The Glass Castle

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Possessions and Ownership Theme Analysis

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.
Possessions and Ownership Theme Icon

Ultimately Jeannette links her own sense of home to ownership, investing in a country home with her husband. The importance—but also danger—of ownership recurs often throughout the memoir. In The Glass Castle, physical objects often become symbolically significant, standing in for a character’s personality or dreams, from Jeannette’s rock collection that signify her desire for order to Brian’s army soldiers that foreshadow his eventual choice of career. These possessions also provide markers of consistency for the siblings while everything around them is changing, giving them a certain sense of pride and satisfaction. At times, The Glass Castle reveals, the simple fact of owning something can make up for or render irrelevant even major material wants.

But the book also articulates a tension between ownership as productive or destructive. As Jeannette grows up and starts to want and embrace a comfortable life, her desires clash with Mom’s disapproval of materialism, and through this conflict the book questions whether ownership can really give Jeanette, or anyone, what they’re looking for. The Glass Castle walks a fine line between acknowledging that material possessions can be powerful tools of identity, comfort, and power, and admitting that the lack of material possessions is not the only thing holding Jeannette back from a better life.

Possessions and Ownership ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Glass Castle related to the theme of Possessions and Ownership.
Part 1 Quotes

“You want to help me change my life?” Mom asked. “I’m fine. You’re the one who needs help. Your values are all confused.”

Related Characters: Rose Mary Walls (speaker), Jeannette Walls
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Having caught a glimpse of her mother rifling through a dumpster in New York City, Jeannette has invited her to dinner and shared that she's worried about her. In turn, Jeannette's mother brushes off her concerns and turns the tables, suggesting that Jeannette is actually the one with a problem in this situation. Jeannette's mother has explained her actions by the fact that Americans don't recycle enough, but she is more propelled by a combination of necessity and a blasé attitude towards what others may think. 

Indeed, Jeannette's mother would most likely not be relying on a dumpster if she had other means by which to feed herself. But as this is the case, she develops a subtle worldview created around the superiority of such a lifestyle - something that Jeannette describes as typical of her childhood. According to this worldview, it is defensible and even desirable to actively choose to do what others may look down upon, especially if this means that Jeannette's mother does not need to rely on anyone else. Her critique of Jeannette is part of this ethos as well, as she claims that the lack of money or possessions is morally liberating. It is Jeannette, then, because she cares about what others think and values material possessions, who becomes the weaker and less self-sufficient of the two (at least according to her mother).


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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.

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.

Part 3 Quotes

Instead of a freshly painted yellow house, or even a dingy gray one, we now had a weird-looking half-finished patch job—one that announced to the world that the people inside the house wanted to fix it up but lacked the gumption to get the work done.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker)
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

Jeannette has been trying to think up ways to make the house more cheery and pleasant-looking. Armed with a paint can that Dad brought home from work, she paints the parts of the house that she can access without a ladder. But by the time she manages to create a makeshift ladder, the paint has frozen and re-melted and is now unusable. Worse, the house looks even dingier than it did before.

Jeannette is the member of the family who cares the most about the small, symbolic niceties of home life that Mom and Dad care little for. But in addition, for Jeannette, the half-painted house is emblematic of the missed chances and half-baked plans that have defined the family's decisions over the years. Desire and idealism are never lacking - Jeannette herself has often been enthusiastic about Dad's unrealistic projects, for instance - but somehow the end result never aligns with the expectations. As a result of nonchalance, apathy, or lack of drive, projects remain on hold and improvements fail to materialize more often than not.

She was keeping [the wedding ring], she explained, to replace the wedding ring her mother had given her, the one Dad had pawned shortly after they got married.
“But Mom,” I said, “that ring could get us a lot of food.”
“That’s true,” Mom said, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food.”

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Rose Mary Walls (speaker)
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

While exploring, Brian and Jeannette have found a diamond ring, which turns out to be valuable. They have spent a difficult winter, hungry, cold, and lacking in basic necessities, and Jeannette and Brian can't imagine why their mother wouldn't take the ring to the pawnshop to be exchanged for money that could help them. But Mom doesn't see things that way: for her, its power stems from its capacity to replace an important possession, one that was already lost in exchange for cash.

In general, Mom is scornful of other people's tendency to collect and adore their possessions. Here, though, she is the one to claim the importance of owning a material object above other things. The contradiction can potentially be explained by Mom's usual propensity to value what others do not value and to make decisions that others might find bizarre. Usually, a desire to hold on to a valuable diamond ring would be considered socially appropriate; at this moment, though, when the ring is found among garbage, possesses little sentimental value, and could be exchanged for money to feed a family, Mom's decision begins to look much more non-conforming, even irrational.

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. 

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

I actually live on Park Avenue, I kept telling myself as I hung my clothes in the closet Eric had cleared out for me. Then I started thinking about Mom and Dad. When they had moved into their squat—a fifteen-minute subway ride south and about half a dozen worlds away—it seemed as if they had finally found the place where they belonged, and I wondered if I had done the same.

Related Characters: Jeannette Walls (speaker), Rex Walls, Rose Mary Walls
Page Number: 268
Explanation and Analysis:

Jeannette has moved in with her boyfriend, Eric, around the same time that her parents have moved into a squat - not physically far away from Park Avenue, but certainly in another world. Jeannette has spent much of the book dreaming about a place she could call home, whether that means the Glass Castle of her childhood, a yellow-painted house, or simply a place of order and stability. Now, though, she has a more serious view of what it means to establish a home and ownership over a place. Jeannette isn't entirely sure that the apartment on Park Avenue is where she really belongs - indeed, she seems to wonder whether her parents haven't done a better job at finding a home that truly fits their sensibilities. She might have succeeded by the standards of society around her, the standards of material success, but Jeannette's search is not yet over.

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.