Free Study Guide for The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

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NOTE: The Sections listed in this summary are not included in the actual text. We are listing them to make the summary easier to follow.




The memoir opens with Jeannette, the author and main character, sitting in a taxi, wondering if she has overdressed for the evening, when she looks out the window and sees her mother rooting through a dumpster. She recognizes all her familiar gestures even as she is at times hidden by people scurrying home in the blustery March weather. It has been months since Jeannette has seen her mother, but she’s more overcome with panic that the woman will see her. She slides down in the seat and then orders the taxi to take her home again. She listens to Vivaldi, hoping the music will settle her down. She sits down in her favorite room and looks around at the possessions that make the room such a comfort to her - a comfort except when she thinks about her mom and dad huddled on a sidewalk grate somewhere.

Jeannette calls a friend of her mother’s and leaves a message for her mother to call, their usual way of making contact. When her mother calls, they make plans for lunch at the older woman’s favorite Chinese restaurant. When Mom arrives, Jeannette sees that she has tried to clean herself up even though there is deep-set grime on her neck and temples. She also immediately fills her purse with all the plastic packets of soy sauce and mustard and empties the bowl of dried noodles in there as well.

The first thing Mom begins to talk about is Picasso. She had seen a retrospective of his work and thinks he is highly overrated. However, Jeannette is more concerned with what she can do for her parents and tells her mother so. She wants to help her mother change her life, but Rose Mary Walls tells her daughter that it’s her values that are all confused. She feels she’s fine and that Jeannette is “way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.” (pg. 8)


This chapter is Jeannette’s way of immediately differentiating her life from her parent’s lives and how their eccentric, odd ways are so different from her normal life. However, she gives the reader the feeling that maybe they are not so eccentric that they cannot be loved. She is setting us up for the life she led being raised by Rose Mary and Rex Walls.


SECTION ONE (Pages 9-14)


Jeannette’s earliest memory concerns the time she set herself on fire cooking hotdogs. She is three years old and boiling hotdogs on the stove while her mother works on one of her paintings in the other room. Her dress catches on fire, but she is unable to scream until the fire singes her hair and her eyelashes. When her mother hears her cries, she grabs an army surplus blanket and wraps Jeannette in it to put out the flames. Her dad has gone off in the car, so Mom grabs Jeannette’s younger brother and hurries to the trailer next door to ask the woman there to take them to the hospital.

After they arrive, a nurse tells Jeannette that she’s going to be okay, to which Jeannette responds that she knows that, but if she’s not, that’s okay, too, a statement making her wise beyond her years. Then, she looks down and sees her little brother’s grimy hand grabbing ice cubes from her pitcher and crunching away!

The doctors and nurses begin asking Jeannette all kinds of questions about how she got burned and where her parents were when it happened. They also ask her how she got all the bruises and cuts she has on her body and if her parents had ever hurt her. She replies very honestly that the cuts and bruises came from playing outside and the burns from cooking hotdogs. She explains how she does the cooking and that she’s allowed to do that, because her mom thinks she’s mature for her age. It’s obvious that the authorities are concerned with the care being provided by her parents.

Jeannette loves her stay in the hospital, because she isn’t used to the quiet and order and she loves it. She has her own room and a television, and she gets delicious meals three times a day. It’s also the place where she gets her first piece of chewing gum. “I would have been happy staying in that hospital forever.” (pg. 12) When her parents come to visit, Jeannette shows them the chewing gum. Her mother disapproves and calls it a low-class habit. Dad sits down on her bed and tells her the story about how her older sister, Lori, was stung by a poisonous scorpion. They took her to a Navajo witch doctor, who opened the wound and put a brown paste on it. Lori was soon okay, and now Dad wishes they had taken Jeannette to a witch doctor instead of the quacks at the hospital.

The next time they visit, little brother Brian’s head is wrapped in a dirty white bandage with dried bloodstains. He had fallen off the couch and cracked his head open on the floor. There was blood everywhere, but one kid in the hospital at a time was enough, so they never took him to the doctor. Mom also tells Jeannette they entered her name in a raffle at a fair and she won a helicopter ride. Jeannette is thrilled until she realizes the family had already taken her ride. This is followed by an argument between Dad and the doctor. Dad believes Jeannette should be wearing bandages while the doctor tries to explain that the burned skin needs to breathe. Dad pulls back his fist to hit the doctor when a guard in a uniform appears and tells the Walls family they’ll have to leave.

A few days later, after Jeannette has been in the hospital for six weeks, Dad decides to break her out of there, obviously leaving without paying the bill. He picks Jeannette up and holds her against his chest. She takes in the familiar smells on him of Vitalis, whiskey, and cigarette smoke. He runs out the emergency exit with her as nurses cry out for them to stop. Mom is waiting in their car, the Blue Goose, with Lori and Brian, and Dad places Jeannette in the front seat with Mom saying, “You don’t have to worry anymore, baby. You’re safe now.”


There are numerous examples in this section about how Rose Mary and Rex raise their children and how lucky the kids are that one of them didn’t die from neglect. There is also a great deal of foreshadowing of Dad’s bad temper and alcoholism, because of the familiar smells on his shirt and how he nearly punches the doctor about bandaging Jeannette’s burns. Rex Walls gives the impression that he has no patience with anyone who doesn’t view the world the way he does. Such an attitude can be dangerous.


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