“Some women fear the fire. Some women simply become it.” –R.
H. Sin. In The Glass Castle, a memoir written by Jeannette Walls, Jeannette depicts her life as being surrounded by fire, how it destroys her family and how she uses the fire within herself to overcome her past. The memoir begins with Jeannette’s earliest memory; being caught on fire, though damaging, fire fascinates her, and she sees how it always seems to impact her life. When the family has settled, chaos erupts and her father hits her, Jeannette decides that she must leave home, so she starts an escape fund to leave for New York. When Jeannette is grown, she uses the fire within herself to make a better life and carry on regardless of her parents following her to New York, and despite her losses, she is happy at last.Jeannette’s first experience with fire was becoming a flame herself. As she caught on fire she was initially terrified of the flames and she screamed for help, “Frozen with fear, I watched the yellow-white flames make a ragged brown line up the pink fabric of my skirt and climb my stomach.
Then the flames leaped up, reaching my face. I screamed.” (Walls, 9). Being ‘frozen with fear’, Jeannette is explaining how the fire in herself commenced, ‘frozen’ representing how she began cold and innocent, and how the flames ‘leaped’ up to her face is the moment when the fire within her ignited. As this accident was her first experience with a painful kind of heat, she learns that like the flame did to her, life can prove to be painful, and the world is not as safe as she once thought it.
While being caught on fire was damaging for Jeannette, the fire sparks her interest and the incident is the stepping stool for her growing fascination with fire, “I did it over and over, slowing my finger with each pass, watching the way it seemed to cut the flame in half, testing to see how much my finger could endure without actually getting burned. I was always on the lookout for bigger fires.” (Walls, 15). Fire is a repeating symbol in Jeannette’s journey, it represents her strength and courage to survive, ‘testing’ how much she can endure without getting burned proves her beginning curiosity with the symbol. When Jeannette says how she was always on the lookout for ‘bigger fires’, she is looking for the sort of fire that is alike to her family; the kind that can do both good and harm.
With her new curiosity, Jeannette will learn how her family compares to the fire, how it holds the ability to cause harm to her family, and to her life.After Jeannette’s accident she countlessly encounters fire: in flame and in connection to her family, she sees how intricate it is and how it holds the ability to tear herself and her family from any home they have ever had. There is a moment for Jeannette where she cannot appreciate the intricacy of fire because she realizes all it has taken from her, and she wonders if the fire purposely surrounds her family:I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered ifall fire was related, like Dad said all humans were related, ifthe fire that had burned me that day while I cooked hot dogswas somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down thetoilet and the fire burning at the hotel.
I didn’t have the answersto those questions, but what I did know what that I lived in aworld that at any moment could erupt into fire. (Walls 34) When Jeannette wonders if the fire had been ‘out to get’ her, it gives fire a sense of personification, that the fire she experiences appears angry and unpredictable, similarly to how her father behaves. She also mentions how her world could at ‘any moment’ erupt into fire, but fire only seems to impact her family when it is her father who causes it.
While Jeannette was busy chasing ‘bigger fires’, she was unaware that the real danger of fire that surrounded her family was her father when he was drinking and smoking; causing him to be destructive just like the real fires he causes. While similar, fire and Jeannette’s father also contrast in a sense that he has done more damage than the actual fires have. Along with the bigger real fires she has come across, Jeannette also encounters a smaller but very significant flame, the flick of her father’s cigarette lighter, for Jeannette this is a connection to how fire can be destructive to her family:Mom gave him one of his presents, a brass cigarette lighterfrom the nineteen twenties in the shape of a Scottish terrier.Dad flicked it a couple of times, swaying it back and forth;Then he held it up to the light and studied it. “Let’s reallylight up this Christmas,” Dad said and thrust the lighterinto the Douglas fir. The dried-out needles caught fireimmediately.
Flames leaped through the branches with acrackling noise. Christmas ornaments exploded from the heat.For a few moments, we were too stunned to do anything.
(Walls, 114-115) When Jeannette’s father ruins the family Christmas, for a ‘few moments’ they were too stunned to do anything, their reaction tells how they were not shocked for long because his destructive behavior was normal. For Jeannette, her father’s actions were not just another time he had let her down, it was also another encounter with fire, an element that was beginning to let her down just as her father does. Fire was something Jeannette could appreciate, for its ability to do both good and harm, but in the moments when the ornaments ‘exploded’ from heat, Jeannette only saw the harm it could do, along with how explosive her father could be, not to mention how it would tear their family apart.As Jeannette’s home life increasingly worsens, so does her father’s behavior. While he becomes abusive and angry, Jeannette tries to be strong.
Despite her attempts, Jeannette cannot fight the way she wants to and she ends up hurt. Never wanting to feel hurt again, Jeannette decides that leaving Welch is the only option:By the time I reached the tree trunk, I had made two decisions.The first is that I’d had my last whipping. No one was ever goingto do that to me again. The second was that, like Lori, I was goingto get out of Welch. The sooner, the better. Before I finished highschool, if I could.
I had no idea where I would go, but I did knowI was going. I also knew it would not be easy. People got stuck inWelch. I had been counting on Mom and Dad to get us out, but Inow knew I had to do it on my own. It would take saving andplanning. I decided the next day I’d go to the G.C. Murphy andbuy a pink plastic piggy bank I’d seen there.
