This past week I have had the pleasure to dive into the world of Jeannette Walls and read her infamous memoire The Glass Castle. Jeanette Walls does a spectacular job retelling the story of how her peculiar family influenced her childhood and her life growing up.
Upon the initial reading, many would fail to pay attention to how Jeanette Walls is able to craft archetypal figures and symbols into her story. A more in depth analysis through the lens of an archetypal theorist can make these figures and symbols much more obvious.
Before we get ahead of ourselves let’s talk about what archetypal literary criticism really is. By analyzing text through an archetypal theorist, you pay special attention to patterns in symbols, figures and themes that may reccur in other stories or in our universe (LiteraryDevices). The Glass Castle has many great archetypal symbols, but something different this novel brings to the table are characters that can fit more than one archetypal figure.
Perhaps one of the more obvious archetypal figures that can be applied to the characters of The Glass Castle is the hero, represented by Jeannette Walls. The hero archetype is often described as someone with good principals and values. There are often many obstacles and challenges that will question the hero’s morality, yet it is here where they prove their righteousness (Scribendi). The hero must go through a great journey, known as the “hero’s inner journey” to fulfill their potential and find their greater purpose in life (Lutton).
Jeannette struggles through many hardships throughout life with her family, but never allows that to break her spirit. She is displayed as a kind hearted character who is always trying to see the good in everyone. Despite the fact that Jeannette’s father has “a little bit of a drinking situation”, to Jeannette, “Dad was perfect” (Walls 23). This is one of many examples where Jeannette sees people in their best light. The decency in Jeannette never wavers even though the kindness she so willingly offers is not always reciprocated. Jeannette experiences a great journey, which is so unique and foreign to most people. It is this journey that leads Jeannette to her greater purpose and to a better understanding of life.
Like many heroes, Jeannette goes through the “hero’s inner journey”. The “hero’s inner journey” is the long road that is filled with tasks and challenges, but at the end of the road the hero will discover his/her potential and purpose in life (Smith). I believe that each of Jeannette’s adventures, moving from place to place, represents one “hero’s inner journey” and all together they create one great “hero’s inner journey” of life. Each move for Jeannette is like a new challenge or change as she leaves the comfort and familiarity of her old home. Although, at first, she may be resistant to the change, she eventually learns to accept the challenge and face it head on. One particular challenging move requires the Walls family to leave their home in Phoenix, which Jeannette claims to be “the one true home we’d ever had” (Walls 154). They decide to move to the small town Welch, which Jeannette soon realizes would be her new home for quite a while. It is here that she and her brother Brian “figured we’d make the best of it” (Walls 155). Once she is able to realize that she has little choice but move with her family, she becomes resigned to the fact that she will have to make the best of a new life in a new surrounding.
To me, one of the most complex characters to determine an archetypal figure would be Jeannette’s father, Rex Walls. What makes him so puzzling is his drastic change in character when sober versus when drunk. For this purpose, I will give him the identity of two archetypal figures. When sober, Rex is very much like the archetypal figure of a mentor to his daughter, Jeannette. A mentor is someone who guides the hero and passes
down their knowledge and experiences to help the hero face challenges of their own (Tvtropes). Rex teaches his children about life, passing down stories of adventure. He teaches them to take life head on and not let fear consume you. Jeannette always believes he “taught us the things that were really important and useful” (Walls 20). On the other hand, when Rex drank, Jeannette recalls, “Dad turned into an angry-eyed stranger” (Walls 23), an archetypal tyrant. The archetypal figure of a tyrant is someone in constant need of power who uses forms of intimidation and violence to get their way and prove a point (Wilde). This side of Rex was so different from the loving father and mentor that Jeannette grew to admire, a side of him that she didn’t even recognize.
Throughout the novel there are many archetypal symbols that perhaps suggest a deeper meaning. Jeannette faces many encounters with fire, which is in fact her earliest memory. She recalls being set on fire while cooking hotdogs at the young age of three. She spent weeks in the hospital trying to recover from the burns, leading to multiple skin grafts. For a young child you would think such an experience would be traumatizing, but Jeannette doesn’t let the fear of fire sink in, but rather she “became fascinated with it” (Walls 15). She would constantly watch and play with fire. It got to the point where she even set two buildings on fire.
At first glance I wondered, “So what? It’s just fire.”, but looking at this from an archetypal theorist point of view, the fire can be symbolic of so much more. Fire is debatably symbolic of many different things, but in this case I believe fire is symbolic of both beauty and destruction, which is a parallel to Jeannette’s father. Jeannette admires the beauty of the flame, but learns all too quickly that fire has the ability to destroy. Much like the fire, Jeannette’s father possesses the beauty of being a loving and admirable mentor, but can very quickly transform into a violent destructive figure.
While living in the dreary house in the town of Welch, Jeannette is constantly trying to find ways to improve and lift the spirits of her new home. One day, Jeannette’s father brings home a can of bright yellow paint. Jeannette believes that the yellow paint could “completely transform our dingy grey house” (Walls 157). Looking a little deeper beyond the text, perhaps the yellow paint is more symbolic than we thought.
Jennifer Bourne thinks yellow is a colour that represents happiness and hope. In this situation, I believe Jeannette is trying to find some happiness in her life. It is a symbol for the hope she has for her family to have a better life in Welch. It seems Jeannette wants nothing more than to seem like a picture perfect family as she mentions that by painting the house yellow, it “would look, at least from the outside, almost like the houses other people lived in” (Walls 157). It seems Jeannette never loses hope for the possibility that she could live a seemingly normal life with her family.
I believe that as the story progresses, Jeannette and her siblings will grow to be strong, independent adults. Living the life they have, they will be ready to take on any challenge they face. Having experienced very difficult times throughout life with a lack of parental guidance, I believe Jeannette will learn from the mistakes of her parents and strive to become a better role model for her future children.
The Glass Castle is a beautiful crafted novel that follows the Walls family and their many great adventures. Diving deeper into the novel, you can find so many great archetypal symbols and figures. Jeannette Walls has done a phenomenal job retelling the story of her life and her experiences with her family.
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