The Glass Castle works to set an enthralling and simultaneously horrific tale from the very beginning. Through tales of exploration and poverty, of hopes, dreams, and abuse. Jeanette Walls makes the writing seem effortless in the way it conveys the oxymoronic themes that run throughout the novel. A common apparatus Walls utilizes is metaphor. Metaphors help to convey the massive complexity of the upbringing she faced, through the good and the bad. Many things are repeatedly referenced throughout the novel, the most notable of which is the Glass Castle – Rex’s dream home which he had meticulously designed, but never constructed.
The castle represents all of Rex’s hopes, dreams, and promises which he had spent years planning and discussing, and how a better life for the family could have easily happened. Just like the castle, his plans never come to fruition and not only he, but his family, suffer for it. The castle represents the false hopes given to Jeanette by her father repeatedly over the course of the book. Jeanette hopes that one day her father will become better – building the castle, in the figurative sense – yet he never does. It represents a life that is pleasant, living in the luxury of a castle designed by a genius, that never sees the light of day. His final effort at getting Jeanette to stay in Welch – bringing out the blueprints once again, this time with more space on the floorplan for her room – and her refusal to remain shows that her hope in her father is gone, how she no longer believes in his ability to make a better life for her and the family. “Go ahead and build the glass castle, but don’t do it for me” (Walls 238). The choice to make the castle glass shows how fragile Rex’s promises truly were in their extravagance, and how easy it was to topple the life they had built for themselves, even in the best of times.
However, the glass castle is not the only metaphor Walls utilizes repeatedly, and many more are found throughout the novel. An interesting and insightful example is Jeanette’s nickname, Mountain Goat. Walls explains the moniker’s origin, “He called me that because I never fell when we were climbing mountains – sure-footed as a mountain goat, he’d always say” (36). As an animal, mountain goats are extremely tough.This serves to compare Jeanette’s resilience in a macabre situation that stretched her entire childhood and the mountain goat’s resilience in harsh terrain. Through the hunger, molestation, injuries, neglect, and bullying Jeanette keeps her head held high. This is an example of a much smaller metaphor that still carries a significant amount of meaning; allowing us to grasp Jeanette’s complex construction brought on by the many events of her childhood.
Third, the earliest metaphor we are introduced to, and one of the most recurrent, is fire. From the hotel the family rents in San Francisco to the horrific injury inflicted upon her, fire follows Jeanette throughout the book, and her obsession with it transforms as she does. At one point, her father tells her “… that zone was known in physics as the boundary between turbulence and order”(Walls 61). This border between turbulence and order – and the lack of knowledge surrounding it – shows the ignorance Jeanette carries surrounding her childhood and the horrors within it. This serves as a sort of symbolism that represents both the bad and good her upbringing has inflicted upon her, as well. While Walls definitely carries battle scars from her childhood, whether they be physical or mental, she also looks back upon it through rose-colored glass, and she did walk away with an immense knowledge of a variety of topics. Itself, fire can singe and destroy, but it can also provide heat and protection. This parallels her father in a sinister way; a man who is capable of endless feats of engineering and is rather pleasant when sober, but becomes a horrifying blaze of fury whenever he is drunk. This metaphor is the most complex and can be interpreted in many ways.
Yet another metaphor from Wall’s childhood is the Joshua Tree growing in Midland. The tree is described by Jeanette as “leaning over so far it seemed ready to topple, although, in fact, its roots held firmly in place” (Walls 35). This represents her family as a whole. Despite the inner dysfunction the Walls family faces, they stick together for many years. While they seemed from the outside like a family about to shatter into pieces, on the inside they are together always. From the Mojave Desert to New York City, they remain together and intact until Rex dies, at which point the family is able to move on without him and make lives for themselves.
In conclusion, The Glass Castle is a wonderfully sad novel about the woes of growing up beside irresponsible parents and through poverty and abuse. The book has a way of making itself seem like a thrilling roller coaster, illustrating beautifully the deceiving way Walls likely viewed her childhood. That kind of writing takes time and effort, but with a father as smart as her own, is it really that shocking?