The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: Summary, Characters & Themes

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  • 0:04 The Glass Castle
  • 0:39 Major Characters
  • 1:55 Book Summary
  • 5:22 Book Themes
  • 6:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

''The Glass Castle'' is the memoir of Jeannette Walls and the story of a little girl's escape from abuse, neglect, and poverty. From Nevada and Arizona to West Virginia and eventually to New York, this book follows the tragedies and eventual triumph of the determined Jeannette and her siblings.

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle is a 2005 book by Jeannette Walls. It tells the story of her upbringing in a poverty-stricken and dysfunctional family. In this lesson, you'll get a summary of The Glass Castle and its themes of family, poverty, and the importance of education.

The book starts with our heroine, Jeannette Walls, as an adult in a taxi in New York City. As the taxi carries Jeannette to a corporate event, she looks out the window and sees her mother rummaging in a trash can for something to eat. Though she's known for years that her mother is homeless, the sight takes Jeannette back to her poverty-stricken childhood and the characters who populated it.

Major Characters

Jeannette Walls is the hero of the story. The Glass Castle follows her family's travels through Nevada, Arizona, West Virginia, and eventually on to New York City, where Jeannette is able to escape the poverty and abuse that has defined her entire life.

Rose Mary Walls, Jeannette's mother, is an artist and sometimes-teacher. She is a free spirit who doesn't like to be tied down to a job or to her children. She puts herself and her needs in front of her children's, even hiding food and candy from them for herself.

Rex Walls, Jeannette's father, is a dreamer and raging alcoholic. His constant drinking makes it difficult for him to find and keep a job. He will do anything to get booze, even attempt to prostitute out his teenaged daughter.

Lori Walls, Jeannette's older sister, is her champion in life. Lori defends Jeannette, even when no one else does. Eventually, Lori's work makes Jeannette's escape possible.

Brian Walls, Jeannette's brother, is the closest to her in age and her best friend growing up. Brian and Jeannette make a good team, whether surviving their childhood or outsmarting neighborhood bullies.

Maureen Walls, Jeannette's younger sister, is spoiled and pampered by her older siblings. Of all the Walls kids, only Maureen has difficulty adjusting to life in New York.

Book Summary

The first memory Jeannette visits is that of herself at the age of three, trying to use the stove to boil a hotdog. She gets too close and the pink dress she's wearing bursts into flames, burning her horribly. She spends a few days in the hospital, and then her dad shows up and pulls her out of bed, sneaking out of the hospital so they won't have to pay the bill. This is the first instance Jeannette recalls of the 'skedaddle', which is when the family leaves to avoid paying for something or avoiding trouble caused by her dad's alcoholism and paranoia.

The 'skedaddle' defines Jeannette's young life as the family drifts from town to town in the Southwest. One of the first longer stops Jeannette can remember is in Battle, Nevada. The old mining town gives Jeannette and her younger brother Brian countless ways to explore the desert. Their mother even takes a job as a teacher, and Jeannette hopes they've found their home at last. But then the father has an altercation with the law, so they have to leave again.

Life in Phoenix, Arizona

Mom's just inherited a house in Phoenix, so the Walls family heads there. Jeanette and her siblings are surprised. The house is big and has a nice yard. The kids are quickly enrolled in school and the father gets a job as an electrician, but continues drinking. Jeannette begs her father to give up the booze as a birthday present to her. He agrees, but quickly breaks his promise.

Mom, who has gotten bored with the sameness and safeness of life in Phoenix, decides the family should move to West Virginia, where Dad grew up, and live near his family. Dad is against the idea, but Mom insists.

Moving to Welch, West Virginia

Though the Walls family has high hopes for their life in West Virginia, the town of Welch squashes them almost immediately. The town is dirty, poor, segregated, and closed to the Walls family, whom the townspeople see as outsiders.

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