Growing up in poverty with an alcoholic father and a frustrated artist mother might not be ideal circumstances, but Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle" demonstrates how her early hardships helped her develop success and self-reliance. Walls' use of figurative language -- language that creates images and comparisons that go beyond words' original meanings -- plays an important role in depicting her experiences. Creating detailed settings and establishing themes are just a few functions symbolism, personification and other devices play in "The Glass Castle."
Fantasy and Fragility: Symbolism
Symbolism is a figurative language device where objects, places and images represent a work's larger theme. In "The Glass Castle," the title refers to one of the book's most important symbols: the glass house Jeannette's father, Rex, dreams of building for his family. Made entirely of glass with the latest scientific advancements, it's meant to be Rex's greatest mathematical and creative achievement. The glass castle symbolizes the family's fragile, precarious position as they navigate addiction, poverty and hardship. It also represents the hope for the future and ability to dream big that Rex instills in his daughter.
Living Like Cacti: Similes
A simile is a figure of speech where the words "like" or "as" are used to compare two unlike things. Walls often uses similes in "The Glass Castle" to emphasize the extreme conditions under which her family survived. Early in the book, when Walls describes living in the Nevada desert, she states that her feet "were as tough and thick as cowhide" to emphasize how hardened they became from going without shoes. Similarly, Walls adds that the family was "sort of like the cactus." This comparison illustrates how in spite of infrequent meals, their bodies were able to sustain themselves like a cactus between rainfalls.
Fire's Revenge: Personification
Authors use personification when they attribute human characteristics like actions and emotions to something inhuman. In "The Glass Castle," fire plays a critical role in Walls' childhood development, as her earliest memory is of being critically burned while cooking hot dogs. From this experience, Walls developed a fascination for fire, even "torturing" it by setting paper on fire and flushing it down the toilet. During the family's time in Las Vegas, their hotel catches on fire, causing Walls to wonder if the fire was "out to get [her]" in revenge for her fire experiment. Fire can't feel anger, but the use of personification emphasizes the lack of safety and security in Walls' life.
Painting a Picture: Imagery
When authors recreate sensory details in their descriptions, they're using the figurative device of imagery. Walls' book is filled with examples of descriptions that capture readers' senses with details of the family's unorthodox life. When the Walls family is living in West Virginia, the descriptions of their dilapidated house on Little Hobart Street capture their uncomfortable, unhealthy conditions. The book describes the "swollen" leaking ceilings, an enormous rat that steals their sugar, and the icicles and dishes frozen to the sink in their unheated house, displaying strong visual and tactile images.