Common Archetypes in The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle is a memoir by Jeanette Walls which narrates the challenging experiences of her childhood including growing up in extreme poverty with unfit parents.  The book details weeks of her childhood spent scavenging for food, coping with an alcoholic father and constantly running from authorities.  As the book progresses and Jeanette ages, she begins to lose her innocence and naivety, becoming more doubtful of her parents’ empty promises and unrealistic dreams.

Jeanette’s collection of tales fall under the fundamental plot archetype  “the journey”.  This archetype can be described as moving from innocence to experience.  In the first half of the memoir, Jeanette has already counted 11 houses that she has lived in by age four (29).  Her father constantly uproots the family for fear that F.B.I. agents are on his trail.  Her father calls this type of move “the skedaddle”.  Although her sister, Lori, appears to dislike the constant change,  Jeannette states that she loves it (29).    Her father  regularly promises that he is going to find gold and once he does, he will build them the glass castle; a glass mansion in the desert.  When Jeannette is young and naive, she believes her father’s empty promises and unrealistic dreams.  “In my mind, Dad was perfect” (Walls, 23).   As she grows up and matures, she begins to doubt the man that she always had faith in.  Her father abuses alcohol and Walls says “after working on the bottle for a while, Dad turned into an angry-eyed stranger who threw around furniture and threatened to beat up mom” (Walls, 23).  Jeannette begins to lose faith in her father when he promises he will stop drinking, but fails to do so (116, 123).  Her loss of faith and respect in her father is also evident when she states “Why don’t you act like a dad?” (Walls, 220). When Jeannette refuses to apologize for that comment, her father delivers several stinging blows to the back of her thighs (220).  She experiences a further loss in respect for her father when she discovers that he has stolen her money as well as her sister’s hard earned savings in order to blow it all on alcohol (228).  In an interview for ABC News, Walls states “I originally wrote ‘The Glass Castle’ as an homage to my parents — even though there are some passages where they come across as rather flawed” (ABC News, 2005). After many years, Jeanette still loves her parents, but acknowledges that they are flawed.  Furthermore, as the novel progresses, she becomes more independent and self-sufficient.   For example, Jeannette scavenges for food in the restroom wastebasket at school because there is nothing to eat at home (173).  She quickly learns that she cannot depend on her parents to provide for her.  Jeannette’s  transition from innocence to experience embodies the plot archetype “the journey”.

Jeannette and her father, Rex Walls



In the Glass Castle, Jeannette represents the archetypal hero character.  Although she does not necessarily have a villain to conquer or justice to be restored, she is a hero for persevering and overcoming adversity.  She assumes a great deal of responsibility at a very young age including cooking her own meals.  She is the character who usually rescues her father when he is drunk.  Whenever her father disappears, Jeannette is the one who must search for him. She says “I didn’t want to be fetching him any more than he wanted his ragamuffin daughter summoning him home like a wayward schoolboy” (Walls, 182). In addition to this, when Jeannette’s mother finally secures a teaching position, Jeanette corrects some of the schoolwork in order to prevent her mother from getting fired (74).  Jeanette also describes creating a monthly budget for the  family,  which “included a generous allowance for mom to cover luxuries” (Walls, 198). Although her mother was employed, the Walls family still did not have enough money for basic necessities and there continued to be a serious shortage of food in their home.  Jeannette and her brother are quite resourceful and clever about finding food including searching abandonned homes for canned goods, stealing from their neighbors, rooting through dumpsters, scavenging through the school wastebaskets and eating at friends’ homes. It is shocking that Jeannette is able to emerge from such a rough childhood relatively unscathed.  Her success and ability to thrive in the face of adversity demonstrates that Jeannette is the archetypal hero character.


Jeannette’s home in Welch, West Virginia


Jeannette’s mother, Rose, represents the opposite of an archetypal mother character.  “The mother character’s main function is to provide comfort, guidance, advice, and direction to the protagonist or hero of the story” (Mcsorley, 2014).  Rose is not the typical mother figure to her children, as she is somewhat of an unfit and selfish parent.  For example, when Jeanette and her siblings are starving, her mother is secretly stashing a chocolate bar for herself (174). Instead of caring for her children, Rose often neglects her children by spending days reading in bed (168).  She admits that “she should be doing something more productive, but like Dad, she had her addictions, and one of them was reading” (Walls, 168).  Rose also appears to have a habit of spending the bit of money the family may have on art supplies (97). Rose also teaches her childen to shoplift when she decides that her youngest child should not be dressed in thrift-store clothes like the rest of her children (111).  When asked if shoplifting is a sin, Rose states “God doesn’t mind you bending the rules a little if you have a good reason.  It’s sort of like justifiable homicide.  This is unjustifiable pilfering” (Walls, 111). Additionally, her mother minimizes Jeanette being groped by her uncle, saying that sexual assault was a crime of perception and “if you don’t think you’re hurt, then you aren’t” (Walls, 184).   However, Rose has a way of making mundane or unfortunate events seem like a fun adventure.  For instance,  when Jeanette and her siblings are instructed to hide in the back of a U-Haul truck for a fourteen hour-long journey, Rose makes it appear to be a privilege.  “It would be fun, she said, a real adventure, but there wouldn’t be any light” (Walls, 48).  Another example of this is when her piano gets stuck in the backyard and Rose says “Most pianists never get the chance to play in the great out-of-doors” (Walls, 53).  When the entire family is cold because the house does not have heating, Rose says “we may not have insulation, but we have each other” (Walls, 176).  Jeanette’s mother raises her children to persevere in the face of adersity.  When one of her children is injured she says “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (Walls, 179).  The children suffer various injuries which “make them stronger” including the time when three year old Jeanette was cooking hot dogs and survived severe burns as a result of  her dress catching on fire (23).  Rose may not have been the most nurturing mother, but she did cultivate strong and independent individuals. All of her children find ways to feed and cloth themselves despite extreme poverty.  While still quite young, the children also generate some income by working in a jewellery store, babysitting, working a paper route and selling art posters.  As teenagers, they all manage to move to New York in search of a better life.  Once in New York, the three oldest siblings take very little time to secure employment and become self-sufficent.  Despite the fact that Rose may have been an unfit mother in many ways, she was able to instill self-confidence in her children.  On ABC News, Jeanette indicated “they did a lot to help me believe in myself” (ABC News, 2005).


Jeanette and her mother, Rose


The list of archetypes found within The Glass Castle are endless.  This memoir recounts actual stories from Jeanette’s life, which is why it is so interesting that there are so many archetypes within it.  The archetypal hero character is the most prominent.  Jeannette overcomes a childhood fraught with adversity including severe poverty, starvation, an alcoholic father and neglectful mother.  Despite this adversity, Jeannette demonstrates profound resilience and an ability to thrive.  The archetypal “journey” plot is also equally  evident.  Jeannette takes us on a voyage of self-discovery and loss of innocence as well as a loss in faith in her parents, particularly her father.  While initially believing her father to be capable of anything, Jeannette soon discovers that her father is an alcoholic and a dreamer.  She finds out the hard way that her father is unable to provide for her and that she must be self-sufficient to survive.



Works Cited

Mcsorley, Brittany. “Archetypal Characters: Your Literary Guide.” Udemy Blog. Udemy,   Inc., 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 12 July 2017.

News, ABC. “Jeannette Walls Answers Your Questions.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 15 Mar. 2005. Web. 12 July 2017.

Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle: A Memoir. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.







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