A Look at the Theme of Forgiveness and Resilience as Illustrated in “The Glass Castle”
Despite being faced with adverse conditions while growing up, humankind possesses resilience and the capacity to accept and forgive those responsible. In The Glass Castle (2005) by Jeannette Walls, Walls demonstrates a child’s ability to develop resilience in the face of trouble, early autonomy, and finally forgiveness for all the hurt inflicted. Jeannette opts not to live a bitter life holding grudges against her parents, although they are the responsible ones for her childhood sorrows. Jeannette explains her formative years so that the reader gets a vivid picture of both sides (her siblings and her parents). Three major obstacles face Jeannette as she grows: alcoholism, parental neglect, and empty promises.
However, her resilience has taught her to overcome these barriers. Ironically it is the same adversity that has reinforced in her the determination to live and not be like her parents. A classic bildungsroman novel, the book spans Jeannette’s childhood to adulthood where Jeannette’s grows in a dysfunctional family and successfully grasps the concepts of resilience and forgiveness. Resilience is a quality which builds hardness, obduracy and fortitude. On the other hand, forgiveness is more associated with softness, tenderness, and vulnerability. Blending both hard and soft characters is indispensable for a well-balanced life for she learns the skills needed to survive in a tough world and to love and cherish a family that has not cared properly for her in her decisive years.
An Early Childhood Development survey on international resilience interviewed 589 children from the ages of 0-6 and 9-11. “The findings suggest that every country in the study is drawing on a common set of resilience factors to promote resilience in their children. Adults and older children use more resilience promoting supports, inner strengths and interpersonal skills than younger children” (Grotberg 2010). In the same study, after examining the toll of adversity on children especially parental rejection, children develop such traits as autonomy and self-reliance. However, two groups of children emerge. The resilient children learn to adapt to this adversity by either fighting or changing according to circumstances, whereas the non-resilient children break under the fiery trial and develop depression. Adversity comes in numerous forms for the child: divorce, natural disasters, war, trauma, poverty, abuse, disease etc.
The Health Canada report (August 2005) finds that resilience is more often genetic, but is augmented with certain social-family experiences. This absence of parental guidance allows more opportunities to promote intellectual development since the children have more time to dedicate to study (the uninhibited time periods permit more freedom to study and promote the development of problem-solving competencies. Hence, although the parents are neglectful, they actually develop resilience to withstand their negative impact the kids could possibly experience by developing coping skills. Resilience requires some opposing force in order to develop it; in this case parental abandonment triggers and builds this self-defense instinct. Resilience is crucial to development and survival since, resilience is the necessary quality which fortifies the potential to face graver danger with more possibilities to triumph over adversity.
Alcoholism and vagabondage are elements which the Walls children must confront in their parents and in the end, Jeanette learns parental acceptance. “Dad was driving and smoking with one hand and holding a brown bottle of beer in the next” (Walls 2005). Here Jeannette describes her life on a dangerous journey with her father, Rex. Throughout the book, Jeannette shares instances of Rex’s powerlessness to control his vicious alcohol dependency. He knows that his alcoholism is robbing the family money and the quality of life they deserve; but he cannot and will not stop. Being exposed to parental alcoholism affects his children in several ways. Lori, one of Jeannette’s sister’s finds work in New York as a bartender, as children they played games such as shoot the beer cans, and as an income substitute the Walls children would collect beer bottles and redeem them for cash. Father’s alcoholism involves the family in several spits. In the end, Rex ultimately dies for his chronic alcoholism, suffering a major heart attack (Walls 2005). Jeannette forgives her father and loves him completely in spite of himself.
Acceptance comes in the face of knowing objectionable habits and personal downfalls. At the hospital bed, Jeannette sympathetically clutches her father’s hands in his final moments and has a strong urge to check him out of the hospital, for he hated hospitals-just to make him happy for one last time. Jeannette never judges and despises her father although he is alcoholic. On her last visit to him before he dies, Jeannette passes him a beer and a vodka while he is in bed. Like an indulgent parent, Jeannette wants to make her father happy. On the part of her mother, Jeannette accepts her for she is, unashamed to have dinner with her at a restaurant, although her clothes are in tatters and is reduced to a common vagabond.
Jeannette feels the palpable absence of her parents in The Glass Castle and in the rare occasions that they are present, she still feels a void of intimacy and care. The first instance of parental neglect happens at the tender age of three when she suffers from burns while cooking. Jeannette’s parents listlessly raise them, abandon them to their own childish devices, and leave them to fend for themselves at quite an early age. As a toddler, Jeannette has to cook in order to eat. When the kitchen accident occurs, she has to be hospitalized. Because Rex her father hates hospitals, he checks her out of the hospital without her receiving all the care that she needs. Nevertheless, Jeannette rewards the past parental neglect with kind, dutiful attention. Jeannette chooses not to neglect her parents when they need her. Forgiving them of past hurts, she stands by their side, at home, at the hospital bed and at the funeral, showing unconditional love. She fosters a valiant spirit of forgiveness even not neglecting her tramp mother and looking out for her.
