The childhood and adolescence of Jeannette Walls are filled with contradictions and ironies that surround her family. They live a lifestyle knee-deep in backwards logic and rationalizations that confound the reader yet grab their attention. Without the fussy emotions and complications of an overly dramatic storyline, Walls uses her bizarre and unconventional upbringing not as material intended to entertain the reader, but rather to explain her childhood in a meaningful, complex, but principally honest, way. The complexities come from the struggle between love and irresponsibility her parents demonstrate repeatedly. Adding to this depth is Walls’ voice—which she shifts as her memoir progresses—reflecting her maturing perspective.
The material in The Glass Castle is raw. Her matter-of-fact narrative style, which allows the reader to build his or her own perspective by avoiding personal reflection, is honest and humble. With careful attention to the changing perspectives of the reader and herself, Walls brings the two together. It is then, once the reader can empathize with her story, that she breaks away from her narrative, disregards the reader’s opinion, and concludes her story the radical truth only she can hold.
The profundities of the conclusion of The Glass Castle are rooted in the contradictions of Rose and Rex Walls’ undeniable love, yet backwards parenting, including negligence of their children. In the midst of this childhood reality Walls is forced to grow up in unprecedented ways, leading to her eventual independence yet acceptance of her unconventional childhood. The reader is abruptly introduced in the second chapter to the wildness of Walls’ life, where, at the age of three, she recalls the scarring experience of being severely burnt across her side, as a result of boiling hotdogs, with her mothers approval, alone on a gas stove top. Soon after, her mistrustful father steals her from the hospital and brings her to ‘safety’. And upon her return Walls returns to cooking hot dogs at home again at the approval of her mother, who commends her, saying, “Good for you…. You can’t live in fear of something so basic as fire”. This shocking opening sparks judgment and anger in the minds of readers, at the Walls parents neglect to their child’s well being, along with the absence of condemnation from an adult Jeannette Walls. However, within each irresponsible action lies what her parents perceive as an act of caring and protection. In their eyes her independence fosters maturity, stealing her from the hospital is a noble act, saving her from the “heads-up-their-asses med-school quacks”, and her fearlessness is the seed of resilience. This distorted view of love and protection becomes the centerpiece of Walls’ internal struggle as she gains true independence.
The Glass Castle is structured so the reader recognizes changes in the narrative perspective as Jeannette grows older. This organization of stylistic changes gives the book the dimension of maturity, rather than drawing upon a static reflective perspective for the entirety of the memoir. The absence of retrospective anger at her parents in the second chapter—and most of the memoir-serves multiple purposes. Structurally though, it marks the beginning of the book as a time when she, as a child, accepted her life without question. The absence of condemnation of her parents is not left empty but filled with a childlike acceptance and spirit of adventure. One of the ways this is shown is through her relationship with her father. As an innocent child she greatly admires her father and looks forward with certainty to the Glass Castle that he has promised her. According to a young Walls, “all of [Rex Walls’] engineering skills and mathematical genius were coming together in one special project: a great big house he would build for us in the desert”. However as the book progresses it is clear that many of these promise went unfulfilled; money was wasted booze, savings disappeared, jobs were squandered, and the “Glass Castle’s foundation slowly filled with garbage”. As the cyclical nature of her fathers promises and shortcoming continue, Walls fluidly allows her narrative to grow in doubt and mistrust. Eventually coming to a climax when Walls tells her father “Go ahead and build the Glass Castle, but don’t do it for me”. This progression is stylized seamlessly not only giving the book motion and dimension, but also providing a foundation from which to unravel these same contradictions.
In the conclusion of the book Jeannette Walls slowly draws her perspective and the readers back together, allowing her to possibly spark empathy in the reader. As discussed earlier, the reader is brought to anger in the beginning of the book, while Walls accepts her situation. But as we see Walls’ perspective shift, the readers shifts as well from witnessing some of the redeeming aspects of her reckless parents. For Christmas, her dad gives her a planet, which is not made thoughtful through the gift, but through the sincerity with which it is given. Rex tells her, “Years from now when all the junk (other children] got is broken and long forgotten… you’ll still have your stars,” and indeed it has a lasting impact it on Walls. Another more physical example of Rex’s love for his daughter is when he stops drinking for her because it is the only birthday wish she has. Rex goes through days of delirium and physical torment fighting his own demons, and although this can never reconcile all the times he has failed and hurt Jeannette, it represents an undeniable love for his daughter in a tangible way even the reader can grasp. In context with Walls’ personal maturation, the two, at first opposite perspectives, are slowly woven together, as the reader’s and Walls’ perspective widen to include the other.
Only once the reader and Walls come to the same point does Jeannette stretch the reader to grasp the complexities of love and acceptance. There is a point where the two perspectives meet, and the reader can empathize with Walls. It is ironically before they were ever formed-in the first chapter of the book. In the first chapter Jeannette’s mother advises her to “Just tell the truth… That’s simple enough”. At that point in her life Walls’ was afraid to give up control of what others thought of her. At that same point in the book-somewhere in the middle of thefourth chapter -Jeannette Walls, as the author, gives up control as well. Although the reader is ata point where they feel they can empathize with Walls, she abandons that comfort in order to face her truth. The truth that her father “loved [her] in a way no one else ever had”. In her memoir Jeannette Walls demonstrates the humility to tell a genuine story, leaving its readers asking themselves if they are ready accept and bear their own truths.
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