The Glass Castle

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The Glass Castle Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jeanette Walls's The Glass Castle. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jeanette Walls
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Jeannette Walls spent a tumultuous childhood, along with her brother and sisters, as her independent and eccentric parents wandered around the American Southwest, before the family settled in Welch, West Virginia when she was a teenager. Walls ultimately followed her sister Lori to New York in 1977, when she was 17, where she graduated from Barnard College. She subsequently became the author of New York magazine’s “Intelligencer” column, and, later, a well-known gossip columnist, writing for outlets like Esquire and She has written two novels other than The Glass Castle, and currently lives with her second husband, John Taylor, in Virginia.
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Historical Context of The Glass Castle
Much of the abject poverty depicted in The Glass Castle, especially in Welch, is a product of the shift of much of the United States away from a manufacturing and industrial economy during the second half of the twentieth century. Towns like Welch no longer had a thriving economic center and fell into desolation as a result. References to welfare throughout the memoir can be traced to various laws put in place after the Great Depression, including the Social Security Act of 1935, as well as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms in the 1960s. However, while these laws created a “safety net” for people in poverty they also made it increasingly difficult for people to simply choose to “live outside the system,” as the Walls family finds out.
Other Books Related to The Glass Castle
“This is the age of the memoir,” William Zinsser wrote in his 1998 book on the genre. Critics argue about when the precipitous rise in memoir writing began—some have pegged it on William Styron’s Darkness Visible, his 1990 book about struggling with depression, or on Frank McCourt’s 1996 Angela’s Ashes, about growing up impoverished with an alcoholic father in Ireland and New York. Like Styron, Walls was already well-known when she wrote The Glass Castle; like McCourt, she was not yet known as a writer, and catapulted to fame with the memoir’s publication. The Glass Castle also recalls Mary Karr’s 1995 The Liars’ Club, which concerns yet another difficult childhood beset by abusive, alcoholic relatives. Indeed, some critics have complained about the preponderance of “misery memoirs” that recount a painful childhood and the author’s attempts to overcome it—though others have praised the honesty and transparency of the genre. Apart from the genre itself, The Glass Castle also retains parallels with Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation novel, On the Road, another book whose characters wander across America, looking for their big break and struggling to find it.
Key Facts about The Glass Castle
  • Full Title: The Glass Castle
  • When Written: around 2005
  • Where Written: United States (Virginia)
  • When Published: 2005
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: American Southwest; Welch, West Virginia; New York City
  • Climax: Jeannette escapes from her family and childhood by moving to New York: As she leaves the bus station she tells herself she’ll never return to Welch, West Virginia again.
  • Antagonist: Sometimes, Mom and Dad; other times, the American economic and political “system”; also, the various bullies and perverts of Jeannette’s childhood
  • Point of View: First person
Extra Credit for The Glass Castle

What’s the Dish? Before writing a memoir, Walls had already published one book, entitled Dish: The Inside Story of the World of Gossip, which delves into the historical and cultural context of gossip and relies upon her years as a gossip columnist.

Bestseller and J-Law. The Glass Castle spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list when it came out in 2005, and is currently being turned into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence.