, she mentions a specific example, how her father pimped her out in a bar. She calls it “the worst experience of my life . . . but also the best experience of my life.”Whatis the worst experience inyourlife? Is there something in your own life that seemed like a curse at the time but is in retrospect a blessing? How might aWallsianapproach shed a positive light on a dark moment in your life?
Victim vs. perpetrator: When Jeanette is sexually assaulted by Uncle Stanley, her mother tells her “that sexual assault was a crime of perception” and that her uncle was “‘so lonely’” (184). Think about a time when someone harmed you in some way. Then think compassionately about why s/he might have done that. For example, maybe you were bullied, as Jeannette was byDinitiaHewitt. DoesJeannette’sawareness to the ills inDinitia’slife have a corresponding realization about yourown antagonist?
Pride: This concept, whichChristians consider a“deadly sin,” is a major theme inTGC. See the earlier slide that lists all the page numbers where pride rears its head. In that context, consider how your own pride may(ormay not) have been a problem for you in a specific situation. For example, have you ever resisted authority just for the heck of it? Note that a preceding slide deals with cops and other authority figures. END