The Glass Castle

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Fire Symbol Icon
Fire is present in The Glass Castle from one of the very first scenes, when Jeannette accidentally lights herself on fire while making hot dogs as a three-year-old. Fire is both a source of heat and light and a force for destruction. From the family’s San Francisco apartment to Uncle Stanley’s house in Welch, the shells of burned-down homes strew the pages of the memoir. But Jeannette is fascinated by fire, perhaps precisely because of its power to do both good and harm. When she’s younger, that fascination edges towards a worrying pyromania. By the time she’s older, though, Jeannette can appreciate the complexity of fire on a more intellectual level. As Dad tells her, the place at which fire melts into air is the unknown border between order and turbulence. Fire, then, stands for the ambivalence of this unknown factor, as Jeannette can never fully know whether her tumultuous childhood and dysfunctional family has done more good than harm.

Fire Quotes in The Glass Castle

The The Glass Castle quotes below all refer to the symbol of Fire. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Growing Up, Illusion, and Disillusion Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Scribner edition of The Glass Castle published in 2006.
Part 2 Quotes

I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered if all fire was related, like Dad said all humans were related, if the fire that burned me that day while I cooked hot dogs was somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down the toilet and the fire burning at the hotel. I didn’t have the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker)
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Jeannette's family has been staying at a run-down hotel in San Francisco - until it burns down one night and her father has to carry her outside before returning to fight the flames. Since her accident and hospital stay, Jeannette has been fascinated by fire, alternately attracted to and repelled by or afraid of its power. Although Jeannette is not sure if there is a real connection between her various experiences with fire, she does seem to be able to see parallels between these experiences. In particular, fires seem to develop whenever Jeannette finds herself and her family lacking stability, or at least a relatively greater lack of stability than usual. Fires begin outside human control, spreading according to their own logic. This inability to foretell or prevent such dangerous events thus serves to remind Jeannette of her inability to predict or control what happens in her life in general. All she can do is remain alert so that she won't be caught entirely off guard when the unexpected does happen.

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[Dad] pointed to the top of the fire, where the snapping yellow flames dissolved into an invisible shimmery heat that made the desert beyond seem to waver, like a mirage. Dad told us that zone was known in physics as the boundary between turbulence and order. “It’s a place where no rules apply, or at least they haven’t figured ’em out yet,” he said.

Related Characters: Rex Walls (speaker), Jeannette Walls, Brian Walls
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, Jeannette has had a close call with fire, this time because she and Brian have been playing "lab" in an abandoned shed and have accidentally burned it down. As is often the case for her father, he does not get angry at the danger they put themselves in or at their independence. Looking at the fire seems to awaken in Dad his general fascination for nature and physics, one that is nurtured by his own profound scientific knowledge. For Dad, the mirage that locates the boundary between turbulence and order is intellectually fascinating, appealing in its status as a no-man's-land without rules or regulations. 

Jeannette understands this fascination as going deeper than a mere intellectual interest. For her, Dad is always drawn to the border between order and turbulence in life as well: he is constantly testing this border, trying to see what happens if he acts in one way or another. The problem, of course, is that by definition one cannot know what will happen in this boundary - one cannot apply known rules or theories - so that the family is always teetering on the edge, not entirely without order but never safely within the realm of order either.

Part 5 Quotes

A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Rex Walls
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

As Jeannette ends her chronicle of her childhood and emergence from the wild uncertainties of her youth, she returns to the symbols that structured her childhood. Even the smallest of events like the flickering of candle flames can be a reminder of both a specific moment from her youth and a broader means of coming to terms with her relationship to her family and to her past. Dad had once told Jeannette all about the physical boundary between order and turbulence according to physics, an idea that fascinated him. The anecdote thus reminds Jeannette of the way in which her father often encouraged her to learn and to be curious about the world around her.

But also, of course, this boundary is one that, in a more metaphorical sense, Jeannette and her family were always skirting over the course of her childhood. Having grown up and lost many of her childhood illusions, especially about her father, Jeannette still is eager to remember much of what Dad taught her, and to remain attached in some way to her past.

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Fire Symbol Timeline in The Glass Castle

The timeline below shows where the symbol Fire appears in The Glass Castle. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 2: The Desert
Home Theme Icon
Possessions and Ownership Theme Icon
Order and Turbulence Theme Icon
Jeannette recalls her earliest memory, at the age of three, as being on fire. Living in a trailer somewhere in southern Arizona (she can’t recall which town), she is... (full context)
Possessions and Ownership Theme Icon
Order and Turbulence Theme Icon
Following the accident, Jeannette becomes fascinated with fire, passing her finger through a candle flame, watching her neighbors burn trash, and stealing matches... (full context)
Growing Up, Illusion, and Disillusion Theme Icon
Order and Turbulence Theme Icon
Responsibility, Self-Sufficiency, and Non-Conformity Theme Icon
...days later, Jeannette wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of fire. Dad rushes into the children’s bedroom and carries them outside before helping to fight the... (full context)
Growing Up, Illusion, and Disillusion Theme Icon
Order and Turbulence Theme Icon
Responsibility, Self-Sufficiency, and Non-Conformity Theme Icon
...abandoned shed. One day they drop matches into these instruments and the shed catches on fire. Jeannette escapes and finds Dad, who pulls out Brian. (full context)
Growing Up, Illusion, and Disillusion Theme Icon
Order and Turbulence Theme Icon
Afterward, Dad seems not mad but contemplative. He points to the fire and shows Brian and Jeannette the point at which the flames melt into a shimmery... (full context)
Part 4: New York City
Home Theme Icon
Order and Turbulence Theme Icon
Responsibility, Self-Sufficiency, and Non-Conformity Theme Icon
...of the flophouse, after Dad falls asleep with a cigarette and sets the room on fire. (full context)
Part 5: Thanksgiving
Growing Up, Illusion, and Disillusion Theme Icon
Home Theme Icon
Possessions and Ownership Theme Icon
Order and Turbulence Theme Icon
It grows windy outside, and Jeannette notices that the flames from the candle move somewhat, the border between order and turbulence shifting again. (full context)