The Glass Castle

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Themes and Colors
Growing Up, Illusion, and Disillusion Theme Icon
Home Theme Icon
Possessions and Ownership Theme Icon
Order and Turbulence Theme Icon
Responsibility, Self-Sufficiency, and Non-Conformity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Glass Castle, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Order and Turbulence Theme Icon

The hazy point at which fire and smoke reaches into the air fascinates Dad, who calls it “a place where no rules apply, or at least they haven’t figured ‘em out yet.” It is this intermediate realm that the family inhabits, that Jeanette’s parents seek to inhabit, where the rules are grey and they can therefore define their own way of living and being. For a time, living “on the edge” seems to work for them. But once they settle down for good in West Virginia, their more “orderly” lifestyle leads, ironically, to greater turbulence. At the same time, order means different things for different people in the book, based on their particular characteristics: what Jeannette understands as disorder, for instance, Mom sees as “adventure.”

Even as Jeannette attempts to establish her own kind of order against her parents’ turbulent lifestyle, the book suggests at times that order and turbulence may work in tandem rather than in opposition. As Mom tells Jeannette about a certain gnarled tree in the desert, “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.” Jeannette’s childhood turbulence, if not always what she desired, therefore becomes deeply influential in helping her to figure out what kind of order suits her best.

Order and Turbulence ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Order and Turbulence appears in each part of The Glass Castle. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Order and Turbulence Quotes in The Glass Castle

Below you will find the important quotes in The Glass Castle related to the theme of Order and Turbulence.
Part 2 Quotes

That was the thing about the hospital. You never had to worry about running out of stuff like food or ice or even chewing gum. I would have been happy staying in that hospital forever.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker)
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

Having suffered serious burns from a cooking accident, three-year-old Jeannette is in the hospital for an extended stay, but instead of being upset or frightened, she considers this a luxurious vacation. A nurse has given Jeannette a stick of gum, which she adores: when she worries that she'll have to throw it out to eat lunch, the nurse offers to give her as many as she'd like. Such an offer is entirely alien to Jeannette's experiences with her family at home, where food is often difficult to come by and scarcity is the norm, from toys to basic necessities. Before her stay at the hospital, she had considered this state of affairs normal, but now she begins to realize that a home need not be this way. For Jeannette, the hospital is a place of calm, order, and endless supply. In many ways, the hospital represents the period of worry-free childhood that Jeannette has never had, and that she only now begins to glimpse.


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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.

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.

[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.

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.

Part 3 Quotes

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.

“Why do I always have to be the one who earns the money?” Mom asked. “You have a job. You can earn money. Lori can earn money, too. I’ve got more important things to do.”

Related Characters: Rose Mary Walls (speaker), Jeannette Walls, Lori Walls
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

Lori and Mom have both returned from their summers away at the same time, both captivated and excited by the time spent developing their own artistic capacities. The book implies that, for all Lori's frustrations with her parents, there are some things she shares with Mom too. However, it is certainly troubling that Mom has a similarly self-absorbed reaction to a teenage girl, who lacks the responsibilities and tasks of a mother of three. Mom seems to refuse to accept that she does indeed have such responsibilities. Instead, she seems to be jealous of her daughters' own paths towards independence, and to want similar things for herself, even at the expense of taking care of her children. The artistic projects that Mom wants to pursue are "more important," in her mind, than the necessary but, to her, boring tasks of raising a family.

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.

Part 4 Quotes

“You can’t just live like this,” I said.
“Why not?” Mom said. “Being homeless is an adventure.”

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Rose Mary Walls
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that all three of the children are in New York, Mom and Dad have moved there as well - but after a series of typically disastrous events, they find themselves homeless and refuse to take help from their children. As they gather at Lori's apartment once a month, Mom shares some of the tips that they've learned from their new "adventure" as homeless people in Manhattan, from the soup kitchen's open hours to the various free events taking place all over the city. This conversation between Jeannette and Mom recapitulates the deep gap between the ways that they both see the world. Mom tends to idealize suffering and poverty, considering it a more artistically appealing life path, not to mention one that is even more valuable since others wouldn't consider it so. For Jeannette, of course, it is maddening that Mom and Dad won't settle down, ask for help, or develop a sustainable life for themselves.

“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. 

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

“We should drink a toast to Rex,” John said.
Mom stared at the ceiling, miming perplexed thought. “I’ve got it.” She held up her glass. “Life with your father was never boring.”

Related Characters: Rose Mary Walls (speaker), John (speaker), Rex Walls
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Jeannette's mother acknowledges something that the entire family knows to be true, and that the reader will by this point recognize as obvious as well. Rose Mary does, of course, put a more positive spin on Dad's mode of parenting and of life in general by calling it "never boring." By doing so she skates over some of the more unpleasant and even dangerous elements of this life, including Dad's drinking and his irresponsibility with money. Of course, Rose Mary Walls was not exempt from some of these examples of irresponsibility either, and in any case, the toast is a chance to celebrate and remember Dad's life. In addition, of course, emphasizing the excitement that Dad brought to everything allows the family to remember what was so appealing about his attitude towards life.

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.