The Glass Castle: An Archetypal Analysis

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“As a literary device, an archetype is a reoccurring symbol or motif throughout literature that represents universal patterns of human nature” (Archetype). Its main purpose is to allow the audience to better understand the characters in a story. By using universal symbols, it allows the author to explain less, without the fear that we will no longer be able to connect with and figure out messages within the story (Archetype)

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Front Cover of the Novel “The Glass Castle”

In the novel The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, there are many different archetypes that the author uses to give us a better understanding of the characters and events portrayed.

Each character in Jeanette’s story fits a specific archetype, so let’s start by getting to know them a little. Jeannette is the protagonist in this novel and the daughter of Rex Walls and Rose Mary Walls. She has an older sister named Lori, a younger brother named Brian, and a younger sister named Maureen. Rose Mary’s mother, Grandma Smith, is also present throughout the first part of this novel and helps the children as much as she can.

Image of author Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls, the protagonist and author of this novel, is portrayed as the archetypal hero. A hero is “strong, disciplined, goal-oriented, and determined” (Campbell 2013). Throughout the entire novel, Jeannette is focused only on constructing a better life for herself, which we know she achieves, since the first section of the book talks about her successful life in New York; “The taxi pulled up in front of my building, the doorman held the door for me, and the elevator man took me up to my floor. My husband was working late, as he did most nights, and the apartment was silent except for the click of my heels on the polished wood floor” (Walls 3).

Jeannette is a very innocent and loving character that often fails to see the evil in others. Just like the archetypal “innocent”, she is very optimistic and trusting (Campbell 2013). Jeanette never gives up on her father even though she is told over and over again that all he will ever be is a selfish drunk. “In my mind, Dad was perfect, although he did have what Mom called a little bit of a drinking situation” (Walls 14). She refuses to see his flaws being incredibly naive. She is wants to see only the best in him and promised that she would “never lose faith in him” (Walls 49). Her innocence and kind heart, associated with the archetypal character, is used as a foreshadowing technique to the many times she is used and manipulated by her father. Rex uses this weakness to hide his true self and manipulate her by offering her false hope

Image of one of Jeannette’s family homes

At the beginning of the novel, Jeannette is happy with her life and never complains. Knowing this, and the fact that she ends up living in New York away from her parents, who she is now ashamed of, makes us wonder what must have happened between them. What could have turned the innocent little girl into the hero that broke free from her old life to start fresh? This is the question that keeps the readers engaged. Since we know how Jeannette’s story ends and how it starts, we are left in suspense and forced to continue reading to find out what “stage 2”, or “the call to adventure”, in the archetypal hero’s journey, is (Nuvotech). Without the knowledge of what happens in this stage, we are left incomplete and unsatisfied.

Rex Walls, the father-figure, trickster and villain in this story has a very important influence over Jeannette.

At the beginning of the novel we see a kind, protective and understanding father that “assured [them] that as long as he was around, [they] wouldn’t have to defend ourselves, because, by God, anyone who so much as laid a finger on any of Rex Walls’s children was going to get their butts kicked so hard that you could read [their father’s] shoe size on their ass cheeks.” (Walls 15). As the story continues, we start to see less of the caring father and more of the trickster and villain that he truly is.

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Villains are social misfits. They are damaged goods, outcasts” (Heroes and Villains). Rex is a man that is always on the run and continuously drawn to alcohol. He is portrayed as “the desperado” villain type, who is always on the run and addicted to his bad habits, but also as “the patriarchal oppressor”, who is a tyrant and the head of the household (Character). Jeannette recalls that they were always doing the “skedaddle” (Walls 11). In the novel he is also “the family tyrant” who rules at the head of the family, and won’t accept anybody else to do so (Character). “Lori and Brian and Mom and Maureen all chimed in. ‘We need you!’ we shouted. ‘You’re the head of  the family! You’re the dad! Come on!’” (Walls 80). From this quote, Rex’s role in the family is clear; he is the alpha. Having this power makes Rex think that he can do whatever he pleases with his family and in fact, he thinks that he is better than everyone.

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Example of a common villain and trickster character

“The ‘trickster’ archetype is a character who tricks others into getting his or her own way” (Burt). Throughout the novel, Rex continuously tries to trick his employers, by using their resources for his own personal benefit. For example, he once hot wired his family’s trailer to the utility pole. Instead of being content with what he had, he always craved more, stealing whenever he saw fit. This is the main reason why he kept losing his jobs.

