The Glass Castle

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Growing Up, Illusion, and Disillusion Theme Analysis

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Possessions and Ownership Theme Icon
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Growing Up, Illusion, and Disillusion Theme Icon

The Glass Castle is the story of Jeannette Walls’s development from childhood into adulthood. It’s a story, therefore, of her growing up—a bildungsroman. Walls presents growing up as a process of recognizing one’s childhood illusions as just that—illusions—and instead coming to see “how things really are.” Growing up, then, as Walls describes it, involves disillusionment, the loss or recognition of the non-reality of childhood dreams and ideas. This process of disillusionment is one that the symbol of the Glass Castle itself captures: though Dad tinkers with blueprints and floor plans for this fantastical family home for years, and Jeannette herself fantasizes about living in it once it is built, she only slowly comes to realize that the idea itself was never more than a dream based on her own illusions about her father.

However, while The Glass Castle is a story of Jeannette’s growing up and gradual understanding of the world, it does not precisely follow the classic form of a bildungsroman, in which the main character usually follows a path (however meandering) toward attaining some kind of wisdom and clarity about the world. Instead, Jeannette adopts her own, new dreams in reaction to those of her parents, even as we understand her parents’ illusions as themselves products of their parents’ ways of being. The book thus suggests that growing up might be less of a path toward knowledge—toward grasping reality—than a cycle of children’s disillusionment with their parents’ dreams, and their replacement of such dreams with illusions of their own.

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Growing Up, Illusion, and Disillusion Quotes in The Glass Castle

Below you will find the important quotes in The Glass Castle related to the theme of Growing Up, Illusion, and Disillusion.
Part 2 Quotes

When Dad wasn’t telling us about all the amazing things he had already done, he was telling us about the wondrous things he was going to do. Like build the Glass Castle. All of Dad’s engineering skills and mathematical genius were coming together in one special project: a great big house he was going to build for us in the desert.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Rex Walls
Related Symbols: Glass Castle
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

In an extended period of background exposition, Jeannette shares a series of anecdotes about her father's propensity to talk about himself and his various impressive feats. Here Jeannette connects her dad's former triumphs with his dreams for the future, some of which seem just as fanciful and marvelous - but also even more appealing to his children. Rex Walls does like to talk, but the Glass Castle does not seem to Jeannette to be mere empty words: they are fleshed out by the great level of detail that he includes, from the engineering necessities to the architectural blueprints.

The Glass Castle is not just appealing to Jeannette because it will be a beautiful, impressive building for the family to live in. It also foretells a time when the family will be able to stop moving around, when they'll settle into a more stable life together in a place less transient than the various apartments and houses where they have been staying before. Rex Walls also possesses the ability to enchant his children by making them feel like a crucial part of his projects, rather than mere appendages. By involving them in the plans for the Glass Castle, Jeannette's father helps to maintain their illusions about an exciting, fruitful future for the family.


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Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Related Characters: Rose Mary Walls (speaker), Jeannette Walls
Related Symbols: The Joshua Tree
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

The family has settled into their new life, with Dad working at a gypsum mine and Mom spending her time painting and writing illustrated short stories. Again and again she returns to paint the Joshua tree, whose gnarled branches she finds captivating and beautiful. From the start, Jeannette has been dubious about the Joshua tree's beauty, finding it gnarled and unpleasant-looking. Here, Jeannette goes so far as to imagine that she'll replant one of the tree's saplings in the ground and tend to it so that it grows up straight rather than twisted. Mom, however, couldn't think less of this idea.

Their two opposite opinions on beauty and struggle stem from their quite distinct philosophies of how to live. Mom has always embraced excitement, change, and instability. She does not only find these things interesting: for her they are almost ethical values, directly related to her artistic sensibility and search for new and unusual instances of beauty. But Jeannette has grown up with the constant anxiety that stems from not being able to enjoy a stable, worry-free childhood. For her, change and uncertainty should be fought rather than embraced as objects of beauty. The Joshua Tree gives Jeannette a physical, objective reminder of the vast distance between the way her mother thinks and her own mentality, a gap of which she will only grow more aware as time goes on.

We laughed about the all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys. “Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,” Dad said, “you’ll still have your stars.

