The Glass Castle

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Responsibility, Self-Sufficiency, and Non-Conformity 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.
Responsibility, Self-Sufficiency, and Non-Conformity Theme Icon

To whom and to what should one be responsible? While Mom and Dad clearly shirk much of their responsibility as parents, the book reveals that they are actually acting in accordance with their non-conformist beliefs—which they see as a higher responsibility. In some cases, the book equates responsibility with self-sufficiency, as Mom and Dad encourage Jeannette and her siblings to look out for themselves rather than rely on anyone else. On the other hand, her parents take pride in their willingness to live outside the “system,” pledging responsibility to an ideal rather than to specific people, and the result of this insistence on radical self-sufficiency can be seen as a profound lack of responsibility, such as teaching children to swim by throwing them in the water, refusing to take sick children to the doctor. In contrast, the adult Jeannette struggles with whether her instinct to ignore or lie about her “embarrassing” family represents a lack of moral responsibility—Jeanette senses that she has a responsibility founded in her direct relationship to her parents, rather than responsibility based on an abstract ideal.

In either case, The Glass Castle suggests that it is possible to both take responsibility for one’s own actions, and understand how these actions can stem from deeper, more systemic issues. Jeannette ultimately chooses a more material and less idealistic notion of responsibility than her parents, but she also continues to try to understand why they seem unable to take responsibility for their own actions, or to what they do feel responsible that makes them act the way they do.

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Responsibility, Self-Sufficiency, and Non-Conformity ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Glass Castle related to the theme of Responsibility, Self-Sufficiency, and Non-Conformity.
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

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.

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. 

“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.

“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.

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. 

“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.

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.