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The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle Summary


Here you will find a The Glass Castle summary (Jeannette Walls's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The Glass Castle Summary Overview

In her adult years, in New York, the narrator is shocked to see her mother scavenging through garbage. She invites her mother for lunch to discuss how she could assist them, but her parents are content with their homeless lifestyle. The narrative then revisits the narrator's early childhood, where she lived with her siblings and parents in a trailer park. She suffers severe burns due to her tutu catching fire while cooking unsupervised and is rushed to the hospital. Her father, however, sneaks her out without settling the hospital bill. Their life is continually on the move due to their father's habit of fleeing from debts and the law, a practice he refers to as "doing the skedaddle." Despite his struggle with alcohol and job instability, the father reassures his family that their vagabond lifestyle is temporary, promising them a grand, self-sustaining house made of glass. After the birth of their youngest sibling, Maureen, the family enjoys brief stability in Nevada until their father's drinking habits and a confrontation with a disgruntled neighbor force them to relocate to Phoenix. Finally, they move to their father's hometown, Welch, where they live under substandard conditions, resorting to scavenging and stealing for survival. A visit from child protective services prompts their mother to obtain a teaching job, but their father's drinking addiction drains their income. After their mother chooses art over her job, the siblings decide to move to New York. The narrator and her brother manage to finance their move, despite their father stealing their savings. In New York, they build successful lives for themselves while their parents continue their vagrant lifestyle. The patriarch's death brings the family together, and they celebrate his life during Thanksgiving.

part 1

Jeannette Walls' memoir starts with a moment from her mature years. While riding a taxi one chilly March evening in New York City, she contemplates if she's too dressed up for a forthcoming social event. Unexpectedly, she spots her mother rummaging in a garbage bin, poorly dressed. Jeannette crouches down in her seat to escape recognition, and asks the cab driver to take her back to her dwelling. In her luxurious flat, Jeannette is swamped with guilt and self-disgust for her opulent lifestyle while her parents are destitute. She reaches out to her mother and arranges a meeting at a Chinese eatery to discuss possible ways she could assist them. Her mother turns down her proposal, insisting that she and her father have chosen their lifestyle. Her mother encourages Jeannette to accept their situation, and to be true to her own identity.

part 2

In the second portion, Jeannette recalls her earliest recollection, occurring when she was three years old in an Arizona trailer park. A fire incident left her severely burned while cooking, and a hospital visit saved her life while her family caused commotions during their visits. After a six-week hospital stay and a hasty, unpaid exit, Jeannette resumes cooking and develops a keen interest in fire. Soon after, her father, Rex, abruptly moves the family under the pretense of escaping bill collectors. The Walls family migrates frequently due to financial instability and Rex's trouble with employment, often disappearing overnight—a practice Rex dubs the "skedaddle." They occasionally visit Jeannette's grandmother in Phoenix but never stay long due to tensions between her and Rex. They lead a nomadic life in numerous desert mining towns, learning survival skills but living without basic amenities and a steady diet. Rex often squanders their scant funds on alcohol, yet his children still admire him for his storytelling prowess and his ambitious plans to build the Glass Castle, a futuristic house he promises to construct. Rex hails from Welch, West Virginia, a former coal mining town. He left at seventeen to join the air force and met his wife, Rose Mary, after a daring rescue feat. Despite the romantic backstory, Rose Mary reveals a less idyllic narrative, noting that Rex was persistent and she was attempting to escape her controlling mother. Even after they wed, their troubles continue as Rex leaves the air force, and they end up having four children in quick succession. The demise of their second child, Mary Charlene, triggers Rex's alcoholism and job instability. When Jeannette turns four, the family relocates to Las Vegas, where Rex plans to fund his ambitious Prospector project through gambling. On the journey, the children are left unattended in the car as Rex and Rose Mary visit a bar. Jeannette suffers a fall from the moving car, but the family makes light of the incident, further highlighting their unconventional approach to parenting. The family temporarily resides in a hotel in Vegas, where the father consistently wins at blackjack, earning them a comfortable lifestyle. However, they're eventually forced to flee to San Francisco due to the father's gambling strategies drawing suspicion. In San Francisco, Jeannette sets fire to their hotel room, prompting a move to the Mojave Desert. They take up residence near a Joshua tree where Jeannette is kept awake by coyotes and the father claims they're being chased by a demon. The father finds work in a gypsum mine and the mother becomes pregnant. Eventually, their financial situation worsens and for Christmas, the kids are allowed to choose a star as their gift. They move to Blythe following a heated argument between the parents over the mother's lengthy pregnancy. The children have a rough time at school and the mother gives birth to a girl, Maureen. Their stay is brief and they set off to Battle Mountain in a rented U-Haul, enduring a mishap along the way when the back doors swing open. In Battle Mountain, the father secures employment at a Barite mine while the mother cooks infrequently. Jeannette and her brother Brian set fire to a shed, leading to Brian being rescued by their father. The two become interested in the local brothel, but gain no insights. Life becomes harder when the father loses his job and they resort to stealing food. The mother begins teaching while the father squanders her earnings on lavish meals and alcohol. Jeannette's birthday is ruined by a boy named Billy Deel, who becomes infatuated with her and behaves inappropriately. A BB gun shootout ensues, resulting in the police getting involved and the family fleeing to Phoenix. In Phoenix, they live in a large property inherited by the mother, who spends most of her inheritance on art supplies. Jeannette is molested by a neighbor, leading to 'pervert hunting', but the parents don't take adequate precautions. The father's drinking problem worsens, culminating in a ruined Christmas. Jeannette persuades the father to quit drinking for her tenth birthday. An attempted family trip to the Grand Canyon is botched when their car breaks down, leading to a heated argument between the parents. The mother buys a car and plans to move the family to West Virginia, where she hopes the father's family can assist them. Despite initial resistance, the father eventually agrees.