I’d put in theseventy-five dollars I had managed to save while working atBecker’s Jewel Box. It would be the beginning of my escape fund.(Walls 221) When her father hits her, Jeannette remains calm, but on the inside, her fire sparks and she is at her breaking point. It is evident when she says how she ‘now knew [she] had to do it on [her] own’ and by saying that ‘[she] had made two decisions’; decisions that she regularly would not have been allowed to make on her own.
Furthermore, as Jeannette talks about her ‘escape fund’, she now fully realizes that she is in a situation that needs escaping from. Knowing that she has to leave and that ‘[she has] no idea where [she was going]’ shows how desperate she truly is to leave. She also knows that she can leave Welch by herself because of her time while working at Becker’s Jewel Box; she has made money for herself once before and with that reassurance, she has confidence that she can succeed in making a living for herself. With her new found strength to leave Welch, Jeannette works tirelessly and finally has the money to get out, and it is time to leave despite what she will do once she does. Fortunately, Jeannette has hope for herself, she leaves Welch and her family behind for a better life, and she says farewell to the toxic fire surrounding her life:Dad was lighting a cigarette. I waved, and he waved back.
Thenhe shoved his hands in his pockets, the cigarette dangling fromhis mouth, and stood there, slightly stoop-shouldered anddistracted-looking. I wondered if he was remembering how he,too, had left Welch full of vinegar at age seventeen and just asconvinced as I was now that he’d never return. I wondered if hewas hoping that his favorite girl would come back, or of he washoping that, unlike him, she would make it out for good. (Walls, 241) Unlike her father, Jeannette is not ‘full of vinegar’, she has a plan and she knows she will not return to Welch, even if her father may hope his ‘favourite girl would come back’ someday. As her father was ‘lighting a cigarette’ when she left, she connects it with leaving a dangerous fire behind. In addition, as she ‘waved’ goodbye to her father, she also said goodbye to the flame that had been dragging her down throughout her childhood. Jeannette knows that saying goodbye to her family while difficult, is going to prove worth the struggle, for the ‘good’ in making it out of Welch will be the making it out on her own, and the remaining of being by herself.
While Jeannette succeeded in leaving Welch and making a life on her own, to her discomposure, her parents decided to follow her to the city three years later. Jeannette’s parents want to be closer to their children, so their decision to relocate includes being homeless for the sake of rebuilding their relationships. Jeannette was less than content that they would be back in her life, along with the fire her father brought with him. Jeannette did not want their reunion ruining all that she had done for herself in the years she had spent on her own, “After talking to Mom, I looked around my room. It was the maid’s room off the kitchen, and it was tiny, with one narrow window and a bathroom that doubled as a closet. But it was mine. I had a room now, and I had a life, too, and there was no place in either one for Mom and Dad.
” (Walls, 252). Jeannette has made a good life for herself; steady and secure. Now that her parents are back in her life, she seems hesitant to let them back in. For instance, when Jeannette says how the maid’s room is hers, she tells of how hard she worked to get herself a good life and a room that was all hers, away from the danger her parents subjected her to. In addition, when Jeannette says how there was ‘no place’ in her home or her life for her parents, she is reluctant to open back up to them in a possible fear that the life she has created could be taken away. Even with all the pain Jeannette’s parents put her through, she opens up to the idea of having them in her life again. Unfortunately, Jeannette’s father, Rex, succumbs to his lifelong habit of drinking and smoking, and the fire within him diminishes; leaving Jeannette with only the memories of her childhood and her fiery father. Nonetheless, Jeannette is happy and proud that she has become successful under her own forces; her fire remains bright and she chooses happy memories:We raised our glasses.
I could almost hear Dad chucklingAt Mom’s comment in the way he always did when hewas truly enjoying something. It had grown dark outside. A wind picked up rattling the windows, and the candleflames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border betweenturbulence and order. (Walls, 288) After her father’s death, Jeannette imagines ‘[Rex] chuckling at Mom’s comment’, implying how she could now appreciate the good memories of her father. Moreover, Jeannette tells about how it had ‘grown dark outside’, giving an impression that she had lost track of time by ‘grow[ing]’ to enjoy the time that she has left with rest of her family. Acknowledging her father’s death as a loss, Jeannette knows that with his absence from her life, she will no longer have to face the consequences of his fiery personality.
Additionally, Jeannette’s flame can be represented by the imagery of ‘the candles flames suddenly shift[ing], dancing along the border between turbulence and order’. The term ‘suddenly’ can represent the change in Jeannette’s life after her father’s death and the ‘dancing’ flames can symbolizing how Jeannette is free from her father’s inability; allowing her flame to be free as well. All in all, Jeannette has come to accept her father’s death as a loss while remaining fierce and strong; a blaze that refuses to fizzle out.In The Glass Castle, written by Jeannette Walls, Jeannette portrays her life as being surrounded by fire, how it had destroyed her family and how she used the fire within herself to overcome her past. Beginning with her earliest memory of fire, she tells about being a flame herself, while physically painful, the fire seems to grab her attention; she begins to see how it always impacts her life. When Jeannette’s family has settled, there is disorder and her father hits her, deciding she must leave home, she starts an escape fund so she can move to New York.
Arriving in the city, Jeannette uses the flame within herself to work for an improved life; carrying on in spite of her parent’s relocation, and despite the loss that follows. In conclusion, Jeannette remains happy with the life she has built for herself. “And one day she discovered that she was fierce, and strong, and full of fire, and that not even she could hold herself back because her passion burns brighter than her fears.” – Mark Anthony.