Related Characters: Rex Walls (speaker), Jeannette Walls
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Jeannette's parents have little interest in maintaining the illusion that Santa Claus exists. Instead, for Christmas, Dad has taken Jeannette and her siblings outside to the Arizona desert, where he has told them to choose a star for their present. After each one chooses, Dad explains the significance of each star. For Jeannette and her siblings the lack of normal Christmas presents is not disappointing but rather a marker of their family's superiority. They feel special to have been able to have Christmas presents that few other kids have.

At other times, the Walls parents' decisions are frustrating for the kids, but here we have a glimpse of the elements of the family's life that could be truly enchanting for a child. Of course, their parents could not afford the "cheap plastic toys" that other kids receive for Christmas in any case. But Dad in particular possesses the remarkable skill of making scarcity into an adventure, poverty into something magical. By scorning cheap toys and ephemeral possessions, Dad underlines the superiority of the family's questionable choices, but he also embraces a true attitude of wonder towards the natural world, inculcating this sense in the children as well.

Dad kept telling me that he loved me, that he never would have let me drown, but you can’t cling to the side your whole life, that one lesson every parent needs to teach a child is “If you don’t want to sink, you better figure out how to swim.”

Related Characters: Rex Walls (speaker), Jeannette Walls
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Dad has brought the kids to a natural sulfur spring one winter day. Jeannette, having never learned to swim, is frightened by the water, and as she cautiously wades in Dad suddenly grabs her and throws her in again and again. Gasping and thrashing around in the water, Jeannette is terrified, but finally she manages to keep her head above water. Only then does Dad remind her that she would never be in danger around him, but that caution and worry would never get her far in life. 

Dad's lesson, a literal affair of "sink-or-swim," also applies to his views on parenting and on life affairs in general. By throwing yourself into the most frightening and difficult challenges, he claims, you'll be forced to learn how to act and how to navigate in any situation. Dad believes he is encouraging Jeannette to become self-sufficient, to learn to rely on herself for whatever might come her way. Jeannette, of course, would not have preferred to learn this lesson in such a dramatic fashion. She would probably not agree that Dad's lesson is the best way to learn responsibility. Nonetheless, the experience does at the very least show her that, as she grows up, she may well have to deal with frightening and dangerous situations not too different from her experience of learning to swim.

“I swear, honey, there are times when I think you’re the only one around who still has faith in me,” [Dad] said. “I don’t know what I’d do if you ever lost it.” I told him that I would never lose faith in him. And I promised myself I never would.

Related Characters: Rex Walls (speaker), Jeannette Walls
Page Number: 78-79
Explanation and Analysis:

Lori and Brian have begun to turn against Dad, arguing that he spends more money on alcohol than he does on basic necessities for the family. Jeannette cannot bring herself to agree with them, at least out loud. She still loves to spend time with Dad, and feels privileged that he shows her his charts and graphs for his various research projects - projects about which Lori and Brian are increasingly skeptical. Still, Jeannette continues to embrace the chance to develop a special relationship with her father. She is proud to be able to have faith that he'll lead the family to better times, especially since he confides that she is the only one who continues to trust him.

However, it is clear that even Jeannette is beginning to doubt her own confidence. She has to promise herself that she won't lose faith in her father, suggesting that the possibility is at least present. For the moment, however, Jeannette continues to cling to the memory of her father's exciting plans and marvelous ideas, fearing that once she gives up those ideals she will be left only with a bleak reality.

“I wonder what life will be like now,” I said to Lori.
“The same,” she said. “[Dad] tried stopping before, but it never lasted.”
“This time it will.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s his present to me.”

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Lori Walls (speaker), Rex Walls
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

Jeannette has asked Dad to give up drinking as his birthday present to her, a request that deeply upsets him, as he realizes that Jeannette must be deeply ashamed of him. Now he has barricaded himself away in a committed attempt to rid himself of his addiction. Lori, however, is far more skeptical than Jeannette about the possibility of Dad truly getting sober. She prefers to judge the chances on the basis of experience: having failed to see a noticeable change in Dad's actions, she doesn't want to get her hopes up about this new commitment. A few years older than Jeannette, Lori has learned to only rely on herself rather than on others so as not to be disappointed again and again.

In some ways, Jeannette has begun to share Lori's skepticism - indeed, she has at least come to terms with the reality of Dad's drinking. But she is convinced that Dad's love for her is such that this time he tries to give up will be different. Jeannette doesn't really see Dad's addiction as a disease, but rather as something under his control, which, if he only wants or tries hard enough, he'll be able to conquer. Part of her illusions thus rests on this innocent view of adult problems.