part 3

The family embarks on a slow and tough journey in their unreliable Oldsmobile to Welch, West Virginia. Upon reaching, they encounter Dad’s eccentric relatives, who are much different from what they expected, and end up living in a gloomy, uncomfortable basement of their house. Schooling proves to be challenging for the kids as they grapple with new accents, curriculum focused solely on the local history, and hostility from classmates. Jeannette struggles with adjusting and faces bullying from a girl named Dinitia Hewitt, until she helps Dinitia's neighbor. However, their developing friendship is marred by Erma’s racist remarks towards Dinitia. After a confrontation with Erma over her racial slurs, Jeannette realizes the complexities and contradictions of their life in Welch. When their parents leave to collect their belongings from Phoenix, Erma turns abusive, subjecting the kids to physical violence and revealing traumatic parts of her past. A shocking incident where Erma molests Brian leads to a bitter conflict, leading Erma to punish the kids harshly. Uncle Stanley is their only respite. Upon their parents' return, instead of getting support, they face criticism from their dad for their behavior towards Erma, and the family is evicted from Erma's house. They move into a small, ill-equipped house in Little Hobart Street, where they live in substandard conditions, unable to afford basic amenities like electricity and heating. The neighborhood, mostly inhabited by needy families, is ridden with violence and poverty. Despite the grim surroundings, Jeannette forges some friendships and finds strength in adversity. Regular incidents of violence and bullying continue, but Jeannette and Brian retaliate against their tormentors, establishing their ground. While their living conditions deteriorate further with their dad's frequent disappearances, the family is forced to eat inedible food and search for meals in dumpsters. Their dire living conditions worsen during winter when they struggle to keep warm and deal with the resultant health issues. A dangerous incident, where Lori gets severely burnt while trying to create a fire, underscores the harsh realities of their lives in Welch. Erma passes away during winter, leaving a grieving Dad. Post the funeral, Lori's insensitive comment causes Dad to disappear for four days. Erma's house goes up in flames in the same winter due to Uncle Stanley's negligence. After this, Grandpa and Uncle Stanley move to a better house, where the children visit for baths. Stanley, one day, behaves inappropriately with Jeannette, and Mom justifies this as a result of Stanley's loneliness. The house further deteriorates due to spring rains. The family resorts to using a bucket for toilet purposes. Brian discovers a diamond ring that Mom refuses to pawn, claiming it as a boost for her self-esteem. The family's financial condition worsens, leading Jeannette to suggest Mom to leave Dad and apply for welfare, which she sternly refuses to consider. Jeannette avoids public swimming due to bullying and unofficial segregation. On Dinitia's invitation, she joins the black families for swimming and enjoys it. Later, a child welfare services representative visits her house, making her fear separation from her siblings. On knowing this, Mom decides to take up a teaching job, while Jeannette, Brian, and Lori take up small jobs to contribute to the family income. Dinitia shares with Jeannette about her mother's boyfriend moving in, her pregnancy, and her subsequent disappearance. Jeannette begins high school, describing herself as tall, pale with bright red hair, and buck teeth. She takes up a part-time job as a proofreader and starts visiting Uncle Stanley's for baths again. Mom leaves for a conference and Lori for a summer camp, leaving Jeannette in charge of the family budget. However, she fails to deny Dad money. To repay, Dad takes her to a bar where he wins a game of pool. After the game, she is assaulted by Robbie, whom Dad had let dance with her. Dad surprisingly compares this incident to a previous survival challenge. Jeannette secures a job at Becker’s Jewel Box but faces inappropriate behavior from Mr. Becker. When he refuses her commission, she briefly steals a watch but returns it fearing job loss. Lori returns from camp with plans to leave Welch, while Mom decides to quit teaching to focus on her art, leading to a heated argument with Jeannette. Hurt and angry, Jeannette resolves to leave Welch. Jeannette, Lori, and Brian start saving for their new life in New York City. However, they find their savings stolen, and Dad disappears for three days. Jeannette arranges a summer job for Lori that includes a bus ticket to New York City. Lori adapts well in the city, and Jeannette plans to join her. Despite Dad's attempts to convince her to stay, Jeannette bids him a sorrowful goodbye.

