When Jeanette decides that she’ll beautify the house at 93 Little Hobart Street, she first suggests putting up some half-tire lawn ornaments, but her mother shoots that down by saying she’d rather have a yard filled with genuine garbage than trashy lawn ornaments. When her Dad brings home a can of bright yellow paint from a job, Jeanette decides to paint the house. She’s transfixed by the idea of a bright yellow house, something that would transform the dingy grey house, that would make it look like the other houses on the street. She’s obsessed with making her house prettier, because she thinks it will make the town more accepting of the family. “A layer of yellow paint, I realized, would completely transform our dingy grey house. It would look, at least from the outside, almost like the homes other people lived in” Jeanette’s desire to make 93 Little Hobart Street a more beautiful place to live is rooted in the desire to fit in and be accepted. She is teased and bullied all the time at school for being poor, for living in a crumbling house, and for dumping garbage in their back yard.
She wants to be liked and a part of the community and feels that making her house look like all the others will do that. It’s disappointing that none of her family want to help her, citing reasons that stretch from a lack of scaffolding, to not thinking the house is worth the effort, to finding yellow houses tacky. Jeanette is doing what Jeanette does throughout the course of the novel; trying to find an affordable and tangible way to make life better.
Beautifying the house is also a way for Jeanette to take back a little control in her life. She can’t change her father’s drinking, she can’t force her mother to get a job, and she can’t magically conjure a better home, but she can pick up a brush and add a coat of paint to the one she has. She has control over almost nothing in her life. All her childhood, she is left adrift at sea, just trying to survive and stay afloat through whatever life and her parents shenanigans bring her way, but making her house pretty is something she can do.
She clings to the dream of the glass castle for what it represents to her. To her, the glass castle isn’t a tangible thing, but afternoons spent on her father’s knee planning it as a little girl. The glass castle is more than the dream of a better home, but of a better life. In Welch, Jeannette and Brian dig a foundation for the glass castle, and then Rex decides to fill it with garbage because they can’t afford the town pickup. “He explained that he was going to hire a truck to cart the garbage and dump it all at once. But he never got around to that either, and as Brian and I watched, the hole for the Glass Castles foundation slowly filled up with garbage”. Jeanette clings to the dream of the glass castle all through her childhood because it’s the ultimate story her dad told her, the biggest promise he ever made her, and just like her idealized version of him, she clings to that dream. To give up on the glass castle meant giving up on her dad, and all that he’d promised her.
She wants to beautify the home, and she clings to the idea of the glass castle because they are tangible things that symbolize something greater. After all the empty promises over the years, Jeannette clings to tangible things. She’d rather have a ham sandwich in her hand then the promise of a burger and fries later on. So she wishes to beautify the home because it symbolizes fitting in and making friends in Welch, being accepted. She dreams of the glass castle because she thinks it will bring her father back to her the way he was in the desert, when he cared about her and made his best effort as a Dad. She thinks the glass castle will restore everything to how it was before Welch, when life was a grand adventure and they were very close as a family, moving from place to place. The glass castle symbolizes Jeanette’s happy ever after, with her family together and everybody happy and safe. When she finally gives up on her Dad and lets go of that hope, she lets go of the idea of the glass castle ever being a reality.
I don’t think the Walls children learn very much from being poor. Poverty is a worldwide epidemic, often cropping up in places you’d least expect it. The Walls weren’t really poor either. Rose Mary owned land that was potentially worth millions, and collected royalty checks every month. Even when a parent, either Rose Mary or Rex, was working, they still seemed to always be in poverty, even though there was money coming in. They lacked a safe and healthy place to live, there was never enough food, and they never seemed to have very much money. That is textbook poverty, and those children were living in pretty dire conditions. But can you really call yourself poor when you have a steady income that would more than provide for your family, or when you inherit a house and a large sum of money, or when you own land that is worth hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions? At no point did the Walls parents lack the basic resources to live, and to provide for their kids.
They were simply very irresponsible and stupid with money. Over and over again, the Walls family gets outrageous streaks of luck that would be considered outlandish and improbable if found in fiction. When they’re really down on their luck in Battle Mountain, Rose Mary’s mother dies and leave’s them a house and a big inheritance in Phoenix. When they can’t afford to feed themselves, they find a high quality diamond ring in the back yard, worth months of rent and food. Whenever they’re out of money, they know there will be more coming from the oil company’s royalty check.
They have a million opportunities to make a better life for themselves, but they seem determined to squander them. One could almost say they must have liked living in poverty. They put a very low priority on basic human necessities like food and shelter, but made art supplies, self esteem, and booze very high priority, and that’s what most of their money was funneled into. When they find the diamond ring, Jeanette brings it to her Mom, who refuses to sell it. “But Mom,” I said, “that ring could buy 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 important than food”. So they do have money, they aren’t poor, but they are foolish in what to spend it on and their children suffer as a result. I think the Walls children develop character from their circumstances, but not from being poor. The battle they were fighting was never against their circumstances, but against their parents. “Mom had told me to expect a check in early July for the lease on her Texas land. She also warned that Dad would try to get his hands on it. Dad actually waited at the foot of the hill for the mailman and took it from him the day it arrived”. It was never the Walls against the world, it was Wall against Wall. The kids were constantly fighting the parents for enough of their time and money that they could eke out a living.
There are dozens of incidents in the book of Jeanette eating out of garbage cans because she knows there’s no food at home and she is literally starving. I believe that the Walls children developed character because of this struggle, but it’s not true that poverty breeds character. If that was the case, poverty wouldn’t be so much the generational disease that it often manifests as. Being poor as a kid isn’t doesn’t give you a leg up in life later on. The constant struggle to survive, and the realization that hard work was directly proportional to the success you have in life was what helped the Walls children develop character, and led to their success. It isn’t the struggling that develops character; it’s the ability to keep struggling past when you want to give up, and the ability to overcome what you’re struggling with. Having life knock you down and kick you in the teeth teaches you nothing but how to lay there bleeding. Your choice, the ability to get back up and keep slogging is what develops people. The three eldest Walls children have that ability in spades.
I don’t think the Walls children ended up any better off in life because they grew up in poverty. They worked hard to succeed as they did, and they would have had to do that from whatever starting point they had. Being a police officer, an award-winning journalist, and a comic book illustrator are all difficult jobs that anyone would have to work hard to achieve.
All being poor did was instill a need to escape the ones who made them so, as evidenced by the fact they got as far away as they could from Welch and never looked back. Even when their parents moved to New York to be closer to them they were never a close family, and they even drifted farther apart when they were geographically closer. “I had a room now, and I had a life, too, and there was no place in either one for Mom and Dad”. While Jeanette loves her parents, she doesn’t really want them in the life that she’s worked so hard to build for herself. She has escaped that life of poverty, and the one thing her childhood has taught her is that her parents don’t want to change, and they would bring her down to their level if she were to let them.
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