How is a stick of margarine a symbol within the Walls' lives in The Glass Castle?

The stick of margarine stands as a symbol for the poverty that the Walls face within The Glass Castle. The stick of margarine is the only thing in the kitchen to eat, but the children eat it anyway, showing how desperate their situation has become. The family's poverty is a symbol in itself of the parents' irrational career paths, which cost more money to pursue than they provide.

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In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls and her three siblings suffer from hunger and poverty as a result of their parents’ life choices. In a household where food is scarce, any scrap is highly valued. When Jeannette and her older sister Lori finish the last piece of food in the house—a stick of margarine—they ignite a fierce argument between their parents about personal responsibility and individual goals. Margarine serves as a multifaceted symbol of hunger resulting from the parents’ delusional pursuit of their own dreams regardless of consequences to their family.

Frequently out of work, Dad is not able to provide money to purchase food for the family. One time he claims to have gotten himself fired in order to make more time to work on a process to excavate gold from Battle Mountain. To save money, Jeannette and her sibling eat even less, which leads to overwhelming hunger and obsession with food. Jeannette forms elaborate schemes to pilfer food from classmates during recess or from friends at their homes. Her brother Brian is caught breaking into a neighbor’s house for food.

One afternoon Jeannette sees Lori eating something; she looks in the refrigerator and sees nothing but a half-stick of margarine. Having mixed some margarine with sugar to form a frosting-like snack, Lori suggests Jeannette do the same with the remaining margarine. Later that evening, Mom notices that the stick of margarine is gone and discovers that Jeannette and Lori consumed it. Mom angrily scolds them, claiming that she was saving it to butter the bread. Here is where delusion become apparent; Mom justifies why she was conserving the margarine, yet each reason illustrates either her dishonesty (was she planning to eat the margarine herself?) or delusional thinking:

  1. The family already ate all the bread, so there was no bread on which to spread the margarine. Mom then claims that she was going to bake more bread.
  2. The family has no flour to bake bread. Mom then claims they could borrow flour from a neighbor.
  3. The gas company turned off their gas, so the oven would not work. Mom claims that the gas might be turned back on because “miracles happen, you know."

When Jeannette declares that the margarine was the only thing in the entire house to eat and that she ate it because she “was hungry,” Mom is shocked and upset. At that moment, Jeanette realizes that she broke

one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.

By shattering the illusion of their family’s life being an exciting escapade (instead of constant destitution and flight from authorities), Jeannette exposes her mother’s parental negligence. Mom feels ashamed of her children’s hunger and angrily blames Dad for their poverty. If he could hold onto a steady job, they would not be starving. During their argument, Mom tells Dad:

things had gotten so desperate around the house that we didn't have anything to eat except margarine, and now that was gone, too. She was sick, she said, of Dad's ridiculous dreams and his stupid plans and his empty promises.

Dad claims that with more time and money (which he wants from Mom’s mother) he will be able to perfect his technique of extracting gold from rock with a cyanide solution process. He refuses to give up on his dream or at least work a job to earn money while pursuing this dream. Then after

going on about the margarine, they started fighting about whether or not some painting Mom had done was ugly. Then they argued about whose fault it was that we lived like we did. Mom told Dad he should get another job. Dad said that if Mom wanted someone in the family to be punching a time clock, then she could get a job. She had a teaching degree, he pointed out. She could work instead of sitting around on her butt all day painting pictures no one ever wanted to buy.

Mom also refuses to give up her dream of painting; she asserts that she is an artist, even if she does not earn money (just as Van Gogh did not sell but one his painting during his life). Since neither parent will work to support the family, the children go hungry.

Also, during this episode margarine becomes like gold:

  1. It is as valuable as gold since it is a fought-over piece of food.
  2. It is excavated (from the refrigerator) and processed (with sugar instead of cyanide to form the frosting-like snack).
  3. It is yet another delusionary, unrealistic solution to the family’s problem: Jeannette suggests to Lori, "Tell them that we like eating margarine…Then maybe they'll stop fighting."
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