part 4

Jeannette arrives in New York City, meeting Lori's friend Evan and starting her new life in the big city. Living in a women's hostel, she gets work at a fast-food place and settles into an apartment with Lori in the South Bronx. Despite occasional troubles in the neighborhood, she thrives on her job as an intern at a struggling Brooklyn newspaper, The Phoenix, which eventually hires her full-time. The siblings alert Brian about their new life, and he decides to join them, leaving Welch behind. Even though Jeannette loves her job at The Phoenix, her editor convinces her to attend Barnard College to boost her career prospects. She manages to fund her education through various means, despite struggling with regular distressing updates from her parents. When Maureen injures herself, Lori brings her to New York City. The parents follow suit three years later, but their lifestyle leads to homelessness, an update they gleefully share with their children. Jeannette contemplates dropping out of Barnard to help them but is dissuaded by her siblings. During a harsh winter, Dad falls sick and is forced to sober up. He finds work at a resort but eventually returns to his old habits after Mom convinces him to come back. Around the same time, Jeannette graduates college, does not invite her parents to the ceremony due to their unpredictable behavior, but Dad still expresses pride in her accomplishment. Eventually, the parents settle in an abandoned building in the Lower East Side. Meanwhile, Jeannette starts a relationship with Eric and gets a job writing gossip articles. Despite her success, she constantly fears the discovery of her family's reality. Years later, Mom requests a hefty loan from Eric for an oil-rich property, revealing that she has a similar valuable possession. By now, Jeannette is a successful journalist, Lori is a freelance artist, and Brian a police officer. Maureen's mental health deteriorates, leading to her relocation to California after a stay in a mental institution. The family becomes estranged, and Dad passes away a year later. After his death, Jeannette divorces Eric and moves to the West Side.

part 5

Half a decade post their father's death, Jeannette and her spouse, John, organize a Thanksgiving feast for the family. John, a writer, admires Jeannette's resilience, stating her scars are evidence of her fortitude. Brian, a decorated sergeant on the heels of a divorce, and Lori, an artist, also join them. During the hearty meal, Brian remarks that determination can ensure food on the table. Jeannette shares similar sentiments when she sees plentiful food. Lori chides him for referring to their past, but the discussion stays cordial. They all raise a toast to their late father as they dine.

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