The Walls parents expose their children to unnecessary danger. Jeannette confesses that “by the time I was four, I was pretty good with Dad’s pistol, a big, black, six-shot revolver” (Walls 2005). The parents, in neglectful error, have the family handgun exposed and in the children’s reach. When a bullying neighbor squirts them with a water gun, the kids take the handgun and shoot seriously wounding him. The children cultivate a heightened sense of looking out for danger themselves and taking precautions to protect or defend themselves. Had the Walls parents been overprotective, coddling their children and keeping them under their wing, the children would not have been able to take care of themselves in adversity. Due to parental negligence, Jeannette and her siblings must scrape an existence. She recalls that “one afternoon when Brian and I had come home to an empty fridge, we went out to the alley behind the house, looking for bottles to redeem” (Walls 2005). This statement shows two elements: poverty and proactive self-preserving provision. Money was always scarce in the Walls family. Her father, the breadwinner, who works as a miner, would fritter his meager earnings on beer and women.
In the face of this horrific abandonment, the siblings demonstrate resilience by seeking their own nourishment and care. The house arrangement at night (the time where danger is most active) gives a microcosmic picture of the Walls children’s reality. Jeannette attests to the fact that “at night Mom and Dad left the front door and the back door and all the windows open” (Walls 2005). This open vulnerability incarnates parental negligence where the children are exposed to danger without any parental intervention. The time when Jeannette is almost raped by a vagabond who steals inside the family’s home Jeannette simply states that “Dad was out that night and when Mom slept, she was dead to the world” (Walls 2005). The parents’ irresponsibility frequently endangers the children but resilient like hard leather, with continued adversity, the Walls children become tougher and empowered to weather more difficult circumstances in the future.
The itinerant lifestyle causes the family to be unstable and more fragmented. “Dad was fed up with civilization. He and Mom decided we should move back to the desert and resume our hunt for gold” (Walls 2005). This uncertain, fantastical lifestyle of roaming robs Jeannette of the contentment, permanence, constancy, and consistency which she longs for as a child. Frequent wandering causes Jeannette to feel alienated at school with very few friends. Irresponsibility can also be measured by an unsettled existence. One of the reasons why Jeannette calls her autobiographic narrative “The Glass Castle” is because, in the midst of excessive movement, she desires a stable haven where she could finally call home.
In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls portrays her autobiography, based upon empty promises. Ironically, the story derives its title from Rex Walls who promises his children a glass castle where they would live blissfully happy and untouched by trouble. Of course, this promise does not materialize; however, it remained as a salient image in her mind. A glass castle is known for its fragility, exclusivity, transparency, defense, and fantasy. Walls constructs the glass castle symbolism as an image representing the empty promises of the family and the Walls’ hope for the future. Just like the walls form part of any building, the family, surnamed the Walls, unwittingly contributes to this magnificent edifice. Walls recalls that “when Dad wasn’t telling us the amazing things that he had already done, he was telling us of the wondrous things he was going to do. Like, build the Glass Castle. All of Dad’s engineering skills and mathematical genius were coming together in one special project” (Walls 2005). This promise of a permanent, luxurious home far away in the desert beyond the cares of civilization etches itself in the mind of the children. They believe in their father and they have faith in the plan’s fulfillment.
As an innocent child, Jeannette’s gullibility set her up for a hard disappointment. In order to build the glass castle, Rex Walls tells his children that he needs to find gold. Nevertheless, this pie-in-the-sky tale spurs hope within his children that things will get better. As they shift nomadically from place to place, Rex Walls allows his children to draw, sketch, and modify his plans for the glass castle. They continue to hope in him despite his vices that cost them such grief. In the closing scenes of the novel, when Jeannette and her father Rex reunites, Rex says remorsefully, “Never did build that glass castle” (Walls 2005); yet, in a true heart of forgiveness and kind dismissal, Jeannette responds, “No, but we did have fun planning it” (Walls 2005). Resilience has taught her that although grand promises fail, sometimes the fun, optimism, and hope which the glass castle inspired are worth more than the glass castle itself. Jeannette has matured as a young woman. She is now much more realistic and forbearing. At that same meeting, she even apologizes for not inviting Rex, in a moment of anger, to her graduation. By this act, Jeannette shows herself ready for reconciliation and a stronger, loving relationship with her father.
In conclusion, the novel emerges as a bitter-sweet one. Assembled at the family dinner for thanksgiving, after Mr. Walls’ death, the Walls family comes together to celebrate. It is ironic that the only thanksgiving celebration that Jeannette recollects is the one where she has organized it herself, something her parents never took the time to do in her youth. Walls crowns the book’s ending chapter, “Thanksgiving” to show the pinnacle of her success of resilience and forgiveness. She endures a difficult, tumultuous life – a life that the average American kid does not have to pass through: alcoholism, parental neglect, and broken promises. She has many reasons to harbor recriminations, however, she chooses to pardon and move on.
- Grotberg, Edith. “A Guide to Promoting Resilience in Children: Strengthening the Human Spirit,” Early Childhood Development: Practice and Reflections, Bernard Van Leer Foundation
- <http://www.leedsinitiative.org/uploadedFiles/Children_Leeds/Content/Standard_Pages/Levels_of_Need/Resiliance_new.pdf>. Retrieved 29 Apr 2010.
- Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle. Scribner, Simon and Schuster Inc, New York, 2005.
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