Part 3 Quotes

“Erma can’t let go of her misery,” Mom said. “It’s all she knows.” She added that you should never hate anyone, even your worst enemies. “Everyone has something good about them,” she said. “You have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that.”

Related Characters: Rose Mary Walls (speaker), Erma Walls
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

Deciding that the kids are making too much noise downstairs, Erma thumps loudly on the ceiling above them. She has been cranky and unpleasant since their arrival, and Jeannette immediately dislikes her. But Mom, in what is a rare occasion for her, chastises Jeannette and asks her not to judge Erma, who has suffered a good amount in her life. Mom exhibits, here as elsewhere, a compassion stemming from the creative capacity to imagine other people's experiences. Her suggestion also stems from her desire to see certain situations differently from how others choose to see them, often putting a more positive light on what others might consider ugly or unpleasant. Although Jeannette's mother is often portrayed as relatively immature, this is an instance at which her natural optimism and empathy is shown to be wise.

A newspaper reporter, instead of holing up in isolation, was in touch with the rest of the world. What the reporter wrote influenced what people thought about and talked about the next day; he knew what was really going on. I decided I wanted to be one of the people who knew what was really going on.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker)
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

Jeannette's earliest associations of what it means to be a "writer" have been with her mother's attempts at writing stories, shutting herself up by herself and receiving rejection letter after rejection letter. Now she sees an alternative glimpse of what being a writer could look like. Rather than spending time alone in one's head, a reporter can go out into the world and become a reliable source on "what was really going on." Jeannette's early experiences at the school newspaper show her that her desire for stability and expertise need not be continually frustrated in her family life, but can be applied to other spheres instead. In addition, this is one of the first moments at which Jeannette is able to picture a way out of her stressful family situation. It is one of the first times when she thinks about what she would like to do in life independently of her parents, based on her own knowledge and skills. 

Because we never subscribed to newspapers or magazines, I’d never known what was going on in the world, except for the skewed version of events we got from Mom and Dad—one in which every politician was a crook, every cop was a thug, and every criminal had been framed. I began to feel like I was getting the whole story for the first time, that I was being handed the missing pieces to the puzzle, and the world was making a little more sense.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker)
Page Number: 204-205
Explanation and Analysis:

Part of Jeannette's job at the student newspaper involves going down to the local newspaper offices to print out the galleys. When she's finished, she reads the other newspapers lying around the office, a habit that becomes a true revelation for her. This is the first time that Jeannette gains access to the outside world in a way that is not influenced by her parents. Dad, of course, has always excelled at telling exciting, alluring stories that enrapture his children, while Mom has her own position on certain world affairs. The world view that they share is one largely painted in black and white, as well as one in which any authority figure is immediately suspect. As a result, it only makes sense that they continually flee the authorities and fail to settle down.

Rather than encouraging her to consider her parents' views as outright lies, Jeannette's newspaper reading allows her to fill in what had been left out from her parents' opinions and develop a more nuanced understanding of what really happens in the world. This is another case of Jeannette beginning to grasp her own relation to those around her, one that is independent of her close-knit but often anxiety-inducing family, and one that suggests a different way of life for her in the future.

I had always wanted a watch. Unlike diamonds, watches were practical. They were for people on the run, people with appointments to keep and schedules to meet. That was the kind of person I wanted to be.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker)
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Jeannette's first "real" job is as an assistant at Mr. Becker's jewelry store. She enjoys the work since she gets to see customers who are usually happy, pleased to be buying something special. But for herself, jewelry is too decorative, too frivolous - it serves no purpose other than ornamentation. Jeannette is instead drawn to the watches, not just as another kind of accessory, but as highly symbolic objects that suggest a different way of life for her. Watches, to Jeannette, belong to people for whom time is scarce and important, people who have responsibilities and appointments and who keep to them rather than giving them up or forgetting about them. 

Mom might say that Jeannette's fascination with watches is a troubling sign of obsession with ownership, but for Jeannette material objects have always been more significant in terms of what they represent, in terms of their aspirational quality as standing in for the kind of person she might become. In addition to her time at the student newspaper, Jeannette's job at the jewelry store begins to paint a different kind of a picture for her future. 

“Who do you think you are?” [Dad] asked. “She’s your mother.”
“Then why doesn’t she act like one?” I looked at Dad for what felt like a very long moment. Then I blurted out, “And why don’t you act like a dad?”