By portraying Rex as such a complex character, showing both the good and bad, Jeannette toys with our minds and manipulates the audience, kind of like her father. She makes us feel respect and compassion for Rex, but then, just as quickly, makes us feel hatred and disgust. Just as her dad is a “dramatic storyteller” (Walls 8), so is she. Upon closer examination, we can see that Rex will never be the father that Jeannette deserves and that no matter what happens, he will always return to his bad habits. Jeannette’s presentation of her father leaves us frustrated at the fact that she cannot see this, but at the same time, keeps us from completely hating the guy. This is a very effective technique as it physically puts the audience in her shoes. Even though we are not as innocent as Jeannette was, we still hope that Rex will change his ways. It is amazing how Jeannette is able to manipulate our minds and make us think and feel exactly the way she is. It leaves us wondering if maybe she learned more from her father than she cares to admit.

Not only does Jeannette use character archetypes in her novel, but she uses archetypes within objects as well. The recurring images of fire and the rock collection that Jeannette is so fond of, when looked at through the archetypal perspective, both symbolize Jeannette’s need for control in her life.

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Jeanette loved lighting matches and watching them catch fire

Fire is an archetype for the ability to transform, but also for control, life, and death (Protas 1997). Jeannette wants control over her life and to be able to make decisions on her own, but the constant moving does not really allow for this. “I pulled off some toilet paper, lit it, and when it started burning, I threw it down the toilet. I was torturing the fire, giving it life, and snuffing it out” (Walls 20). Jeannette is found on many occasions playing with fire, admiring it and trying to control it. But just like in life, one can only have so much control, and every once in awhile, the fire takes over.

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Image of what Jeanette’s rock collection might have looked like

The archetype of a rock represent solidity, stability and being grounded (The Meaning). Jeanette is very attached to her rock collection and when asked to bring only one thing, “[she runs] outside with a paper bag to gather up [her] favorite rocks” (Walls 57). This is not just a weird obsession, but actually a cry for stability. She is sick of constantly moving around, running out of money and fighting for survival. It is no longer one big fun adventure, and her need for stability and control is what leads her to make the decision to start her new life in New York. Here she settles down, gets married, buys an apartment and can grow old and attached to her belongings; something she was never able to do in the past. The start of her rock collection is what indicates her longing for change.

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Artist interpretation of the glass castle

Finally, one of the most important images in this novel is that of the glass castle. A castle is an archetype for a safe haven or a sanctuary; a place where the children believed they would finally be happy and protected (Knapp). The idea of this place is what kept Jeannette hopeful, being like a paradise. Taking this a step father, the fact that this castle is made of glass, is not just for aesthetic reasons, but it represents her father’s empty promises. Being the trickster archetype that he is, he used this play on words to fool the children, disguising the fact that in reality he is a villain that only cares about himself. He toys with their imagination and great capacity for hope to make him seem like a selfish hero and hide the fact that he would never use his money to improve their lifestyle when he could use it for personal pleasure.

Table of other archetypes found in the novel The Glass Castle

At a quick glance, some of the more hidden messages and interesting connections would not be visible, but after analysing all of the individual archetypes, and what they represent, we start to  see more clearly.


Works Cited

“Archetype Examples and Definition.” Literary Devices. N.p., 30 Oct. 2015. Web. 12 July 2017.

Burt, Jeremiah. “What Traits Would an Archetypal Character Have?” The Pen and The Pad. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017. -have-4946.html.

Campbell, LMFT Jeannie. “Character Archetypes 101: The Hero.” The Character Therapist. N.p., 15 April 2013. Web. 12 July 2017. characte-archetypes-101-hero.html.

Campbell, LMFT Jeannie. “Character Archetypes 101: The Innocent.” The Character Therapist. N.p., 1 April 2013. Web. 12 July 2017. 04/characte-archetypes-101-innocent.html.

“Character Archetypes – V for Villain (28 Villain Types).” Word Hunter. N.p., 26 July 2016. Web. 12 July 2017. -types/.

“Heroes and Villains.” Archetypes. N.p., 24 July 2014. Web. 12 July 2017.https://www.arche

Knapp, Bettina L. “Archetype, Architecture, and the Writer.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017. castle+archetype&source=bl&ots=xkbmc_WttA&sig=gzD8UZfL8xBZgThK4K1rfjFL2zk&hl =en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjTwZvgyITVAhUD0IMKHaUcDIwQ6AEILDAB#v=onepage&q =castle%20arche type&f=false l.

Protas, Allison. “Fire.” Dictionary of Symbolism. N.p., 1997. Web. 12 July 2017. http://

“The Meaning of Stones.” N.p., 2005. Web. 12 July 2017. http://www., Nuvotech Limited. “The Hero’s Journey – Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth.” Movie Outline – Screenwriting Software. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017. -monomyth.html.