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Rex Walls (speaker), Rose Mary Walls
Page Number: 219-220
Explanation and Analysis:

Mom has refused to go to school on the first day, and after begging and cajoling her, Jeannette finally grows angry and claims that Mom isn't acting like a mother. Mom tells Dad when he gets home, and in this confrontation Jeannette, for the first time, explicitly shares her disillusionment with and anger towards her father for all that he led her to expect, and all that he did to disappoint her. 

In the past, Jeannette has continued to cling to a sense that Dad was well-intentioned, and his disappointing actions redeemable, even if she has long since had to give up the idea that all his wild stories and enchanting illusions had any substance. Now, she goes a step further, suggesting that both her parents' inability to come through for their children are not just signs of their bohemian sensibility, but proof that they don't know how to be good parents. Jeannette has had to take on many of the responsibilities usually embraced by parents, and this outburst reflects the frustration Jeannette feels at this switching of roles.

I stared at the plans. “Dad,” I said, “you’ll never build the Glass Castle.”
“Are you saying you don’t have faith in your old man?”
“Even if you do, I’ll be gone.” […] “As soon as I finish classes, I’m getting on the next bus out of here. If the buses stop running, I’ll hitchhike. I’ll walk if I have to. Go head and build the Glass Castle, but don’t do it for me.”

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Rex Walls
Related Symbols: Glass Castle
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

Jeannette has told her parents that she'll be following Lori to New York, and Dad has grown silent and sullen. Finally, he spreads out the old plans of the Glass Castle. Though he doesn't say anything explicitly to Jeannette, it is suggested that he is making one final attempt to enchant Jeannette into staying, by recalling their old exciting projects and the adoration that Jeannette once held for him. Jeannette is only incredulous at this attempt, which leaves her entirely cold. The Glass Castle, once a cherished idea for her, has come to be no more than a symbol for empty promises and castles built in the air. 

On the one hand, Jeannette officially stakes her position on Dad's inability to ever really go through with these plans and create a beautiful, sustainable home for his family. But in addition, her claims on what she will do to get out of Welch reflect an alternative idea of how to make sure that plans get done and dreams for the future fulfilled. She has committed to going to New York and has made everything possible to do so - something that can only be negatively contrasted with the way Dad makes plans for the future.

I wondered if [Dad] was remembering how he, too, had left Welch full of vinegar at age seventeen and just as convinced as I was now that he’d never return. I wondered if he was hoping that his favorite girl would come back, or if he was hoping that, unlike him, she would make it out for good.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Rex Walls
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

As Jeannette looks out the window of her bus to New York, some of her anger and frustration at her parents, especially at Dad, begins to dissipate, and instead she begins to ask herself about Dad's own past and the possible parallels between their lives. After having wandered around the country for years, the Walls family had settled back into Dad's hometown, a return that was obviously frustrating and painful for him, as it underlined how little his dreams and ideas for the future resulted in any different kind of life or home for himself.

In some ways, Jeannette's realization about the parallels between Dad's departure and her own is sobering, because it suggests that as much as Jeannette wants to escape Welch for good, there is no guarantee that she will succeed. But she also takes this as a challenge to undertake a different path than that of her father. At the same time, she dares to hope that Dad does want something different for her, even if he made several half-hearted-seeming attempts to keep her home. 

Part 4 Quotes

“I think that maybe sometimes people get the lives they want.”
“Are you saying homeless people want to live on the street?” Professor Fuchs asked. “Are you saying they don’t want warm beds and roofs over their heads?”
“Not exactly, I said. I was fumbling for words. “They do. But if some of them were willing to work hard and make compromises, they might not have ideal lives, but they could make ends meet.”
Professor Fuchs walked around from behind her lectern. “What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged?” she asked. She was practically trembling with agitation. “What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?”

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Professor Fuchs
Page Number: 256-257
Explanation and Analysis:

This moment is a devastating but also highly significant point in the process of Jeannette's growing up and attempting to negotiate the difficult relationships between her family life and past and the new life she is trying to create. Here, Jeannette "fumbles for words" while trying to make a point about homelessness that stems from her own personal experience. Professor Fuchs, not knowing anything about Jeannette other than the fact that she is a student at an elite college, assumes that Jeannette is simply being naive or even callous about the real challenges faced by the poor.

Of course, the reality of homelessness is more complex than the idea of either saints crippled by poverty or lazy people who deserve to be homeless; but without sharing where she comes from and what exactly she has witnessed, it proves impossible for Jeannette to explain what she means. As a result, she realizes that she and her favorite professor are speaking from worlds apart, as Jeannette's own personal emphasis on responsibility - one that she has developed by necessity because of her family - clashes with a sociological, structural view on where poverty comes from. Even while taking excellent classes with rigorous professors, Jeannette thus still struggles to articulate what it meant to grow up in a family like her own, and how to explain it through available social frameworks. 

“Hey,” [Dad] said. He winked and pointed his finger at me “Have I ever let you down?”
He started chuckling because he knew there was only one way I could ever answer that question. I just smiled. And then I closed the door.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Rex Walls (speaker)
Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis:

Dad has just shared with Jeannette that he has cancer, after inviting her to the tenement where he lives with Mom: it's been a long time since they've seen each other. This, his parting statement to his daughter depends for its dark humor and irony on the long history of grand illusions and exciting plans that Dad had fed his children for years. Both of them know, of course, that Dad has let her down plenty of times - although at few of those times has Jeannette seemed as calm and controlled as she is now.

Indeed, the fact that Jeannette and her father can laugh about his broken promises, even at a moment of pain like this one, underlines how much Jeannette has been able to gain distance from the acute struggles of her childhood. When she was younger, she was at first enraptured by her father, and then went through a process of deep disillusionment. Now she seems to accept Dad for who he is, as someone who has failed to be a fully responsible father, but who retains a sparkling personality and great charisma, and who is aware of his own failings. Jeannette and Dad have not exactly grown closer as a result of this self-awareness, but she does understand enough to no longer be bitter.

A year after Dad died, I left Eric. He was a good man, but not the right one for me. And Park Avenue was not where I belonged.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker)
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:

Dad's death leads to a period in Jeannette's life of serious contemplation and questioning about the direction her life is going. She feels restless and ill at ease, never quite sure what is wrong. Finally she does make a major move, breaking up with Eric and moving out of the beautiful apartment where he lived, an apartment that had symbolized at least in a material sense how far she had come from the run-down shack in Welch. Jeannette describes the end of her relationship with Eric as a matter of compatibility, rather than claiming that one or the other did something wrong. For her, this is what home has come to mean: a personal, idiosyncratic feeling of attachment to a certain milieu, which isn't necessarily tied to external signs of success or pleasure.

I liked to go for long walks at night. I often walked west toward the river. The city lights obscured the stars, but on clear nights, I could see Venus on the horizon, up over the dark water, glowing steadily.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker)
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

Jeannette's feelings of restlessness and uncertainty, acute since her father's death, have faded, especially since she has left Eric and the Park Avenue apartment. However, what remains of that time is her propensity to go on long walks. While growing up, Jeannette had never lived in a city, and she always used to be able to see the stars - a capacity that she now has to actively go in search of. But for Jeannette, the rare ability to see Venus is precious for the way in which it reminds her of her father and of the long-ago Christmas present that he gave to her.

At the time, Jeannette had rejoiced in having a gift far more special than the silly, easily broken objects that the other kids at school desired. Now she is reminded of the magical side of Dad's character, the way he made ordinary life and even poverty seem special and unique. As Jeannette is still attempting to determine where she belongs, Venus serves also as a means of continuity between the past and the present, between her childhood and her life now.

Part 5 Quotes

“Grandma Walls is different from your other grandma,” I told [Veronica].
“Way different,” Veronica said.
John’s daughter, Jessica, turned to me and said, “But she laughs just like you do.”

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Jessica (speaker), Veronica (speaker), Rose Mary Walls
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:

For most of the book, Jeannette has emphasized just how different she and her mother are. They grow excited about different things, are annoyed by different things, and in particular Jeannette's love of order and stability has long clashed with her mother's endless search for adventure and here easygoing attitude towards parenting.

Jessica, though, has a slightly different view. Noticing how Jeannette and Rose Mary have an identical laugh, she shows how someone outside the family, with little knowledge of the internal family dynamics, can still pick up on certain elements of continuity. That Jeannette mentions this conversation suggests that she is acknowledging that her childhood wish to be nothing if not opposite from her mother might be just that, a child's desire. Now, she is more willing to recognize that parallels can exist, and that fact does not mean Jeannette is condemned to the same kind of life as her mother.

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.